“My pain cannot amount to that of Yemenis under siege,” said one hunger striker. “I am starving, but I am not being starved. I am suffering, but I can choose to end that suffering.”
A hunger strike launched by Detroit-based anti-war activists in protest of the Saudi-led blockade of Yemen entered its 13th day on Saturday as calls grow for President Joe Biden to end all U.S. support for the kingdom’s deadly restrictions, which are preventing food, medicine, fuel, and other aid from reaching starving Yemenis.
Iman Saleh, a 26-year-old Yemeni American taking part in the hunger strike, wrote in a Washington Post op-ed Friday that “the siege against Yemen not only has had a crippling effect on everyday life, but it is also compounding the ongoing conflict in the country, causing damage that exceeds even the violence itself in both scale and intensity.”
“After days without food, I have lost much of my short-term memory. Day in and day out, I feel the physical burden of starvation that my people have endured for so long. But my pain cannot amount to that of Yemenis under siege,” Saleh continued. “I am starving, but I am not being starved. I am suffering, but I can choose to end that suffering.”
Saleh and other members of the Yemeni Liberation Movement are demanding that Biden immediately cut off U.S. support for the Saudi blockade and pressure Riyadh to lift the restrictions. In February, Biden vowed to end U.S. assistance for all of the Saudi-led coalition’s “offensive operations” in Yemen—but the president has been quiet on the blockade, which one analyst characterized as an “offensive military operation that kills civilians.”
As Saleh and her fellow activists have rallied in the nation’s capitol in recent days to demand action from the Biden administration, a growing cohort of Democrats in Congress is showing solidarity with the hunger strikers and pressuring the White House to do everything in its power to bring about an end to the devastating land, air, and sea blockade.
“I do hope that those who are watching… realize that the longer that you all are on a hunger strike, the longer that there are people actually dying in Yemen,” Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) said in an emotional speech to demonstrators in Washington, D.C. on Friday.
“12 days of a hunger strike is long. I hope that those who are watching realize that the longer you are on a hunger strike, the longer that there are people actually dying in Yemen.”
— Jeremy Slevin (@jeremyslevin) April 9, 2021
In a report released earlier this year, several United Nations agencies warned that 400,000 Yemeni children under the age of five could die of starvation this year without urgent humanitarian help as their country is ravaged by the coronavirus pandemic, strangled by the blockade, and bombarded by airstrikes from the Saudi-led coalition.
On Friday, the World Food Programme estimated that 50,000 Yemenis are “facing famine-like conditions, with five million a mere step away from this worst-case scenario.”
“A further 11 million people are facing crisis levels of food insecurity,” the organization said. “In 2021, around half of all children under five in Yemen—2.3 million—are projected to face acute malnutrition.”
“The people of Yemen are without water, without food, without electricity,” Rep. Jamaal Bowman (D-N.Y.) said in a video posted to Twitter on Friday. “A child is dying every 75 seconds. Half of the country is starving because of the Saudi Arabian blockade. We need for Saudi Arabia to immediately lift the blockade and allow food and aid into Yemen. Every nation should be standing up and speaking out.”
“President Biden, please demand that the Saudis lift the blockade and let us bring aid into Yemen,” Bowman continued. “People are starving, children are dying, and it’s on us to do more and do better.”
We’re seeing a humanitarian crisis unfold right before our eyes.
— Jamaal Bowman (@JamaalBowmanNY) April 9, 2021
Yara Beydoun, an activist taking part in the hunger strike, echoed that message in an interview with Middle East Eye.
“At the end of the day, who’s paying? It’s the innocent people in Yemen who have nothing to do with anything that’s happening,” Beydoun said of the Saudi-led war on Yemen, which began in 2015. “And we are complicit. The U.S. is complicit.”
In the same February speech in which he pledged to “end all American support for offensive operations in the war in Yemen,” Biden also said that “we’re going to continue to support and help Saudi Arabia defend its sovereignty and its territorial integrity and its people.”
As Vox‘s Alex Ward reported Friday, “some analysts believe Riyadh took that as implicit support for the blockade, even as the Biden administration has consistently expressed the free flow of fuel and goods into Yemen is ‘critical.'”
“That may partly explain why Saudi Arabia has kept the restrictions in place,” Ward noted. “In March, for instance, CNN found that Saudi warships had kept all oil tankers from docking in the Houthi-controlled port of Hodeidah since the start of the year.”
In a letter to Biden on Tuesday, nearly 80 House Democrats led by Reps. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.), Debbie Dingell (D-Mich.), and Mark Pocan (D-Wis.) implored the president to “use all available U.S. leverage with the Saudi regime to demand an immediate and unconditional end to its blockade, which threatens 16 million malnourished Yemenis living on the brink of famine.”
“The Saudi blockade has long been a leading driver of Yemen’s humanitarian catastrophe, triggering recent fuel shortages, inflation, and greatly reducing access to food, water, electricity, and transportation,” the lawmakers wrote. “Every day that we wait for these issues to be resolved in negotiations is another day that pushes more children to the brink of death.”