As Syria continues to sink into chaos, as the Taliban gains new territory in Afghanistan and as Iraq struggles to fight ISIS, an ignored war at the far end of the Arabian Peninsula has created a humanitarian crisis that threatens to become one of the most severe in the world.
Never a stable country, Yemen has been unraveling since the Houthis–a Shi’ite religious minority that has long demanded a greater say in how the country is governed–took control of the capital, Sana’a, in September 2014 and placed President Abdel Rabbo Mansour Hadi under house arrest. Hadi fled the country in March, and that month a coalition of 10 Arab nations led by Yemen’s northern neighbor and Sunni power Saudi Arabia–and supported by the Saudis’ longtime ally the U.S.–launched an air campaign to counter the Houthi forces, which number around 100,000.
The Saudi-led air strikes were nominally intended to allow Hadi to return and restore stability, but U.S. analysts say they are really part of a broader attempt to assert Sunni power against Shi’ite Iran, which has in the past lent both financial and logistical support to the Houthis. Saudi Arabia and other Gulf nations see this war as being part of an ongoing proxy fight against Iran–just as the civil conflict in Syria has become. But that’s open to debate. A report from British think tank Chatham House concluded in February that “a large question mark remains over the extent to which Tehran [has] funded or armed the [Houthis].”
Whether with Iranian support or not, the Houthis have proved difficult to dislodge after seven months of strikes against their positions in the capital and in the province of Saada, their northern stronghold. The battle-seasoned Houthi militants have taken up secure positions in mountainous regions of the country’s north while coalition warplanes reduce whole neighborhoods in Sana’a and Saada to rubble. While some 2,500 Yemeni civilians have been killed in the fighting since March, according to the U.N., more than 2 million have been driven from their homes, and millions more have been cut off from access to power, food and water. Refugee camps near the Saudi Arabian border are teeming with malnourished families. The U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs says that more than half the country’s 25 million people are struggling to find food and almost two-thirds have no access to health care. A country that was already one of the world’s poorest before the war has all but collapsed.
But the war shows no sign of slowing down. Since Sept. 4, when around five dozen coalition soldiers were killed in a dawn ambush by Houthi militants, the Arab coalition has intensified its bombardment of Sana’a and sent at least 5,000 ground troops to Yemen. The coalition is now said to be preparing to launch a ground offensive to retake Sana’a, which threatens to spill yet more civilian blood.
The U.S. is far from an impartial observer in this fight, having long partnered with the now ousted regime to conduct drone strikes on al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula from Yemeni bases. Washington has been reluctant to rein in Sunni allies like Saudi Arabia still smarting from the recent nuclear deal with Iran, which they opposed. But absent some kind of intervention, Yemen is poised to sink further into famine and institutional failure. Like those in Syria and Libya, the starving civilians in these pictures by photographer Maria Turchenkova are victims of an old sectarian conflict reignited by forces they have little to do with–and even less power to resist.
This appears in the November 09, 2015 issue of TIME.
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