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In ancient times, the Romans referred to the land known as Yemen as “Arabia Felix,” or “Happy Arabia” — a country blessed with fertile, irrigated plains and busy ports where traders came in search of frankincense, ambergris and other prized commodities of antiquity.

Now, of course, Yemen is far from happy. It has been ravaged by a years-long civil war and a Saudi-led intervention in 2015 that has killed thousands of civilians during relentless airstrikes.

The collapse of the impoverished country's infrastructure has spawned a host of crises, ranging from the absence of clean water in a number of cities to financial ruin for the many Yemenis who have lost their livelihoods amid the war. An ongoing Saudi blockade of Yemeni ports risks worsening the food insecurity faced by about 17 million Yemenis — close to two-thirds of the nation's population.

Last week, the relief group Save the Children warned that hunger and disease could kill an estimated 50,000 Yemeni children under the age of 5 before year's end — that's an average of 130 children dying a day, one every 10 minutes. Humanitarian organizations warn of the risks created by both their funding shortfalls and the continued toll of the conflict.

“We're on the brink of famine,” said David Beasley, the head of the U.N.'s World Food Program, in an interview aired by "60 Minutes” over the weekend. “If we don't receive the monies that we need in the next few months, I would say 125,000 little girls and boys will die.”

Beasley went on: “We've been able to avert famine, but we know three things that are happening: We know that people are dying. We know that people are wasting. And we know that children are stunting. We have a stunting rate in Yemen now at almost 50 percent. That means they're smaller, the brains are smaller, the body's smaller because they're not getting the food or the nutrition they need.”

The prospect of famine dovetails with one of the worst outbreaks of cholera in recorded history, an epidemic that has killed more than 2,100 people over the past year. Aid agencies have worked fitfully to contain the disease, but they warn that a new outbreak is probable because of the chronic fuel shortages that have rendered sewage treatment plants and water-pumping facilities inoperable.


“We should have peace,” a spokesman from the World Health Organization told CBS. “This is what we need to stop this epidemic.”

But peace in Yemen is not at hand. The country's civil war attracted global attention after rebels known as the Houthis captured the capital, Sanaa, in September 2014. The Houthis, a faction linked to the Zaydi sect of Shiite Islam, received limited support from Iran, the arch-nemesis of Saudi Arabia. By the spring of 2015, the Saudis and a coalition of Gulf Arab nations moved in to restore Yemen's pro-Riyadh government. Despite a withering air campaign that has leveled the nation's cities, they have been unable to break the Houthi rebellion, which still controls Sanaa and a sizable chunk of the north of the country.

After an attempted Houthi missile strike on Riyadh was thwarted by Saudi forces this month, the kingdom escalated its rhetoric, accusing Iran of “direct aggression.” (Many analysts say that the Iranian connection to the Houthis is often overstated.) The Saudis then imposed a tighter blockade on Yemeni ports, supposedly to deprive the Houthis of weapons and goods supplied by Tehran. Humanitarian groups protested that it made the desperate humanitarian situation in Yemen even worse.

“Before the civil war broke out, Yemen imported nearly 90 percent of its food, mostly by sea. Seven million Yemeni people rely entirely on imported food,” explained my colleague Amanda Erickson. “Because of the fighting, importing food has become much more difficult. Many shipping companies simply won't send supplies anymore. Even before the blockade, those who ship supplies could face massive delays and mandatory searches by coalition warships.”

“I don't think there's any question the Saudi-led coalition, along with the Houthis and all of those involved, are using food as a weapon of war,” Beasley said. “And it's disgraceful.”

The Saudis  said last week they were easing the blockade and have repeatedly pointed to the humanitarian relief work they themselves are carrying out in Yemen. But international officials still complain of the difficulty of access to the country.

“Ongoing obstruction by the Saudi-led coalition to the delivery of critical supplies is a measure which may amount to collective punishment of millions of Yemeni people,” read a statement signed last week by a host of international organizations, including the United Nations, the International Rescue Committee and Save the Children. “It exacerbates the world’s worst humanitarian crisis where almost three years of war have left over twenty million people in need of assistance, seven million of them on the brink of famine.”

Absent in the "60 Minutes” segment was any serious discussion of the American role in Yemen's war. Both the Trump and Obama administrations backed the Saudi operation, committing ships to the region, sharing intelligence with Riyadh and resupplying the Saudi coalition with munitions. In his tweets this year, Trump has seemingly given the energetic Saudi crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, carte blanche in his mission to confront Iranian influence in the Middle East — no matter the many warnings of Washington's foreign policy establishment that the young Saudi royal is in over his head.

But in both the United States and Britain, which also has a deep security relationship with Riyadh, there is growing recognition of complicity in Yemen's misery. Last week, the House of Representatives passed a largely symbolic bill stating that U.S. military assistance to the Saudis was not authorized by the same legislation that sanctions the long-standing American war on terrorist groups in the Middle East.

For a rare moment, the tragedy in Yemen was debated on Capitol Hill. But that will be of little comfort to millions of Yemenis trapped in a world of fear, hunger and deprivation with no end in sight.

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