'Nobody's bothered': Toronto human rights advocate pleads for peace in Yemen

Toronto resident and human rights advocate Zaid Al-Rawni was born in Yemen. Once one of the world's poorest countries, it now faces devastating conditions, its populace plagued by famine, disease, air raids and civic unrest. Al-Rawni spoke to CBC's Metro Morning about the atrocities in his homeland and his loved ones who remain there.

Warning: this story contains graphic images

A woman carries her 8-year-old son, who is suffering from malnutrition, at a hospital in the Red Sea port city of Hodeidah on June 13, 2017. (Abduljabbar Zeyad/Reuters)

The head of a Toronto-based organization is pleading for the world to help Yemen, a country ravaged by famine, disease and war.

Zaid Al-Rawni, CEO of Islamic Relief Canada, was born in Yemen and fears for his family and friends still living there. He spoke to CBC's Metro Morning about one of the world's worst — and most under-recognized — humanitarian crises.

After the Arab Spring revolt wrested control from the long-standing Yemeni president in 2011, internal conflict flared over the new regime. Then in 2015, a coalition headed by Saudi Arabia began a bombing campaign, reducing the nation's infrastructure to rubble.

Today, air strikes continue and conditions worsen as the country, already considered one of the world's poorest, struggles under a Saudi-led blockade limiting access to food, medicine and clean water, wreaking devastation on the country's 27 million inhabitants.

Is it fair to say this is happening in front of our eyes and people aren't seeing it?

Absolutely. You have a situation where you have an entire nation blockaded by air, sea and land, where humanitarian supplies are being frustrated, where normal supplies are being frustrated, where there has been a three-year bombing campaign by the Saudis and their coalition on Yemen.

It seems that nobody cares too much. Nobody's bothered.

Man pours water from a jerry can after he collected water from a public tap amid a cholera outbreak in Sana'a, Yemen on July 4, 2017. (Khaled Abdullah/Reuters)

What does your family tell you about life in Yemen?

It's devastating. Yemen is already, or was already, the poorest nation in the Middle East and one of the poorest in the world. So they know what a difficult life is. For them to say they've never seen it this bad, it's heartbreaking.

The stories you're hearing about people who are having to go one, two or three days without meals. The stories of people now having to drink rancid water, because there is no clean water supply.

Jamal Mujalli al-Mashriqi, 4, who suffers from malnutrition, stands next to his mother at a hospital in the northwestern city of Saada, Yemen on April 4, 2017. (Naif Rahma/Reuters)

Have you been back?

I was back in 2014, just before the latest crisis. You could feel the tension then. I was in the capital city, Sana'a, as part of a mission from Canada. You could feel there was something brewing, something unhealthy in the country.

How does it get to this point?

The saddest thing about this humanitarian crisis is it's the result of human choices being made by people living in air-conditioned palaces not too far away from Yemen. This is the reality. People are making the choice that these children will die, that these people, the entire nation, will suffer starvation.

A public health worker sprays insecticide, amid a cholera outbreak, in Sana'a, Yemen on July 26, 2017. (Khaled Abdullah/Reuters)

Ultimately what happened after the Arab Spring, you had a whole bunch of countries that had power vacuums. In Yemen specifically, you had a transitional government that was holding power after the former president, who had been president for decades, was deposed.

This coalition, this transitional government, people either saw it as an extension of the former regime or were frustrated by its lack of progress. So Houthi rebels from the north of the country came in and effectively took control of the capital city, which, by default, means you control the rest of the country, and there was resistance to that internally.

Saida Ahmad Baghili, 18, who is affected by severe malnutrition, sits on a bed at the al-Thawra hospital in the Red Sea port city of Hodeidah, Yemen on October 24, 2016. (Abduljabbar Zeyad/Reuters)

But ultimately, the tipping point for the humanitarian crisis was the Saudi decision, because you have the Saudis and Iranians vying for control and influence in the region. So they decided, along with the UAE and other nations, to blockade Yemen, to stop goods from coming in and out, to stop economic activity and make the people of Yemen pay a very high price for choices they had no say in.

Why isn't this on the radar of well-meaning, internationally-thinking Canadians, people who pay attention to the news of the world?

This really gets to the heart of the point. One of the main perpetrators and belligerents is an ally, our friends. The UAE (United Arab Emirates), the Saudis. They buy billions of dollars' worth of arms, they buy services left right and centre. That buys them, sadly, space and impunity. So people turn a blind eye.

A man sits on the rubble of a house of his relatives, destroyed by a Saudi-led air strike in Sanaa, Yemen on June 9, 2017. (Khaled Abdullah/Reuters)

I think it's time now for people to stop turning a blind eye. The Saudis told the world, 'This will be a short campaign that will last two weeks.'

Three years later we're still living the nightmare, and every day is worse than the day before it.

What are you trying to do with Islamic Relief Canada?

Like OxFam, Careplan, and other [organizations], we're on the ground in Yemen, trying to provide food, medicine, medical supplies. We have to apply pressure on the Saudis to allow uninhibited humanitarian access, so children don't have to die needlessly, so mothers don't have to skip meals, so they don't have to decide which child will eat and which child won't eat.

A woman holds her malnourished son at a malnutrition intensive care unit in the Red Sea port city of Houdeidah, Yemen on November 17, 2016. (Khaled Abdullah/Reuters)

But also we're trying to highlight and say, these are human choices, and if the right pressure is applied, and if the right people make the right types of choices, it will translate into a betterment of the situation for the people of Yemen.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.