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This photo should open your eyes to American sins in Yemen [Editorial]

December 16, 2018

If the gruesome bone-saw murder of Jamal Khashoggi opened America’s eyes to Saudi cruelty, the tiny bones of Amal Hussain should make us face our own.

Those barely alive bones - arms thin as violin bows, ribs still as silent strings - are draped in skin no thicker than silk. Only the profile of her face - the roundness of her cheek, the trickle of her reddish hair -- reminds us that Amal is a little girl. That she once smiled - “always,” her mom said. Amal is, for the moment captured in the photograph, alive -- though her resigned eyes whisper not for long.

The 7-year-old Yemeni girl, photographed in October by The New York Times’ Tyler Hicks, is an image of suffering that may border on profane to the coddled American eye. We may reflexively avert our eyes. But we Americans must look at what our support of the Saudi-led war in Yemen has wrought.

In the age of the 24-hour news cycle, we are so bombarded by news that some of it becomes noise. We grow numb. Perhaps only images of children can wake us to the human toll in Yemen, just as the photograph of 3-year-old Syrian Aylan Kurdi, found face-down on a Turkish beach, relayed the tragedy in Syria.

A week after Amal’s photograph was published, her parents reported that she died at a refugee camp four miles from a hospital they couldn’t afford to get to.

Her starvation is a direct consequence of a war supported for years with American bombs, American intelligence and American tax dollars. While incessant airstrikes targeting everything from funerals to school buses have killed thousands, acute malnutrition caused by economic calamity targets the little ones.

For every child killed by a bomb, dozens are starving to death, says the aid agency Save the Children. An estimated 85,000 children may have died of hunger since 2015, the group says. Yemen has become the worst humanitarian crisis in the world, with the United Nations estimating that 14 million people could soon be on the brink of starvation.

It’s a famine that is entirely man-made. It should cut to every American’s conscience that we are complicit.

We can’t cast blame only on President Trump, who has dangerously acquiesced to the Saudis, nor even completely on President Obama, who wrongly agreed to support the Saudi intervention in Yemen, in part, it seemed, to reassure the Saudis amid the U.S. nuclear deal with arch-enemy Iran.

It’s old-fashioned American foreign policy to prioritize the profits from foreign war over the cost of human life. To engage in the Middle East through our military alone. To prop up brutal regimes whose shared values with the United States comprise of little more than the financial. This approach continues for one simple reason: Americans allow it.

One hopeful development came last week, when the U.S. Senate voted 56-41 to withdraw military assistance from the Saudi campaign in Yemen and to limit presidential war powers. The move was mostly symbolic since the U.S. House recently rejected a similar measure. But Democrats poised to reclaim the chamber in January pledge to support ending American involvement.

End it we should. But that doesn’t mean cutting and running, which could only compound disaster. America should commit to substantial aid - the life-saving kind. We should insist on a cease-fire between the Saudi-backed Yemeni government and the Houthi rebels that have sought to overthrow it. We should insist that humanitarian aid reach those who need it most and demand the Saudis cease the slaughter of indiscriminate bombing. We should open our doors to Yemeni refugees.

“Yemen has been a nation in civil war for 40 years,” said Emran El-Badawi, program director and associate professor of Middle Eastern studies at the University of Houston. “It’s going to take roughly 40 years to rebuild that country. But the first thing we need to do is stop destroying it.”

Yemen, he says, is hell on earth. It is “a dark cloud nobody wants to open.” It was closed to the world until journalist Khashoggi’s murder, ordered directly by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, cast a light on Saudi sins, including its war in Yemen, as ruthless as it is fruitless.

Amal’s distant brown eyes are forever closed. Her death is not in vain, though, if she has opened your eyes to the truth.

Tell your Congress member to stop funding the war that killed her.

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