Endless death engulfs Yemen. The country is being choked by the most catastrophic humanitarian crisis in the world. With a population of 29 million people, anywhere from 20 to 24 million are on the brink of famine, suffering from food insecurity, severe malnutrition and little or no access to clean water or sanitation. UNICEF estimates that 12 million children need humanitarian aid and that 2 million children under the age of 5 are suffering from acute malnutrition.
To paraphrase Joseph Stalin, one malnourished, dying child is a tragedy; twelve million is merely a statistic. As ruler of the USSR, Stalin oversaw the 1932-1933 Soviet famine, which killed 5 million people; including 4 million Ukrainians, who died not because of crop failure, but because of deliberate, mass starvation. The famine was the result of ‘collectivisation,’ a policy whereby millions of peasants were forced to submit their homes and their land and join state farms. In her book Red Famine, author Anne Applebaum explains that Stalin wanted the fertile Ukrainian soil to sustain the Soviet Union by exporting crops to fund his vast industrial projects. Those who tried to flee were faced with a military blockade around the Ukrainian border. The name given to this famine is “Holodomor;” an amalgamation of the Ukrainian words for hunger (holod) and extermination (mor).
Less than 20 years later, Chairman of the People’s Republic of China, Mao Zedong introduced his own vision of Stalinist Policy on the Chinese people; The Great Leap Forward. Mao had the vast population organised into large-scale, rural communes, hoping that the country could evade the slow process of industrialisation using manpower rather than machinery. Jasper Becker’s book, Hungry Ghosts, asserts that the campaign was based on ideology rather than expertise, and was part of a cruel, misguided attempt to achieve an overnight Communist utopia. The failure of the operation, disastrous weather, and a major fragmentation of relations with the Soviet Union, created the perfect storm, resulting in the 1959-1962 Great Chinese famine. Historians estimate between 35 and 45 million people died directly as a result of starvation.
In the mid 1990’s, North Korea experienced what its dictatorship labelled The Arduous March. Supreme Leader, Kim Ill Sung, oversaw a policy of increased isolation towards self-sufficiency, severely reducing trade relations and aid. The government strictly rationed all food. Status was prioritised over need, as the military and those loyal to the government were given far more food than children, the elderly or the impoverished. Andrew Natsios’ book, The Great North Korean Famine, describes the disastrous mismanagement of the country’s farmland, where the government distributed chemical fertilizers, designed to maximise crop fertility, which, after years of over-fertilisation, led to mass crop-failure. By the time Kim Jong-il succeeded his father, widespread flooding had destroyed the last of the arable land. Best estimates show that 3.5 million North Koreans perished between 1995 and 1999 – all without government intervention. An entire generation of children suffered physical and mental impairments as a result.
The great irony of communism is that it purports to be for the greater good of a population, championing an even distribution of wealth so that every citizen would have enough food, shelter, and access to healthcare. In practice, however, a century of communism has inflicted nothing but death by starvation on tens of millions of innocent people as the ineptitude of each dictator quickly reveals itself. But communism does not have a monopoly on famine.
In Ireland, the word Famine evokes visceral, guttural feelings. The famine in Ireland, blamed on potato blight, is a lie. George Bernard Shaw referred to this period in Irish history as “The Starvation,” noting that “when a country is full of food and exporting it, there can be no Famine.” In the midst of unfathomable hunger, millions of tons of food was exported at gunpoint to the ports of Britain. Exports of oats, flour, beans, onions, cattle, sheep, rabbits, fish, oysters, honey, bacon, and butter actually increased. Furthermore, under the same British law that made it illegal for Irish Catholics to vote or own land, it was also illegal for them to fish or hunt. Prime Minister John Russell closed soup kitchens and cut all financial aid, worried that the poor would “become reliant on the Government.”
As well as the estimated million people who died, the period saw mass evictions by landlords, backed by the British state. This caused mass migration as millions fled on “coffin ships,” mostly to North America, prompting population decline of 8 million in 1840 to just 4 million in 1900. In that same period, Irish language speakers fell from 50% of the population to 15%. Known by many names – “The Irish Potato Famine,” “The Great Hunger,” “An Gorta Mór” – the famine which ravaged Ireland from 1845-1952 was a systematic genocide of the Irish people and the Irish culture.
Queen Victoria and her government took what they had learned from Ireland and adapted it to India. In 1857, the crown took control of an area comprising modern day India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh; however, the sub-continent was under indirect British rule for the preceding century, as the English East India Company served as the quasi-government in the region. After taking over from the indigenous rulers, the Company ordered cash crops to be cultivated for exportation; farmers who used to grow rice and vegetables were forced to grow crops such as indigo and poppy and taxes were raised from 10-15 percent to 50 percent. Prior to this, when famine struck, the Indian rulers would forgo taxes to provide as much relief as possible; the Company, however, raised taxes a further 10 percent to compensate themselves.
Major famines under Company control killed 10 million people in 1770; 11 million people in 1783-1784; and 11 million again in 1791-1792. At least 45 million Indians died of starvation due to the Company’s policies. When Britain assumed direct control, the situation somehow worsened. In his book, Late Victorian Holocausts, author and historian, Mike Davis, tells how India experienced 31 famines in the 120 year period under the Crown; pre-colonial India suffered a famine, on average, only once every fifty years. India experienced her first famine within 3 years of direct rule from London; 2 million humans lost their lives. 6 to 10 million people died in the 1876-1878 famine; 5 million between 1896 and 1897; 5 million between 1899 and 1900.
The Bengal Famine of 1943 was the last under British rule and provided the catalyst for Indian independence. Due to the Soviet atrocities, Stalin rarely gets the recognition for his country’s role in defeating Hitler and the Nazis; British war-time leader, Winston Churchill, seems immune to criticism, despite committing comparable carnage. Churchill diverted supplies of Indian of food and medical aid to the soldiers of Europe while Australian food ships bypassed India for the Mediterranean. Additionally, to deter Japanese soldiers from encroaching on India, he enacted the ‘Scorched Earth Policy’; food crops were destroyed or seized and sent to Britain; all ships and boats were destroyed; India was not permitted to import food and offers of food aid from North America were refused. Almost 3 million Indians died. In the 220 years of British involvement in India, between 85 and 100 million people perished from man-made famines alone.
Churchill’s ‘Scorched Earth Policy’ was not the first time a European war effort had been prioritised at the expense of Asian lives; it was used with devastating effect one World War earlier, this time, in Persia (now Iran). Iran declared neutrality in World War I but her vast oil resources and location attracted the attention of colonial powers, Britain and Russia, who had divided the nation between them in 1907. As the war started, both nations sent troops to occupy the region. When droughts and food shortage hit, the already destabilised economy could not cope; famine followed. British and Russian forces hoarded food for themselves and what was left succumbed to the ‘Scorched Earth Policy’; all supplies were burned before troops evacuated the cities in order to deprive the enemy access to food.
As told in The Great Famine & Genocide in Iran, by author MG Majd, Britain controlled the oil fields of Iran, monopolising the crude reserves and confiscating the revenues. The proceeds went to Britain’s war-chest instead of sparing the lives of the starving masses. Mortality rate estimates range from 8 to 11 million – approximately half the population.
The Anglo-Russian partition of Iran was part of the crudely named “Great Game”; a strategic rivalry between the two empires, battling to gain further control and influence in the region. The same callous disregard for humanity can be seen in “The Scramble for Africa.” In 1885, 13 European empires sat around a table in Berlin dividing up a continent most of the signatories would never set foot in. Under the guise of ending slavery, the true motivation for the colonialists was a longing to rape Africa of its rich, natural resources and the quest for bragging rights in the never ending rivalry of the empires. With unquenchable avarice, the imperialists carved up Africa, ignoring local culture and ethnic tribes, drawing arbitrary lines on maps with devastating effects still felt today.
Food deprivation, starvation and man-made famines were some of the means of control used by the colonial powers to suppress the indigenous Africans. Some of the most severe examples include British concentration camps in South Africa; the German genocide in Namibia; and King Leopold II’s brutalities in Belgian Congo. Africa has never recovered from the European-imposed borders, and famines continued for most of the twentieth century. Long after the colonialists left, the continent is more destabilised than ever. Continuing the imperial legacy of weaponising food, man-made famines are being used in civil wars to this very day in Nigeria, South Sudan and Somalia.
But the most severe example of weaponising food in the world today is in Yemen. In 2014, a coalition of Arab states, led by Saudi Arabia and supported by the US and UK, attempted to quell a coup by Iranian backed Houthi rebels. The coalition has closed ports and airports to restrict supplies reaching the rebels. Roads and bridges have been demolished, blocking fuel tankers needed to power hospitals and pump water. Journalists face severe restrictions, and human rights organisations are limited to the point of impotence. The country’s economy has been devastated by the restrictions, causing exorbitant price increases of food and fuel, driving people into food insecurity. Homes and farms have been destroyed as nearly four million people have been displaced in one of the poorest countries in the world.
For their part, the Houthis have imposed crippling movement restrictions, including the flow of aid; aid the United Nations has accused the Houthis of stealing. Both sides are weaponising aid in what amounts to a political famine. Food prices have doubled. People are starving on a mass scale, not because food is unavailable, but because it’s unaffordable. Parents are often forced to choose between feeding their sick children or their healthy ones. All the suffering is easily preventable… if the political will were there to do so.
The coalition has launched 20,000 unlawful airstrikes since the war began (an average of 12 per day), bombing hospitals, schools, food markets, farms, bridges and factories. Meanwhile, rebel forces have fired into Yemeni cities, launched ballistic missiles into Saudi Arabia, and used human shields. Lack of accountability and disregard for civilian life means these atrocities are carried out almost with impunity. In June 2019, the UK government finally ended arms sales to Saudi Arabia, but only after intervention from their Court of Appeal. Arms sales continue, however, from the US, France, Canada, Australia, China and others, who may, according to the UN, be complicit in serious war crimes.
This is a shocking indictment of the Western superpowers who have missed an opportunity to show the leadership they so often espouse. The crisis in Yemen has the potential to be a breeding ground for grooming what will be described as terrorists. But who are the real terrorists? The next time you’re shocked and confused by statements like “Death to the West,” perhaps consider that for generations, the West has extracted every last drop of wealth from the Middle-East, while leaving in its wake a chasm of poverty, hunger and death. The imperial propensity, alone, for convenient straight lines when drawing new borders has, as in Africa, wreaked havoc on the region. And while the crime of washing their hands of the problems in former colonies is shameful, the reality of arming the new oppressors and legitimising their indiscriminate cruelty is equally damning.
Man-made famine is nothing new; but in 2020, one would have hoped humanity would be better at preventing such atrocities; instead, we have perfected it. Weaponised famine is often about national identity. Charles Travelyan, the man in charge of Ireland’s Famine relief in the 1840’s, openly dismissed the Irish people as lazy and welcomed the famine as “the judgement of God sent to teach the Irish a lesson,” and “an effective mechanism for reducing surplus population.” A century later, this was the response of Winston Churchill to the Bengal Famine: “I hate Indians. They are a beastly people with a beastly religion. The famine was their own fault for breeding like rabbits.” Across the Soviet Union, a decade of rhetoric from the Kremlin painted the people of Ukraine as “opposing the Soviet experiment” as part of a systematic assault on the very idea of Ukraine. Propaganda perfected before Goebbels.
For genocide-by-famine to be truly effective, those responsible seek to dehumanise the victims. Nowhere is this more evident than the practice of cannibalism. Indian famines forced many people to submit to anthropophagy (the eating of human flesh) and necrophagy (the consumption of corpses) as a last resort of survival. It became prevalent in Soviet famines to the point where a Siberian Gulag has been forever renamed as “Cannibal Island”. There are records during China’s ‘Great Leap Forward’ of human flesh on sale in town markets; and even the practice of parents swapping children for food to avoid eating their own. Meanwhile, war-torn African countries are reporting incidents of forced cannibalism. As of yet, there are no reports of cannibalism in Yemen, but history shows that, when food is weaponised, this dehumanisation is never far behind.
The war is little more than posturing between Saudi Arabia and Iran, using Yemen as a battlefield. And so far, the combatants have made this an acceptable narrative. The world has turned a collective blind eye. It is perhaps the greatest achievement of the perpetrators that in a world of Twitter, Facebook and 24-hour news coverage, there is practically no mention of Yemen.
Just as the international community ignored the famine in Ukraine, choosing instead to prioritise the looming threat of Hitler, so too is the world choosing to prioritise the Coronavirus almost a century later. As well as the pandemic, Brexit, the Black Lives Matter movement, and daily Trumpian calamities consume news cycles. These stories, of course, deserve attention, but story regurgitation is eclipsing important journalism. Words alone cannot demonstrate the poverty and pestilence experienced by millions from generation to generation, inflicted by the richest and most powerful in society upon the weakest.
In June of 2020, Ireland was elected to the UN Security Council. As a country whose history is so deeply defined by a man-made famine, I would implore Ambassador Geraldine Byrne Nason to make feeding the people of Yemen a foremost priority of Ireland’s tenure.
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