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World Food Program Director Urges The U.S. To 'End This War' In Yemen


We turn our attention now overseas to the humanitarian crisis in Yemen, where a Saudi-led coalition is fighting a brutal war against Iranian-backed Houthi rebels. The murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi has prompted new calls in Congress for the U.S. to curb arms sales to Saudi Arabia. Also eroding support for the Saudis, shocking pictures of skeletal children, who are among the millions of civilians on the brink of starvation. The United Nations has called Yemen the world's worst humanitarian crisis. The head of the U.N. World Food Program, David Beasley, explains.

DAVID BEASLEY: In Syria, where we had a more standard war, we were able to deconflict rows, let's say, between the Russians, the Syrians and the United States and other forces. But when you start dealing with the more complex battles filled with the Houthis, it really gets a lot more complicated. And, unfortunately, we lose many of our humanitarian workers. They lay down their lives for these people in Yemen.

SINGH: When I spoke to David Beasley the other day, he had just arrived back from Yemen.

BEASLEY: I was in a hospital, seeing children literally starving to death. In fact, one little boy, I just was told, that I saw yesterday died this morning. And a 4-month-old little girl - she weighs 2 kilograms, literally, about five pounds. She should be weighing 15 pounds. And I could give you example after example. Because of malnutrition, the immunity system's down. They're getting diarrhea. There are complications. And it's like this among 1.8 million children. We're feeding about - or assisting about 8 million people as we speak on any given day. And what we're looking at - because of the collapse of the economy, food prices that are available are skyrocketing. And the value of the currency, the rial, is collapsing, couple that with no jobs, no pay and a war on top of that.

SINGH: What do you find are your biggest challenges that you've encountered in getting food to those who are starving?

BEASLEY: Well, last year, it was a challenge just getting food into the country because of the blockade. But we were able to work through that problem. And, now, we're dealing with issues within the country, dealing with access. We need more equipment. We need more people. And we're running into complications from the Houthi side. Money is not, necessarily, an issue right now. But, however, if we have to scale up from 8 million to 12 or 14 million - we're spending almost $100 million per month now - we will need another 50 to $60 million.

SINGH: I'm wondering about one of the challenges. There's been a lot of talk about the importance of the port of Hodeida as a supply route for food. What is the status of fighting there now?

BEASLEY: Well, I was in the port itself, in the city of Hodeidah. What would normally take a three- to four-hour drive was double that amount of time because of all the checkpoints and blockades. We made it to the port, meeting with the leadership there, trying to do everything we can to keep that port going because 80 to 90 percent of all food, commercial and humanitarian, traditionally comes through that port. It is a true militarized combat zone. You can't imagine how many people are saying thank you for being here because as long as you're here, there will be no war. And, please, stay as long as you possibly can.

And we were distributing food that would cover a family for a month. We had distribution points whereby people were coming, getting the food that they needed for one month. And then, they head right back to their homes to be safe. Of course, it was a calm day while we were there. But, immediately after we left, the conflict re-engaged.

SINGH: The United States plays a role in the situation. It supports the Saudi-led coalition that is bombing Houthi rebel positions. What does the United Nations want the United States to do?

BEASLEY: Well, you know, we're the humanitarian side. My bottom line is No. 1 in these wars, in this war. And, No. 2, until this war is ended, please give us the funds and the support that we need to make certain that every innocent Yemeni who's not involved in combat has the food they need to keep their children and their family alive.

SINGH: That was David Beasley, the executive director of the World Food Program. Thank you.

BEASLEY: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.