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Amid Brutal Civil War, A Rare Glimpse At Life In Yemen


"We Visited The Place The World Has Forgotten." That's the headline of Ben Hubbard's New York Times piece about the civil war in the Arab world's poorest country, Yemen. The U.S. plays a role in Yemen. For one thing, it has launched drone strikes on suspected terrorists there. It also provides intelligence and weaponry to Saudi Arabia, which is helping one side of the war.

Ben Hubbard thanks for joining us.

BEN HUBBARD: Thank you.

SHAPIRO: You traveled with photographer Tyler Hicks, and one of the images he shot shows graffiti in Sanaa, the capital city, that says in English, USA kills Yemeni people. What was the attitude towards the U.S. from the people that you met there?

HUBBARD: This is a country that I don't think historically has a lot of particular anger towards the United States, but that is definitely growing. I mean we didn't feel a lot of personal anger towards us. I mean when I travel, I - unless I think I'm going to be immediately in danger, I never try to hide the fact that I'm an American or anything like that. And I never had anybody get angry at me particularly.

But it's quite easy for Yemenis to go to the ruins of buildings that have been destroyed or places that have been strucken, dig around in the rubble and find fins and things from guidance kits. So the Yemenis are very aware of this, and I think there's - you know, there's definitely a lot of anger that the U.S. has provided so many of these munitions to Saudi Arabia.

SHAPIRO: When you left the capital city Sanaa, you went into the country side and found places where people had fled and had camped out. These were not typical refugee camps. What did they look like?

HUBBARD: They really looked like squatter camps in a lot of ways. This is not a country - I think, you know, when a lot of people hear the term refugee camp, they sort of picture a large, you know, rather organized area put up by the U.N. or something where you have matching tents kind of organized in rows. This is not like that at all.

These are basically just groups of people who moved out of parts of the country that were being heavily, heavily bombed and just kind of had to cobble together whatever sort of shelter that they could. So sometimes they, you know, build little huts out of mud, or they gather wood. Or they grab - gather pieces of cloth and string them up. Or sometimes they can actually get their hands on a real tent.

And the conditions are really, really terrible where, you know, even people that used to have jobs don't have jobs anymore. So a lot of times they resort to begging in the local towns. And then they, you know, use the little money that they can collect to buy ingredients for meals.

SHAPIRO: And this is really heavily affected children. UNICEF says close to half a million kids are malnourished. Schools are closed. Can you tell us about the kids you saw in Yemen?

HUBBARD: The worst part is really in the rural areas. I mean there's definitely - you know, you definitely see a lot of children. And you know, most - I think pretty much every medical facility that we visited, they were accepting cases of malnourished children. So you know, there's been a lot of these terrible images that have come out, and they're not particularly hard to find once you get into the country.

People living in rural areas who are sort of living on the margins as it was, and then this war comes along and makes everything that much harder - by the time that they're able to get to actual medical facilities, they've been on the road for a long time. And it's take them a while to get there. So a lot of times you'll have children show up who are very, very skinny and sort of have very acute malnutrition, which is a pretty terrible thing to see. And a lot of the hospitals just don't have the resources to fully treat these children either.

SHAPIRO: You know, in the Syria war, millions of people have left the country either to neighboring countries or to Europe, and we have not seen that in Yemen. Is that purely an issue of geography or - why the difference?

HUBBARD: Yeah, a lot - I mean a lot of it is geography. I think if you just look at the map - I mean if you're a Yemeni trying to get out of the country, you have a very long border with Saudi Arabia, which is, you know, involved in the war and is trying to fend off attacks from the rebels on its border, so that border is quite secure at least for people trying to get across.

Then you have the Gulf of Aden to the south. And if you want to get on a boat there, you're not - it's not like, you know, a Syrian refugee who's going to get on a boat and then end up in Italy or Greece. You know, they're going to end up - you're going to get on a boat and sail for a much longer distance and then end up in a place like Somalia.

So there are people working on peace talks. And I think the U.N. is working very hard to try to provide services there. But I think because people have not seen this conflict wash up on their own shores the way that they have the conflict in Syria, it's much easier to not think about it.

SHAPIRO: Ben Hubbard is a Middle East correspondent for The New York Times speaking with us via Skype. Thank you, Ben.

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