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Seeing Yemen from Jeju

Connecting war in West Asia with war preparation in East Asia

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Kathy Kelly and 10 other Voices for Creative Nonviolence (VCNV) activists were arrested on 2 January for blocking the entrance to the US mission to the United Nations in New York city. This was part of a two-week ‘Fast for Yemen’ in New York and Washington DC organised by VCNV. A British participant in the liquids-only fast in New York was VCNV UK co-ordinator Maya Evans, a Labour councillor from Hastings, England.Photo: Felton Davis

4 December: Several days ago, I joined an unusual Skype call originated by young South Korean founders of ‘The Hope School’. Located on Jeju Island in South Korea, the school aims to build a supportive community between island residents and newly-arrived Yemenis who seek asylum in South Korea.

Jeju, a visa-free port, has been an entry point for close to 500 Yemenis who have travelled nearly 5,000 miles in search of safety. Traumatised by consistent bombing, threats of imprisonment and torture, and the horrors of starvation, recent migrants to South Korea, including children, yearn for refuge.

Like many thousands of others who’ve fled Yemen, they miss their families, their neighbourhoods, and the future they once might have imagined. But returning to Yemen now would be awfully dangerous for them.

“The Hope School curriculum suggests solving problems without relying on weapons, threats, and force”

Whether to welcome or reject Yemenis seeking asylum in South Korea has been a very difficult question for many who live on Jeju Island. Based in Gangjeong, a city long renowned for brave and tenacious peace activism, the founders of ‘The Hope School’ want to show newly arrived Yemenis a respectful welcome by creating settings in which young people from both countries can get to know one another and better understand each other’s history, culture and language.

They regularly gather for exchanges and lessons. Their curriculum suggests solving problems without relying on weapons, threats, and force. In the ‘Seeing Yemen from Jeju’ seminar, I was asked to speak about grassroots efforts in the US to stop the war in Yemen.

I mentioned that Voices for Creative Nonviolence has helped arrange demonstrations against war on Yemen in many US cities and that, relative to other anti-war campaigns we’ve participated in, we’ve seen some willingness within the mainstream media to cover the suffering and starvation caused by the war on Yemen.

Frustration

One Yemeni participant, himself a journalist, voiced exasperated frustration. Did I understand how trapped he and his companions are? In Yemen, Houthi fighters could persecute him. He could be bombed by Saudi and UAE [United Arab Emirates] warplanes; mercenary fighters, funded and organised by the Saudis or the UAE, might attack him; he would be equally vulnerable to special operations forces organised by western countries, such as the US or Australia.

What’s more, his homeland is subject to exploitation by major powers greedily seeking to control its resources. ‘We are caught in a big game’, he said.

Another young man from Yemen said he envisions an army of Yemenis that would defend all people living there from all the groups now at war in Yemen.

Hearing this, I remembered how adamantly our young South Korean friends have opposed armed struggle and the militarisation of their island. Through demonstrations, fasts, civil disobedience, imprisonments, walks, and intensive campaigns designed to build solidarity, they’ve struggled for years to resist the onslaughts of South Korean and US militarism.

They understand well how war and ensuing chaos divides people, leaving them ever more vulnerable to exploitation and plunder. And, yet, they clearly want everyone in the school to have a voice, to be heard, and to experience respectful dialogue.

How do we, in the US, develop grassroots communities dedicated to both understanding the complex realities Yemenis face and working to end US participation in the war on Yemen?

Actions taken by our young friends who organised ‘The Hope School’ set a valuable example. Even so, we must urgently call on all the warring parties to enact immediate ceasefires, open all ports and roads so that desperately needed distribution of food, medicine and fuel can take place, and help restore Yemen’s devastated infrastructure and economy.

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Some of the 40 blue backpacks worn on 8 November in a protest in New York city against the war in Yemen. Each backpack was accompanied by a sign with the name and age of a child killed on a schoolbus in Dahyan, northern Yemen, on 9 August 2018, in a Saudi/UAE airstrike. The anti-war activists wearing the backpacks and signs during the protest included Yemeni immigrants, university students, and campaigners from CODEPINK, Veterans for Peace and Voices for Creative Nonviolence. They marched from the UN building to the Saudi, United Arab Emirates and US missions to the UN, and finally to the Saudi consulate. Photo: CODEPINK

40 backpacks

In numerous US locations, activists have displayed 40 backpacks to remember the 40 children killed by a 500-pound Lockheed Martin missile that targeted their school bus in Dahyan, northern Yemen, on 9 August 2018.

In the days before 9 August, each child had received a UNICEF-issued blue backpack filled with vaccines and other valuable resources to help their families survive.

When classes resumed some weeks ago, children who had survived the terrible bombing returned to school carrying bookbags still stained by spattered blood. Those children desperately need reparations in the form of practical care and generous ‘no-strings-attached’ investments to help them find a better future. They need ‘The Hope School’ too.

Killing people, through war or starvation, never solves problems. I strongly believe this. And I believe heavily-armed elites, intending to increase their personal wealth, have regularly and deliberately sown seeds of division in Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, Gaza and other lands wherein they desire to control precious resources.

A divided Yemen would allow Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, their coalition partners, and the US to exploit Yemen’s rich resources for their own benefit.

As wars rage on, every voice crying out in affliction should be heard. Following ‘The Hope School’ seminar, I imagine we could all agree that an excruciatingly crucial voice wasn’t present in the room: that of a child, in Yemen, too hungry to cry.

Kathy Kelly co-co-ordinates Voices for Creative Nonviolence, based in Chicago in the US: www.vcnv.org