Doctors on the Front Lines of the World’s Worst Humanitarian Crisis
Director Skye Fitzgerald’s Oscar-nominated documentary “Hunger Ward” chronicles Yemeni health care workers as they wrestle with famine and violence.
The United Nations has referred to the war in Yemen, which turned six years old last week, as “the largest humanitarian crisis in the world,” and director Skye Fitzgerald has seen it firsthand—just as he has previously chronicled suffering in the Syrian war and the plight of migrants off the Libyan coast. His latest project capping a humanitarian trilogy is Hunger Ward, which has garnered an Oscar nomination for documentary short subject. The short, from MTV Documentary Films, follows doctors and nurses in war-torn Yemen as they grapple with the devastation from hunger, violence, and American-made bombs and munitions that have ripped through the country.
President Joe Biden has announced that the United States will end support for Saudi-led military operations in Yemen. But Fitzgerald told Foreign Policy that the Yemeni people still want the world to know what’s happening—even as he said Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have prevented journalists from getting the story. The World Food Program says more than 16 million Yemenis are food insecure, and famine-like conditions have returned to pockets of the country. The rate of child malnutrition is one of the highest in the world.
“I think the reason that so many doctors and nurses and families were willing for us to document and bear witness to such hard moments was because they want people to know what’s happening,” Fitzgerald said. “They want the rest of the world to know that children are dying from famine in the country, by human-caused famine, famine that’s bigger than locusts, droughts, or anything else.”
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Foreign Policy: What made you want to make this film?
Skye Fitzgerald: There’s so many answers to that. One of the things that I have been concerned about for quite some time has been compassion fatigue surrounding the global refugee crisis. I see the fact that 1 percent of the world’s population is currently displaced as a fact that we need to act upon as a global community. And that was really what spurred this trilogy of films that Hunger Wars is a part of, knowing that nearly 80 million people aren’t living in their homes and are being displaced by conflict and economic [causes] and also disease and famine.
And so when I started to examine what was happening in Yemen and learned through due diligence just how deeply complicit the U.S. government is in the human-caused famine there, it was an issue that I felt called upon to bring to a Western audience. Because generally speaking, U.S. citizens know so little about the conflict in Yemen. Despite the fact that we’re so deeply integrated into the conflict and have been for the last six years. So really, it was for me a sense that the fourth estate can really intervene in this conflict in a significant way, and I wanted to be a part of that.
The U.S. has been a partner in the Saudi coalition from the outset. The U.S. got involved to support an ally, Saudi Arabia, in an endeavor that they [the Saudis] thought was going to be a quick ousting of Ansar Allah or the Houthi movement of the north [of Yemen], and of course it’s been the opposite of that, and it’s only strengthened that movement.
FP: The film follows Dr. Aida al-Sadeeq and nurse Mekkia Mahdi. What keeps them going despite the struggles they face?
SF: We wanted to make sure that we were reaching out to health care workers in both the south and north of the country, because we really wanted to demonstrate how the effects of the war on civilians, and particularly on children, is playing out in very similar fashions in both the Hadi [government]-held areas as well as the Houthi-held areas.
So I sought out Mekkia and Dr. al-Sadeeq intentionally, not only because of where they were operating [Sadeeq works in the south, and Mahdi in the north] but also because for me they’re heroes. They’re just such examples of these incredible women who have dedicated their lives to the most fundamental thing: saving the life of a child. And to me there’s no act greater than that.
Despite all these challenges, they’ve dedicated their lives, both of them, to ensuring they save every child they can. And this is sort of constant, invisible work against the backdrop of an invisible war. It was part of the tension that we dealt with in the filmmaking process—to choose a conflict that is killing so many children, and yet there’s this inspiring work going on within that context.
FP: How did you build enough trust with the health care workers you were profiling that they let you into pretty intimate spaces?
SF: Trust is everything. That was really the foundation of the entire project, because without a strong foundation with trust, we would never be allowed in those rooms for any amount of time, because they’re intimate moments. It’s an intimate moment when a child is struggling to draw their next breath because of the consequences of starvation. It’s an intimate moment when a doctor is performing CPR on a young child.
I think the reason that so many doctors and nurses and families were willing for us to document and bear witness to such hard moments was because they want people to know what’s happening. Despite the fact that foreign powers that have intervened in Yemen, primarily Saudi Arabia and the Emirates, have done a very successful job of preventing journalists from accessing these stories, the people themselves want them to get out. They want the rest of the world to know that children are dying from famine in the country, by human-caused famine, famine that’s bigger than locusts, droughts, or anything else. That sort of desire for the Western world to know in the hope that the geopolitics can be changed was very real and very consistent.
FP: What was the most challenging part?
SF: I would say one of the hardest parts of doing this project was simply the process of telling these intimate stories. Children died in front of us. It’s one thing to read about the effects of famine on children; it’s a whole other thing to see a child suffering in front of you and to know that your own government and your own tax dollars are funding the famine. So that was difficult. That was day one. And every day that we filmed had some event like that, so it takes a toll psychologically, and I think you just have to be very conscious of it.
FP: What do you hope people will take away from viewing this film?
SF: I hope people will be outraged when they see Hunger Ward. Outraged that there’s a human-caused famine in Yemen that the U.S. is supporting, and want to do something about it. That’s been our sort of intent with the film from the outset.
Hopefully by the end of this film, [viewers will] have a lot of questions. They’ll want to know how and why this conflict developed. They’ll want to know our own involvement in it, and hopefully want to know how they personally can intervene and engage to end the conflict and U.S. involvement, because the good news is that’s possible.