Links Between War & Famine: From the Chevauchée to Yemen, S. Sudan, Ukraine, and Syria


“Armed conflicts lead to hunger and reduced food production and economic growth in developing and transition countries. Reciprocally, food and economic insecurity and natural resource scarcities–real and perceived–often precipitate violence.”

-Marc Cohen and Per Pinstrup-Andersen (1999)


Recent images coming out of war-torn Yemen are heartbreaking. After three years of fighting between Houthi rebels and a Saudi-led coalition (backed by the US, UK and France), an estimated eight million people are near starvation. The war has exacerbated the nutritional situation in what was already one of the poorest countries in the region, causing infrastructure to crumble and unemployment rates to skyrocket. A blockade of Yemen’s ports has also led to a rise in food prices and to a lack of medical supplies, leaving people dependent on insufficient amounts of food aid.


A malnourished infant in Yemen, with a low upper arm circumference (source: BBC).


This has been building for a while. Nearly two years ago, a BBC report cited statistics from the UN that 370,000 children in Yemen were starving. Even infants, who may be buffered from difficult economic conditions via breastfeeding, were not spared as many mothers were too malnourished to produce milk.

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Children in Conflict

“If a bomb is deliberately dropped on a house or a vehicle on the grounds that a “suspected terrorist” is inside (note the frequent use of the word suspected as evidence of the uncertainty surrounding targets), the resulting deaths of women and children may not be intentional. But neither are they accidental. The proper description is “inevitable.” 

-Howard Zinn, “War is not a solution for terrorism” The Boston Globe 2, 2006

Screen captures featuring headlines concerned with civilian victims of war.



UNICEF recently released a list of some of the most dangerous places for children to live. In various wars around the world, children have been killed, abducted, injured, raped, lost family members, and been forced into military service (“child soldiers”). In addition to the direct targeting of civilians, including children, war also creates indirect adversities including psychological stress, infections, and malnutrition. For example, in the ongoing conflict in Yemen, one million people have contracted the deadly diarrheal disease cholera, 600,000 of whom are children.

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The Destruction of Syria

There isn’t much to add. The scale of the destruction is difficult to comprehend. 

Homs, Syria

Syria, After the War

Conscience cannot stand much violence. Once thoroughly broken down, who is he that can repair the damage?” – Frederick Douglass, “My Bondage and My Freedom” (1855, Chapter XI)

The war in Syria has to end, eventually. However, the tragic reality is that the damage is likely to last for decades.


Woman and child in Douma, Syria in Dec 2014. (AFP Photo/ Abd Doumany)

Yesterday, The New York Times reported that in the past few days “tens of thousands of civilians” have fled the city of Aleppo as the Syrian military, aided by Russian jets, have tried to reclaim the area. This is only the latest wave of civilians being forcibly displaced by the war. Altogether, the UN estimates that more than half of Syrians have been displaced from their homes at least once. Some of these have crossed into other countries, while the rest remain internally displaced.

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“We are so sorry for coming to your country”

“We are so sorry for coming to your country, but we have to. There is no way else. I’m so sorry.”

— Syrian refugee, Mohamed Hussein, arriving by boat to Greece.

There is something that strikes a nerve when a desperate refugee feels the need to apologize for simply trying to find a life safe from war. They certainly have more humanity than the people who refer to them as cockroaches or vermin

Syrians in the Darkness

“The seasons are according to the sun. The people of Syria now, they don’t see any sun. They are in the darkness.”                                    

–Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, February 2014

I’ve had the quote from Ahmet Davutoglu tucked away in my notes since last year, and had forgotten about until I saw the above image in an article in The Guardian earlier this month. It shows a series of satellite images of Syria at night from 2011 to 2015. The article reveals that there has been an estimated 80% reduction in night-time illumination of Syria over the past few years, correlating with the destruction of infrastructure and the enormous loss of population from people fleeing their homes. To date, an estimated 10.8 million people have been displaced as a result from the conflict. Davutoglu was correct, literally and figuratively. I can’t help but wonder how these events will affect ordinary Syrians for decades to come. 


Related: Growing Up in the Two Koreas

Some Thoughts on Syrian Casualty Figures

The New York Times reported yesterday that in 2014 more than 76,000 people were killed in the ongoing war in Syria. This was actually the highest figure since the conflict began (with 73,447 deaths in 2013; 49,294 in 2012; and 7,841 in 2011), so things have not gotten better. 

The statistics came from the British-based organization The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, and the newspaper admitted that the figures could not be independently verified. That is probably to be expected. Estimating casualties during a time of war is a nearly impossible task, for obvious reasons. Even demographic surveys conducted after a war give a wide range of casualty estimates, as was the case with Iraq. Still, any attempt to quantify casualties is admirable, and a reminder of the damage done by war. 

One pattern stood out to me, which was the proportion of deaths attributed to civilians. If their estimates are correct (as much as possible), then civilians comprised 23% of deaths. The rest were divided among various factions of combatants. 

Syria casualties

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