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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The Biology of Forced Displacement

“Seeking asylum is not illegal under international law and people have a right to be treated humanely and with dignity.”  – UNHCR

We crossed the Mekong to get to Thailand at night, so no one would see us. We had always lived in the mountains (of northern Laos), so we did not know how to swim. When we came to the river, we used anything to help us float – bamboo, bicycle tubes. But at night, it is easy to get lost. Someone in our group said: ‘Remember, if you get lost when you’re going down the river (with the current), don’t panic. Thailand is on your right.’ ”



Every refugee has a story. The one above was told to me by a Hmong man I met in French Guiana in 2001. I went to learn about the experiences of the people there and how they had adjusted to being resettled half a world away, from Southeast Asia to a French ‘overseas department’ in Amazonia. They were actually doing quite well at the time, living as independent farmers who had been given land by the government years earlier.

Hmong men in French Guiana going hunting by bike.

Hmong men in French Guiana going hunting by bike.

They also retained a good degree of cultural continuity. While most are fluent in French, the majority of the 2,000+ Hmong in the country lived in rural, semi-isolated, ethnically homogenous villages. This gave them a buffer of sorts, allowing them to acculturate on their own terms. As they often put it, they were “free to be their own boss,” free to be Hmong, and most said they were happy with life in French Guiana. This combination of traits – economically self-sufficient, culturally distinct, mostly content, living in a rural overseas department – is not the typical refugee story. In fact, because of that relative uniqueness, the French Guiana Hmong have drawn attention from media outlets such as the BBC and the NY Times.

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What War Does to Children

This is a powerful message from Save the Children, meant to raise awareness of recent events in Syria:

I think the power of the video comes from the fact that it follows a single child over time, as we watch the vibrancy of her personality gradually fade away as the conditions around her deteriorate. We see her become more anxious, and even her physical health falters as her hair starts falling out. By extension, all we have to do is make a short mental leap from this fictional British girl to that of any child, anywhere, who is currently living under war conditions, knowing that they have probably undergone a similar transition. 

The reality is that the impacts of war on child health are consistently negative, not only for Syria, but virtually everywhere. On one hand, it’s important to remember that children living in such harsh conditions can be resilient, and that they are not lost causes, broken beyond repair. On the other hand, they shouldn’t have to be put in that position in the first place. 

War as a Public Health Problem

The surgeon Gino Strada, who has worked in war zones around the world, once referred to war as “the biggest tragedy in public health.” It is debatable whether this empirical claim is true, but by re-framing the issue in this way we can see war with fresh eyes and as more than a conflict between political entities. Rarely, if ever, is war a matter that affects solely competing militaries. Recent images from Syria, Gaza, and Israel are the latest reminders of the impact of war on civilians. See these compelling photo essays here and here.

Aside from the obvious culprits of death, injury, and post-traumatic stress disorder, there are many ways that war can affect public health. As early as February of this year, food shortages were reported in Syria. One displaced woman told a reporter: “I can guarantee you this, people will starve to death.”

Food shortages in Syria. From CNN (Feb 21, 2012).

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