Sana’a – a city in waiting.

Old City Sana'a; continuously inhabited for 2,500 years.
Old City Sana’a; continuously inhabited for 2,500 years.

Every day, I look for the latest news for my Facebook page, which does what it says – it provides the daily news headlines from various sources, showing a wide perspective on this catastrophic conflict in Yemen today. As the war intensifies, I’m finding more and more articles every day, most of them from Middle East sources; I am having to be selective. As someone who lived in Sana’a and felt it a privilege to be part of this ancient civilisation for a while, it is more and more depressing as I find articles showing me that Yemen is rapidly being destroyed by air strikes and militia activities, and Yemenis are suffering under a comprehensive blockade of food, petrol and aid, that even prevents them from running to safety. And now, as I read the news, I see this devastation is likely to move towards the capital, Sana’a.

Something else is happening. Every day, I have more and more Sana’ani people asking me to be their Facebook friend; people from all walks of life. University lecturers. An army officer. A few journalists. Some retired people. An unemployed engineer. Civil servants. An author. It is almost as if Sana’anis feel more secure if they have someone to contact from outside Sana’a; someone they think will pass on their story. They tell me about themselves and send me photos of their children. Some tell me of their financial problems accruing as the war goes on into its sixth month. They share their worries; the lack of education for their children, their insecurities concerning ongoing employment, the problems that arise when someone in their family needs health care. They tell me how they are managing their lives without electricity, and the challenges in providing food for their families – and most crucially, water. They share their thoughts on the war. Their views cross the spectrum of opinion, from those who still even now fully support the aerial bombardment in Sana’a, saying that whatever the cost, the Houthis must be dislodged. But most are tired of the non-stop assaults, the night and day explosions, the dust, the smell of war, the fear as bombs explode near their homes, the worry that they might be the next victim. Some are highly critical of Saudi Arabia or the Houthis; most are critical of all fighting forces; others make no comment. One said that he didn’t care who ruled Yemen as long as the war would stop; he wouldn’t even care if it was Israel. Very few tell me of their political leanings, although I can sometimes guess. Some tell me about the effects of the bombardment on their families, and on their own health. Most tell me of their fears for their future and their city. They are already weakened by six months of siege. I have been impressed with their courage and resilience.

Despite a prolonged aerial bombardment that has destroyed homes and infrastructure, Sana’a has not yet experienced fighting on the ground, but the inhabitants already know what happens elsewhere as militias and armies meet in conflict. They have heard so many stories of devastation. Fighting street by street means sniping, missile strikes, landmines, personal attacks, kidnapping, lynching, arson and looting – plus a continuation of the aerial attacks. One on hand, the Houthis and the Yemen army loyal to ex-President Saleh; on the other, militias including extremist Sunni militias – Islah, Al Qaeda and Da’esh, the army loyal to President Hadi, and the foreign troops of the Saudi-led coalition. In the modern context of war, cities have apparently had to be destroyed in order to save them, never mind that people have worked and saved for decades in order to create a home for their families. The losses have included many sites of historical importance, many of them bombed in air strikes that accompanied fighting on the ground. The Houthi alliance has been driven from Aden – the first city where the militias and armies met in combat – but weeks after the Houthi and Saleh alliance left it still has no governance; most of this port city is now ruled by militias, and some of them are fighting each other. Fifty percent of housing stock was destroyed in Aden; much of that remaining is also damaged. Landmines have been left behind everywhere. During the active fighting phase, food is inevitably in very short supply, people run out of money and cannot access banks, and those with cash in their homes often have it stolen by militias, many of whom are unpaid. Humanitarian agencies find working conditions extremely challenging and can only offer very limited assistance. Getting to a hospital if ill or injured is sometimes impossible, and always challenging due to lack of petrol, plus active warfare in the immediate vicinity. Phones and computers cannot be used. Illnesses such as malaria, dengue fever and water-borne diseases become endemic. This pattern of devastation in Aden followed in other cities as they one after another fell victim to ground war; the city of Lahj hardly has any building left standing; now Taiz, Hodeida and Marib are experiencing their share of this merciless conflict. Whilst the UN, the ICRC, Oxfam, Human Rights Watch, MSF and others put out desperate warnings as cities are besieged, hospitals close and children starve, these stories rarely make front page news and Western politicians ignore what is happening as if Yemen doesn’t exist. These are the forerunners that Sana’ani people stare at in horror, as they wait to find their own fate.

Destruction in Aden
Destruction in Aden – will this be the fate of Sana’a?

As the war seems to creep ever closer go the capital city, I can’t help but reminisce about my happy times there; I lived in an old part of Sana’a called Al Qaa, 20 minutes’ walk from the Old City; a city constantly inhabited for over 2,500 years. Not just the buildings, but also the knowledge of a way of life is held within it; if Old Sana’a is destroyed, with it will be a loss of the accumulated knowing of ancient ways that will be a tragedy for all humankind. This is a world UNESCO site, already severely damaged by recent coalition bomb strikes, with some of its ancient multi-story homes pulverised to dust, its civilian inhabitants killed. But when I lived there it was perfection; each symmetrical building exactly in tune with its ancient neighbour, as if some master planner had set out to design a paradise that fitted exactly within its rugged mountain landscape. There are 6,500 buildings that originated before the eleventh century, with mosques, bathhouses, a souk, and vegetable gardens, the whole city surrounded by an ancient wall. The soft brown buildings have ornate white gypsum embellishments and alabaster windows. Above each window is a gomeria, a fanlight of coloured glass. We loved to go there after nightfall and it was like walking around fairyland; the soft coloured lights from the gomerias illuminated the quiet streets for us. The history seeped into our souls as we explored those narrow lanes, and as we passed between the tall ancient buildings we always felt at peace; man and nature in perfect harmony. This is a precious, unique jewel that the world should cherish.

old city at night
Old City of Sana’a at night – like fairyland.

Most of all I think about the people who are still there. My neighbour Saeda looked after me as if she was my mother; one day I accidentally left my front door open when I went to work, but she entered, bolted the door behind her, and climbed over the back wall to get into her home so that my house was secure. Mohammed and Hassan were two very reliable guards at my workplace who unfailingly went about their duties with dignity and patience, and never complained despite their long hours of duty. Aziza, my hardworking English teacher, whose hospitable family cooked the most delicious food; a meat stew called salta, and a soft pastry with honey called bint sahn. My friend Ibtesam only spoke Arabic, so forced me to practice my hesitant language skills whilst we went on outings to explore Sana’a’s many ancient attractions. Sofia, then a small toddler, now an intelligent nine years old, who climbed up to her open window to wait for me when I visited her family, calling out my name whenever I came into sight. Ali was a pharmacist, who took me to visit his home village, and whose wife insisted on giving me her wedding dress as a gift. A female journalist interviewee told me that her ambition was to become the president of Yemen. A colleague, Eman had dedicated her life to caring for children with learning difficulties, and then despite having no sports training experience, she was persuaded to take on the training the Yemeni para-Olympic team, that ended up winning far more medals than their non-disabled counterparts. And there are so many more to whom I owe a debt of gratitude for their friendship and gracious support. They all knew this was where they belonged; they had a sense of place, an awareness and confidence that came from being part of this ancient culture, this land that was not carved by invaders, but has existed with more or less the same boundaries for more than ten thousand years. I recognised their pride in being Yemeni. All of the time I lived in Sanaa, despite its poverty, I never met anyone who wanted to leave.

Now they all want to leave, but where can they go? Queues are five kilometres long outside petrol stations, and anyway, the petrol pumps are empty. It’s too hot and dry to walk. Villages nearby are safer but have no access to water or food. Most routes out of Sana’a are blocked by war; in Hadramaut to the East they have long been suspicious of their northern counterparts, but now with influences from the expanding extremist Sunni militias, Hadramautis have already decided that they will not allow displaced people from Sana’a to seek refuge; they are also blocking the refugee route through Hadramaut to Oman. Aden, having itself suffered an unimaginably cruel blockade and war, now bans all northerners from entering their city, and even bans southerners who have been living and working in Sana’a from going there. So Sana’anis are trapped, forced to stay in their homes whatever the danger, waiting to see what the worst will mean for them. Unlike most other Yemeni cities which have largely homogenous population, Sana’a has attracted people from all over Yemen to live and work there. The previously religiously tolerant and generous Yemeni population that lived, worked and prayed side by side in peace is already becoming polarised and suspicious – neighbours are learning not to trust each other. The government, now just about functioning, will have to cease – anarchy and militia rule is likely to be the outcome.

It is hard to see how things can be improved. The exiled Hadi, himself living in luxury in Riyadh far away from conflict, is stating that he will not attend UN brokered peace talks. This, despite the UN special envoy stating that a solution is very near; the Houthi/Saleh alliance have already conceded most of what Hadi demanded. It will be much better for Sanaa and its people – and Yemen – to have a peaceful passage of government from one ruling group to another, rather than a military battle and victory that will inevitably destroy the administrative processes leading to chaos.   As my friends in Sana’a keep saying, please pray for us. It is perhaps the only thing that we can do.

Letter from Yemeni citizen to Ban Ki-Moon

This letter needs to be widely circulated.  Please can you send a copy to newspapers – if enough copies are sent it will create a media storm and make editors think again of their policies of silence on the war on Yemen.

His Excellency Ban Ki-Moon
Secretary-General of United Nations
United Nations Headquarters
760 United Nations Plaza
New York, NY 10017, US

Re: Stop the Saudi aggression

Dear Mr. Secretary-General,
Months have passed since the beginning of the coalition aggression on the Yemenis people led by the Saudi government and its allies with complete disregard to the lives of Yemenis and their wellbeing. The fatalities has passed the thousands mark, uncountable casualties, disastrous cities and towns with no sign for this aggression to halt.
The military alliance lead by the Kingdom Of Saudi Arabia has vowed to directly punish the Yemenis people by targeting their public sector such as Airports, sea ports, highways, food factories, schools and even hospitals. The so called collateral damages has become a common tone used by the coalition whenever a human loss was a direct result of their actions.
Al-Sabeen Maternity and Children’s Hospital, a key Yemeni hospital was on the brink of closure as airstrikes intensify on Sana’a according to Save the Children report on the 31 August 2015 (https://www.savethechildren.org.uk/…/key-yemen-hospital-bri…’), was once again directly hit few days later after that report on Saturday the 5th of September 2015 and buildings nearby had been leveled as explosions rang through the night and morning. At least 27 members of two families were killed and tens of casualties in critical conditions. The manager of Al-Sabeen Maternity and Children’s Hospital said it had been severely damaged and on the verge of collapse with its neonatal intensive care unit suffering the most from shortages of medical supplies and staff. The hospital has also appealed to the international organization to help evacuate the remaining patients as its Deputy Manager, Halel Al-Bahri, said three infant aged less than 10 days old and two aged three weeks old were among the fatalities as a result of the coalition aggression and that an urgent intervention is needed to stop this aggression.

The deafening silence of the international communities is unprecedented and the complete absence of regards to Yemenis lives by the wider community is unreal. Here in Yemen, babies are robbed from the warmth of their parents, the sound of human voice whispering, singing, and humming softly as they laid down to sleep. The happiness these babies have once brought to this nation are now converted to grieving parents and shocked country as they daily lying down their beloved ones on their final journey.
While human lives are equally valued, whether it is in Asia, Africa or Europe, a boy drowned off the shores of Europe or a baby aged three days old dying in his incubators in Yemen, many Yemenis around the world are deeply concerned about their beloved home and all have great concern about this unjust world.
Many Yemenis have come together to urge you and request an urgent involvement to lend a helping hand to the hospitals and medical staff and to stop the deterioration of living conditions in Yemen and to bring to justices the parties and individual responsible for all types of hostilities aggressions
Thank you so much for your precious time and for allowing us to bring to your attention our deep desire to see Yemen as a free nation, respected and uphold its values of human rights and dignity.

(from a Yemeni citizen).

How’s Yemen doing?

The war in Yemen has reached a new stage; a massive ground force has entered via Aden and the city and port itself is now said to be under the control of Hadi loyalists – but Hadi is still in residing in Riyadh, promising to return to Yemen in the next few months and then developing Aden into the capital city of Yemen. This city has suffered massive damage; half of its housing stock and buildings have been destroyed – but worse than that, the Adeni people, for so long tolerant and more educated than those in the rest of Yemen, have learned how to hate. Reading messages on Facebook and Twitter, not only are northerners no longer welcome in this port city, but those southerners who were living in the north have also been told that they are tainted and cannot hope to return to their home town.

The anti-Houthi alliances that fought together are a mixed bag; the mutual hatred of the Saleh and Houthi fighters keeping them together. As stated by Yemeni analyst Will Pickard: “While the Hadi administration in exile claims that the city is under the control of its ‘loyalists,’ the truth is that there is no state in Aden, just a number of unaccountable militias that operate with impunity. Fighting the Houthi-Saleh alliance has kept them all quite busy, but with the external enemy defeated, they are very likely to turn on each other. Without a doubt, they’ll also do what armed groups everywhere have always done: endanger and exploit local people”.

aden post war
War damage in Aden

The secessionists also face a quandary; if Aden becomes the new capital city, should they still insist on independence for South Yemen? They may all form a united viewpoint, but more likely they will bicker amongst themselves. Reconstruction will also prove challenging; like all of Yemen, Aden will need vast amounts of money to rebuild, but it is not clear who will want to invest there whilst militias are roaming free, especially if the rest of Yemen remains unstable and without a popular government and no agreed route to peace. If investment stalls, lack of homes and jobs will create discontent with different interest groups blaming each other for the deteriorating situation; the only way any government will be able to keep control is by adopting brutal tactics against any dissent.

Another question for the whole of Yemen is how long will the overseas armies stay? Moving into a war zone is relatively easy; finding the right time to get out is more difficult. At the moment it seems as if the majority of overseas troops are from UAE; this is already creating debate in the Emirates, as many of the soldiers are conscripts, a small number of whom have been killed or maimed and hence the need for an Emirati presence in Yemen is already being questioned. As time passes, just like in every other country that conduct wars in overseas territories, the protests at home will get louder and UAE will be looking for an exit. The international coalition partners have to stay in agreement, which will become challenging as costs rise, both in terms of financial implications and human costs.   At the moment, amongst Yemenis in the southwest there seems to be a general consensus that the overseas troops are doing a valuable job, but as in all conflicts it is likely that along the way sections of the local communities will want the overseas troops to leave and may take up an armed struggle to achieve it. When they do eventually leave it is likely that militias will fill the power vacuum and in-fighting between groups will become a norm. The Yemeni army will at some point become re-united, but is deprived of its weapons and munitions that have been destroyed in this war by coalition bombing; it will be too weak to hold the militias apart or control them. Instead, it is more likely that militias will control the population after the overseas troops leave. It is likely that the parts of the Yemeni army that fought on the losing side will be disbanded, leaving resentful and unpaid ex-soldiers who can easily be recruited to swell extremist militia ranks.

foreign troops in Aden
When will the overseas armies leave Yemen?

Those dilemmas in the southwest must seem a luxury to those in the north of Yemen, who are still anticipating that things could get worse as ground forces approach their areas; there has been little fighting on the ground in Sanaa and the northern cities, but this is something they are expecting after Taiz has been calmed and the armies move north. Whilst in the southwest these invading armies were able to make relatively quick progress, they are more likely to overextend themselves as they move into the northern mountains. The Houthi militias and the army units loyal to Saleh will be at a military advantage in mountainous terrain, although they have been weakened by the blockade that has prevented petrol, food and other commodities from reaching the northern governates. Whilst the population in the southwest has largely supported the Saudi-led coalition airstrikes, and in Saada area the population is united against the pro-Saudi coalition assaults, in many parts of central and north Yemen the population is divided with some in pro-Houthi and pro-Saudi camps, but also with sections of the population disliking all fighting forces and just wanting peace in any form. Thus there is the spectre of suspicion and lack of trust within neighbourhoods as the threat of ground attacks becomes more imminent. In cities like Sanaa the situation could become at least as desperate as that in Aden a few weeks ago, with total breakdown of food supply chains, and street by street fighting and property destruction in some areas, whilst air assaults will continue to wreak destruction.

Sanaa bombs
Ground forces will create more suffering in Sana’a.

Meanwhile, in the only stable part of Yemen, the Eastern Hadramaut and Maharah provinces, the extremist Sunni militias are taking control, and more internally displaced escaping from northern cities will put an intolerable strain on the infrastructure and on relationships between the local population and the displaced.

Is there a way out? I am not sure if there are any negotiations taking place now, but I hope so. In the end, however many people are killed, however much property is destroyed, at some point there will have to be a negotiated settlement. The longer it takes to reach a settlement, the more people will be killed, the more property will be destroyed and the more entrenched the polarised positions will become. Yemenis have lived together in relative peace and with lots of tolerance over centuries; one day they will have to learn to do so again. This means they will first have to sit down with people they hate and make painful concessions. One ‘side’ in this war cannot be wiped out, however much some may want that to happen – it is a hopeless delusion to see that outcome as a possibility. And if any side has a solution forced on them by military means, resentment will fester and it will only be a matter of time until war breaks out again. Whether Yemen adopts a one-state or two-state solution, the only way for peace is for all parts of Yemen to have at least tolerant relationships with each other. All Yemenis have to be courageous enough to acknowledge their own responsibilities in shaping the conflict and be prepared to apologise and not merely blame the other ‘side’; they need to be generous enough to forgive fellow Yemenis for inflicting terrible losses and suffering on them and their families. Only then can peace be possible.

Foreign interference has turned a tense and challenging political situation in Yemen into a catastrophe beyond imagination. But now that these international actors are part of the Yemen scene, things have been so stirred that whether they leave or stay, most choices open to Yemeni politicians and fighters have little to recommend them; but although peace is elusive, it cannot be impossible. As one friend said, the only thing that we can do now is pray.

The polarising effects of Saudi and Houthi propaganda

I woke on 26th March this year to hear on the news that a coalition under Saudi Arabian control had started to bomb Yemen. I live in Somerset; few local people could understand what was going through my mind, as my best friend is Yemeni and she is a single mother with four children, with no family or tribal connections to protect her. I also have a lot of other dear friends in different parts of Yemen, where I worked for several years. My heart was broken, and I thought of Yemen every moment, when I went to bed, when I woke in the night which I frequently do, when I woke in the morning, and all day. I still do.

At the start of the bombing campaign, I immediately sent messages to ask if my Yemeni friends were alright after the onslaught, and got different responses. From one friend in Sana’a; “They (Saudi Arabia) are trying to destroy us, they hate us, they always have,” and from another young friend in Aden “You don’t understand aunty, they (the Houthis) are trying to kill us. Saudi is on our side.” That has been the dilemma in Yemen; Yemenis have become polarised and do not properly listen to anyone who has an opposite view. Those that criticise the Houthis become “Saudi spies” and those that criticise Saudi bombs become “traitors”. For those that favour Saudi actions, in the face of compelling and widespread evidence they will not accept that the coalition bombs have targeted civilians time and time again, as bombs have fallen on displaced people’s camps, schools, markets, homes, and hospitals. For those who support the Houthis, they deny that they have caused any harm “No, it is not the Houthis who have damaged Aden; it is Islah who are trying to make people hate the Houthis”. This again was in the face of photographs and testimony from areas like Crater that were under Houthi control. For those from the old North, there is a complete denial that Southerners have good reason to feel resentful towards the Yemeni government that has humiliated them, dominated them and strips their assets; they in turn state that the more educated Southerners come to the North and take their jobs, and resent the way that Southerners make fun of Northern characters on popular television programmes. When Yemen’s amazing antiquities were destroyed, invariably everyone blames the other ‘side’. It is not a Saudi bomb but a Houthi missile; it is not the Houthis that destroy but another militia that is culpable. Or one side was forced to destroy a historical site because of the actions of their enemy.

Sensing this chasm between Yemenis, I joined a group of British Yemenis whose aim was to unite British Yemenis; The Yemen Coordination Network. The reasoning of the founder Taher Qassim was that if British Yemenis could start to understand opposing viewpoints, then they would spread messages to their families in Yemen, pouring oil on troubled water which might go some way to resolving issues underlying the conflict. The first meeting that I went to in Liverpool shocked me. Yemenis were openly critical of each other’s perspective; one woman whose husband was trapped in Yemen was very distressed by those who opposed the Saudi bombs. Those present told me that this was an improvement on the last meeting, where Liverpool Yemenis were almost at war.   So far, feelings run so high that this group has not been able to take off.

I also considered joining a Facebook site which claimed to be aiming to unite Yemenis. When I investigated further, the purpose was to unite all Yemenis so that they could exterminate the Houthis. When I went to the Stop the War conference, the British Yemeni speaker only criticised the Saudi-led bombing campaign. I pointed out that one of the problems was that Yemenis themselves were disunited, and the Houthis were harming their cause by attacking Yemenis in the South, and supressing Yemenis in other cities. She would not hold any discussion, stating that ALL Yemenis are united against the Saudi bombs, and the reports of damage by the Houthis was propaganda. When examining the photo gallery, I pointed to one photograph that I knew came from Crater, depicting houses that the Houthis had burned down, which was described as damage from Saudi bombs. There are indeed enough genuine photographs of people killed by the coalition’s bombing raid to not need to place false images amongst them.

What made it more difficult for me was the anti-war lobby in UK, which opposes the West’s military domination of the Middle East, as I do. With good reason they see wars such as Yemen as a manifestation of the West’s intention to dominate the region. USA and UK were very active in supporting the Saudi-led coalition attacks against Yemen in everything but directly taking part in air assaults. Saudi Arabia and the British media wrongly asserted that Iranian influence was dominating Yemen hence the need for the attacks; in truth the Houthis had some links with Iran, but these were not significant. This was a civil war in which Saudi Arabia had decided to attack Yemen, under the pretext of supporting a President who is not popular, elected in a one candidate ballot and his term had already expired. This decision by Saudi Arabia had made a tense civil war situation much worse, and probably caused more aggression and damage on the part of all militias in Yemen.

Generally, the anti-war lobby in UK tends to take the side of those opposing the West and its allies. For example, I know the Stop the War had a large contingent of Yemenis who contacted them to say that they supported the Saudi bombing campaign, but the only Yemeni speakers at the Stop the War conference were those against the Saudi attacks because it met with StopThe War’s agenda.  For those who care about ending the conflict in Yemen, it is important to recognise the genuine grievances of two particular groups that had been oppressed under the past government; the Houthis that had suffered appalling attacks from the government of Yemen and Saudi Arabia between 2004-2009, and the Southerners that had been humiliated in a brutal civil war in 1994 and had genuine grievances concerning the inequality of power. Both had been misrepresented in the media in Yemen over decades, hence creating a lack of understanding in the general public, and their issues had not been addressed in the National Dialogue Conference that was designed to overcome obstacles to peace in Yemen after the Yemeni Arab Spring. Ironically, the South and the Houthis formed a voting bloc in the NDC, but these two groups ended up fighting a terrible war in the southwest corner of Yemen. The Houthis, more used to battle, were able to brutally suppress those in Aden and Lahj, and also their war extended to Taiz. Unless the suffering of those in the southwest was acknowledged, then there could be no way of bringing the warring factions together to find peace. I saw the uniting of Yemenis with different perspectives as being not only the most important issue in ending the civil war, but also the most important way of uniting Yemen against outside all outside domination. If the Houthis are forced to surrender through the coalition’s military might, they will have grievances – and a real fear of extermination – that will fester and infect future generations with yet more war.

However, raising the issue of Houthi damage caused me to be alienated from many in the British anti-war group; for example, one person saw fit to repeatedly swear at me, the first time anyone had done so for many decades. Some of these comments were very personal and without truth; for example my Yemeni friend who was so vulnerable managed to escape to Malaysia with her children, when I announced this, comments were made that the only persons who could get out of Yemen were cronies of the government, and she was going to leave the others to be killed by Saudi bombs. This was very upsetting to me. I have good friends in UK where I now sense a feeling of alienation; I am hoping time will heal those differences. However, there are many others, some of them new friends, who do understand that I am not just against Saudi Arabia, not just against the Houthis, not just against other militias fighting in Yemen; I am against all fighting, destruction, war, blockades, sieges, injuries, and killings. I am for Yemen. And fortunately, some Yemenis are amongst my new friends who see things the same way.

The people in Yemen, like those in UK, are the products of the discourses that surround them in their everyday life. They believe what they do because they have been surrounded by one perspective. Their genuine grievances of ‘the Other’ has been hidden from them. As an outsider, strangely it is easier to get a wider perspective. But it is hard to explain that to people who passionately believe that they are right, and are surrounded by people who think like they do.

Almost every day I am approached by someone from Yemen who says I am taking ‘sides’ – Yemenis who want to ‘educate’ me to support only their viewpoint. Each ‘side’ tells me that ALL Yemenis believe the same as they do, and I am mistaken. On my Facebook page “Yemen News Today” I publish as many articles as I can find each day; the site does what it says, it collects articles from a variety of sources. The perspective at any time depends on the news that is being published; I look at news agencies from UK, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, USA, Iran, Yemen and others. This week, within a few hours, two Yemenis who looked at the same material on the same Facebook page – one accused me of not criticising Houthis enough, and another of not criticising Saudi enough. I am becoming less tolerant too, and no longer engage in long debates as from experience few can be persuaded to change their viewpoint, whatever evidence is offered.

And therein lies the problem. Outsiders such as anti-war groups who want to end Western domination are also polarised, reflecting the exact situation in Yemen. In all the conflicts in the Middle East, the differences between groups are the main problem; it is the system of keeping countries, their people and their assets subordinated and under Western control. Iraq, Syria, Libya, Palestine, Yemen, they all have internal conflicts that consume their communities, weakening them when they need to stand together. The only chance they have is to unite the conflicting parties, so that they can make a united front against Western domination. Only in Palestine is that properly understood by Western anti-war lobbies, where the unity of Fatah and Hamas is understood as a key to peace. Unifying is not an easy option; Arab philosophers have long written about the way that Western colonisation and oppression have caused Arabs to divide; into those who think the best way to resist Western domination is to become more like them, and others who think the best way to resist is to become less like them. This divide still continues today. There have been historical exceptions. In recent history, the rise of Nasserism created a pan-Arab movement that attracted Arabs from a range of nationalities, ethnicities, and religions. Unfortunately it made leaders of other states outside Egypt fearful of their own position; that disunity weakened their military prowess and many say it led to the Arabs’ defeat in the Six Day War against Israel, which ended Nasser’s movement. More recent efforts by Gadaffi to unite Arabs were not welcomed in the Arab world.  In the past, a Kurd called Salah Ad-Din (Saladin) united Arabs who fought off the invading European crusaders. There are some young Yemenis who have charisma and vision, but whether they will be allowed to lead Yemen to a better future is questionable. Let’s hope they can have their chance one day.

What now for Yemen?

Al anad air base
Saudi coalition ground forces and southern militias have captured Al Anad airbase.

Today it has been reported that the Saudi-led coalition has managed to take a military base near Lahj in southwest Yemen, and the few flights that were landing in Sana’a airport have been diverted to Aden. All ships heading for Hodeida port have been diverted to Aden port, now under the control of the Saudi-led coalition and local militias. Meanwhile, the Yemeni economy has collapsed under the effect of a Saudi-led blockade that has also caused severe life-threatening shortages of food, fuel, medicines and water. The Houthis have called for peace negotiations, and although the Houthi militias still are present in the southwest area, they have been placed on the back foot by the anti-Houthi coalition that appears to be gaining ground.

As we hear of these significant changes, reactions from Yemenis seem to vary from elation from those who were under siege in the southwest and also those who supported the Saudi coalition’s air strikes, to denial by those who support the Houthis. Those in the northwest, especially the Zaidis, will be feeling very apprehensive if they hear the news that the Houthis are losing ground in the southwest. But the majority, who desperately suffered under multiple wars and a devastating blockade, are hoping that this news means that peace is a little bit nearer. But during this war, many have witnessed deaths of family and friends, and lost homes, jobs, savings, and health; it has heightened the differences between Yemenis and caused many to develop a deep hatred of ‘the Other’.

Although the Houthis are calling for peace negotiations and asking for internationals to act as mediators, the Saudis are only likely to accept a full surrender. The Yemen government, now beholden to Riyadh and still in Saudi Arabia, has always demanded full compliance with UNSC resolution 2216, which calls on the Houthis to leave all the areas it now controls in Yemen. Hadi, the disputed President of Yemen, remains very unpopular, particularly amongst the groups that suffered most in the Saudi-led air assaults, widely reported to be at Hadi’s behest. It is unlikely that Yemenis could all unite around him.

Additionally, new militias have formed during the four months of war, and others have strengthened their position, both in terms of recruitment and control of territory. Al Qaeda, Da’esh and Islah all fought the Houthis, linked by a common bond of anti-Shiism. These militias were also fighting alongside the secessionist militias from Aden and the south, who do not share their religious intolerance, but have a strong anti-North Yemen sentiment. This group of disparate ‘victors’ already had significant differences before the war; it is hard to imagine these will have faded and they will now live in peace together.

Over a million people have been displaced in Yemen during the war; many of these have had their homes destroyed, making it impossible for them to return. But there is also likely to be forced displacement caused by heightened intolerances, based on religious differences or the North/South divide. Many people from the old North Yemen lived and worked in Aden; they may find this impossible in the post-war situation. In large cities like Sana’a, Shia and Sunni lived, worked and worshipped alongside each other; but the effect of war will make them now view their former neighbours with suspicion.

The destruction of the economy and infrastructure will have serious impact on work opportunities, already limited in Yemen prior to war. With no work and little to do, more men will be drawn to militias for employment. There have already been a number of bombs and other attacks by militias in Yemen in the last few months. Unless there is a comprehensive negotiated peace agreement that addresses the real grievances of all Yemenis, but especially addressing the Southern question and the Houthis concerns, and also tackles the reasons behind the growth of extremist Sunni militias, then these sporadic attacks are likely to continue. The Houthis homeland, the area around Saada, has been decimated; if they are forced to retreat, they have nothing to lose. That will make them extremely dangerous as guerrilla fighters, hiding in the mountain areas that they are familiar with, able to make sporadic attacks on those that they believe to be their enemy.

The South, meanwhile, wants an independent homeland. That is the area that contains most of the oil and gas reserves in Yemen. It is unlikely that the North will willingly agree to give them up. And it is even less likely that Saudi Arabia would agree to a tolerant, democratic society developing on its southern border, but perhaps a democratic system is the only thing that could hold Yemen together. It is too early to celebrate victory; the path to peace still has a long way to go.  But at least the first stage of the war is over.

 

Under-reporting of war deaths – or genocide?

Yemen starving child4

The estimates of numbers killed in this terrible war have varied from website to website. On the 31st July FARS news agency reported the number killed as 5313 people, most of them women and children. Al Jazeera quoted UN statistics on 27th July, stating that 3,640 have died altogether, about half of them civilians deaths. I believe both of these numbers hide the truth, and the number of those who have died is much, much higher.

Systems of recording deaths in Yemen during the war are not straightforward, hence the differences in death counts. Some agencies count deaths that have been reported in the media, but this is a multi-focal war, with both militia activity and air assaults by the coalition happening in all of the areas except Hadramaut, and journalists cannot access all areas where people are being attacked. As the war progresses, deaths in Yemen have become less newsworthy as it has become so commonplace and the Western media have not seriously tried to give the war in Yemen the coverage it deserves.  Furthermore, militias and fighting forces have an interest in under-reporting any of their own fighters killed by the other ‘side’ as militia and military deaths have a propaganda purpose; these deaths can only be estimated.

Another way of collecting information about those killed is from hospitals and medical sources. However, many hospitals have themselves been out of action, either because of destruction caused by war activity, because of loss of personnel due to the conflict, or because they have run out of medical equipment and may have disruption of water and electricity supplies making it impossible to function. Additionally, many who died at the site of an attack will not be included in hospital statistics

Then there is the nature of Yemen itself. In rural mountainous areas Yemeni families bury the deceased in their own villages, and with the ongoing conflict there is no system for these deaths to be immediately recorded. In some areas, especially the north-west, villages are inside conflict zones and not excluded from serious effects of warfare. The lack of fuel also means that moving injured to hospital is a challenge, for example, a recent report from journalist Mathieu Aikins “Yemen’s Hidden War” published by Rollingstone, stated that whilst he was in Yemen injured people were bought into a hospital in Saada from a village – he pointed to the difficulties in getting the casualties to hospital, with little petrol available, and for many the cost prohibits access to petrol. Apart from the blockade by Saudi Arabia, 180 petrol stations have been bombed in Saada area. For those few who manage to get their injured loved ones to hospital, inevitably many others will have failed and the injured may have died from lack of medical care.

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Saada has been subject to daily extensive aerial bombardment by Saudi Arabia throughout the war, causing extensive displacement of families

Aikins also points out that in the areas he passed through in the Sana’a and northwest areas almost all bridges have been bombed, making communication and movement extremely difficult. In a radio report on Radio 4 on 27th July, MSF British doctor Natalie Roberts confirmed this and also stated that it is extremely dangerous to drive along roads, because so many cars and trucks – even those with no military use – are regularly targeted.  No-one will use roads for routine issues such as reporting deaths, and with severe electricity shortages there may be no means for some villages to communicate with the outside world.

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Dr. Natalie Roberts saw food trucks that were recently bombed in Amran district, destroying desperately needed food.

The siege has also made it impossible to obtain medicines and medical equipment. This has particularly affected those with chronic illnesses. At times, medicines have been in very limited supply and even the black market has been unable to provide them. This has meant that those with chronic diseases have been at risk, and many have died. Friends have reported that most people on dialysis have died in Sana’a, and also people who need medicines such as insulin have found it difficult to obtain essential medication. Sometimes this has meant that they have had to lower their dosage or change to an alternative medication, often without access to medical advice. Because of the war, non-emergency medical treatment is restricted in many areas; it is hard to imagine that this has not resulted in deaths. These early deaths would have been recorded as due to natural causes, whereas they were due to unnatural warfare and siege conditions under which most Yemeni people are now forced to live.

Examples include a 24 year old man in Aden I know, previously very healthy, who died of malaria because he was not able to obtain medical supplies. In the Guardian newspaper it was reported that an obstetrician stated that two women had died from complications during childbirth, who would not have died but for the war. Some women will no doubt be giving birth at home because it is impossible to get to hospital, increasing risk to mothers and babies. These deaths are hidden from war statistics.

Sources reporting the humanitarian situation in Yemen point to the precarious water supply. Yemen, already short of water, has now moved into an era of critical water shortage since the beginning of war. On 26th May Oxfam reported that two thirds of people in Yemen no longer had access to clean water, and expected that this would cause deaths fromwater borne diseases. The situation has worsened since then, as some water tanks have suffered bomb damage, and the petrol needed to pump water from deep wells is in even shorter supply.   Another problem is a lack of baby milk. It was reported from Yemen sources recently that only 11.9% of Yemeni women are able to exclusively breast feed, a significant fall since last year. The shortage of water, shortage of food and ongoing stress will make it more difficult for women to produce sufficient milk for their babies. The reduction in breast feeding is life threatening for Yemeni babies, especially when it is combined with low availability of milk powders, unclean water supplies, and shortage of fuel to boil water for sterilisation purposes.

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Precarious water supply – benefactors in Yemen have supplied water tankers: people are allowed 5 litres every 3 days each. In some areas the supply is less secure due to lack of diesel for water pumps.

Food is also becoming a severe problem as normally 90% of food is imported into Yemen, and the country is under siege making imports impossible. Humanitarian aid delivery is restricted by a Saudi led blockade. Tariq Riebl of Oxfam pointed out that “People are resorting to extreme measures, principally begging. You’ll see this especially with the 1.5 million displaced people…many that have fled suddenly when airstrikes or ground combat erupted. They are leaving behind all their belongings and having no revenue source or income.” Riebl stated that it is difficult to know how many people are dying from the effects of food deprivation because many parts of the country are not accessible and he continued: “The airstrikes have covered the entire country…so it’s difficult to give you an exact figure. In terms of classification, right now 10 out of 22 governorates are classified as Level 4. Level 5 would be famine. Level 4 is critical emergency level. And the rest of the country is in Level 3, which also would be already considered past the emergency threshold. Yemen is one of the most food insecure countries in the world, if not the most.”

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UNICEF: 1.3 million children on verge of severe malnution, 16,000 currently being treated, 30.7.2015

As the blockade has reached its fourth month, the effects of the blockade are now causing severe disruption to the food supply and much suffering, and inevitably deaths.  Humanitarian aid is said to be arriving in Aden but people there are telling me, and many others tweeting, that they have not yet received help.  Food is increasingly expensive in the capital Sana’a, and most residents there are without employment or income, relying on savings.  Those who still draw government salaries are mostly not working, and fear their salary will stop as the Houthi led administration is running out of money due to the blockade.  Food trucks moving in Amran province have been regularly bombed, according to Natalie Roberts of MSF, creating a disastrous food situation there.  The only area which is not under strict blockade is in Hadramaut, where food is entering via Mukalla.  The east has a low population as it is a largely a desert region. Although many internally displaced have moved there, this area is not receiving any humanitarian aid.  Displaced people in Hadramaut are mostly living on limited savings, rents are extremely high, and food is very expensive, so even in the most stable area in Yemen food security is an important issue.

The ongoing Saudi air bombardment is also causing many deaths, most of them civilian.  No area is spared except for Hadramaut in the east, which has had minimal bombing raids so far. For example, in Mocha on the Red Sea coast on 24th July a bombing raid killed between 60-120 civilians, and injured many more, some of whom are seriously ill and with the shortage of medical care it is likely that the death toll will rise.   This was not an area where Houthi militias were found; the persons living there worked in an electricity power plant.

Does this amount to genocide?  According to the UN:

Genocide is defined in Article 2 of the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide (1948) as “any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such: killing members of the group; causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group; deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part1; imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group; [and] forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.”

The Saudis are particularly targeting the Zaidi population in the northwest of Yemen, destroying homes, schools, petrol stations, hospitals, roads, factories, shops, mosques, historical artefacts, a refugee camp and vehicles. Although it was reported that those in Saada were given notice that their homes were about to be destroyed by leafleting prior to main bombing raids, the people living there had few choices. Some organisations claim that the bomb damage in the northwest amounts to war crimes. The majority of people in targeted areas lost their homes, belongings, sources of employment, and income. The destruction of their homes destroyed shelter for families in a hot desert region in midsummer; in winter, high mountainous areas can also experience cold conditions and night frosts, making life without shelter challenging all year round. With the loss of their homes, families also lost access to water, electricity, and cooking facilities. Whilst some of the displaced have moved to the capital Sana’a and other cities, they would not be able to escape to the more stable area of Hadramaut due to their tribal and religious identity, as that area is controlled by extremist Sunni militias with strong anti-Shia sentiments and a fear of Zaidi spies. A large proportion of the displaced from Saada area have remained in the northwest, finding or building temporary shelter with limited resources. Some have formed camps near to the Saudi border, as many have relatives in Jizan and Najran who might offer them sanctuary, but currently I understand they are denied entry into Saudi Arabia, and a wall prevents them from crossing the border.

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IDPs are living in tents and home made shelters, with very little protection from the elements.

Many that remain in the northwest are now trapped, as the severe shortage of petrol, the high cost of travel by bus, and the targeting of vehicles for air attacks on all local roads means that escape is challenging even if living conditions are life threatening. The low numbers of refugees crossing borders only reflects severe travel restrictions, and does not imply that the conditions in Yemen are better than in other war-torn countries such as Syria. The northwest of Yemen is suffering severe problems with food and water supplies, not only because of the Saudi led blockade that is affecting all of west Yemen, but also because of damage to roads, and targeting of food trucks. Despite the extensive damage here, the bombing raids continue and like those living all over Yemen the Zaidis are suffering severe stress as they listen to the warplanes circling overhead on a daily, even hourly, basis.

It is difficult to argue that these conditions are compatible with life, and desperate appeals have been put out by a number of organisations, including Oxfam, UN, and WFP, ensuring that Saudi Arabia and its coalition partners, including US and UK, must be aware of the seriousness of this man-made crisis. Particularly the lives of the very young, the very old, and disabled have been and are seriously at risk.   Additionally, with many hospitals and clinics destroyed, there is little medical input to help the vulnerable overcome these threats, and as the siege proceeds more of the population will become vulnerable.   It is hard to argue that continued military strikes and ongoing siege in the face of this evidence can be anything other than intentional, as described in the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide (1948).

There is impelling evidence that members of the Zaidi population have been killed, and most have suffered serious bodily and mental harm by the destruction of their homes and the on-going blockade, and continued bombing attacks. It is hard to understand the purpose of the air attacks unless it was calculated to inflict on the Zaidi conditions of life that would bring about their physical destruction, in whole or in part.  Additionally, the nearest border is the Saudi border, and the desperate and displaced are not allowed to cross it.

There are also many reported civilian deaths at the hands of the various militias, including the Houthis, in areas of conflict. This has resulted in damage to a significant numbers of homes and other buildings, reduced access to fuel, food, water, and medical assistance, and some civilians have been killed by militias, as well as militias killed whilst fighting each other. Also, many families in the southwest are displaced because of militia activity, and found it difficult to escape horrendous living conditions because of the conflict and siege, as to escape they had to pass through dangerous areas where militias were fighting each other. All of these factors have resulted in Yemeni deaths and suffering, particularly in Aden, Lahj and Taiz. Whilst the actions of militias were often inhumane and brutal, it is more difficult to link this to genocidal intent, as all militia fighting on the ground is primarily designed to control through war rather than to eliminate any particular group within the population. Opposing militias were fighting each other, and additionally, these areas were also subject to air attacks by the Saudi coalition and the Saudi led blockade; hence it is far less clear where boundaries for responsibilities lie.

Meanwhile, in UK, the Disasters Emergency Committee has not yet had a charitable appeal to help the severe disaster that has been inflicted on Yemeni men, women and children. Politicians and the media are not telling it how it is. I find this inexplicable.

BBC Radio 4 Today Programme Monday 27th July.

BBC Radio 4 Today Programme 6.44-6.49 today. An item on Yemen. Please note: whilst it is laudible for the Today programme at last to do an item on Yemen, and it is excellent, why oh why put it on at 6.44, when the highest listening time on the Today Programme is an hour later. You can listen to this piece by going to BBC Radio 4 and move the cursor to 6.44.am.

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The people of Amran province are desperate after daily bombing attacks by the Saudi coalition.

Transcript:
More than 1600 people have been killed in Yemen in the last 3 months. Many of them have died in Saudi airstrikes on cities controlled by the Houthi rebels, including the capital Sana’a. The Saudis, who support the country’s now exiled President Hadi oppose the Houthis that they think are backed by Iran. Given ongoing fighting and risk of kidnap by Islamic extremists very few Western journalists are in the country but with the help of her mobile phone as a recording device Dr. Natalie Roberts with Medicine Sans Frontieres has given an account of her life in North Yemen to our correspondent Mike Thompson.
NR “I am in the MSF car now heading out of town to visit the health centre that’s out in the countryside”. 36 year old Dr. Natalie Roberts from Wrexham is in Amran province just north of Sana’a but her work in providing emergency health care takes her all over this dangerous terrain. “The roads are targeted, cars are often hit and as I’m driving now I can see a truck that was bombed a few hours ago, still burning. It was carrying apples and wheat, the sacks of wheat are on fire. Every few hundred metres you see another burned out vehicle. Every single bridge on the road has been bombed out. It’s just an intimidating experience to drive up and down this road and be aware that at any minute an aeroplane could be coming. We have a flag on the roof but it doesn’t feel that it gives me much protection when you arrive at scenes like this.”
(later)
NR. “I’m in the Emergency Room at the Health Centre that we have been supporting in the mountains of North Yemen, really quite near the border. It’s an area that has had very heavy bombing. All the villages and towns nearby sustain air strikes most days.”
MT. With little or no mains electricity in Yemen, clinics like this rely on noisy generators running on scarce and very expensive fuel supplies. Many of them needing emergency help here are young children.
NR. “There’s a six year old boy here with a piece of shrapnel in his eye that he sustained this morning. It means he has lost his eye. He’s being very brave, he’s lying on a bed covered in blood and his mother is talking to him. We have already had three trauma cases this morning and it’s 11.30am. ”
(later)
NR. “That’s the call to evening prayer you hear all around Yemen. Today it’s more exciting for people because the rumour is a ceasefire has been declared. There’s a strong rumour it will start this evening. Everyone is very much in hope of that. This is a desperate population and they need some respite from the fighting.”
(later)
NR. “Morning now, it’s really quiet. Last night at midnight we were all hoping that this ceasefire that was about to be implemented, but by three o’clock in the morning I started to get text messages saying that there was more planes bombing in Sana’a and Saada governates. Really, really disappointed.”.
MT. There was some brighter news from Aden recently, when a ship carrying UN food supplies finally managed to get through to the port after waiting for weeks, but it has been estimated that the continuing violence threatens the survival of six million people across the country who are in urgent need of help.
NR. “Lunchtime and there’s a warplane circling overhead again. It happens at least once an hour. This place really makes me concerned about planes because you know that if a plane is flying overhead it’s a warplane. There’s no other planes flying over Yemen just now. So you are just waiting for the bomb to drop.”
MT. Dr. Roberts previously worked in Syria and Ukraine and will spend another month in Yemen with this threat as she tries to help local people, who are too afraid or unable to leave their homes. But given the daily risk to herself, does she think of abandoning her contract and getting out?
NR. “All the time, yes, I’ve been having these moments for the last three years. Often there’s times I lie there particularly at night when there is bombing and I think I don’t quite know why I am here. But this is the first place I have been to with no media. I just haven’t met a journalist at all. That means it’s not in the public eye. The public should be aware of the disaster and the crisis that is happening in this country.”.

What now for Aden?

aden airport recaptured

There was dramatic news last night of a change in Aden as twitter was alive with messages, with many Arab news websites carrying stories of the recapture of the airport.  This was grandly named “the Operation Golden Arrow for the Liberation of Aden”.  Those from the south are delighted.

I haven’t been able to find any commentary on this latest news in Yemen this morning, so here goes, my view. This has to be hopeful news in the short term for the Adeni people who have suffered under double siege by Houthi militias and Saudi Arabia – and also suffered from multi-pronged attacks, with heavy militia activity plus aerial bombardment from the Saudi led coalition – there is now hope of assistance arriving in Aden, and the fighting may be less intense. I had a lot of messages on Twitter yesterday evening and some with speculation – for example, I even had pictures of military machines entering Aden port but this morning I read that it is still an area of intense fighting, and also I read stories of Saleh fleeing, but can’t find confirmation of that this morning either. It will be easier to deliver humanitarian aid with the airport open; those now with control over the airport will presumably want to win friends by making this possible. These changes mean that much needed cash might also be available in Aden – the banking system in Aden had closed down and institutions like MoneyGram were no longer functioning making the economic situation impossible for Adeni people under siege. The World Heath Organisation also managed to bring in a shipment of medical supplies on Saturday, the hospitals in Aden had virtually no supplies left before that arrived. So good news in the short term.

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Aden celebrates as Houthi militias are driven from the airport

In the longer term, Aden has suffered more infrastructure damage than most cities in Yemen, virtually all businesses have closed down, all institutions have closed and many irreversibly damaged, most hospitals have closed (and the few still functioning closed to everything except emergencies due to direct effects of conflict). International organisations have left; there is no certainty that they will return soon. It is extremely unlikely that Southerners will get the independence from the North that they desired from soon after the unification in 1990, when they believed that the North had stitched them up and they had a very poor deal, and they believed with much justification that the North did not keep to any of the promises they made. ??ex ??President Hadi, the one who apparently agreed to Saudi air strikes in his quest to keep control is said to be in control of this recapture of Aden – at least, that’s what his masters in Saudi Arabia tell us. So with his appearance, Southern hopes of independence are indeed challenged. And the war is not over yet. Sana’a has been wracked with bombs overnight – they were promised – or maybe the right word is threatened – two hundred would fall on Sana’a in the last 24 hours. And Aden now will inevitably fall under Saudi influence, it’s more open, tolerant society, its enthusiasm for education, all under threat.

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As excited Adenis celebrate, their desired independence is still a distant dream

Fighting continues in most of Yemen including Aden, whilst most ordinary life in Yemen has stopped, the infrastructure damaged so severely that it will take several generations before life as before is nearly possible.  There will be recriminations, newly fostered hatreds, and power struggles in Aden – and Yemen as a whole even after fighting stops –  Yemen and Aden are still  a long way from peace. We should not get carried away and think this is the beginning of the end, for Aden or elsewhere in this troubled land.   The coalition fighting the Houthis in the south west consists of groups with very different agendas – the Al Hirak secessionists, the Islah militias, Al Qaeda militias, Da’esh militias, the troops still loyal to Hadi, amongst them the forces of Brigadier General Ali Muhsin Al Ahmer, himself a Salafist with a radical Islamic agenda, and of course, Saudi Arabia. To say nothing of Western interests, including United States and Britain.  If they are indeed victorious in the south west, the next stage will be when they all have to decide whose agenda is going to be put into action, and that will be far from easy.  And we can’t presume that the Houthi fighters, if fully defeated, will just go away and leave Aden alone. Everyone will want a reward for their own costs in this bloody and expensive war.  Their divisions may well be irreconcilable.

Yemen’s middle classes – stupified, insecure – and running out of hope and money

“…when I go to work there is nothing to do.  I feel I ought to do something, but I can’t motivate myself to start doing anything….”   “…I can’t think, plan or act, all I do is sit around waiting for what tomorrow will bring…” “…my children’s school has closed, but they won’t do any schoolwork at home…”  “…I seem to have lost the will to do anything…”  The suddenness of the change from peace to brutal, deadly war in Yemen has put the whole population into a state of stupefied shock.

Yemen’s millions of underclasses were struggling to survive long before the war, with very little to lose and very little hope of gain. In 2014 54% of Yemenis lived below the poverty line; unemployment was 40%, with youth unemployment set at 60%.   An estimated 58% of Yemen’s population – or 14.7 million people – were already in crisis, with food insecurity, child malnutrition, and suffering rights violations such as exploitation and displacement.  Over 13 million did not have access to safe water supplies, and over 8.6 million were without basic health care. 500,000 people were already internally displaced or returnees (ie., Yemenis who were forced to leave another country where they had been residing and/or working).  The 2014 Human Response Plan for Yemen, issued by the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, attributed the large proportion of the population living at crisis point to endemic poverty, long-standing under-development, poor governance, environmental stress, demographic pressures, continued political instability and conflict.  The lives of Yemen’s chronic poor maybe less comfortable due to the escalation of the conflict, they will undoubtedly have moments of terror, and a larger proportion may be displaced and food insecure.  A small proportion of them may be injured or killed.  But in the main, their previously miserable and insecure lives continue, but rather more miserably, and much less securely.

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Yemen’s poor – even before the war they had little to lose, and little hope of gain.

The wealth gap is as large in Yemen as elsewhere in the world. There are areas in Yemen with ornate mansions that rival any in the wealthy cities and states of the Middle East.  Just as anywhere else in the world, the rich have more choices; to leave or stay; and if they decide to stay, they can afford to pay the black-market prices for everyday comforts and for extra security at home and at work.  But the middle classes who have worked to buy their homes, who have studied to educate themselves and their children; they are the ones who have lost most. In some cases, they have seen everything they own, everything they worked for over many decades, destroyed.  They have lost their homes, their businesses or their employment, and they and their children have had their only chance of education severely disrupted or terminated due to the conflict.  The war has for them been a cataclysmic event; a life changing tsunami.

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Yemeni doctors – there is much need, but with hospitals destroyed and closed due to lack of medical equipment, they are under-employed and many are not being paid

Statements reflect their inability to control anything.   This was directly addressed by R (translator, Sana’a): “You can’t defeat this war nor control it; you just have to submit yourself to it…”  More commonly, people express their helplessness in describing situations. A British Yemeni with her family in under siege in Aden described her powerlessness: “We are still trying to get my granddaughter out (of Aden)…but it is the bus to Sana’a that is so risky…” Another friend (S, doctor) who had already fled from Aden and is now displaced in Hadramaut expressed similar feelings: “My friends in Aden are trapped there…the only thing I can do is pray for them…”   A (teacher, Sana’a) stated “…the bombs are getting closer to our house now, we are all frightened, there is nothing we can do except pray…”  Many also describe their powerlessness relating to their economic circumstances, many persons who are still employed in the public sector are still being paid at the moment, but most express concern as their workplaces are no longer functioning, and their only remaining source of income might cease.  Those who are unemployed recognise that there is no hope for employment in the foreseeable future.  A (engineer, Dhamar) “There is no point in seeking work in Yemen; there is none.”   A future with no income and no savings looms in front of them; they are inside a trap of war with no ability to respond to any real threat to themselves and their family.

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Yemeni schools and universities – closed all over Yemen. Many are housing displaced people, others have been destroyed or damaged. Most teachers are not working.

People describe even their inability to control the simplest things in life that are normally taken for granted. (R. translator, Sana’a) “When you are using water to bathe, or do the laundry, you are always worried that the water will end before you finish.” (A, teacher, Sana’a) “Food is very expensive and we are using up our savings, but we have no choice.”  G (Dental Student, Aden), who was due to take her final examinations this year “I will never be able to finish my degree and become a dentist.” R. (translator, Sana’a) “… I worry about them (two boys, fourteen and ten) and their futures…we don’t know when they will go back to school…”  F (student, Aden) “…we managed to find some vegetables, but when the militias saw us, they wouldn’t let us take them through…”

The loss of assets has affected the middle class disproportionately. In Aden, Lahj and Taiz in the south-west, and Saada in the north-west most people who owned their homes have lost them, either by destruction, or by being forced to flee with no hope of return. Parts of many other cities have also been destroyed. In a society that has no retirement income, sharing your home with grown up children provides security in old age; instead of facing a comfortable retirement surrounded by their family, when their home disappears and their children are forced to scatter, the future in retirement becomes bleak. If people have savings, they are worried about the viability of banks and they do not know whether to risk leaving the money there, or whether to risk leaving large amounts of cash in their home that could be destroyed without warning.

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The loss of your home means a loss of your retirement security
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The oil industry used to be a source of employment for engineers in Yemen. But currently there are no opportunities for engineers.

The lack of electricity, combined with the restriction to indoor living and the cessation of work and school has created monotony and boredom.  Initially when there was limited electricity every few days people rushed to charge their phones so that they had some means of calling for help in emergencies, or responding to emergency calls of others. In many places now there is no electricity at all. People who had home generators found problems in purchasing diesel to run them; in Sana’a people queued for five days for five litres of diesel (A, teacher).  Some managed to buy a solar panel which is sufficient to run a wireless router and a few low voltage gadgets (R, translator, Sana’a).  Others charge their phones by going to local shops to pay for charging services (A, engineer, Dhamar).

Most people do not have sufficient electricity to access television programmes.  “During Ramadhan, there are usually really good programmes on the TV, soap operas, that sort of thing, but this year there is no electricity so nothing to distract us…without things to do it makes everyone miserable.” (R, translator, Sana’a).  Some people still use the radio for their source of news (A, teacher, Sana’a). Not surprisingly, bombing raids and rocket attacks have become a source of frightening entertainment for young people, especially young men; most days, I get a horrifying supply of photos of last night’s raids.  When interviewing one Sana’a resident one evening, in the space of 45 minutes we counted six bombs, plus my interviewee described the sound of anti-aircraft fire over the roof of the house.  There are often rumours that the raid tonight is going to be near your home (R, translator, Sana’a) which adds to stress.  When the bombs are released, there is a whooshing sound, and during that moment people say their heart stops as they wait to see whether it will hit their home (H, activist, Sana’a).  Others report frightening episodes: “…when my wife was in labour in the hospital, six rockets hit the building next door…”  (A, engineer, Dhamar). This affects the ability to sleep;  (A, translator, Sana’a) “… when you are fully submitted then you can finally sleep, but you don’t know if you will wake up again or not. Whether you will be in the next group of blown up houses and corpses.”

bomb 20.5.15 (2)
Repeated bomb blasts near to people’s homes make it difficult to sleep

Not surprisingly, the stress results in difficulties with relationships in many families. Whilst many report an increase in petty arguments, others report more serious quarrels.  (A, teacher, Sana’a)  “We are lucky in our family, we don’t belong to political parties; the war has split some families.  But when we talk about the war, the conversations can become very heated”. Sometimes the issues are related to whether to move overseas and claim asylum, or whether to stay in Yemen. “My father says it will be alright if we stay, but I don’t think there is any future for us in Yemen now. He was so angry, shouting at us.” (G., student, Tarim).

Almost everyone is considering whether to travel overseas.  “I’m going to Oman to be a refugee; I hope to find work there in my speciality.” (A. Engineer, Dhamar).  “Do you know if I could find a job overseas before I leave Yemen? I don’t want to be a refugee.” (A, teacher, Sana’a) “Someone I know went to Kuala Lumpur, he got a job quickly, and he doesn’t have my language skills; I am planning to go there.” (G. Student, Tarim).  For the people who own their home, this is a challenging choice, as the legal system in Yemen is corrupt and there is no guarantee that the current owner can regain his asset if he returns.   For those who still have a salary, going overseas will mean they will lose that income, with no certainty of work in their new home.  These two issues distract some from travelling; “I will stay here in my home, to live or die, whatever happens,”, but it is less common to have already made a definite decision to stay put.

Refugees who flee Yemen will almost all be from the middle classes; those with enough money to travel overseas. Unlike Syria, it has no border where it is easy to cross into another country to claim asylum. The financial cost inhibits some from travelling. “…we have no water left in our village, we are being forced to leave.  But where can we go, there are 26 of us…” (housewife, Hodeida).  It costs $300US for a visa for each person wishing to travel through Oman, plus the cost of airfare to the next destination, plus money for rent and food until a job is found.  The alternative is catching a boat to cross the Gulf of Aden to reach Somalia or Djibouti, more dangerous and still expensive.  Currently shocked at the suddenness of the change in their circumstances, and still mourning their many losses, choosing to move seems to help middle class Yemenis regain something of their old ambitions and drive.  These are the cream of Yemeni society, the ones who have suffered most, and the ones who have lost all hope of a future in Yemen; they see a new start somewhere else as their only chance to have a successful life.

Saudis Above, Houthis below, nowhere is safe.

Children trapped in war

SANAA, Yemen — In the early hours of June 13, the Amari family was asleep in their home in Beit Meyad, a district near the heart of Sanaa. Then the bombs came. At least four missiles struck their street in quick succession at around 2 a.m.

A nearby shop selling gas cylinders was hit; there was fire everywhere. The family scrambled to flee their house. They were almost outside when an explosion blew the building’s main gate off its hinges, ramming into four of them and sending them flying backward into the house.

Four siblings were killed instantly: 11-year-old Iyad, 18-year-old Abdel Qader, 22-year-old Mona, and 25-year-old Aisha. Their cousin, Ahmed al-Amari, who lived next door, was also killed by the blasts. He was 10 years old.

“They were torn apart. We buried pieces of them,” said Boshra al-Amari, an aunt to the victims. She lives two streets away and huddled with her three sons in her home that day as the missiles rained down.

The four siblings who were killed are survived by an 18-year-old brother and a 20-year-old sister, who is now in shock and unable to speak. The mother of their dead cousin suffered only a broken arm, but she is in a state of hysteria. She believes the children were injured but are still alive. Fearing for her psychological state, Boshra has not had the heart to tell her they are all dead.

The attack also killed five members of the Akwaa family, who lived next door, including three children, bringing the death toll to at least 10, all of them civilians and five of them children. Up to 60 people were also wounded in the strike.

Beit Meyad is a residential district, but the presumed reason for the strike is that enemies of Saudi Arabia lived in the area.

On March 26, a Saudi-led coalition of Arab countries began bombing Yemen to stop the advance of a rebel group known as the Houthis who took over the capital in September and continued their march southward, seizing control of large parts of the country.

Saudi planes have bombed sites across Yemen on an almost daily basis for nearly three months, backed by logistical and intelligence support from the United States. In addition to military targets and weapons depots, the airstrikes have hit the airports in Aden and Sanaa, where two destroyed commercial airplanes still lie on the tarmac; a refugee camp the northern district of Haradh; and several UNESCO-protected heritage sites, including most recently at least five houses in Sanaa’s 2,500 year-old Old City.

In addition to the airstrikes, fierce street battles have broken out in Aden, Taiz, and elsewhere between the Houthis, who are allied with forces loyal to ex-President Ali Abdullah Saleh, and forces loyal to President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, who is in exile and other opponents. More than 2,500 people have been killed in the conflict and over 11,000 injured, according to the World Health Organization.

Since the beginning of June, analysts and residents in the capital say, the bombing campaign has entered a new phase:

Planes have begun targeting the homes of Saudi Arabia’s enemies, rather than just military targets.

Planes have begun targeting the homes of Saudi Arabia’s enemies, rather than just military targets. Civilians have found themselves increasingly caught in the crossfire.

The street where the Amari family lived was home to the residences of Saleh’s nephew and his brothers. They weren’t home at the time. Earlier this month, the house of Saleh’s son, Ahmed Ali, was bombed, as was his office, which is located near a popular Internet cafe in Sanaa. On Sunday night, June 14, the home of a close Houthi ally in the Faj Attan area of Sanaa was also bombarded.

“They are trying to terrorize and punish their opponents,” said Maged al-Madhaji, a Sanaa-based political researcher, adding that Saleh’s allies do not sleep in their homes anymore. “It’s an idiotic strategy and it’s a sign of their failure. They don’t know what to do. They can’t win this war from the air.”

The Saudi-led air campaign is far from the only danger Sanaa civilians like the Amari family face. Boshra said the night after her relatives were killed, a shell from an anti-aircraft weapon fired by the Houthis hit her roof and another landed in her yard. “Their sound is terrifying,” she said. “We get some kind of shrapnel from them hitting our house almost every day.”

The rapid booms of anti-aircraft fire fill the sky in Sanaa whenever the roar of a passing warplane is heard — and sometimes even when it isn’t.

Dr. Nasr al-Qadasi, the head of the Goumhouri hospital in Sanaa, Yemen’s second-biggest hospital, said he receives three to five patients a day who have been wounded by anti-aircraft munitions. “They shoot randomly and without purpose,” Qadasi said. “I am more afraid of the anti-aircraft fire than of the missiles.” In a report in May, Amnesty International found that anti-aircraft munitions shot by the Houthis “were the leading cause of casualties in the capital.”

Meanwhile, Boshra is at a loss of what to do as her family members, like so many Yemeni civilians, are trapped in the fighting.

In addition to the five family members she lost two days ago in a Saudi airstrike, her 80-year-old aunt died in the town of al-Jalilah, some 90 miles northwest of the capital, after being wounded as a result of shelling by Houthi-allied forces; the aunt was unable to reach a hospital for a month due to the fighting and finally succumbed to her injuries. In Aden, Boshra’s cousin’s husband, who is mentally ill, was shot by snipers as he was walking in the street. And a relative of her brother-in-law, a pharmacist, was kidnapped by Houthis in Sanaa last week.

“I don’t see this ending,” Boshra said with tears in her eyes. “I think things will get much worse.”

She lost her job as a reporter after the Houthis closed down the newspaper where she worked. Her husband has not received a government salary in three months. They now rely on a relative living in the United States who sends them money. She wants to leave Yemen, but with the borders closed and hardly any outbound flights from Sanaa, she remains trapped inside.

“There is nowhere safe,” she said. “I want to protect my children but everywhere is targeted. I don’t know how to protect them.”