"Stop gambling with our lives!"

Written by Helene Aecherli on Sunday, 20 September 2015. Posted in Jemen

War in Yemen

The situation in the war torn country has become apocalyptic and, after a frantic bombing campaign, there is still an all all out ground war looming over the capital Sana’a. Meanwhile within the UN Human Rights Council the Netherlands push for a neutral, international inquiry on Yemen.

Destroyed houses in the historical Old Sana'a. Photo credit: General Organization for the Preservation of the historical Cities in Yemen GOPHCY

Fighter jets hover over the Yemeni capital, and the airstrikes and bombs fuse into a traumatic cacophony that goes on sometimes for minutes, sometimes for as long as 32 hours, causing incessant loops of fear, sleep deprivation, destruction and death. And an increasing awareness dawns upon the three million inhabitants that there is also a cat-and-mouse game going on, a terribly distorted one, leaving the city on the brink of collapse.

“The Saudis' vultures of death dissected the skies from around midnight until the wee hours of the morning without actually dropping a single missile”, writes Yemeni filmmaker Sara Ishaq after a night filled with agony. “Then, between nine and eleven this morning and this past hour, from five til six pm, they start their hysterical bombing campaign, when streets are busiest, markets are bustling and people are most likely to be further away from a basement than any other time in the day. This alone shows how little concern the Saudi coalition has for civilians.”

After the Houthi rebels killed 60 soldiers of the Saudi-led military coalition on 4 September, the coalition carried out innumerable retaliation strikes in both the Northern governorate of Saada, the haven of the Houthi rebels, and the capital Sana’a. According to the New York Times, neighbourhoods in Saada have been so heavily bombed that “locals joke grimly that the coalition has run out of buildings to hit”; and it has been the longest and most severe bombing campaign the capital has ever been subjected to.

"I would rather die in the sea than be killed by missiles"

“How much more collective punishment can the vast majority of Yemenis endure to pay for the short-sighted, vacuous, imbecilic political undertakings of the few?”, Sara Ishaq asks. And when I checked on my friend Layla Asda, a 26-year-old student in Sana’a, to see if she and her family were okay, she answers desperately: “The coalition forces seem to have lost their senses completely. They are hitting back at civilians; they bomb many places all at once, target civilian buildings, apartments, schools and markets again and again. This is against all rules. It's a disaster! We don’t sleep, we can’t eat. It’s unbearable. What can we do to end the war?” And then she utters the sentence that summarizes the dire situation Yemenis are caught in: “You know I can't blame Syrians if they flee to Europe dying in the sea while trying to survive. I would rather die in the sea than be killed by missiles."

Sara Ishaq and Layla Asda are just two out of 25 million Yemenis. Their voices, however, represent all those who suffer from the war in the country. The war which started in September 2014 when the Houthi rebels, affiliated with the forces of former president Ali Abdullah Saleh, occupied Sana'a and invaded the cities of Aden and Taiz; and which turned from an “internal political conflict” to an international war when a Saudi-led coalition launched an air campaign against the Houthis at the end of March last year.

In the hierarchy of conflicts Yemen ranks at the bottom

But while the international attention is focused on the war in Syria because of its thousands of refugees who land at the shores and borders of Europe, the war in Yemen literally happens backstage of the world theatre. Even though, similar to Syria, it threatens to tear the Middle East apart. Some like to label it “the forgotten war” - but that is hardly accurate. Because you can only forget something that has once been in the centre of attention. Yemen hasn’t. In the hierarchy of conflicts it ranks at the bottom. Yemen, so it seems, is too remote to count.

This attitude is as cynical as it is dangerous. Not only does the convenient but simplistic Sunni-Shia-narrative of the battle between the Saudi-led military coalition, that includes all Sunni Arab states except for Oman, and is backed by the USA and the UK, and the Houthi rebels create a sectarian rift within the population where there hasn’t been one before.

Not only does it leave a power vacuum – Yemen’s president Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi and his government fled to the Saudi capital Riyadh – that paves the ground for extremist groups such as Al Qaeda and the “Islamic State”. But, above all, the war with which Saudi Arabia and its Gulf allies supposedly try to boost their regional influence destroys the social fabric of the Yemeni population as well as the backbone of a formerly strong civil society. 

"The disproportionate and aggressive leaguing of eleven countries against one of the poorest is beyond comprehension"

“Everything about this war poses massive questions about the sort of world we have allowed our heads of state to create, the sort of world of double-standards we have allowed ourselves to assimilate into and tolerate”, says Sara Ishaq. “The disproportionate and aggressive leaguing of eleven countries, three of the richest in the world, against one of the poorest countries in the world, and the sick duality of indifference and blatant complicity exhibited by international media and governments, is beyond comprehension. Like millions of Yemenis, I don’t think I will ever be able to understand or forgive the hypocrisy of it. Like millions of Yemenis, I will never be able to forget the horrors of this war, the sights seen, the stories heard, the pain of watching your country, heritage, home and family be torn apart at the seams.”


Photo credit: General Organization for the Preservation of the historical Cities in Yemen GOPHCY 

Approximately 5000 people have been killed and 23,000 wounded so far. 1,5 million have been forced to flee their villages or cities. 12 million, half of the total population, are plagued by famine. And nearly two million children miss out on education. As Yemen was the poorest country in the Arab world before the war, having just few resources and depending on 90 percent of its food and fuel being imported, "Yemen after five months of intense fighting looks like Syria after five years", said Peter Maurer, head of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) after a visit to the war torn country.

A couple of weeks ago there were attacks on the ICRC office in Aden and just recently a gunman fired on an ICRC convoy in the Huth district of Amran, killing two aid workers - indications of how erratic the fighting has become. According to Hizam Adnan, spokesperson of the ICRC in Sana’a, all ICRC operations in Aden have been suspended as a result of the attacks, the operations in Sana’a, Taiz and Saada restricted to basic lifesaving activities.

"It's high time for accountability in Yemen”

Meanwhile, the organization Human Rights Watch has uncovered numerous violations of international humanitarian law by all sides to the conflict, many accounting to war crimes. In his recent dispatch, Philippe Dam, Geneva Deputy Director of Human Rights Watch (HRW) emphasises that “coalition airstrikes have repeatedly struck buildings and killed civilians where there was no evident military target. Coalition forces have also used cluster munitions, which are banned under international treaty. Houthi forces have indiscriminately launched rockets toward populated areas in both Yemen and across the border into Saudi Arabia. They also laid banned anti-personnel mines in around Aden, Abyan, and Lahj. Southern forces in Aden have executed suspected Houthis.”

The list of violations is long, there is “high time for accountability in Yemen”. This appeal is underlined by 28 prominent human rights defenders in the Middle East and North Africa who issued a call for the formation of a fact-finding mission on Yemen. The investigation demanded by the signatories should include the actions of the Saudi led Arab coalition forces and their allies since the start of the bombing as well as those of the Houthis and former president Ali Abdullah Saleh's forces, the consequences of the air and sea blockade imposed by the coalition and on top of that, the allegations of the recruitment of children. This initiative, it seems, is a hopeful sign that the international community is waking up and is finally taking action.

Moreover, the United Nations’ Human Rights Council, whose sessions started last week, considered to conduct a report that recommends an “international, independent and impartial investigation into alleged war crimes by all sides in Yemen.” According to sources that prefer to remain anonymous, the Netherlands are the driving force pushing for a neutral, international inquiry on Yemen. Saudi Arabia, on the other hand, is aiming at a watered down resolution and urging the council to agree on a local fact finding committee consisting of Yemeni actors “handpicked” by Riyadh. The Saudi plan is backed by Cuba, China and Pakistan. Many countries in the council including EU countries and Canada are supporting the Dutch resolution, while the United States remain ambiguous. Human rights representatives fear that the Saudi push within the Human Rights Council may lead the Netherlands to back down and as a consequence the resolution on Yemen will be thinned out and not lead to any accountability at all. If so, both the Yemeni government and the UN Human Rights Council would lose further legitimacy – as they turn a blind eye on the sufferings of 25 million people.

And yet - the war in Yemen continues unabated. And even though the pressure for peace negotiations between the warring parties is raising, any negotiations so far have failed. A leaked email from Ismail Ould Cheikh, the UN’s envoy for Yemen, to Jeffrey Feltman, the UN's undersecretary for political affairs and a former US State Department official, highlights the nature and difficulties of the negotiations.

In his letter, Ismail Ould Cheikh writes that “although Ansar Allah (another name for Houthis) repeated that the return of president Hadi would be unacceptable, they expressed their openness to the return of the government for a limited amount of time.” According to Ismail Ould Cheikh, this would be for a period of sixty days during which a new government of national unity should be formed. Furthermore, the envoy depicts the disappointment of US officials that the Saudis had sent relatively junior representatives to the talks and concludes that the meetings shed very little new light on Saudi Arabia’s strategy in the conflict or their willingness to support a negotiated settlement in the near future.

"Both sides should compromise to save the Yemeni people from blood shed”

So far, president Hadi and his representatives keep insisting on the full implementation of the UN resolution 2216, which, among others, strives at reaffirming his legitimacy as the current Yemeni president. Whereas the Houthis, well aware of the other side not being too serious about negotiations, use the diplomatic process in their favor to portray themselves as the reasonable ones. A new round of UN-brokered peace talks is scheduled to start this week. But at this time, it has again been suspended – much to the frustration of Yemeni civilians. Failed negotiations have become synonymous with prolonged sufferings and constantly shattered hope. “Both sides should compromise to save the Yemeni people from blood shed”, Layla Asda emphasizes. “They have to stop playing games and they have to stop gambling with our lives. It’s enough!”

As the diplomatic arm wrestling goes on, the people in Sana’a brace for the worst. Thousands of ground troops from Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia have been deployed to Marib, a governorate east of the capital. Rumours of an all out war are boiling up; rumours that the coalition troops will set out to recapture the city. If that happens the situation in Sana'a will be apocalyptic. Food, medicine, petrol and gas became scarce long ago, the prices at the black markets have risen five time above the regular; but without food and fuel, there is no escape.

However, people cling to the hope that the coalition forces might shy away from their plan of invading Sana’a. “Anyone who knows the history of Yemen knows that Yemenis have been very good at two things: agriculture and fighting. This kind of people won’t hand over their soil peacefully. They will fight till the end”, explains Aiman Al Hakeem, a businessman in Sana’a. “The coalition cannot take the risk of such an operation. And I tell you”, he adds, “most of the Yemenis I have talked to refuse to fight in the ongoing battles inside the country. But they are ready to go to the Saudi border to fight against the coalition.” When I asked him about this seeming inconsequence, he answered: “We have this saying: I will stand against my uncle’s son - but I will stand with him against a stranger.“

 Photo credit: General Organization for the Preservation of the historical Cities in Yemen GOPHCY

Just a couple of days ago roads and bridges around Sana’a were bombed. Residents fear they were destroyed so that no one could get out; so that the supply-routes of the Houthis would be cut off . And many believe this new destruction of vital infrastructure could be a sign that the decisive battle is going to start soon. But then again, they argue, if there were no roads and bridges at all anymore, nobody could get in either, right? So, maybe this is the end? Maybe the coalition troops avoid coming to Sana’a after all?

But no one knows for sure how many roads and bridges have actually been destroyed. No one understands what is happening. Maybe this constant bombing is far beyond any military strategy and merely a pure demonstration of terror? Confusion rules. And fear. Always fear.

“Panic is tearing us apart”, says Layla Asda. “We want peace! Please, stop that war! We can’t take it anymore!”

About the Author