Yemenis struggle as treasured city deteriorates

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Jane Ferguson

A day without the thud of air strikes in Sana’a is rare. The sound of missiles and responding anti-aircraft gunfire fills the thin, dusty air in this ancient city, perched 2,300m high on top of red, jagged peaks.

A Saudi-led coalition of countries is trying to rout rebel fighters known as Houthis from cities across the country, with an intensive bombing campaign.

The Houthis are an armed movement based in Yemen’s rugged northern mountains, along the border with Saudi Arabia. They seized control of Sana’a – Yemen’s capital – and its government last September. In March the country’s president, Abd Rabu Mansour Hadi, fled the country, and the bombing began.

Since then, over 2,000 Yemenis have died and more than 500,000 have been displaced.

Houthis are Zaydi Muslims – a Shia sect of Islam close in identity to Sunnis. Neighbouring Sunni Saudi Arabia says they are a dangerous proxy of Iran on their doorstep. The US agrees, and has been providing logistical and technical support to the campaign.

Former president Ali Abdullah Saleh, who was forced from power in 2012 after the Arab Spring protests, still holds much influence across Yemen, and has backed the Houthis, providing the support of military units still loyal to him.

Saudi-imposed blockade

Amid the chaos, the people of Yemen try to survive not only the air strikes, but also a Saudi-imposed blockade. Flights in and out of Yemen are forced to land in Saudi Arabia for inspection. Crucial goods are running frighteningly short.

Families queue by steel water-tanks, waiting to fill plastic containers. “This is the first water to come here in five days,” a local resident told The Irish Times. People are exhausted. “My children are terrified from the bombs,” one woman shouted, waving her hands towards the skies. “They cannot sleep.”

Children have not been to school since the air strikes began. Yemenis traditionally have large families. Countless school-aged children can be seen playing in the street, oblivious to the catastrophe growing around them.

Diesel shortages

Miles of parked cars choke the roads – petrol and diesel shortages are chronic, and queues to the pump dominate every major highway. Most are forced to sleep in their cars for several days to get fuel. The lucky ones can afford black market prices. The roar of generator shops reaches most street corners – the only businesses doing well these days. Those wealthy enough to buy one have to use vegetable oil when the diesel runs out.

Anger at Saudi Arabia is palpable. At the rare sight of a foreign journalist, many Yemenis approach to voice their anger. A common joke in the city now is to call for an Israeli embassy instead of the Saudi one, “because now we think they are better than Saudi Arabia,” strong words indeed in a country so hostile towards Israel.

Anger against the US is also growing rapidly. Every government announcement and press conference refers to the air strikes as “Saudi-American attacks”.

Ahmed Al-Dhaia is a religious teacher at the ancient Great Mosque in the old city. He sees the US as an aggressor.

“America is the reason for this [war],” he said, resting on a wall near the mosque. “Because they helped Saudi Arabia attack Yemen. Yemen is being oppressed. We don’t fight or attack anyone. We didn’t do anything. They are the aggressors, attacking our women, children and men.”

The White House announced in March it was helping Saudi Arabia logistically with the air assault. While the Houthis don’t necessarily have majority support in the capital, the air strikes are hardening opinion against the US and Saudi Arabia. This suits the Houthis’s politics: their preferred slogan “God is Great, Death to America, Death to Israel, Curse the Jews” is painted on walls all over the city.

In the southern city of Aden, fighting continues between the Houthis and fighters loyal to exiled president Hadi. As the turmoil continues, al-Qaeda – or al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula as it is known in Yemen – is gaining ground, say experts.

Taking weapons

“Al-Qaeda now is the big winner of this war,” said Nasser Arrabyee, a Yemeni journalist. “Al-Qaeda is just waiting and looting the banks and taking the weapons from the military bases in the South and the East. So they are the big winner.”

The old city of Sana’a has not been spared from the violence. A Unesco World Heritage site, the ancient quarter boasts 9,000 houses. A recent survey by officials said 4,000 had been damaged in some way by the fighting. People here believe the city was founded by Noah’s son when the Ark ran aground in Yemen. Noah and his sons are recognised in the Muslim faith.

A week ago, an apparent air strike destroyed three houses in the old city, incensing Yemenis and causing an international outcry. Most here regard the several-thousand-year-old city as a massive source of pride and a reminder of their rich cultural identity.

Near the rubble, a teenage boy complained, “They don’t have any history of their own, so they have to destroy ours.”

Seconds later an anti-aircraft missile was launched just metres away.

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