By Fiona Ehlers in Saada, Yemen
The forgotten war in Yemen has entered its fourth year and peace is nowhere in sight. With the healthcare system in shambles and bombs falling every day, it is the civilian population that suffers the most. A visit to North Yemen.
Hussein Tayeb, 38, leads the way into a sparsely furnished living room and serves tea and sweet sesame bread on the earthen floor. He pulls his mobile phone out of the pocket of his dishdasha and plays back a couple of videos he filmed himself. To the beat of traditional drums, three boys can be seen dancing wearing floor-length, ochre-colored robes. “They liked to dance so much,” Tayeb says. He smiles, though it’s unclear whether it is out of awkwardness or pleasure at the memory. Either way, it’s not enough to hide the deep grief written across his haggard face.
He pulls the ochre robes out of a plastic bag and breathes in the scent of his sons, their names written on the collars: Ali, 9, the ambitious one with Dumbo ears and a strong will. Ahmed, 11, the best in his class who wrote, “I love my country” in his homework folder alongside a drawing of the flag of united Yemen. And Yusuf, 14, the first-born son and the pride of his father.
Hussein Tayeb’s three sons are all dead. At around 9 a.m. on August 9, the bus they were riding in was struck by a bomb in Dahyan, a village in the Saada province of North Yemen. It exploded on impact. A total of 51 people died in the blast, including 40 children.
News of the attack quickly spread around the world, briefly shining a spotlight on the disastrous situation in Yemen, where Houthi rebels have spent years battling government forces as a coalition under the leadership of Saudi Arabia bombs the country into rubble.
A short time later, Yemen disappeared from the headlines, once again becoming an invisible, forgotten war. There are two reasons for this invisibility: Hardly anyone is allowed into this civil war-ravaged country, particularly not journalists from the West; and almost nobody is allowed out. In part because hardly any refugees from Yemen make it to Europe, we have learned very little about the conflict.
Hussein Tayeb is telling his story to a foreign journalist for the first time. Only three weeks have passed since the bombing, but he nevertheless speaks calmly and quietly. A stonemason, much of his trade involves engraving gravestones. Business has been good.
On the morning his sons died, Tayeb drove them to the bus on his motorcycle for a school trip to the Saada mosque, which the boys had been looking forward to for days. One after the other, they kissed their father’s forehead and climbed into the bus. Tayeb had just climbed back onto his motorcycle when a bomb fell without warning. Once he could see through the dust, Tayeb ran to the burning bus and pulled out the first body he could reach. It was Ahmed, his middle son. He was no longer breathing.
Tayeb tells his story while sitting on the floor of his mudbrick home — in the same spot where he had laid out his sons’ bodies so he and his wife could mourn them. He is surrounded by neighbor children. When a dull explosion is heard in the distance, they all flinch and cover their ears with their hands. Ali, the young Houthi rebel who drove us here, is standing in the doorway. Tayeb’s youngest son Mohammed, 4, is the only child he has left. He is wearing a camouflage uniform, carrying a plastic rifle and seems distraught. He sees the burned-out bus on his father’s mobile phone display and asks: “Papa, when is the next bus coming? I want to go to my brothers.”
Two things about the war in Yemen can be learned in this living room. First, those who suffer most are the civilians, particularly children and women. Second, this story too, the story of a father who lost his sons, is used for the purposes of war propaganda. The Houthi rebels lead select journalists through the northern part of Yemen under their occupation to present themselves as the victims and to appeal to the West to stop the Saudi Arabian bombs from falling. The price for the trip is that an employee from the Information Ministry sticks with us like glue, surreptitiously taking down the names and phone numbers of those we talk to.
What is this war about, a conflict that began as a local clash before broadening into the proxy war it is today? Seven years ago, Yemen too was visited by the Arab Spring and hated dictator Ali Abdullah Saleh stepped down. In fall 2014, Zaidi-Shia Houthis stormed the capital of Sanaa, later dissolving parliament, and the new president fled the city. Neighboring Saudi Arabia was not happy. Riyadh was not about to tolerate unrest on its borders, particularly not unrest triggered by a group allied with its archenemy Iran.
A Distant Hope
Now, in the war’s fourth year, Yemen has become a battlefield for regional powers. On the one side are armed Houthis, equipped by Iran with money and rockets. On the other is the coalition supporting what remains of the Yemeni government, led by Saudi Arabia and supported by billions of dollars’ worth of weapons from the U.S. and Great Britain.
At stake is dominance of the Arabian Peninsula, with the battle against al-Qaida and Islamic State likewise playing a crucial role. Initially, Riyadh conceived of the intervention as nothing but a brief military operation, but it has since developed into a humanitarian catastrophe with around 10,000 lives lost and millions of people suffering from hunger. Earlier this month, the first peace talks in two years collapsed in Geneva and a political solution to the crisis remains but a distant hope.
Ali, the young Houthi in the living room of a grieving Hussein Tayeb, says it is time to get going. A curved dagger known as a jambiya is jammed into his belt and an embroidered scarf is draped around his shoulders. Ali drives the foreigners in a Hyundai through the rubble, which he calls “my home.” On the dashboard waves a red-and-green pennant printed with the kind of slogans one sees on almost every building wall, whether destroyed or intact. “Death to the USA,” and “Death to Israel,” “Curse the Jews,” and “Victory for Islam.”
The street is lined on both sides with centuries-old mudbrick buildings in all imaginable shades of ochre – all of which have fallen into themselves like houses of cards. The government quarter of the provincial capital of Saada, cradle of the Houthi movement that officially calls itself Ansar Allah, is little more than a pile of rubble. Only the great mosque is still standing, its minaret like a finger pointing to the heavens. Pictures of young martyrs are everywhere, young men who have lost their lives in the fight against the Saudis. Soon, photos of Hussein Tayeb’s three boys will join them. Dozens of ragged refugee children from the embattled port city of Hudaida are hanging around in front of the two or three grill stands begging the few guests for leftovers. Ali is generous with handouts, but he won’t tolerate any Coke of Pepsi cans. “That is how America finances its weapons,” he says.
Until just a few months ago, 29-year-old Ali also used to fight for the Houthis. Standing on the back of a flatbed truck at the front, he would fire his Kalashnikov at the enemy – before the rebels ordered him to Saada. Now that he has become a chronicler of this war, he says, words have become his weapons.
Ali keeps a diary on his laptop, recording every bomb that explodes and noting down who was killed or wounded in each house. On this day in early September, there have already been three bombs and by evening, the total will rise to 20. Ali as two mobile phones, and one of them is constantly stuck to his ear. He has set up a kind of hotline so that the people of Saada can report the most recent bomb explosions. He shoots videos with the survivors and writes articles for the local news. If he has free time in the evenings, he’ll relax with a bit of khat, the green leaves chewed in the region that act as a mild stimulant.
Ali’s stories are designed to stoke hatred and attract new fighters to the cause. He is one of the war’s propagandists, but also one of its victims. Naturally, he has a different view. He is an ambitious man whose future has been destroyed by this war. He says that he had actually wanted to become a doctor and his wife a teacher. “Either we die in our homes,” he says, “or we go out and defend ourselves. We will fight to the end.”
A few weeks ago, the Houthis received an important guest in Saada: UN Humanitarian Coordinator Lise Grande from the U.S. She visited survivors of the bus attack in two hospitals just a few days after the air strike. The Saudis initially justified the attack by saying they had though the bus was full of rebels and not children. It was only at the beginning of the September that the coalition admitted the attack had been “a mistake.”
Grande is an in-your-face Texan. Her appearance might be reminiscent of Doris Day, but that is merely a disguise. For the last half a year, she has been working in Yemen from her office in the Houthi-occupied capital of Sanaa, protected by barbed wire and steel doors. She does not speak publicly about the proxy war, about the politics behind the slaughter. Her focus in the war is elsewhere: on the people who are suffering from starvation and cholera.
Grande, too, is a chronicler of this war and can rattle off numbers like a machine. Her totals so far: around 10,000 dead; every 10 minutes a child under the age of five dies; more than two-thirds of the country’s population of 28 million are dependent on aid deliveries. Around 8.5 million people don’t know where their next meal is coming from. “By the end the year,” Grande says, “there could be 10 million more.”
Grande has worked for the UN for the last 25 years and has been stationed in plenty of other catastrophic locations, like South Sudan, Iraq and Haiti. Nowhere, though, has she seen such widespread misery. “We are experiencing the largest humanitarian catastrophe of the 21st century,” she says. And it is one, she adds, for which people are entirely responsible. There has been no flood, no draught to cause the suffering in Yemen. The famine here is completely due to the war, as are the numerous cases of cholera.
“The risk of a country-wide cholera outbreak was at 85 to 90 percent,” Grande says. “We’re not yet out of the woods,” though she says that things are beginning to look better. Her emergency teams have “worked miracles,” she says, having managed to repair much of the dilapidated water supply system and sterilizing everything they could find with chlorine.
The consequences of the war as described by Grande can be seen clearly in the town of Chamir, located about halfway between Saada and Saana. The town is where Salam, the Peace Hospital, is located. Ever since the healthcare system in North Yemen collapsed and, because of the trade blockade, even pain medication has become difficult to obtain, people have to embark on extended journeys to the hospitals where Doctors Without Borders and other non-governmental organizations are helping out.
The biggest problem, say doctors here, is that many patients arrive too late. By the time they show up, they are often in severe distress, even if they are only suffering from simple diarrhea. They have often been traveling on foot for days at a time because the state hasn’t been able to pay public servant salaries for months and not even teachers, police officers or other officials are able to afford expensive gasoline.
The nursery in Salam is full of babies struggling to breathe due to lung infections, their weeping, fully veiled mothers bending over them. In the quarantine station for those thought to be suffering from cholera, emaciated girls are bent over plastic buckets. Girls like 10-year-old Asma. You can count her ribs, her eyes are as thin as parchment paper and her eyes are vacant.
The doctors and nurses in the Peace Hospital say that the last few months have been awful, with up to 700 patients per doctor – like an assembly line, with a never-ending stream of war victims landing on the operating table. And once they were patched back together, they would often have to be put in separate rooms to prevent supporters of the new regime and followers of the old from brawling in the hospital. Such a situation, they say, is too much even for doctors who have seen it all.
The medical workers come from different parts of Yemen and belong to different political camps, but they nevertheless work together in a team. One of the health care workers said that he sometimes wishes he could invent a medicine that could cleanse brain cells of all ideology.
The road from Saada to Sanaa leads past numerous checkpoints manned by underage boys with Kalashnikovs, their cheeks bulging with khat. “Who are you?” they call out. “What do you want?” A pile of entry and exit permits covered with stamps makes things easier – as does, for female journalists, the niqab and black robes.
‘Five Million Dollars’
On Tahrir Square in the heart of Sanaa, there is a tent where Houthis show pictures and video clips of those killed and injured in the war. This is where they recruit new soldiers, angry fighters who have left their families to join the battle – like Ali from Saada. The buildings surrounding the square make it look as though Sanaa hasn’t been destroyed to quite the same degree as other cities to the north, though a few government buildings have been flattened. Ali’s superiors, the men working in the Information Ministry, have been lucky. A couple of windows have been shattered, but the building is still standing, as is the Foreign Ministry.
The Houthis’ deputy foreign minister rolls up in a Pajero SUV. A bodyguard in plastic sandals jumps out first and then the minister emerges. His name is Hussein al-Ezzi and he is in very good shape. His office is on the fifth floor and the elevator has been broken since the beginning of the war. He flies up the stairs and says: “Five million dollars.” That is the price the Saudis have allegedly put on his head, a bounty that is seen as something of an honor in Yemen. Ezzi strikes a moderate tone. “People call us rebels, but we didn’t overthrow the government. We are revolutionaries and maintain law and order in our country.”
The minister is eager to correct the bad reputation that the Houthis have. When it comes to religion, the Houthis are said to be much less radical than the Taliban – more like the Hezbollah in Lebanon. People say they are excellent fighters but terrible politicians.
The minister gushes about his country’s security forces and the high rate of success they have of clearing up crimes. He doesn’t, however, have much to say about the fact that North Yemen is on its way to becoming a dictatorship, one that drives away those who think differently or tortures them – just like its archenemy Saudi Arabia across the border.
When asked why so many children have lost their lives in this war, he responds: “Because Saudis are Wahhabis, a violent people without culture. The attack was not a mistake. It was planned.” Was it revenge for the rockets that were fired on Riyadh and its international airport from Yemen? “We don’t attack civilians. We have never committed war crimes and that is something we are proud of. Our hearts are weeping bitterly because Europe, for which venerate, has exerted no pressure on the Saudis. I beseech you: Be the voice of the downtrodden Yemeni people!”
Preparation for Worst Case
In the end, this Houthi minister is deeply moved by his own words. He stands up and politely takes his leave. The next day, his public relations team calls to say that the correct translation of the Houthi movement “Ansar Allah” isn’t God’s Helpers, but rather God’s Supporters or God’s Scouts, something they ask be reflected in the coverage. The advice only deepens the impression of paranoia – and begs the question: Don’t they have more important issues on their plate?
Not even two kilometers from the Foreign Ministry, in a traditional tower house in the enchanting old town of Sanaa, the protector of this cultural treasure can be found. Her name is Amtalrazaq Yehya Jahaf, a 53-year-old woman with a red headscarf and reading glasses. She is one of the women who chose not to flee the violence.
An employee of the Culture Ministry, her goal is to preserve the old town of Sanaa, which is a World Heritage Site. She maintains a database that includes every building in the old town, every façade and every wall. It is a kind of preparation for the worst-case scenario, should everything be destroyed.
Jahaf comes to the tower house every day, even though it has been quite some time since she last received a regular salary. She comes because it is her passion, and because her own home is full, now providing shelter to 14 relatives who have been bombed out of their own homes. She is the only one who still receives money from time to time, so she is responsible for feeding them. She used to be paid $450 per month, but now she only gets a fraction of that amount. How is it possible to survive under such circumstances? “Oh, you know,” Jahaf says, “you eat less, less meat but more vegetables. First you sell the furniture, then the jewelry and last of all the refrigerator.”
A walk through the old town is like a journey through a different Yemen, as if time has stood still like the clock in her office. Children run up to us and men carrying jambiyas call out: “Thank God the tourists have returned!” and “Hasn’t anyone told you that there is a war in Yemen?”
Jahaf used to live here herself back when she could still afford it. She says it was the best time of her life. She drifts through the streets and across the market square, letting the spices, piled up in pyramids, trickle through her fingers. She sweeps her hand along the walls because she believes that the centuries-old stones have a soul. Sometimes, she utters words of encouragement, saying things like: You have experienced so much, you’ll survive this war too. And all the while, she studiously ignores that Houthis slogans casting aspersions at the Jews and the Americans that are sprayed onto these walls too.
Not Too Terrible
Jahaf’s statistics since the beginning of the war: a dozen residents killed by bombs, 43 mudbrick houses completely destroyed, around 2,000 with cracks in their walls and shattered windows. With a total of around 7,000 of the old buildings, Jahaf says, that’s not too terrible.
In the evenings after sunset, a time when the air is vibrating with the call of the muezzin, a handful of Yemenis – political activists, professors and journalists – meet to chew khat on the roof of one of the splendid tower houses. The group has been invited by a German foundation – and their visions of Yemen’s future are as varied as the calls from the minarets and as divided as the country.
Some believe that the days of the new rulers are numbered because they don’t have a viable recipe for Yemen either. Others praise the security and relative peace under Houthi leadership. One is strictly opposed to any intervention from abroad. Without such intervention, he says, peace would long since have returned.
It is true, he allows, that Yemenis are armed to the teeth, with three times as many weapons as people in the country. But they have vast experience with mediation and cooperation, he says. Otherwise, so many different clans would never have been able to live side-by-side in relative peace for so long. That is also the reason, says another, why Yemen is not in danger of suffering a fate such as Syria’s. The war, he says, won’t last forever. In other words, let us Yemenis take care of it. We’ll handle it.
Finally, the calls of the muezzins echoing across the rooftops of Saana fall silent and the khat group disperses. The nights are short in times of war, and the days long and onerous.