By Christoph Reuter and Daniel Etter (Photos)
There are hopes that a cease-fire could end the fighting in Yemen’s civil war. But a visit to the front near Hodeida shows that even if the violence stops, it will be difficult to keep the country together.
Even from a distance, the contours can be seen jutting out of the yellow-gray desert: mortar-riddled walls, sandbags on half-destroyed roofs, wrecked cars. A house with an interior of blue tiles has been stripped naked, its exterior walls largely destroyed but for the concrete pillars. A gas station sits unscathed in the middle of the ruins. It has no gas to sell, but still.
It’s the last intersection before the battlefield, and its name could hardly be more misleading: al-Gabalayah, “the mountainous.” The Tihama plain, which extends for hundreds of kilometers from north to sough, stretching flatly between the Red Sea and the shimmering mountain ranges of southwestern Yemen — scorched, forgotten land.
This is where the most important front line in the war is to be found. Located 30 kilometers (18 miles) to the north, Hodeida is the only port city in the hands of the Houthi rebels — and it is also where 80 percent of all international aid deliveries and two-thirds of food imports for all of Yemen arrive. These goods are essential for survival in a country that has to import 90 percent of all its food, and the Houthis profit handsomely, earning tens of millions of dollars through import duties each month.
For months, the mercenary army belonging to the coalition led by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) has besieged the city, which is still home to around a half-million inhabitants. During the last offensive in November, they advanced into the city, carrying out airstrikes against the Houthis with combat helicopters and fighter jets. Within 24 hours, 150 people had died. According to statements made by the coalition, the aim of the battle for Hodeida is to restore power to the internationally recognized government of President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi.
But during our visit close to the front in early December, that wish becomes as indistinct as a desert mirage. Nobody talks about the government here and the government has no troops. Nor do you see any soldiers from the United Arab Emirates.
Dozens of men are camped in the shadows of the buildings, militia fighters who are paid, supplied and commanded by the UAE. They are modern mercenaries in wrap-around skirts, known as foutas, and flip-flops, while some sport a colorful mixture of camouflage items from the bazaar and still others don knee-length coats. The gas station belongs to the men of al-Amalika, or Giants Brigade, but the “bearded” would seem more appropriate. The Salafist group is a catchment for all zealots fighting with religious fervor against the Shiite Houthis, whom they consider to be apostates.
The Tihama Resistance, a local militia, is fighting its way toward Hodeida. But it’s the men with the Tareq Group, followers of a nephew of ex-president Ali Abdullah Saleh, who come closest to having what you might call an army. They are not, however, particularly welcome at the front since they have already changed sides twice. Finally, there are the Sudanese soldiers dozing off in the blue-tiled skeleton of a house. The coalition has hired them to supervise the militias.
What is currently taking place in Yemen can hardly be described as a fight between a government and insurgents. That would require a functioning state with an army and an internationally recognized government. But none of that exists any longer. Exile President Hadi can’t even fly to Aden without obtaining Saudi Arabia’s permission. He’s little more than a fig leaf for the proxy war Saudi Arabia and the UAE are waging on Yemeni soil against their archenemy Iran, which backs the Houthi rebels.
The two Gulf monarchies are more interested in using Yemen for their own purposes than protecting the country’s sovereign stability. And nowhere is that more evident than on the front lines. None of the militia fighters here have an interest in ending this war: It puts food on their tables and guarantees them a salary. Had it been interested in strengthening the state’s legitimacy, the coalition could have rebuilt the Yemeni army. Instead, they have deployed mercenaries who are independent of Yemeni control. The chaos on the ground is precisely what they were seeking.
Negotiators in Rimbo, Sweden, reached a breakthrough in Yemen talks last Thursday, with both sides agreeing to a cease-fire in Hodeida. It was the first success after years of negotiations, which even ended with United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres making a personal appearance. The talks are expected to resume at the end of January.
‘Too Many Unknowns’
The deal has averted an invasion of the city for the time being, and the port could be placed under UN control. But it’s not President Hadi, whose emissaries negotiated the deal in Sweden, who will determine whether the cease-fire in Hodeida will last. Ultimately, every decision about southern Yemen is made in the UAE. And it remains to be seen whether the emirates feel much of an obligation to keep their Yemeni militias in check.
Farea Al-Muslimi, a Yemen expert at the Chatham House think tank in London, says he would like to be optimistic, but “there are too many unknowns in the equation.”
Maged Al-Madhaji, director of the Sanaa Center for Strategic Studies, was present in Sweden, but he doesn’t believe that the Houthi delegation in attendance has the power to enforce the agreement against the hardliners in its ranks. “Perhaps they will withdraw from the port,” he says. “But from the city? It’s unthinkable.”
Militia leader Sheikh Abdelrahman Shui Ahmed, commander of the Tihama Resistance, says simply: “The cease-fire is a mistake! We need to liberate our city from the Houthis!”
The UAE’s struggle for the city of Hodeida was never about securing supplies for the population. They already have Aden and Mukalla, two ports located in areas that are under their control. But they have largely paralyzed those ports through import bans and Kafkaesque levels of bureaucracy.
The fighters they have deployed here claim to have the access roads to Hodeida under their control, but a restaurant owner from the last village south of the crossroads who cooks for the fighters carefully says that isn’t entirely true. He kindly came along to help us find the commander in Gabalayah. “Four days ago,” he says, “the Houthis overran the junction and blocked the coast road for hours.”
He says the front line positions were vacant that morning, though it’s unclear why. “They were probably buying khat leaves,” the cook says. “It was the morning, after all, and everyone’s always shopping then for the afternoon.”
Some Kind of Crusade
What happened that day can be reconstructed with the help of a video the Houthis posted on the web. It shows the rebels encountering no resistance as they set fire to their opponents’ tents and shoot at passing militia pickups before they ultimately hit an ambulance. The blood-drenched and mortally wounded driver can be seen lying next to the vehicle.
Houthis raise their Kalashnikovs in front of a burning tent and chant: “Death to America! Death to Israel! Cursed be the Jews!”
This has been the Houthis’ battle cry for years now, yet Israel isn’t even involved in this war. The ambulance driver and the militia fighters are all Yemenites and they were killed by Houthis, who are also Yemenites. The Houthis claim they will continue fighting until they have liberated Jerusalem, as if they were on some kind of crusade.
But where does the front line actually run now?
The cook suggests we look for Chaldi, a commander from the Giants Brigade who would likely know best. But before we can find the front, the front finds us. A huge blast detonates 200 meters ahead of us and a gray cloud shoots toward the sky.
We’d better turn around, the cook says.
We discover Abu Younis al-Chaldi in an annex behind the gas station, which serves as his command post. He knows where the foremost positions held by the Houthis are located — or at least where they were until about a half-hour ago. He says the explosion is alarming and perhaps its time to take a look around. In two pickups, we head out to check out the front.
At the first post, there are 10 men along with a pickup truck armed with a mounted machine gun parked under palm trees and next to two sandbag barricades. The situation is calm, at least what passes for calm here. One day earlier, one of the men was killed by a bullet, a 19-year-old from Qassem who came from the same village as Chaldi. The dried blood on the sandbag is still visible.
At the site of the detonation, some men are dragging a damaged car out of the danger zone. Next to it stood an armored combat vehicle that had made its way from the United States to UAE and then to Yemen. It was struck by an anti-tank missile, leaving bits of metal sticking out of it. The shooter must have crawled to within 100 or 200 meters. Chaldi sighs: “The Houthis are insane. But militarily, unfortunately, they are quite professional.”
Chaldi used to be an officer in the Yemeni army, back when it still existed and soldiers still got paid. Now, he’s the commander of an intersection and receives his pay from the Giants Brigade, which hires everyone from day laborers to former al-Qaida fighters. “But at least the Emirates pay on time,” he says.
The United Arab Emirates bought themselves a war — they pay for the men, the weapons, the ammunition, the food and the medical care. But they aren’t waging the war themselves, instead having created a finely tuned system of military subcontractors: Yemeni militias that have been trained by Emirati elite units but who are under the leadership of a former Australian general. In addition, there are also 3,000 Sudanese soldiers who have been rented directly from the government in Khartoum.
But the militias are still merely the product of money. And what they lack, the Houthis have in abundance: loyalty, discipline and a common belief in something, as crazy as it may be. Delusion can also foment cohesion.
The result is a stalemate in which no one wins and no one can imagine losing. And one in which the road to victory can quickly become a trap. There is, after all, only one highway open through the Tihama, the N2 — and anything heading for or leaving Hodeida has to pass through Tihama, including the militia convoys, ambulances speeding through with the injured, overloaded trucks full of refugees, fishermen trying to haul their catches out of the danger zone, fighters on their way to the booming khat and weapons markets and the occasional madman, like the motorcyclist with huge sunglasses who has lovingly decorated his vehicle with large-caliber ammunition as if he himself is some kind of cannon.
Acacia trees, crouched and flat as if they want to surrender to the relentless sun, stand between the dunes that the wind pushes across the land. In the distance, you can see red, green and white dots on the pale green trees. What at first appears to be an ensemble of surreal Christmas trees in the desert turn out to be myriad plastic bags. They lie around like the rest of the trash here until they are carried away by the wind, eventually getting stuck in the thorns of the acacias.
The N2 runs about 200 kilometers through the narrow desert strip, within reach of the artillery the Houthi have installed on the mountain slopes. A checkpoint is located almost every kilometer. The larger ones have large billboards advertising “Goldie” brand perfume. The smaller ones typically have just a single guard, with whom a brief exchange of words, or sometimes even just a nod, is enough to get waved through. Just as long as there are no Houthis in the car.
After nightfall, not even gunfire is needed for your life to be in danger. Everyone drives fast out of fear, and do so despite being high on khat. Artillery craters often come into view only at the last second, as do the shifting dunes, which frequently take over entire lanes.
“When a bunch of serious injuries show up at the same time, it is more likely to be the result of a traffic accident than from fighting,” says the French head of a clinic run by Doctors Without Borders located at the road’s southern terminus.
There, where the danger slowly recedes and the landscape opens up, a small, bleak town can be found on the coast, one which has experienced its first boom in centuries because of the war. Everyone ends up here: fighters on furlough, refugees from Hodeida and the sick hoping for one of the rare beds in the hospital.
Two new barbershops have opened up, as has a laundromat. The proximity to the violence has even helped the poorest of the poor, with a small health station north of the city now being supported by the UAE Red Crescent. Mothers with undernourished children come from afar because the care here, with fortified milk and medication, is better than in areas where there is no fighting.
This war is a “strange game,” says the only doctor there. “I don’t understand it. First, the Emirates bombed our station, and then rebuilt it to be bigger and better than it was before. But whatever. We used to be the poorest region far and wide, the only way to go is up.”
Wooden shacks have been set up to form a market offering whatever is currently needed, including bundles of intoxicating khat leaves, weapons, camouflage uniforms and fruit juice. They are also places where the disturbing has become completely normal: One man has the voice of a girl, the physique of a wrestler and three Kalashnikovs slung over his shoulder. Shahir, as everyone here calls him, is not the most prolific arms dealer in town, but certainly the loudest. Vociferously proclaiming the accuracy and quality of his weapon in his falsetto voice, he strides up and down the market lane.
And nobody seems the least bit surprised. Nor are they taken aback by the young boy of about seven who is accompanied by his veiled mother. The Kalashnikov swinging from his shoulder almost drags on the ground; the recoil would almost certainly knock him over were he to ever fire it.
An armed man is begging in one of the street restaurants. Between the rows of tables where Yemenis are quickly shoveling down fish, bread and sauce, tall, brightly dressed Somali women are striding back and forth, dignified and hungry. Every night, boats from Somalia land on the beaches of Yemen, the country seen as an improvement over their homeland despite the hunger and war.
But the town’s boom is merely temporary. As soon as the war moves on, the fighters will leave, the provisional eateries will move on and the arms and khat dealers will fold up their shacks and follow the frontlines.
Then, the decay will return to a city whose name alone is sufficient to understand how far it has fallen from its previous wealth and glory: Mocha. For centuries, it held a global monopoly on the export of coffee, because it only grew in the inaccessible Yemeni highlands and was brought through narrow gorges to the port city, which became wealthy as a result. There were trade representatives stationed here from the Netherlands, Italy and Portugal and the town boasted dozens of mosques and multi-story mansions.
The city gave its name to mocha. But whereas the finely ground powder ultimately took over the world, the town in Yemen sank into oblivion, with the old manors slowly succumbing to the salt and water.
A Glorious Past but A Dismal Present
It is surprisingly quiet in the last city before the front. Munir, the affable Mocha police chief, and his men spend the afternoons in the decrepit headquarters lounging on mats, chewing khat and upholding public order. There’s really not much to do, Munir says. “The security situation is good,” he says. Of course everybody in the city is armed, but that’s no different in times of peace, he says. More important, he adds, is that “everyone gets paid and shoots in the same direction.” At the Houthis.
A melancholic criminal police offers to show us around. Sulaiman Shaukaa was an investigator in Aden back when the state was still functioning. “But when salaries stopped being paid, I joined Security Belt,” which is the largest militia in Aden. He was injured in the fighting, returned to the police and had himself transferred to Mocha, where salaries are at least paid every now and then.
There is also another reason he wanted to come here. During the drive past the backdrop of disintegrating trade buildings near the old port, he points to the ruins of a palace. “That is my home. Rather, it’s my home in a manner of speaking. Just like I am an Afghan in a manner of speaking,” he says and begins telling the story of his family, which, as is often the case in Yemen, is a combination of a glorious past and a dismal present.
“My great-great-great-great grandfather,” he says, likely leaving out a couple of generations, “came to Mocha from Herat more than 250 years ago.” Back then, the city was like New York, attracting businessmen from the furthest corners of the world. His grandfather, though, moved to Aden and he himself had never been to Mocha before, the policeman says. “There was nothing here.”
A Spot at the Table
Unexpectedly, a reply comes in from Tihama Resistance: Sheikh Abdelrahman Shui Ahmed, the group’s leader, has established his headquarters on the southern fringe of Hodeida and is ready to receive us. An escort will accompany us, we are told. Once again, we head out onto the N2, this time heading north. Part of the trip heads across the beach, with the road being too dangerous. The suburbs surrounding the Hodeida airport are completely empty of people and explosions can be heard in the distance.
“The Houthis attack every day,” says Sheikh Ahmed in an inconspicuous, well-guarded low structure near the front. “We do too.”
The commander believes it would be a mistake to agree to a cease-fire. “We can’t wait even longer. The Houthis just want to play for time; they are mining the ports, the factories, the main roads. The trapped residents of Hodeida are our relatives. We have cells inside the city. They can strike at any time!”
But there is something else that is almost more important to him than the liberation of the city: “When the Houthis are gone, we want our spot at the table of the future government! The Tihama used to be independent. Since 1921, we have seen ourselves as being under occupation!”
Sheikh Ahmed raves about the decades of the short-lived Tihama kingdom. “We are demanding our dues! There have to be fair talks with us! Otherwise,” he warns, “there will be other talks!” They used to be just a peaceful political movement, he says. “But not anymore.”
Just like the sheikh, other leaders of dollar- and arms-rich militias want to take advantage of their new power. The secessionists of old South Yemen want to regain their independence. The radicals from the Giants Brigade want to uphold the state, but hope to mold it to their Islamist ideas. As such, the foundation would seem to be laid for the country’s further fragmentation, even if the Houthis were to withdraw to their traditional region in northern Yemen.
An old man is standing in the erstwhile center of Mocha, where not even city walls are left, and speaking of decline. He says the city has long been suffering from the end of the coffee trade and the attacks of jealous clans.
“But then came the flood, and it took everything,” he says in his quavering voice. It rained for days, he says, harder than ever before, until a wave flowed down from the mountains, across the Tihama and destroyed Mocha.
He no longer knows, nobody really knows, when exactly the flood sealed the city’s fate. Ninety years ago? One-hundred-thirty years ago? There is only one detail that everyone recalls: It was a Tuesday. Tuesday morning.
The plague arrived after the flood, the old man says. It was able to spread unchecked through rats who fed on the corpses that nobody buried. And then came starvation, he says, though not many people remained behind anyway. “The survivors also traveled onward, fleeing to Aden or across the sea to Djibouti, India or London.”
Was it a punishment from God? The old man reflects for a time. “Punishment? No, worse. He forgot Mocha and left it to its doom.”
The same can be said today for the entire country of Yemen.