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MEI Panelists Discuss Yemen’s ‘Forgotten War’

By Candace Huntington

After the recent Saudi- and Emirati-led attack on the Yemeni port city of Hodeidah, the Middle East Institute (MEI) held a timely panel on the ongoing civil conflict, often referred to as “the forgotten war.”

The offensive on Yemen’s main port, which is a lifeline for critical food and aid supplies, has heightened fears that millions of Yemenis could face starvation as fighting continues between Houthi rebels and the Saudi-led coalition looking to oust them.

The conflict in the Arab world’s poorest country began in 2015 when the northern-based Houthis, who follow the Zaydi branch of Shiite Islam and are loosely aligned with Iran, took control of the capital city of Sana’a and drove out the country’s president, Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi.

Following the Houthi takeover, Hadi — whose government enjoyed international legitimacy but scant popularity back home — fled to Saudi Arabia, which promptly launched a bombing campaign to return him to power.


People queue to fill jerry cans and other containers with water from a tank provided by UNICEF in Sanaa, Yemen, on March 5, 2017. According to the U.N., 22 million of Yemen’s 28 million people need humanitarian assistance, including 8.4 million who are a step away from famine. (Photo: Moath Algabal / UNICEF)

Saudi Arabia has a long history of meddling in its southern neighbor, which controls the Bab el-Mandeb Strait, a key chokepoint for the global transit of oil. This latest intervention is widely seen as a proxy battle to counter the growing influence of Riyadh’s regional and religious rival, Iran, which Saudi Arabia says is directly supporting the Houthis with weapons and money.

The Emiratis, who recently seized Hodeidah’s airport, are demanding that the Houthis leave the city. The Houthis have suggested they are open to the United Nations managing the critical seaport but otherwise appear to be digging in for a fight.

As the military stalemate drags on, Yemen’s citizens continue to suffer. According to the United Nations, Yemen is the world’s worst humanitarian crisis, with over 22 million Yemenis in need of aid, 8 million at risk of famine and over 10,000 civilians killed.

Basma Alloush, an advocacy and communications officer at the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC) who spoke at the Middle East Institute panel, painted a dismal yet moving picture of the average Yemeni family’s life based on her observations while working in Sana’a, where she helped the NRC on its schooling, water sanitation, shelter and food security programs.

Alloush said she aimed to “learn how the conflict was impacting civilians and look at Yemen through humans as opposed to numbers” and hoped to convey the same idea when discussing the multidimensional conflict.


Infants and children lie in beds at the overcrowded pediatric ward at Al-Thawra Hospital, Sana’a in March 2017.Already the poorest country in the Middle East, Yemen is suffering through a humanitarian crisis, including a massive cholera outbreak, as a result of the war between Houthi rebels and a Saudi-led coalition. As of December 2017, almost every single child in Yemen was in need of humanitarian assistance. (Photo: Rajat Madhok / UNICEF)

The June 14 panel, titled “A War-Torn Yemen,” also featured Farea Al-Muslimi, co-founder and chairman of the Sana’a Center for Strategic Studies. Both Al-Muslimi and Alloush detailed the massive humanitarian crisis that has taken place as a result of the civil war. Before the Houthis’ assault on Sana’a, “the average Yemeni household was about seven people. Now in the conflict, that number has increased to about 25 to 30 people, all on the same limited resources and limited income,” Alloush said.

The nonpayment of salaries by the Yemeni government led by Hadi has contributed to the widespread poverty throughout the country, much of which is still under Houthi control.

“The president has actually said that he will only pay salaries to the areas under his control, which is a war crime,” Al-Muslimi argued. “Their excuse has always been that once the Houthis submit their revenues, they will pay the salaries.”

As a result, hunger has plagued many Yemeni civilians, killing more people than the war itself. Families have been forced to drastically cut down their food consumption to make rent payments. Because of the nonpayment of salaries, many public sector workers have had to look for other work to support themselves.

Amid the daily struggles to provide for their families, Yemeni civilians also face constant airstrikes by the Saudi-led coalition that includes nine other Arab allies.

The coalition has conducted hundreds of airstrikes, with Yemeni civilians caught in the crossfire. “Their children, all they know is airstrikes,” Alloush said. “And trying to deal with the psychosocial issues that are produced after being in a situation like that I think are very long term and very immense for a family to endure.

“When I was in Sana’a, about 50 percent of the time that I was there, there were heavy airstrikes. Two weeks after I left Sana’a, I was still dealing with that sense of nervousness, that anxiety,” Alloush added. “Every time I heard a plane, every time a car engine revved or anything like that, any loud noise would make me very anxious. I would start contingency planning in my head, trying to find ways that I could assure my safety, plan out my escape route. But unfortunately for civilians in Sana’a, with the airport’s closure since 2016, there is no escape route.”

The closing of Sana’a Airport was the result of a no-fly zone instituted over the nation due to the Saudi airstrikes. Al-Muslimi lamented the decision to close the airport, saying, “It is a collective punishment, and it is also going to get harder for people, goods and aid workers to come in after Hodeidah is shut down in the short term.”

Hodeidah, the alternative entry point into the country, has only recently become the focal point of the war.  The battle surrounding the Red Sea port first broke out following a long-anticipated Saudi-led attack on the Houthi forces controlling the port on June 13, and has escalated into the largest battle of the war.  Some 80 percent of food and humanitarian aid enters Yemen through Hodeidah, making it the most crucial access point in the country.  While other ports exist in the nation, Alloush state that Hodeidah's capacity and proximity to Sana'a make it too valuable to give up.

The U.N. has made several attempts to find a political agreement to secure the port’s safety, all of which have failed so far. Talks are ongoing, however, and a possible ceasefire may be in the works. But agreement on a long-term peace deal remains elusive. Despite international outrage that the Saudi-led airstrikes indiscriminately target civilians and that the siege on Hodeidah could exacerbate the crisis, Western nations, including the U.S., have quietly backed the Arab military campaign.

“The architect of diplomacy being centered around conflict resolution is flawed. For the last three years, the U.N. process in Yemen was a process to manage the conflict, not to solve the conflict. There is a big difference,” Al-Muslimi said.

As the battle rages on and the humanitarian crisis continues to worsen, Al-Muslimi emphasized the fact that Yemen’s future will remain bleak if the Yemeni government doesn’t take action to pay civil workers their salaries and open the Sana’a Airport. He also highlighted the unseen costs of the war on Yemen down the line.

“You have right now 2 million children out of school. Imagine what generation we will have in five years, what generation we will have in 10 years. And I think that is the most terrifying thing that you see in Yemen.”

Yet Alloush noted that throughout the conflict, something has helped hold Yemeni society together. “One incredible and unique characteristic that I think was completely fascinating to the Yemeni society is their interconnectedness. Even amidst this conflict, you see people’s humanity shine in different ways.”

 


Candace Huntington is an editorial intern for The Washington Diplomat.

 
 

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