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Too easily forgotten: The tragedy of Yemen

The ugly face of this senseless war, as in most contemporary conflicts involving large aerial campaigns, is often hidden behind closed doors.

Image Credit: Mohammed Huwais/AFP/Getty Images
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Every few months, the continuing assault on Yemen by Saudi Arabia and its allies, mainly other Gulf State monarchies, but also such storied defenders of human rights as Egypt and Sudan, appears momentarily in the news cycle.

This is often the result of a new offensive on the part of ‘The Coalition’ like the one now ongoing in and around the port and city of  Hodeida (sometimes spelled Hudaida or al-Hudaydah ). This ancient port has long been a lifeline in terms of trade and, at times, humanitarian aid for up to 70% of the country’s population, which imported much of its food before the war.

Major English language media have barely covered the ongoing atrocities inflicted on ordinary Yemenis for more than 3 years, including the bombing of markets, schools, hospitals and vital infrastructure in the rebel held capital, Sana’a, and throughout the country.

The Coalition campaign, named “Operation Decisive Storm”, has been anything but, leading to the largest outbreak of cholera in recorded history. While we’ve been told for months on end that civilian casualties are around 10,000, this number couldn’t possibly include those who have died from disease, starvation or lack of potable water.

The ugly face of this senseless war, as in most contemporary conflicts involving large aerial campaigns, is often hidden behind closed doors, where civilian populations suffer unseen, many unable to work and provide for themselves and their families, most afraid to leave their homes, which occasionally become their tombs.

As Dr. Waleed Mohammad of the local NGO Dar al-Shafaqa (“House of Compassion”) recently told The Intercept, “much of Yemen’s humanitarian crisis plays out privately. I’ve seen couples get divorced because the man feels ashamed he can’t take care of his wife, he can’t even feed himself. With those who can’t afford treatment or travel, even some from this center, they give up. They return home to die, rather than burden their families with the cost of therapy.”

While historically, strife in Yemen has in the main been ideologically motivated, tribal in nature, or aimed at expelling foreign armies, and the various groups in Yemen seem to take pride in their 3,000+ year reputation as fierce warriors, since 2015, the propaganda and indeed, the fighting itself, has taken on the sectarian character of the horrors we’ve seen in Iraq and Syria.

There is some irony in this, as the Zaidi Houthis (sometimes spelt Zaydi), joined by some elements of what used to be the country’s majority Sunni army, have only recently been recognized as ‘Shia’ by religious authorities in Iran, as they practice a form of the religion very different from that of the Islamic Republic’s ‘Twelvers’ and their co-religionists in countries like Iraq and Lebanon.

Yemen’s Sunnis mostly follow the austere traditions of the Shafi’i school of Islamic jurisprudence, although the virus of reactionary Salafism, in many ways more of a political than a strictly religious movement, has become a problem over time, especially in the country’s south. The authors of the paper cited above make clear that because of the similarities between their doctrines, Zaidis and Shafi’i Sunnis have until now mostly avoided this kind sectarian strife.

While we’ve been told that the Houthis, who make up about around 25% of the country’s population, are Iranian proxies, this hasn’t been the case in the past, but it may be becoming more of a reality as the group is sorely lacking in friends.

Not only in Yemen but in many other countries considered peripheral to larger, richer powers, people’s beliefs and cultures are too often presented in media and even by government officials without the least bit of nuance or context. Thus, the Zaidi ‘Fivers’ are ‘Shia’ and must be proxies of Iran, although they have long been known regionally for their fierce independence, a headache for successive governments in Yemen for decades that’s only recently begun to be blamed on the Islamic Republic.

To be clear, every party to the current conflict has been credibly accused of war crimes, including the Houthis, who, in just the most recently reported example, have mined the area around Hodeida to slow their enemies’ advance, putting fleeing civilians at risk.

A major factor in the Houthis’ rise before the Gulf state invasion was an alliance with their one time enemy, former President Ali Abdullah Saleh, a Sunni, who brought significant military support with him, quite possibly including the old missiles that have been ineffectively launched at Saudi Arabia over the last few years and cynically blamed on Iran by Riyadh and much of the English language press.

Saleh was removed from power in 2011 as a result of widespread protests mostly led by the country’s women, making the then President, who had just before tried to present himself as a champion of their rights, complain that mixed protests were, “illicit under Sharia law”. So are torture and murder of course, but this never stopped the man from allegedly engaging in and ordering both.

After he’d been chased from office, Saleh was replaced by Abed-Rabbo Mansour Hadi, who’d been his Vice President for many years and is still the internationally recognized leader of the country. He appeared incapable of juggling Yemen’s plethora of competing interests (and grievances) and has been living under the protection of the Saudis since being forced from the capital at the beginning of the conflict.

For his part, the wily Saleh is believed to have been preparing to betray his Houthi allies and join with the Saudi-led coalition, but the Houthis struck first, killing him on December 4th, 2017. His nephew took some of his Uncle’s military loyalists with him to form a militia that is involved in the Hodeida offensive and whose bills are said to be paid by the UAE, which has increasingly been taking on more of a leadership role on the ground.

One of the reasons given by The Coalition for the offensive in Hodeida is that the port is somehow being used to receive shipments of weapons from Iran. This ignores the difficulties faced by even humanitarian organizations trying to bring aid into a port that has at times been blockaded and was bombed early on in the war, destroying the cranes that were once used to offload cargo, making this once routine process much more difficult.

“For whatever reason, the amount of food and fuel required to meet needs in Yemen is not coming in through Hodeida and it is likely there are some deliberate actions being taken to cause it,” Suze Van Meegan of the Norwegian Refugee Council told AFP, “We can’t say the blockade is in place. The defacto blockade is still in place.”

Demonstrating the courage the country’s citizens have long been famous for, even as bombs were being dropped on the city’s airport, and with gun battles audible in the distance, dock workers in Hodeida went about their task of unloading, “three ships sent by the United Nations World Food Program that contained enough food for six million people for one month”, Bettina Leuscher of the WFP explained to the press in Geneva.

For their part, governments in many Western countries continue to play a large role in turning Yemen into hell on earth. French special forces are reportedly in the country working with the UAE, American troops are known to be along the border, and these two countries are joined by the UK in providing vital services like in-flight refueling and targeting without which the bombardment would likely have to end.

Canada, whose Liberal government likes to pretend that it is more interested in humanitarianism than major allies like the U.S. and the UK, has publicly touted the $65 million in aid earmarked for Yemen, while sweeping the $284 million in military goods sold to members of The Coalition under a somewhat large rug.

As Cesar Jaramillo of the the group Project Ploughshares told The Toronto Star in regards to the weapons sales, “It’s a bit like helping pay for somebody’s crutches after you’ve helped break their legs.”

Some hope was offered to the Hodeida’s 400,000+ residents on Friday, June 22nd, with Reuters’ U.K. bureau reporting that Martin Griffiths, the United.Nations’ envoy to Yemen, had met with the Houthi leadership, telling the press, “he was encouraged by their constructive engagement”.

The hope seems to be that the Houthi leadership will cede control of the port to the U.N. and avoid the cost, human and material, of continuing the fight, while ensuring that aid can continue to come through it and then hopefully be distributed without bias to all the country’s citizens.

Tiny Emirates, major rights abuses

Although the intervention in Yemen has usually been portrayed as a Saudi fight, it is increasingly the seven tiny Emirates of the UAE led by Abu Dhabi, and its proxies on the ground, including foreign mercenaries, who have had some success in taking and holding territory. One of the most successful groups at doing so, which all parties to the conflict deny funding, has been Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), which was a dying force in the country in 2015 and now controls more territory than it ever has.

While Saudi Arabia has mainly prosecuted the war from the skies, the UAE participation on the ground is leading some to wonder if they wish to maintain a permanent presence in potentially lucrative areas, especially the country’s Red Sea ports like Hodeida, Mocha and Aden. If this is the plan, it’s a dangerous one, as countries that have tried to hold territory in what is now Yemen, from the Ancient Romans to modern Egypt, have been met fierce resistance.

The Emirates are also deeply involved in the offensive against Taiz to Hodeida’s south, near the famous Port of Mocha (Mohka), which takes its name from the chocolaty coffee beans grown in the highlands around the port. It was Yemen that introduced the world to the pleasures of drinking coffee during the 1400s, a humanizing fact that is rarely mentioned in stories about the country.

Reports of secret prisons in the country run by the Emiratis, where torture and sexual abuse are alleged, is deeply troubling, if not surprising. These reports should do more to hurt their reputation but, like Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and other Coalition members, they are buying more weapons from Western countries than ever before, lining the pockets of arms manufacturers at the expense of the Yemeni people, whose cries, when they are actually heard at all, are far too easily forgotten.

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