Sarah Ahmed: A view from inside Yemen
For more that two months now, Yemen, one of the poorest Middle Eastern countries, is being torn apart by a violent conflict. The fighting began in March 2015 and is still ongoing. The two main parties in the conflict are, on the one hand, Southern separatists and forces loyal to the government of Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi, based in Aden and supported by the Saudi Arabia-led coalition of ten states, currently intervening military in the conflict through air strikes and, on the other hand, Houthi fighters allegedly supported by Iran. The situation is further complicated by the attacks, carried out by the terrorist organisations Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and ISIS.
We asked Sarah Ahmed, a sociologist and activist, based in Sanaa and a co-founder of the initiative #SupportYemen, to share her views on the ongoing crisis.
Everyday life in the conflict
When describing the situation on the ground, we have to mention the humanitarian crisis in Yemen. The country has run out of fuel, including oil, gas, and cooking gas. It is very difficult to find transportation. I go to work walking for an hour and a half, which means three hours of walking every day due to the lack of transportation.
The crisis also affected the availability of electricity and water, which are practically lacking in the capital. House services are in a very difficult situation, as well. The biggest hospital in the country announced that they ran out of oxygen. Due to the lack of electricity, most emergency units are closing down. Food is slowly disappearing from the markets and whatever is left is extremely expensive. The militia is occupying hospitals in Eden, they are killing innocent people every day, there are many displaced persons, historical sites that are over 3000 years old are being damaged in Aden.
All airports are closed. There are thousands of Yemenis stranded in airports abroad, Yemenis who do not have the resources to support themselves while waiting for the airports to open so they can get back home. The visas of many of those stranded abroad have expired. Even countries that used to give Yemenis access without a visa have recently closed their doors (for example Jordan and Egypt).
The politics of the crisis
This is not the first war that Yemen goes through, yet, it is somehow unique due to its double nature. We have an internal and an external aggression, happening at the same time. The Houthi/ Saleh forces in the South continue to destroy the infrastructure and to hurt civilians every day. At the same time, South Arabia-led coalition of ten states also is destroying the infrastructure of the country, including the airports.
This crisis is very complex and in order to understand it, we have to dig into the results of the three-decades-long rule of Ali Saleh in Yemen. When Saleh spoke about this topic in an interview a few years back, he said that ruling Yemen was like dancing on the heads of snakes. Saleh used the policy of “divide and conquer” to maintain his dictatorship for over 33 years. He created serious grievances in the South in 1994 when he invaded the territory and took the land of the people in order to distribute it among his allies. After the 2011 revolution against him, he was given immunity in Saudi Arabia. The people succeeded in cracking a system that lasted for 30 years only to see that its leader was given immunity.
I place the blame for the current crisis also on the international community and the United Nations. They ignored the 20-point plan, submitted by the Preparational Committee for National Dialogue after the revolution. Those 20 points were supposed to fix the situation on the ground to pave the road to a genuine and sincere national dialogue. The plan was supposed to sooth the problems, give people their land back, and also start a process of transition in Sa'dah, where, at the time, the Houthi movement was not equipped with weapons the way they are now. Unfortunately, the international community wanted to meet a deadline rather than fix the situation and this led to a National Dialogue Conference that spend enormous amount of money and barely had an outcome. As the international community sat back and watched, Houthi managed to get ground support. They successfully advanced from one city to the other, and turned from a social movement that had very fair and just demands into an armed militia that destroyed everything on its way. This led to the September 2014 conflict where the Houthi took over the capital city of Sana’a and, later on, in January 2015, imprisoned the President. The Houthi allied with Saleh (despite the fact that in the past he fought against them in six continuous wars) and continue to kill and destroy in the South. They took over the local media, waging war in Aden and Taiz and also in some areas of the North.
Houthi stick to their propaganda, saying that they fight al-Qaida. This is not true. Neither Houthi nor the Saleh coalition are fighting al-Qaida or terrorist groups. They are fighting civilians.
On the other side of the conflict, on 26 March, ten countries, led by Saudi Arabia, started what was called back then the “Decisive storm” operation where they performed continuous air strikes on military bases in Yemen. The coalition strikes military camps which are placed in the middle of the city and therefore, in densely populated area. There are casualties and victims of these strikes every day, hundreds of displaced in Sana’a alone and in other cities. The seaports and airports are closed and this blocks all sorts of humanitarian aid. Yemenis cannot flee the war and those stranded outside cannot come back.
As a Yemeni, I cannot relate to this war. I do not think that there will be a winner in this war. I feel that there are two foreign powers fighting over my land, using the poorest of the poor in Yemen.
In the past two-three years, during which the Houthi acquired a large amount of weapons, the international community did not intervene to stop them. Houthi people come from very poor cities that already lack infrastructure and basic services and now, they are only moving towards more violence and are turning into a brutal movement.
Currently, the best case scenario is to reach a political compromise. Unfortunately, political compromises often neglect the process of reconciliation or transitional justice on the ground and preserve the power of the political elite. There is no prospect for an immediate stop of both the internal and the external aggression.
The social implication
The social structure of the Yemeni society is seriously damaged. Almost every family has lost a member or a house in this internal conflict. Yemen is not a sectarian society, people do not live in ghettos and do not inhabit segregated neighborhoods. I only got to know my sect in the past 3-4 years. Yemenis did not even know their sects. They simply prayed and celebrated religious holidays together. I am not painting a romantic picture. The problems in Yemen can be attributed to economic, as opposed to sectarian, issues. Therefore, I still do not see the crisis as a sectarian conflict. What I see is that Saleh is trying to regain power and wage a revenge war against the people who protested against him in 2011.
There is also a huge refugee problem that is escalating by the minute. There are over 150 000 displaced persons in Yemen (the population of Yemenis estimated at 26 million, source: https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/geos/ym.html). The refugee camps like the one in Djibouti are in a very bad situation but even reaching Djibouti is not that easy anymore. Refugees are forced to risk their lives by fleeing in small fishing boats and many of them drown at sea.
What needs to be done
Stop the war! Stop funding the Houthi militia and stop funding the coalition war. Bombing does not bring peace. History has given enough examples of this fact: the Balkans, the wars in Central Africa, the Lebanese civil war. Sooner or later we are going to have to sit down and have a discussion. So why not do it now? Why do we have to sacrifice so many lives before we eventually sit and talk to each other?
Iran and China must stop supporting the Houthi militia. They need to cease the diplomatic efforts to support it. On the other hand, Saudi Arabia must stop waging war on the people in Yemen. What the international community needs to do right now is to help stop the war from both sides, internally and externally. The things that need to be done immediately are the opening of the borders for humanitarian aid and the initiation of a diplomatic negotiation process that includes actual steps towards transitional justice and reconciliation. These things must happen before it is too late, if it is not too late already.
Bombing the people is never the answer.
This article is based on an interview, taken on 5 March 2015 by Georgi Totev and Louisa Slavkova
Edited by Iva Kopraleva