Conflict & Justice

Yemenis still can’t get out. But they can speak out.

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People look through a gate bars at the Chamber of Trade and Industry headquarters after it was hit by a Saudi-led air strike in Yemen's capital Sanaa 

Credit:

Reuters/Khaled Abdullah

Few Yemenis have been able to leave their country since its civil war escalated a year ago. In March 2015, neighbor Saudi Arabia chose to back one side in Yemen's war, and it called on Arab allies to help. The Saudi-led coalition has been bombing Yemen ever since. It has sealed off Yemen and kept its people trapped inside. I asked four young Yemenis who are active online to talk about the war they can't escape.

1. Aziz Morfeq: Now used to being bombed.

He’s sitting in The Coffee Trader, a noisy cafe popular with young people on Hadda Street in the Yemeni capital, Sanaa. It’s got free Wi-Fi. “The people are not afraid from airstrikes anymore,” the 24-year old tells me over an Internet chat app. “They just go to do their work... go to spend some time, everywhere. They just want to live.”

Over the past year the Saudi-led coalition has been trying to stamp out a rebel group that took over Yemen. It has bombed not only military targets, but also homes, hospitals, stores, schools - even playgrounds.

Aziz, like most Yemenis, knows of people who died in Yemen’s war, but that’s not what’s on his mind today. He’s thinking about food. “I went to grocery and ask for things, I don't find it, I go to another, I find things and I don't find another, it's just like that… It’s disturbing. It's not stable. Not stable at all.” 

Yemen, the poor southern neighbor of Saudi Arabia has historically imported most of its food. A naval blockade enforced by the Saudis, with US support, has prevented food shipments from arriving with any regularity at Yemeni ports for nearly a year. The same embargo, intended to prevent the import of weapons, has also prevented fuel tankers from docking, making Yemen one of the few places on earth where gasoline remains expensive when it is available at all.

Aziz says people in Sanaa have adapted to fuel shortages that affect not only cars and trucks, but Sanaa’s electric grid. Blackouts are common in the city. “Lifestyles have changed. We use solar panels to generate electricity,” he tells me when I ask how a year of war has changed life in the capital city. “We spend a lot of money to get basic needs. The prices have raised so much.”

Sanaa, once the seat of a central government friendly to the Saudis and to the West, is now being run by the rebel group known as the Houthis. The group, based in northern Yemen, swept south through the capital in the fall of 2014. It took full control of the government in early 2015 in a mostly non-violent coup. Yemen’s internationally recognized president, Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi, soon fled house arrest and escaped the city. Under Houthi rule, life in Sanaa continues with little strife – that is if you don’t count air strikes by the Saudis and the raids and arrests by Houthi security forces, which have put a damper on political speech and activism.

“I remember that I need to keep my mouth shut, not to say everything that I believe in,” Aziz confides. “I need to be careful about my words. I need to stay on the wall, like a shadow. Nobody needs to know my opinion.” 

2. Ahmed Algohbary: 'My most important message'

“I'm gonna just say it was really a horrible year,” Ahmed Algohbary tells me from his apartment in Dhamar City, south of the capital. He's recording his answers to my questions and sending them via a smartphone app. The lag time makes this a very slow conversation, but Ahmed is patient, eager to tell his story. At 22, he is in his fourth year studying English at Dhamar University, Yemen’s largest.

In the fall of 2014 Ahmed watched the Houthi fighters take over Dhamar City much as they had Sanaa, quickly and with little resistance from Yemeni soldiers. 

“Ali Abdullah Saleh told them not to fight the Houthis,” Ahmed says. His account matches that of UN observers who concluded that Saleh, a still influential former dictator, pulled strings to enable the Houthis to advance, to unseat President Hadi and to mobilize the half of Yemen’s national army still loyal to him. 

“It was peaceful when the Houthis took over,” Ahmed says. But that didn’t last. Ahmed’s family home stood right next to the local military base, which became a daily target for Saudi bombing raids in March 2015. The Afgogharis had to move out.

“You know, the army place is empty,” he tells me. “There is no weapons, no soldiers. But [the Saudi coalition] keep bombing it many times.” Even now Saudi air strikes continue to level buildings around Dhamar, including some at the university.

Ahmed says the war has taken its toll on his education. “Before the war we had great English professors,” he notes. “And now, because of the war, many of our English professors have left the country.” Ahmed, who welcomed our conversations as a chance to practice his English with me, says some of the teachers that remain in Dhamar are a disappointment to him. “They cannot even speak well as English language, so the situation my college is very bad and it is getting worse now,” he adds, “because the teachers, they don't have money now... because of money shortage in our university. I think the situation is getting worse.”

Ahmed Algohbary made this recording, which he asked me to share. It's the story of his best friend, Bilal, who died in a Saudi air strike April 19, 2015. Ahmed wrote the story in English so that westerners could understand. "It is my most important message for what is happening in Yemen," he says.

Toward the end of Ahmed’s story, he pleads with the United Kingdom to stop selling weapons to Saudi Arabia. Both the UK and the US have supplied tens of billions of dollars in aircraft, guided bombs and surface-to-air missiles to the Saudis and other coalition forces. The two western powers currently provide assistance with targeting and help refuel coalition jets in flight.

Since March 2015, fighting on all sides of Yemen's civil war has killed more than 3,000 civilians and injured close to 6,000 more. The war has forced 2.4 million Yemenis from their homes. The Saudi-led coalition has flown thousands of missions over Yemen, dropping guided bombs and missiles on Houthi targets from the Saudi Arabian border to the Gulf of Aden. But for all its firepower, the Saudi-led coalition has failed to achieve its stated goal of restoring the Hadi government to power. Most of Yemen’s cities, including Sanaa and Dhamar, remain under Houthi control.

Taiz, a large city south of Dhamar – and Yemen’s longtime cultural capital – has never ceded control to the invading Houthis. It is the scene of some of the most brutal fighting in Yemen, a civil war inside a civil war where local resistance groups defend their city against Houthi militias, which have surrounded Taiz.

The young woman from Taiz  – she asks that we use only her first name, Suha – tells me that when the Saudi airstrikes began March 26, 2015, she and her neighbors were grateful. “March 26 was a violent reaction against a violent action of Saleh and the Houthis, asserted months before the bombing campaign,” she tells me in a Facebook chat. “The campaign was welcomed in Taiz and the South in general, because they suffered from violence.” 

Taiz has paid a steep price for defying the Houthis and their influential ally, former dictator Ali Abdullah Saleh. “They attacked Taiz even before the Saudi air strikes started,” Suha says. “And they started killing civilians and unarmed people.”

Unlike in Sanaa and Dhamar, the local militias in Taiz put up a fight, which has now been going on for a year. “Nowhere is safe,” Suha says. “We’re exposed to shells anywhere and anytime, but if there is heavy bombing on the city we [go] downstairs… to avoid the high and exposed floors. And we avoid going out of the house. But still that sometimes doesn’t work, because rockets can destroy a whole house.”

The shelling of Taiz by the Houthis, combined with Saudi airstrikes meant to push the rebels back, have cut they city off from the rest of Yemen. Food, which is hard to come by anywhere in Yemen, is sometimes not available at all in Taiz.

“Life here - this is not a real life,” Suha says. “We can describe it as slow dying.”  She shares one vivid example. “A few months ago the whole city ran out drinking water. No drinking water was allowed to enter the city, so we had to drink from the taps and gather from the rain. The tap water is salty, so we couldn’t drink it. That was for a whole week. We were thirsty for a whole week. We had to drink salty water. That was really sorrowful.”

Suha reminds me that the Yemen war is as complex as it is brutal. “People all over the world believe it’s only a Saudi attack on Yemen,” she says, “but in reality it’s both an internal and external war. Taiz is suffering from the siege forced by the Houthis. All the entrances are blocked, and people left in the city are dying by shells day and night. So Yemenis are not only killed by Saudi airstrikes. They’re also killed by the Houthi shells and mines.”

4. Summer: 'Yemen is not like Syria'

Yemeni-American student and activist Summer Nasser had just arrived in the southern port city of Aden to visit her family last year. It was March, and Houthi forces were approaching the city. Saudi jets had just begun picking off groups of Houthi soldiers and blowing up suspected weapons depots. 

"We're not feeling so great coming from the States to this kind of situation," Nasser told me on the fourth day of air strikes. "I never thought I would say this, but we really don't know if we [will] wake up the next morning. That's how intense the situation is in terms of security."

Summer spent most of 2015 in Yemen, relocating several times to reach safety and finally seeking passage out of the country. She says that because she held a US passport, she was among the few Yemenis able to leave the war behind.

“I felt very guilty, you know, to have an option to leave,” she tells me from her home in New York. “Unfortunately, Yemen is not like Syria. We are surrounded by ocean and Saudi Arabia – which will not let us enter easily.” Summer mentions the other route out of Yemen, via Oman, which requires a long journey through barren lands controlled by Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. “So we're very much stuck. And when I left, I felt like I was leaving a piece of my own soul in Yemen.”  

Today, Summer says, she still feels guilty for leaving. “But at the same time I feel very much blessed. And so I came here to say, 'You know what? Maybe this is a chance to kind of bring Yemen into light in the US media,' and so that's my goal right now.”

Summer is not optimistic about Yemen’s future. “The biggest worry for me is that if the Houthis aren't stopped, we will always be in civil wars.” 

Suha, whose city of Taiz is under attack by both Houthis and Saudis, says she believes "sooner or later there will be a political solution. But armed conflicts will not end. They will keep on going, from time to time in different ways and under different names: Al Qaeda, ISIS, Houthi..."

In Dhamar, Ahmed is still grieving the loss of his friend, but adds "I hope one day I will wake up and the war will be over." 

Back in Sanaa, Aziz Morfeq tries to imagine what an end to the war would look like. "Everybody will be a friend to everybody, and people who died [will be] just martyrs from both sides." He pauses, then adds, "And I know that it's hard to ask them to stop it. It's not gonna change everything."