Conflict

Yemen's capital is becoming a ghost town as bombs drive people underground

Yemeni children walk past burning rubbish on a main street in the Yemeni capital, Sanaa, on April 29, 2015.
Credit: Mohammed Huwais

CAIRO, Egypt — More than a week after Saudi Arabia announced the end of Operation Decisive Storm, Yemenis are still being bombed.

The relentless bombardment of the Arab world’s poorest country has created a humanitarian disaster that aid groups are struggling to address. Yemenis still in the country say conditions are deteriorating by the day.

In Sanaa, the situation is so desperate that children are eating out of garbage cans. The streets are strewn with broken window glass and in some areas unexploded shells lie in the middle of the road. In one instance 45 people took refuge in the city’s sewers.

“We don’t sleep in bedrooms anymore, we sleep in the hall away from the windows,” says Soha Bashren, a resident of Sanaa, by phone. 

“It’s supposed to be the capital but it’s become a ghost town because people are afraid to go out,” says Ahmed Nooreddin, who ran a center for entrepreneurs in Sanaa before the fighting started. “Many have gone back to their villages.”

Heavy bombing by a Saudi-led coalition of Arab states targeting the Houthis, a Shia group that took over much of Yemen in the last few months, has left more than a thousand dead and 150,000 displaced.

Saudi Arabia announced on April 21 that it had halted its month-long bombing campaign, Operation Decisive Storm, but it immediately began another — Operation Restoring Hope — which consisted of even more bombing.

Hospitals are running short of medicines and those that have generators are only using them when absolutely necessary. Last week a large hospital in Aden was occupied by militants.

The prices of basic commodities have shot up. Well before the airstrikes began, 54.5 percent of Yemenis already lived in poverty, according to the UN Development Agency.

In recent days gasoline and diesel prices have increased by a factor of ten, says Abdul Ghani Iryani, a Yemeni political analyst based in Sanaa.

The average wait to get to the pump is about three days, and each customer can buy only 40 liters of gas at a time.

“Most people in Sanaa can’t use their cars, and if there is an emergency you can’t even call a taxi,” says Bashren. “At night it’s so dark, you only see the lights of the airstrikes.”

Many people in Sanaa have taken to riding bicycles to get around. But mostly the streets are empty.

Members of a displaced Yemeni family sit in a man made underground water tunnel where they are taking shelter after their houses were destroyed by airstrikes carried out by the Saudi-led alliance, in the Yemeni capital, Sanaa, on April 30, 2015.

Meanwhile, goods are disappearing from the supermarket shelves, and without refrigeration, perishable food quickly goes bad. For two weeks there was no electricity at all. Sometimes, if residents are lucky, they’ll get an hour a day.

In the southern port city of Aden, threats of famine loom as Houthi rebels continue their blockade of the city. According to a 2014 World Food Programme report, 41 percent of Yemenis were already food insecure before the conflict began. Today in Aden, all of the town’s bakeries are shuttered.

“Even if you have money there are no shops open to go and buy from,” says Maha Awadh, head of an NGO focused on human security in Aden.

Without electricity to operate the pumps, water is increasingly scarce too.

“In places like Aden and Taiz it’s much worse because the main water lines were hit in the first week of the war. People have had to resort to using wells that are over 100 years old and the water in them is not necessarily clean,” says Sarah Jamal, who is originally from Aden but based in Sanaa.

Doctors in the south fear a return of cholera from contaminated water and sewage in the street.

Members of a displaced Yemeni family sit in a man made underground water tunnel where they are taking shelter after their houses were destroyed by air strikes in the Yemeni capital, Sanaa, on April 30, 2015.

Bashren, the Sanaa resident, feels abandoned. “The whole world is standing and watching us and no one is talking about it. The UN is not doing anything," she said. "I guess we are not human.”

Yet, in spite of everything, Bashren manages to keep a sense of humor.

“We were having lunch at two o’clock today and the shelling started. I said, maybe the pilot doesn’t get a lunch break, that’s why he’s bombing now. Ok, we will invite him for lunch,” she says.

She does her best to keep her two children distracted. She sometimes gives them earplugs so they don’t hear the shelling.

“I have to keep smiling all the time so I don’t scare them. I’m tired of smiling. I want to scream, I want to cry but I can't.”

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