My news from Yemen centres on five main areas this week: Taiz, Aden, Saada, the UN peace accords, and the health of King Salman of Saudi Arabia.
Firstly, there has been a shift in Saudi policy this week, and I gather than officials from the UN are speaking to the Crown Price, now that King Salman is ill. There seems to be a slightly more conciliatory attitude from Saudi Arabia, who are “allowing” Hadi to attend peace talks at the end of the month. Well, at least Hadi is going and he could not have done so unless Saudi had agreed. I also have heard rumour that the young Saudi man sentenced to death and crucifixion has been reprieved, so maybe they are starting to listen to outside opinions.
Saudi has also announced that some other armies are joining them in Yemen. This includes 300 from the Sudanese army already in Aden; eventually there will be 10,000 Sudanese. This is the very same army that was accused of genocide in Darfur. They are mercenaries – paid by Saudi to fight. More mercenaries are coming from Columbia – a further 800. What is notable is that these mercenaries are from countries that are used to fighting in mountain terrain. So now fighting with the Saudi coalition on the ground are the new 10,000 Yemeni troops trained in Saudi Arabia, the few regiments from the Yemen army that stayed loyal to Hadi, militias including Al Qaeda, Daesh, Islah, Salafist, and local militias such as Al Hirak in Aden, plus troops from UAE, Bahrain, Qatar, maybe others, and now Sudan and Columbia. It’s a bit like world armed forces attacking Yemen, especially when you include the other members of the coalition included in the bombing raids, and the assistance from US , Israel, UK and France, plus rumours that some of the militias associated with Daesh are from countries outside Yemen. I have been told that 3,000 militias who were at risk in Syria because of the recent Russian involvement have moved to Yemen. Of course, they might be returning Yemenis.
The reasons why these new troops are needed is because of the situation in Taiz and Aden. Aden is meant to be under control of the Yemen government and the Saudi coalition, but in reality it not controlled by anyone. Instead, it has a mix of many militias stamping their authority, most of whom are extremist Sunni militias. Some of them are fighting each other, or attacking the coalition forces. Some very gloomy reports have come out of the port this week. As armies of the coalition move from Aden into other areas to ‘liberate’ them, they are not able to control what is left behind. The UAE is controlling the port area and ships are arriving, but Aden refuses to let any aid or goods move to the north. They also refuse to allow northerners to enter Aden, including those from Taiz who are suffering so terribly at the moment, and are trapped inside the city.
As Bab Al Mandab control has been wrested from the Houthi/Saleh alliance, the port of Mokha can now land vessels. It is a small port area, but it may be that many new troops from Sudan will be moving into Taiz area from this Red Sea port.
Taiz is at the frontline of the war. It is in the highlands in the southwest of Yemen, and has been under attack for many months, with control changing hands twice. Currently the Houthis and the army loyal to Saleh control the areas around the city, and the central part of the city is controlled by local militias, mainly Salafist militias headed by Abu Alabbas, and Islah militias. The Saudi coalition is still attacking from the air, and indeed this week dropped bombs on troops supporting the coalition, killing 40 or so it is said, and injuring more. If you hear the news about Taiz, it sounds as if the Houthis alone are firing into populated areas only because they want to kill people, with no other fighters involved. The situation is of course much more complex than that – the Houthis and Yemen army are firing at militias inside the city, living amongst the population, whilst those militias are firing back; the people are trapped in between. In addition to the conflict, the Saudi led blockade and the ban on movement to the north by Aden is stopping food, petrol and other aid from arriving, and the Houthi/Saleh alliance have added a local siege of their own in an attempt to smoke out their opponents.
Life in Taiz must be the like hell. But this week there is report after report in the media about Taiz, whereas there has been a media silence. I think that means that the Saudis are preparing to go in, and justifying it by their negative portrayal of Houthi actions – incidentally, they never mention the Yemen army. The ‘evil deeds’ are all attributed to the Houthis, which makes me think that when they win this war, Saudi will try to sanitise the army, and blame all on the Houthis – if the war ever finishes. Asymmetrical wars are notably difficult to end.
Also from Taiz came the story of a little boy, Fareed Shawky aged six, who after being injured by shrapnel called out to his doctors “Don’t bury me!” as he was being tended in hospital. This little boy who longed to live so much died two days later of his wounds. This sad story has widely circulated in the international media. Let’s hope this heart-rending story helps to make the people of Yemen realise they must talk peace to prevent more tragic children’s deaths.
Saada in the northwest is as much without hope as ever – after 209 days of war, it has been reported that more than 38,000 bombs have been dropped on this governate. I mention it in comparison to Taiz, which now has relatively wide media coverage, whereas Saada still has none. The Houthis originate from here, although initially not all from Saada initially followed the Houthis. But as the war has progressed, the local people see the Houthi militias and the Yemen army as the only ones who can protect them against the feared ravages of the invaders and aerial bombardment. Far from the aerial bombardment reducing the support for the Houthis, it has strengthened it. Many children in Saada have not been to school since the 2009 wars, when many of their schools were destroyed in earlier wars. Now literate and with little hope of a job, they join the militias – many of them under 18. Sadly, it gives them status and a chance to be somebody as they see it; a fighter repelling an invading army. This does not bode well for the future, because there are so many schools destroyed all over Yemen, and this might be a pattern that emerges, as the war drags on, and maybe after it ends.
The UN peace talks are at the end of the month. This asymmetrical war can only be ended by negotiations, and I am hoping that this might be the start of the long route to peace. Saleh and the leader of the Houthis have agreed to abide by 2216. They can’t stop fighting unilaterally, because if they do, they will be annihilated by the extremist Sunni militias that oppose them. If a ceasefire cannot be negotiated, I fear for Sanaa and its people. The wars as in Taiz and Aden will arrive in Sanaa, with its more mixed and larger population, and there will be so much suffering and destruction. And still, Yemen’s terrible war never reaches the top of our headlines. It is a forgotten war, a secret war, where fighters of all sorts can act with impunity – and do.