Hidden deaths, starvation and human rights abuses – as Hadi obstructs the proposed peace talks. Update 3rd December 2015

Hayat, aged 3, lost her leg, her home, and her sister in a Saudi bomb



This week the war on Yemen by the Saudi-led coalition has passed 250 days; some areas have suffered bomb attacks every one of those days.  Saada city and much of Saada governate no longer exists – it has been wiped off the face of Yemen.  Much of the capital Sanaa is similarly destroyed by the Saudi-led coalition.  I have been saying this for months; a country like Yemen cannot survive a blockade of food and other goods – now on-going for nearly 9 months.  I have been extremely touched by some posts from Yemen today. One is an interview with Fatema Al Ajal, Save the Children’s director in Sanaa, who describes the ongoing lives or ordinary people in Yemen, who are barely surviving now.  Another short video by the ICRC  called “Hayat walks again” shows a little girl – three years old -who lost her leg , her relatives and her home in a bomb raid, now learning to walk on an artificial leg, such an inspiration – and a credit to the ICRC.  And a touching short essay by the human rights activist Abdulrashid Alfaqih to his yet to be born children; about his life in Yemen, and why he is forced to live it as he does.

Save The Children also put out a statement that “UK appears to put weapons sales above the lives of Yemen’s children”.  Whilst Amnesty asks “Does the UK have blood on its hands?” stating British made bombs are hitting civilian targets, and that they are not keeping to the rules of the Arms Trade Treaty, in which UK was a leading member only two years ago.  Human Rights Watch also issued similar criticism of the UK government policy. ICRC has suffered another disaster with their staff; a kidnapped international employee, following the murder of four of their workers in two incidents earlier this year.  MSF have had another clinic bombed this week by the Saudi-led coalition, this time near Taiz, only two weeks after their hospital was bombed in Saada governate.  I read that 51 hospitals have been destroyed, and many more have had to close because of the blockade, which is not only reducing medical aid and medicines that enter Yemen at this critical time, but also the desperate situation is forcing staff to move as their homes are destroyed and their lives put at risk due to starvation.  As deaths are only counted in official statistics if registered in a hospital, this skews the death statistics as many who die are simply not counted.

In the worldwide news, the bombing of Syria has occupied many in the media, more interested in the leadership of the Labour Party that was split on the vote in the House of Commons than the consequences of the bombs.  I went on a Stop the War demonstration in Bristol this week, and I spoke to 30 groups of about the war in Yemen whilst I was there; despite the fact that these were people interested in Middle East issues, only two people that I spoke to had significant knowledge of the war on Yemen; for most it was the first time they had heard of it.   This war has been kept quite secret.  In Yemen ISIS and Al Qaeda have been fighting openly with the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen – unlike Syria, rarely mentioned by our selective British media.  This week Al Qaeda gained more ground, taking control of most of Abyan governate in the southwest, including the cities of Zinjibar and Jaar, although they relinquished Jaar back to local control the following day.  At the same time Islamic State and Al Qaeda have made inroads into the rest of the southwest corner of Yemen.

As the struggle for Taiz continues, there are signs that the Saudi-led coalition is developing cracks at the top as they fail to make the rapid progress they expected.  Hadi and his deputy Bahah, the Prime Minister of Yemen are apparently not getting on, and Hadi tried to change members of the cabinet whilst Bahah was out of the country, in order to shore up his own support.  There were also reports of Saudi Arabia not liking UAE’s plan to replace its own troops in Yemen with around two thousand mercenaries from South America; yet Saudi already has its own mercenaries in Yemen from Columbia and Sudan – a united nations at war with Yemen. The UAE mercenaries are necessary because of the high death toll amongst UAE soldiers and the lack of support for continued warfare amongst the UAE public.  The new mercenaries are being trained by Columbians; USA declined to do so as it didn’t want to be implicated when atrocities come to light – as I guess they will be.  One article asked if this was how wars are to be waged in the future – rich nations paying poor nations to fight their wars for them.  How immoral can war get?

Meanwhile, it has being reported from some media outlets that Hadi is the obstacle that is hindering the start of the much heralded UN peace talks – due to take place in November and already put back till December, with no start date yet announced.  Of course, when Yemen is at peace Hadi is so unpopular that he has no hope of remaining as President. So the destruction goes on.

The reports of two battle arenas vary widely depending on who is reporting them; Taiz and the Najran area in southwest Saudi Arabia, where the Yemen army loyal to Saleh is attacking southwest KSA in retaliation for their assault on Yemen.  Both ‘sides’ claim to be killing a lot of those on the other side, and both claim satisfactory progress themselves.  There are undoubtedly atrocities on all sides in this gruesome war, and there is little chance of either side winning in the near future, whilst civilians suffer horrendously.  Especially from the blockade; 85% of Yemenis are now suffering ‘acute severe food insecurity’. Most governates have been described as on level 4 starvation for several months; I have spoken to people in Yemen who think they are witnessing famine already, with starving populations already on the move in the Tihama region.

It is sobering to think that with this level of catastrophe, that a large proportion of people in UK have not yet heard of this terrible war.  Shame on our media.


Sana’a – a city in waiting.

Old City Sana'a; continuously inhabited for 2,500 years.
Old City Sana’a; continuously inhabited for 2,500 years.

Every day, I look for the latest news for my Facebook page, which does what it says – it provides the daily news headlines from various sources, showing a wide perspective on this catastrophic conflict in Yemen today. As the war intensifies, I’m finding more and more articles every day, most of them from Middle East sources; I am having to be selective. As someone who lived in Sana’a and felt it a privilege to be part of this ancient civilisation for a while, it is more and more depressing as I find articles showing me that Yemen is rapidly being destroyed by air strikes and militia activities, and Yemenis are suffering under a comprehensive blockade of food, petrol and aid, that even prevents them from running to safety. And now, as I read the news, I see this devastation is likely to move towards the capital, Sana’a.

Something else is happening. Every day, I have more and more Sana’ani people asking me to be their Facebook friend; people from all walks of life. University lecturers. An army officer. A few journalists. Some retired people. An unemployed engineer. Civil servants. An author. It is almost as if Sana’anis feel more secure if they have someone to contact from outside Sana’a; someone they think will pass on their story. They tell me about themselves and send me photos of their children. Some tell me of their financial problems accruing as the war goes on into its sixth month. They share their worries; the lack of education for their children, their insecurities concerning ongoing employment, the problems that arise when someone in their family needs health care. They tell me how they are managing their lives without electricity, and the challenges in providing food for their families – and most crucially, water. They share their thoughts on the war. Their views cross the spectrum of opinion, from those who still even now fully support the aerial bombardment in Sana’a, saying that whatever the cost, the Houthis must be dislodged. But most are tired of the non-stop assaults, the night and day explosions, the dust, the smell of war, the fear as bombs explode near their homes, the worry that they might be the next victim. Some are highly critical of Saudi Arabia or the Houthis; most are critical of all fighting forces; others make no comment. One said that he didn’t care who ruled Yemen as long as the war would stop; he wouldn’t even care if it was Israel. Very few tell me of their political leanings, although I can sometimes guess. Some tell me about the effects of the bombardment on their families, and on their own health. Most tell me of their fears for their future and their city. They are already weakened by six months of siege. I have been impressed with their courage and resilience.

Despite a prolonged aerial bombardment that has destroyed homes and infrastructure, Sana’a has not yet experienced fighting on the ground, but the inhabitants already know what happens elsewhere as militias and armies meet in conflict. They have heard so many stories of devastation. Fighting street by street means sniping, missile strikes, landmines, personal attacks, kidnapping, lynching, arson and looting – plus a continuation of the aerial attacks. One on hand, the Houthis and the Yemen army loyal to ex-President Saleh; on the other, militias including extremist Sunni militias – Islah, Al Qaeda and Da’esh, the army loyal to President Hadi, and the foreign troops of the Saudi-led coalition. In the modern context of war, cities have apparently had to be destroyed in order to save them, never mind that people have worked and saved for decades in order to create a home for their families. The losses have included many sites of historical importance, many of them bombed in air strikes that accompanied fighting on the ground. The Houthi alliance has been driven from Aden – the first city where the militias and armies met in combat – but weeks after the Houthi and Saleh alliance left it still has no governance; most of this port city is now ruled by militias, and some of them are fighting each other. Fifty percent of housing stock was destroyed in Aden; much of that remaining is also damaged. Landmines have been left behind everywhere. During the active fighting phase, food is inevitably in very short supply, people run out of money and cannot access banks, and those with cash in their homes often have it stolen by militias, many of whom are unpaid. Humanitarian agencies find working conditions extremely challenging and can only offer very limited assistance. Getting to a hospital if ill or injured is sometimes impossible, and always challenging due to lack of petrol, plus active warfare in the immediate vicinity. Phones and computers cannot be used. Illnesses such as malaria, dengue fever and water-borne diseases become endemic. This pattern of devastation in Aden followed in other cities as they one after another fell victim to ground war; the city of Lahj hardly has any building left standing; now Taiz, Hodeida and Marib are experiencing their share of this merciless conflict. Whilst the UN, the ICRC, Oxfam, Human Rights Watch, MSF and others put out desperate warnings as cities are besieged, hospitals close and children starve, these stories rarely make front page news and Western politicians ignore what is happening as if Yemen doesn’t exist. These are the forerunners that Sana’ani people stare at in horror, as they wait to find their own fate.

Destruction in Aden
Destruction in Aden – will this be the fate of Sana’a?

As the war seems to creep ever closer go the capital city, I can’t help but reminisce about my happy times there; I lived in an old part of Sana’a called Al Qaa, 20 minutes’ walk from the Old City; a city constantly inhabited for over 2,500 years. Not just the buildings, but also the knowledge of a way of life is held within it; if Old Sana’a is destroyed, with it will be a loss of the accumulated knowing of ancient ways that will be a tragedy for all humankind. This is a world UNESCO site, already severely damaged by recent coalition bomb strikes, with some of its ancient multi-story homes pulverised to dust, its civilian inhabitants killed. But when I lived there it was perfection; each symmetrical building exactly in tune with its ancient neighbour, as if some master planner had set out to design a paradise that fitted exactly within its rugged mountain landscape. There are 6,500 buildings that originated before the eleventh century, with mosques, bathhouses, a souk, and vegetable gardens, the whole city surrounded by an ancient wall. The soft brown buildings have ornate white gypsum embellishments and alabaster windows. Above each window is a gomeria, a fanlight of coloured glass. We loved to go there after nightfall and it was like walking around fairyland; the soft coloured lights from the gomerias illuminated the quiet streets for us. The history seeped into our souls as we explored those narrow lanes, and as we passed between the tall ancient buildings we always felt at peace; man and nature in perfect harmony. This is a precious, unique jewel that the world should cherish.

old city at night
Old City of Sana’a at night – like fairyland.

Most of all I think about the people who are still there. My neighbour Saeda looked after me as if she was my mother; one day I accidentally left my front door open when I went to work, but she entered, bolted the door behind her, and climbed over the back wall to get into her home so that my house was secure. Mohammed and Hassan were two very reliable guards at my workplace who unfailingly went about their duties with dignity and patience, and never complained despite their long hours of duty. Aziza, my hardworking English teacher, whose hospitable family cooked the most delicious food; a meat stew called salta, and a soft pastry with honey called bint sahn. My friend Ibtesam only spoke Arabic, so forced me to practice my hesitant language skills whilst we went on outings to explore Sana’a’s many ancient attractions. Sofia, then a small toddler, now an intelligent nine years old, who climbed up to her open window to wait for me when I visited her family, calling out my name whenever I came into sight. Ali was a pharmacist, who took me to visit his home village, and whose wife insisted on giving me her wedding dress as a gift. A female journalist interviewee told me that her ambition was to become the president of Yemen. A colleague, Eman had dedicated her life to caring for children with learning difficulties, and then despite having no sports training experience, she was persuaded to take on the training the Yemeni para-Olympic team, that ended up winning far more medals than their non-disabled counterparts. And there are so many more to whom I owe a debt of gratitude for their friendship and gracious support. They all knew this was where they belonged; they had a sense of place, an awareness and confidence that came from being part of this ancient culture, this land that was not carved by invaders, but has existed with more or less the same boundaries for more than ten thousand years. I recognised their pride in being Yemeni. All of the time I lived in Sanaa, despite its poverty, I never met anyone who wanted to leave.

Now they all want to leave, but where can they go? Queues are five kilometres long outside petrol stations, and anyway, the petrol pumps are empty. It’s too hot and dry to walk. Villages nearby are safer but have no access to water or food. Most routes out of Sana’a are blocked by war; in Hadramaut to the East they have long been suspicious of their northern counterparts, but now with influences from the expanding extremist Sunni militias, Hadramautis have already decided that they will not allow displaced people from Sana’a to seek refuge; they are also blocking the refugee route through Hadramaut to Oman. Aden, having itself suffered an unimaginably cruel blockade and war, now bans all northerners from entering their city, and even bans southerners who have been living and working in Sana’a from going there. So Sana’anis are trapped, forced to stay in their homes whatever the danger, waiting to see what the worst will mean for them. Unlike most other Yemeni cities which have largely homogenous population, Sana’a has attracted people from all over Yemen to live and work there. The previously religiously tolerant and generous Yemeni population that lived, worked and prayed side by side in peace is already becoming polarised and suspicious – neighbours are learning not to trust each other. The government, now just about functioning, will have to cease – anarchy and militia rule is likely to be the outcome.

It is hard to see how things can be improved. The exiled Hadi, himself living in luxury in Riyadh far away from conflict, is stating that he will not attend UN brokered peace talks. This, despite the UN special envoy stating that a solution is very near; the Houthi/Saleh alliance have already conceded most of what Hadi demanded. It will be much better for Sanaa and its people – and Yemen – to have a peaceful passage of government from one ruling group to another, rather than a military battle and victory that will inevitably destroy the administrative processes leading to chaos.   As my friends in Sana’a keep saying, please pray for us. It is perhaps the only thing that we can do.