Yemen conflict: 'This war has killed everything that was beautiful'As air raids continue to batter the Arab world’s poorest state, many Yemenis fear the country’s deepening divisions will inflict irreparable damage to its soul
“They come with iron and fire, but they are weaker than straw,” the famous Yemeni poet Al-Baradouni recites in a recording to the melodious tone of the oud, a traditional Middle Eastern stringed instrument.
The violence of the latest war to engulf the Arab world’s poorest country is a far cry from those hopeful days. A Saudi-led coalition has been bombing Yemen for 12 days in an attempt to fight off an advance by Houthi rebels who took control of Sana’a and advanced on the southern port city of Aden, exiling the president, Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi, and threatening to plunge the country into all-out civil war.
According to the World Health Organisation, 549 people have been killed and 1,707 injured in violence in Yemen since 19 March, a week before the air campaign began. As the humanitarian situation worsens, the International Committee of the Red Cross received approval on Sunday from the military coalition that controls Yemen’s ports and air space for an aid flight to deliver medical supplies, but on Monday said “logistical problems” were delaying its departure.
|Burnt-out trucks litter the Hays district in Hodeidah province near Sana’a. Photograph: Abdulrahaman Abdullah/AFP/Getty|
Saudi Arabia accuses Iran of trying to spread its influence in the Middle East through the Houthi rebels.
“This is not the first war I’ve witnessed, but it is the worst by far,” Jamal, a sociologist, told the Guardian. “It seems that the older we get, the less tolerant we become with the sounds of blasts. We end up fearing more than we did when we were children.”
While Jamal endures the air raids in the capital, her family in Aden has had no electricity or water for days, and she fears the latest conflict will do irreparable damage to the Yemeni soul.
“This war is tearing the social texture in a way that makes it impossible to repair,” she said. “The double aggression we are under from the outside and the inside is creating cracks. I can see all my loved ones watching in pain knowing that things will never be the same even when this war ends, if it ever does.
“We have survived so many wars. We have been stripped of jobs, security and basic services before, however, this time we are being stripped of a home,” she said.
The sense of loss is all-consuming in Aden, where Mohammed takes refuge from the street fighting between Houthi fighters and local youth in his partially burned home with his two granddaughters. His son and other friends perished in the fighting. He says his son could have survived his wounds if the city had adequate medical supplies.
“By God, by God, by God, I will never surrender or have peace with them until I avenge my son and his friends,” he said. “They killed everything that was beautiful, we have nothing to smile for.”
Mohammed, not his real name, said he buried his son during a lull in the fighting, but could not have a memorial service for him because of the violence.
He said the Houthi rebels and their allies have fired indiscriminately at homes, and many people have been without water for days in the city. Mohammed’s family is trying to ration food to survive as the street battles keep them sequestered in their homes.
The damage may already have been done to Yemen’s unity, with the growing hatred of southerners, many of whom are still loyal to Hadi, towards the northern Houthi movement.
“We will fight even if we sign a ceasefire or peace, we will go to their homes and everywhere they live, we cannot forgive them. This is blood,” he said. “This is not my feeling alone, but its the feeling of all the southerners. The wounds have grown. We cannot return to the status quo.”
He said the city’s youth were still fighting fiercely against the Houthi rebels and their allies, fighters loyal to the former president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, who was replaced by Hadi after the Arab spring protests. The battle was unequal, he said, with the rebels able to muster rockets, artillery and armoured vehicles.
“When they heard the fighting they ran away,” he said of his granddaughters. “They are terrified. When these children grow up, do you think they will forget this? This will remain etched in our hearts.”
The city desperately needs medical and humanitarian assistance,
but it may yet be out of reach. Medical workers say they are having trouble reaching besieged areas, and fighters have already killed four healthcare workers in Aden in the past few days. They also seized six ambulances, including four that were used in combat, according to the UN’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Fighters have occupied two health facilities and five schools.
“In any war there are casualties always, but the painful thing is to see victims and you can’t
get them medical care for any reason,” said Hisham Abdulaziz, a doctor who treated dozens of wounded who were hit by an apparent air strike in Mazraq refugee camp earlier in the war. “You feel paralysed.”
He called on all parties to the conflict to avoid targeting medics and civilians and to allow the entry of humanitarian supplies. “We have nothing to do with the conflict and who is right or wrong, but every wounded person deserves to get medical care,” he said.
In Sana’a, Abdulaziz said many families had fled the city, which has been hit by fuel and food shortages. He said the prices of some basic staples such as wheat have more than doubled. He has also been enduring air strikes at night as his home is near a military site. “We sit and listen to the bombs and pray that we will be safe, but that is up to fate,” he said. “But it’s not just me, it’s everyone in Sana’a.”
The attacks on health workers mean that fewer can reach besieged areas, and families of the wounded are less willing to transport their loved ones for treatment at the risk of being targeted. “This is really, really worrying,” said Dounia Dekhili, who is coordinating Médecins Sans Frontières activities in Yemen.
Dekhili said it was difficult to support clinics operating in besieged areas, where medics have not been sleeping for days and morgues are quickly filling up. She said that just as states have been able to evacuate their diplomats, humanitarian aid should be permitted to reach the affected areas.
She says the organisation has treatments loaded in cargo boats and planes to be sent to Aden and Sana’a, but they are awaiting permission to deploy them.
The Red Cross has also said it is facing severe problems trying to help victims of the recent violence. “We have a cargo plane with medical supplies which is ready to go,” Sitara Jabeen, a spokeswoman told AFP on Monday.
“We have the permission for this plane but we have logistical problems for the landing. There are less and less planes landing in Yemen. We are trying to solve the logistic problems.”