There is no smooth introduction to Yemen’s current scenario irrespective of the approach. Its deteriorating economic condition, humanitarian crisis, political instability is rooted to in and fuelled by the war, a war that escalated to a degree and complexity nobody had anticipated.
The Marxist south and Conservative north united in 1990 to form the Yemeni Republic which collapsed in two halves again under economic instability and the civil war of 1994. The state saw free elections again in 1997. Ali Abdullah Saleh who took office as President in 1990, returned to his chair. However, the spark prompted by the Civil War was not blown out and thus emerged The Yemen Refugee (economic and humanitarian also) Crisis.
Houthis (Source- AFP)
On the backdrop of drone strikes against the al-Qaeda and ISIS targets in the country conducted by the CIA, the war gravitates to the northern rebels—Houthis who have been a challenge for successive governments. The Houthis are seasoned fighters essentially from the Zaydi section of Shia Islam and are backed by Iran. On the other end is the Yemeni government.
In the early 2000s, Saleh’s soldiers fought them. And after he was removed from office in 2011 under large scale protests, his successor Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi continued. Both Saleh and Hadi were advocated by Saudi Arabia. In 2013, however, the Houthis emerged from their northern stronghold, captured Sana’a and exiled Hadi.
In some ways the war in Yemen isn’t even its own. The fact that the two factions of the war are backed by two neighboring countries (Iran and Saudi) has led some diplomats to believe that the war in Yemen is a “proxy war”. The determined stance of Iran and Saudi Arabia along with Yemen’s consistent political inefficiency has turned it into a battle ground where more than one war is being fought. And amidst bloodshed, poverty and corruption, the Sunni Jihadists are pledging alliance to the local branches of al-Qaeda and ISIS. And running alongside is a fourth party—Separatists. These factions fight among themselves often although their animosity for the Houthis is mutual.
A malnourished 4 year old Yemeni girl (Source- Xinhua)
Caught in this whirlwind of arms are those people unaffiliated to any of the groups yet dragged into it. 40% of Yemen’s population lives on less than $2 per day according to UNICEF and UNHCR reported “15 million people on the brink of starvation”. “In 2017 Yemen experienced the largest cholera epidemic in the world”. Facing the largest food security in the world, the second largest country in the Arabian Peninsula is on the threshold of famine.
Its closest neighbour is Somalia which is within the radar of US air strikes itself. As millions are fleeing from Yemen, a worse condition in neighboring countries is drawing distraught foreigners to seek refuge in Yemen. According to a report by UNHCR in March 2017, of the 270,000 refugees Yemen was sheltering, majority were from Africa. And to this figure added another 117,000 arrived in 2016.
This is a tragic and dangerous scenario. People whose lives are shattered by war have nothing but bundled hope with which they make precarious journeys from one hell to another. Al Jazeera says “people fleeing into the country are aware of the war in Yemen but they don’t know just how bad it is.” Smugglers and human traffickers are thriving by misleading asylum seekers.
Yemen is struggling to breathe economically and socially. Cities are captured by either one of the factions which is at war with another.
In 2016, the Human Rights Watch published a report citing incidents narrated by residents of Taizz (third largest city of Yemen) of how the Houthi rebels were confiscating necessities and blocking humanitarian aid to residents living in regions under opposition control. While the city center is controlled by Houthi opposition, Taizz is surrounded by the Houthi forces who maintain strict checkpoints at the two main entrances to the city. They confiscate food, water and necessities brought by residents into the city. In 2015, Houthi forces confiscated drugs from three trucks sent by the World Health Organization. In October 2015 despite weeks of negotiations Medicines Sans Frontiers (Doctors Without Borders, MSF) were unable to deliver medical supplies in two hospitals in Taizz.
Human Rights Watch explained in detail how oxygen cylinders were seized at these ‘checkpoints’ by Houthis who asked health officials to promise not to bring any more oxygen cylinders. Six premature infants died due to the unavailability of oxygen cylinders, or the lack of fuel to run the generator to power the incubator.
International Humanitarian Law does not prevent sieges against enemy forces. However, all parties to the conflict are obligated to provide impartial humanitarian aid to the civilian population.
We cannot fight the war. Even if we could—a war to end all wars—has been proven a rotten notion. What we can do from a distance of more than a thousand miles is ‘acknowledge’. Acknowledge in honor of those lives lost, those losing it slowly and painfully and the exemplary courage of people who are just like us but living a life unlike. People, the probability of crossing paths with exists today but may not tomorrow.