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Yemen: Trapped by all the sides in largely ignored war

A Yemeni boy runs past buildings damaged by air strikes

The streets are eerily silent in this front-line enclave near Freedom Square, where thousands of protesters rose up against the government five years ago.

The presidential palace nearby survived the demonstrations, but not the war that followed. It is now a concrete carcass, pummeled by airstrikes. Shops are shuttered and homes are empty. The only people who remain cannot afford to go anywhere else.

By day, snipers strike down residents. At night, the gunfire and artillery shelling start.

“We’re trapped by all the sides,” said Ghulam Sayed, a former bus driver.

For weeks, Yemen’s warring factions have held peace talks to end their 16-month civil war, bringing a sense of calm to much of the country. But in the southwestern city of Taiz the conflict rages on, defying a U.N.-backed cease-fire. Civilians are indiscriminately killed or wounded daily. Thousands languish in ragged displacement camps. Humanitarian groups are blocked from adequately helping victims.

On one side of the war is an alliance of Shiite Houthi rebels and loyalists of former president Ali Abdullah Saleh. They have seized the capital, Sanaa, and control the northern half of the country.

On the other side is the government, backed by the United States, Saudi Arabia and other regional powers. It controls only portions of the south, including the port of Aden. The rest is lawless or ruled by radical Islamists.

Among the wars wrought by the Arab Spring revolutions, Yemen’s remains largely invisible to the world. Yet the conflict holds enormous stakes for Washington and its allies. Yemen, the Middle East’s poorest nation, straddles vital oil shipping lanes in the Red Sea and has long been a key battleground between militant Islam and the West. In 2000, al-Qaeda was behind the bombing of the USS Cole in Aden, killing 17 American sailors.

That fight is intensifying. Al-Qaeda militants seized large swaths of territory in the political and security vacuum after the populist uprising. Its Yemen branch, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, or AQAP, is considered the most dangerous of the affiliates. In recent years, it launched several attacks in the United States and Europe, including last year’s assault in Paris on the French satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo that killed 11 people, as well as a foiled plot to bomb an airliner over Detroit on Christmas Day 2009.

U.S. Special Forces, backed by drone strikes, are on the ground assisting Yemeni government troops and their allies to prevent AQAP from gaining more ground. Meanwhile, an Islamic State affiliate has emerged, competing with AQAP for recruits and turf.

Before the Arab revolts, the incessant tribal conflicts rarely reached Taiz, Yemen’s third-largest city. But its partition highlights those disputes and sectarian divides, the main obstacles to merging this fractured nation.

Sayed’s five brothers all live in this city. But he hasn’t seen them in eight months. To visit their homes, he would have to cross the front lines, dodge airstrikes or shelling, and pass through a web of checkpoints controlled by rival armed groups. And that is if he manages to leave his neighborhood unharmed.

On a barricaded road near his building, snipers recently shot several residents at a traffic circle. On another road, cars and motorcycles speed to avoid entering the gunmen’s sights.

When his 9-year-old nephew was killed by a rocket, Sayed could not attend his funeral.

“What wrongs have the people of Taiz done to deserve all this?” he said.

Death toll climbs

Five years ago, Taiz brimmed with hope.

Tens of thousands of people flocked to Freedom Square to denounce Saleh’s 33-year rule, which was marked by bottomless poverty and a lack of jobs and other opportunities. The following year, the United States helped broker an agreement that forced Saleh to hand power to his deputy, Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi.

But Hadi had neither the experience nor the popular support to address the multiple crises that worsened after the Arab Spring. In January last year, he resigned and fled to Aden as the resurgent Houthis occupied the capital.

Saudi Arabia’s Sunni Muslim monarchy, wary of the Shiite Houthis who are widely believed to be backed by its rival Iran, sought to restore the Hadi government when the Houthi forces closed in on Aden in March 2015.

Today, Freedom Square is a war zone.

Militias hold sway in the city center, which has been under siege for months. At least two dozen of the groups, collectively known as the Resistance, are loosely aligned against the Houthis and Saleh’s forces. They include some with ties to AQAP.

But the Houthis and Saleh’s forces enforce a chokehold around the center, controlling the flow of people, medicine, food and other supplies into the area, where an estimated 200,000 residents live.

The city is so fractured that it has two governors. Neither is in Taiz.

“How can I give up my weapons to you — so you can kill me or imprison me?” asked Abdo Al Janadi, the governor appointed by the Houthis and Saleh forces, referring to a condition made by Hadi’s side in the peace talks. He is based in Sanaa, the capital. “The head of the problem is Abed Rabbo. He is incapable of ruling Yemen.”

Hadi’s appointed governor is based in the Saudi capital of Riyadh and in Aden. He could not be reached, but leaders of the Resistance militias were just as suspicious of their opponents.

“We will lay down our weapons only if the Houthis and Saleh forces withdraw from Taiz and all other cities they have occupied,” said Ammar Aljundubi, the leader of the Hasm Brigades. “And they must turn in their weapons to the legitimate government of President Hadi.”

He spoke by telephone because the Houthis refused to allow a Washington Post journalist to travel into the city center.

Both sides are in a grisly stalemate. The Resistance fires artillery shells, mortars and deploys snipers. The Houthis and Saleh forces also have snipers, and bombard the center with Katyusha rockets and artillery shells. Houses and factories have been hammered by the Saudi-led airstrikes. On the ground are remnants of American and British bombs used by the coalition.

And the death toll mounts.

Since the conflict began, more than 3,500 civilians have been killed and 6,200 wounded, according to the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights. Nearly a third of those killed and maimed are children, the largest number occurring in Taiz.

The victims include 9-year-old Rowaida Qayed and 13-year-old Mohamed Badr. Rowaida was injured by an incoming artillery shell as she fetched water from an outdoor tank. Mohamed was hit by fragments from an airstrike as he walked home.

Today, Rowaida is in a hospital bed, her right thigh filled with shrapnel. Mohamed is in a wheelchair, his legs twisted out of shape.

“I miss not being able to play outside,” Mohamed said.

A man with an amputated leg sits at a prosthetic limbs center in the southwestern city of Taiz in May.

Little hope for peace

On a recent day, cars and minivans moved slowly along the only road leading to the center of the city. The unpaved, rocky trail is usually closed — or heavily monitored. But a cease-fire monitoring committee was in the area, and both sides apparently wanted to show good faith. The siege was briefly lifted.

During the respite, Mohammad Shadli and his brothers decided to retrieve the furniture they left behind when they fled their home months ago.

“Do you think the airstrikes will stop?” Shadli asked, seated in a pickup truck piled with tables, chairs and desks. “Our faith in God is more than our faith in these peace talks.”

Those returning to the city center had nowhere else to go — or they supported the Resistance.

“We can’t sleep at night because of the Katyusha rockets,” Murad Al-Khalafy said.

He and his family were coming back with food and other basic goods. Since the siege began, prices have skyrocketed. As in most areas, there is no electricity and streets are piled with garbage.

The Houthis are also preventing most medical shipments from entering the city center, and hospitals are running out of supplies.

“It’s their control strategy for the city,” said Salah Ibrahim Dongu’du, Taiz project coordinator for the aid agency Doctors Without Borders Holland, which assists the three major hospitals in the city center. “We try our best to give support, but without constant medical supplies, it’s difficult.”

Abu Shuhab, a Houthi official, denied the charges, saying that the aid agencies aren’t entering because of the snipers from the Resistance. He added that the snipers were the reason they shut the road often and insisted there was no siege.

Among the area’s most desperate residents are the “Muhammasheen,” whose name means the “marginalized ones.” Denied good educations and jobs because of their dark skin, they worked as street cleaners and garbage collectors.

“There was random shelling, and many of us were killed,” said Sirhan Saif, 42, a community leader. “Fear spread, and we all fled our homes.”

Carrying their meager possessions, they reached a Houthi-controlled enclave. They erected tents made of blankets and scrounged for food.

Then in December, a Saudi-led coalition airstrike struck a Doctors Without Borders facility inside their camp, killing one person and wounding others.

Two days earlier, Houthi fighters raided the camp and took into custody one of the community’s youths. Elders believe he was seized because his wife was light-skinned.

Such arbitrary detentions have become common. In other enclaves, residents said that they stay home at night to avoid being stopped by Houthi gunmen.

Houthi officials deny such targeting. But in a report last month, the human rights group Amnesty International accused the Houthis and Saleh’s forces of arresting opponents and critics “in a chilling campaign to quash dissent.”

At the Doctors Without Borders trauma center, nurse supervisor Saber Sheryan, 32, explained that one of his friends, a doctor, had been shot by a sniper as he left the hospital where they both once worked. Another friend, a dentist, was killed by a mortar strike.

“Yesterday was the first anniversary of his death,” Sheryan said matter-of-factly.

Sheryan, too, is a victim. He was forced to flee his home.

Since April, when the cease-fire talks began, Doctors Without Borders has treated more than 1,600 people for war-related injuries in Taiz. On June 3 alone, the medical charity received 122 wounded, most from a missile that hit a crowded market. Twelve others were killed that day.

Less than a mile away, in the wards of the Gulf Hospital, there was little hope that the war will end soon.


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About the author

Sydney Chesterfield

Poet, Playwright, Philosopher, Humanitarian, mad lover of children and unflinching fighter for equality on all grounds viz. Women's rights, child rights, sine die.

Twitter: @syd_field