As I sit translating a news report on the war in Yemen, Adel’s face floats before my eyes. I often think of contacting him, but it somehow doesn’t happen. But from his Facebook posts, at least I know he is safe. And then after communicating with him over Messenger, I start reading his posts with more attention. In one of his posts he wrote: “It’s so painful when your loved ones are suffering but you can do nothing.”
I met my friend Adel Al-Haddad back in August 2005. Armed with a scholarship from the Indian government, four of us women journalists from Bangladesh were doing a diploma course at the Indian Institute of Mass Communications (IIMC) in Delhi. We were Rozina Islam, Angur Nahar Monty and myself, along with freelancer Alpha Arzu, a Bangladesh expatriate living in Australia.
There were journalists from 14 different countries and Adel was doing the course with us. Yemeni people can be of mixed appearance, both dark and fair in complexion. Adel had Arab features. English was not his first language and we often faltered in understanding what he was meaning to say.
At the beginning of the course, everyone was asked to wear their national costumes. Adel appeared on the scene, resplendent in his magnificent attire, like a prince from the Arabian Nights – a turban on his head, a knife sheathed at his waist and sceptre in hand. “This,” he replied to our curious gazes, “is our national costume.”
Quiet by nature, Adel replied to my queries. He wrote about his anguish of being unable to help his loved ones. He said he had been living in Saudi Arabia since 2012 with his wife and their three children. He is not involved as such in journalism anymore. The last time he visited Yemen was in 2014. After that, because of the war, he no longer goes to Yemen. He tried to go last year but failed. This year he is determined to go in August.
“Adel, are you sure it’s safe going there during the war?” I was concerned.
He replied, “My parents, my brothers and sisters, my relations are all there. I am going there to see my mother and father. I can’t wait anymore. The situation is really difficult, worse than Syria. I hope this war ends. Women and children are going through unimaginable horrors. Men have no jobs. There is no money, no food, no medicines.”
“How will you go?”
“It’s very dangerous travelling there. You can neither go by air nor sea. You have to cross the border and that is not easy.”
He said his hometown Ibb was still safe and the war hadn’t spread there. Ibb is in central Yemen. The war was up North, under control of the anti-government Iran-backed Houthis. There’s no war down South now. The government forces are in control there. But the president or the ministers don’t stay there. They all live safely in Saudi Arabia or in UAE. The president lives in Saudi Arabia. “Saudi means money, Saudi means safety.”
I continued to question him. “Who do you personally blame for this war?”
“Both sides,” was Adel’s reply. “And it is the common people who are suffering. The head of government fled the country and the Houthis grabbed all Yemen’s money and resources. They are running the country. They live lives of luxury, but that does not appear in the media. Even the assistance from the UN goes to them more than to those who are suffering.”
“The Houthis must have a lot of support.”
Adel disagrees, “Yemen is made up of a 90 per cent Sunni population and the Houthis as Shiites. They are a small group. But they have the army, banks and other sectors in their control and this has made them strong. The people can’t even flee from the country. Those who can afford it are going off to Europe, America and Arab countries. But there are very few who can do so. Saudi Arabia is leading the war against the Houthis, but they don’t allow any Yemeni refugee to cross over the border. Iran is also responsible for the war. There is the US on one side and Russia on the other.”
News in the international media reflected Adel’s words. While the Houthi conflict with the Hadi government raged, Saudi Arabia and its allies launched an attack there with arms and ammunition procured from the US. The Houthis fought back with arms from Iran. And amidst all this, the innocent children starved, reduced to skin and bone. One of the poorest country’s of the word, Yemen is gradually being obliterated by the war.
Why the war?
Winds of change had hit Yemen too, with mass uprisings for change in political leadership. The West had dubbed this as ‘Arab Spring’. The movement dislodged President Ali Abdullah Saleh from his 33 years at the helm and in 2011 he handed over power to his deputy Abdullah Mansur Hadi. Then on 4 November 2017, the autocrat Ali Abdullah Saleh was killed in Sana’a while fighting against the Houthis.
After taking over presidency, Mansur Hadi was assailed by all sorts of pressures – attacks by the jihadis, insurgency down south, forces loyal to Saleh within the army, corruption, unemployment and food scarcity.
Taking advantage of the new president’s weakness, the Houthis grew in strength and gained foothold in the north. Fed up with the failure of the government, towards the end of 2014 and beginning of 2015, the Sunnis began supporting the Houthis. The rebels took over Sana’a as well at the time.
Saleh loyalists in the army joined hands with the Houthis and went all out in their efforts to take over the country. In 2015 Mansur Hadi fled the country.
It is said the Iran was a catalyst to the rising Shiite power in the region. The Sunni countries thus joined forces to thwart the Shiites in a counter attack. Eight Arab countries, mostly Sunni, exerted their influence to install the Hadi government in power. Saudi Arabia predicted the war would only last a couple of weeks, but it has been four years now with no end to the war in sight.
In August 2015, the Saudi-backed coalition took control of the port city Aden in the south. This region down south was cleared of Houthis and their allies within a few months. The Hadi government set up temporary residence in Aden. However, the government failed to address the minimum needs and security of the people.
The Saudi alliance failed to evict the Houthis. On the contrary, the Houthis took over the town Taizz and set up ballistic missiles along the Saudi border. In November 2017 they fired missiles at Riyadh and the Saudis retaliated with strict sanctions against Yemen.
In April 2018, the leader of the Houthi political council Saleh Al Samad was killed in a Saudi attack and now 40-year-old Abdul Malek Al-Houthi is said to be at the helm.
The Saudi coalition accuses Iran of handing nuclear weapons over to the Houthi forces. Iran rejects the claim. Meanwhile, the Saudi coalition sanctions have led to the common people in Yemen to suffer from food shortage. The energy crisis has been exacerbated too.
Meanwhile the international militant organisations Al-Qaeda and IS are taking full advantage of the situation in Yemen.
Hudaydah port on the Red Sea is considered the lifeline for two-thirds of Yemen’s people. The UN has warned that if this port is taken over, there will be a serious humanitarian crisis. In December last year, the Hadi government and the Houthis agreed to a ceasefire at the Hudaydah port town and both sides agreed to withdraw their troops by January this year from the area. However, no troops have been withdrawn till now, raising questions about how far the agreement will actually be implemented.
Why are the Yemenis paying the price?
While the war rages, the common people of Yemen are paying the price. People like Mohammad, Samiya suffer. I read their stories in the media. So many Yemenis like Mohammad have fled their homes and over the past three years have been taking shelter here and there.
Mohammad’s child was born in a refugee camp. Mohammad said, I have forgotten what it is like to have a real home. There are 3.3 million Yemenis homeless like Mohammad.
Samiya says the war has robbed her children the right to education. Her children now gather firewood with her to sell and and earn a living. There are 2 million children like Samiya’s, deprived of schooling.
Yemen is facing the worst manmade humanitarian crisis in the world.
According to the UN, if this war continues, Yemen will face the world’s worst famine in a hundred years. From March 2015, so far 7025 persons have been killed in this war. And 11,140 have been injured. Of this, 65 per cent were killed in the attack of the Saudi coalition.
International organisations estimate the death rate to be much higher. Analysing news reports concerning the Yemen war, the US-based Armed Conflict Location and Event Data project states that from January 2016 till now, 67,650 soldiers and civilians have died.
The US says 80 per cent of the people of Yemen, that is 24 million, need humanitarian aid and protection. And 2.4 million face acute food shortage.
Save the Children says from April 2015 till October 2018, a total of 85,000 children died of severe malnutrition.
According to the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRS), 3.2 million women and children in Yemen are suffering from malnutrition. Over the last three years, the ratio of malnutrition among children has gone up by 90 per cent. And from June last year till now, 685,000 people have fled from the west coast.
The inevitable question arises, why has Yemen become so pivotal in the conflict?
Yemen has a key strategic position. It is located in a strait that connects the Red Sea with the Aden gulf area. Most oil tankers of the world use this route. And that is why the western world is so desperate to keep Yemen in Saudi-US axis of control.
But the more that the unrest unfolds in the country, the more Al Qaeda and IS will raise its head in the region. And of course there is the conflict between the Sunni-dominated Saudi Arabia and the Shiite Iran.
Meanwhile, my friend Adel continues to live away from his country, filled with angst for his loved ones back in Yemen.
* Nazneen Akhter is a journalist. This piece appeared in the online edition of Prothom Alo in Bangla and has been rewritten in English by Ayesha Kabir