As Yemen teeters on the brink of collapse, Yemenis speak out about the “forgotten war” ravaging their country
“It’s unbelievable;” “staggering;” “you can’t imagine it.”
These are some of the words used to describe the deteriorating situation in Yemen, where a coalition of states led by the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has carried out a harsh bombing campaign since March of 2015.
After less than two years of conflict, Yemenis and international observers are sounding alarms over what has quickly declined into an unprecedented humanitarian crisis for the country of 25 million people.
“What’s really happening now is that people are dying of hunger, dying of simple diseases,” said Mohammed al Wazir, a 27-year-old Yemeni-American and an accounting student at Eastern Michigan University.
As if to emphasize their gravity, al Wazir’s words bounced and echoed off the walls of the small study room in which we sat. The macabre details of the conflict poured out of him in a calm, soft-spoken voice.
While he currently lives in Michigan, most members of al Wazir’s family still reside in Yemen and face the dangers of the war. In Sana’a, Yemen’s capital city and a frequent target for coalition airstrikes, al Wazir’s mother has operated a K-12 school for over 10 years; but that may soon end.
“Business was slow at first, but eventually the school became prosperous,” al Wazir said. “But now, with the war, people are scared. They’re not letting their kids go out anymore.” He added that his own young siblings still attend school in Yemen, but only accompanied by an all-day chauffeur who can rush them to safety at a moment’s notice.
Though Yemen has been wracked by a series of internal conflicts that predate the current conflagration by decades, such extreme safety precautions were never necessary before, al Wazir explained, especially in the capital city.
The nine-state coalition led by Saudi Arabia began its bombing campaign in Yemen last year to restore President Abd Rabbuh Mansour Hadi to power after he was deposed by Houthi rebels, a political-religious group based in Yemen’s mountainous northern region. The rebels, who stormed Sana’a in 2014 and forced Hadi’s resignation, now receive somewhat wide support in the country.
After living under the constant threat of airstrikes for over a year and a half, psychological strains have begun to afflict many Yemenis.
“My father traveled for about six months—he left Yemen,” al Wazir said. “He could live with the distress, but my siblings couldn’t take it anymore. My sister started having mental issues because of how worried she was. She wouldn’t let my father leave home.”
The war has not spared al Wazir, either, even from afar. He said the worst part is “having that anger and stress on you all the time, knowing there are bombings happening. You always want to know what’s going on—the news, the news, the news.”
Another Yemeni-American exchange student, 19-year-old Haitham al Mutarreb, also described the trauma of the war. Before leaving Yemen for the United States in early 2016, al Mutarreb witnessed firsthand the carnage of coalition aerial bombardment.
“You can’t imagine it,” al Mutarreb said. “I saw three airstrikes while I was on the street—I saw pieces of metal flying through storefronts, people getting injured. It was crazy.”
In the past year, al Mutarreb has lost several friends.
“[The coalition] started striking factories,” al Mutarreb said with some bewilderment in his voice. “Across the street from my home there’s a Coca Cola factory. I don’t know why, but they bombed that. A lot of the workers [from the factory] were killed, including my friend. He was only 17 years old.”
“[The coalition] bombed a bottled water plant recently, they bombed markets, they bombed farms and livestock—the sources of food,” al Wazir said, now more visibly frustrated. “They started a blockade, bombed all the ports and stopped aid and medicine from coming into Yemen.”
“In some cities, like Hodeida, people are actually dying of starvation,” al Wazir said. “It’s more than severe; it’s unbelievable.”
Yemen imports nearly 90 percent of its staple foods, such as wheat and other cereal grains. The war has not only left many domestic farms and food production facilities in ruin, but has disrupted markets and distribution networks across the country, leading to skyrocketing prices in some areas for what little food that remains.
“The numbers are staggering,” said Etienne Peterschmitt, emergency response team leader for the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization. 14.4 million Yemenis, over half of the country’s population, are currently food insecure.
With American assistance, the coalition also enforces a naval blockade that prevents commercial shipping from entering Yemen’s ports. That makes food, fuel and medical supplies even harder to come by.
Signs of desperation are beginning to show: last month, al Wazir’s mother was the victim of a burglary. Though high walls surround her apartment building, thieves managed to slip into the complex and pry open her iron-barred windows while she was away.
“They stole a lot of things from her apartment,” al Wazir said. “I think they were desperate. More and more people are getting to that point—stealing and robbing.”
Beyond the humanitarian toll of the war, Yemen’s national heritage is also at stake. Al Wazir and al Mutarreb both spoke in the gravest terms about what effects Saudi strikes have had on Yemen’s ancient cultural artifacts, among the oldest in the world.
Coalition bombs struck several UNESCO World Heritage sites last year in the Old City of Sana’a, reducing thousands of historical houses to rubble, as well as that city’s Great Mosque, a centuries-old place of worship.
“They’re destroying the architecture, the heritage of Yemen,” said Nasser Arrabyee, a Yemeni journalist based in Sana’a. Arrabyee has written for publications such as the New York Times and the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. He also runs his own media company, Yemen Alaan.
“The Old City of Sana’a is only one of the more famous sites that people from outside know about,” Arrabyee said. “Saudi Arabia is deliberately destroying every beautiful thing in terms of culture or history, anything that relates to the history of Yemen.” He described the actions of the coalition as war crimes.
“There’s a castle in Taiz on top of a mountain,” al Wazir said. “It’s very old and beautiful, but [the coalition] bombed it, they destroyed it. And the old dam of Marib—it’s part of the origins of the Arab people. This thing goes back before the time of Solomon—pre-Islam, pre-Christianity, even. It’s almost 3,000 years old, and they bombed that, too.”
In mid-November, some Yemenis were hopeful after the Saudi-led coalition agreed to a 48-hour ceasefire arrangement, but Arrabyee said nothing changed.
“It’s lies, one hundred percent,” Arrabyee said. “No ceasefire, no truce happened at all. There are airstrikes every day.”
Despite their otherwise grim prognoses, all three Yemenis hold out hope for an end to the conflict. They said that with the arrival of a new American administration and a diplomatic reshuffling, perhaps Western support will dry up—support some believe is essential to the coalition’s campaign.
“They’re starving people, they’re destroying everything,” al Wazir said of the Saudi-led coalition. “How far are they going to go? They’re not gaining anything, so what’s the point? There’s no way they can get a victory out of this.”