Yemen unveiledI saw a man being forced into a van in Sana’a. He was trying to free himself from the hold of ten men who, through punching and kicking, were forcing him into the back of the vehicle, while others were ordering him not to move, with their weapons pointed at him. I saw barricades made out of bricks, sandbags and rocks. Wrecked cars stacked up like they were miniature models. The Arabia Felix, known since the time of the ancient Romans for its incense, myrrh and lucrative commercial trades, is now a distant memory as, above all, in Yemen today there is death, destruction and suffering. Plus a plant, that everyone crams their mouths with, chewing its leaves until their cheeks become deformed: Khat (Qat). Similar to the effects produced by amphetamine, it eliminates the feeling 0f fatigue, causes both loss of sleep and appetite, inducing manic behavior and hyperactivity; the perfect drug for a country starving from the war, narcotized and used as a battleground for both Saudi Arabia and Iran for hegemony in the region.
An umpteenth proxy war that forms part of a wider context of the conflict between Russia and the United States, it has already been seen in the Ukraine and Syria in the same manner. Then there are, of course, the billions of dollars spent by the various actors at the international meetings for war shopping and there are also the crumbled remains of a nation to be shared out and rebuilt in the future, but the real reasons for the conflict flew out the window along with the etymological misunderstanding of the semantic interpretation for the very name of the country (“on the right”, “southern”, “happy”, “thriving”). The UN embargo was skillfully circumvented by the USA, the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Italy and Spain, which continue to do business with Saudi Arabia, making a mockery of the global Arms Trade Treaty.
Germany's ban on arms exports to Saudi Arabia was announced in October 2018, only after the brutal murder of the Saudi dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi. If the aim were to arm people to the teeth, the mission could be classed as successful. Notwithstanding the proclamations of the Houthi rebels on the walls which read “Death to America, death to Israel, damnation to the Jews”, rendered in red, framed by “God is great” and “Victory to Islam” in green on a white background, the emulation of the American model in the gun culture is blatantly obvious in Yemen. Here children do not go to school with guns or semiautomatic rifles, as is the case in the USA; most of them no longer go to school at all because, so far, more than 340 schools have been destroyed by the bombings. Nevertheless, I saw child soldiers almost everywhere, from north to south, across nearly 100 check-points, controlled by the different warring factions, and two frontlines.
So, kids make 2 thousand riyal a day, the equivalent of approximately 5 dollars. They inspect vehicles and transit permits of those who decide to travel across what remains of a country racked by a civil war that has been going on for 4 years now. Sometimes words can be deceptive, purposely, but in this war, as in all others, there’s nothing civil about it. According to the United Nations (UN) estimates, this is the world's worst humanitarian crisis, with 20 million people who are in need of protection and humanitarian assistance due to the lack of health services and supplies.
One third of the population is experiencing a severe lack of food; there are those who die at home of food poisoning caused by contaminated food, others who do not have access to safe drinking water. The polluted wells and the infected water, last year alone, caused more than one million cases of diarrhea and cholera. In this context, civilians are enduring an inhuman situation, deliberately targeted by aerial bombardments, missiles, snipers, crossfire, anti-personnel landmines and stray bullets. The conflict has caused the death of 10 thousand people; 3 million have lost their homes and are now internally displaced persons without any possibility of leaving the country. Due to the inaccessibility for foreign media, which are rarely issued with a visa, this war has not been widely documented at an international level. Whilst at a local level it’s hard to find any information that gets to escape the propaganda precepts, because the conflicting parties control almost all the media. It is not surprising that Yemen is ranked 166th out of 180 countries in the press freedom index published by Reporters Without Borders (RSF).
During my journey, I was not creating a myth with one side of the conflict or the other, but I followed doctors and nurses who operate, treat and care for sick people in the hospitals. So I had the possibility to be a witness of the resilience of the civilian population. Observing and documenting, without idealizing who was fighting who, but on the side of those who suffered. According to the Yemen Data Project, an independent initiative aimed at collecting and disseminating data on the war in Yemen; of the 16,749 air raids and military actions recorded till March 2018, for about a third the target was unknown and for one-third the air raids hit non-military sites causing civilian casualties. Since 2015, both the Saudi-led coalition air-strikes and the U.S. drones engaged in the “war on terror” have created hundreds of victims and injuries among defenseless civilians, as well as the Houthis and the anti-Houthi government forces that have made themselves the main characters of explosive and missile launches in residential areas.
The collateral damage of a conflict that spares no one, in any respect. Prices have increased on average by 300 percent for foodstuffs. A 10 kilo bag of rice has gone from roughly 7 dollars before the conflict, to 40 dollars in 2018. The cost of fuel has increased by 800 percent: before 20 liters cost about 5 dollars, now 40 dollars. It’s as if there’s honey around the gas stations along with many busy bees that are discussing how to share it among themselves. The same scene repeats itself in every city, from north to south. The blackened feet of the kids, the blank stares of the youths and the corrugated faces of the men are framed along with the empty and rusty gas cylinders arranged in line. Everyone awaiting their turn, everybody is ready to pay 35 dollars to fill a cylinder; here again, the increase is about 700 percent.
Heading South, Sana’a - Ad Dhale
From the ghost airport of the capital to Ad Dhale, the stronghold of the Salafi Resistance loyal to president Hadi, down to Taiz, “Khalas” is the word which is pronounced most often. An Arabic term used to mean that you are fed up with something or that something is completely and irrevocably over and done with. In the Medina (the old city) and in the Ad Dhale city center, I saw the void left by the bombs. In 2015, there was heavy fighting in front of the rugged mountains surrounding the capital of the namesake governorate, although the siege operated by the Houthi “rebels” who came from Sana’a, found it didn’t work out so well there; the pro-Hadi forces together with the tough Salafis managed to fight them off.
Now the frontline is 50 kilometers away. A local resident confessed to me that the rebels who died in the Medina were never been buried. Their bodies were left in the streets and the animals did the rest. There, among the ruins, puppies are everywhere. At night, during hostilities, the continuous barking of the dogs is like an alarm going off along the dark and dusty streets. Even the beasts, as skinny and scrawny as the men, are sick of the explosions. In the photographs I shot while I was there, taken not far from the former military outpost of the Resistance, the local residents are working hard to rebuild or to patch up some houses, while some girls are happily bouncing on a trampoline. Three goats are sleepily resting on the ruins of a destroyed house, in front of a breathtaking panorama. In spite of everything, life goes on. This is also the war with its spirit of adaptability and the hope of getting back to normal.
In front of the Al-Nasser Hospital, remnant of the English colonial past, the signs recall that no daggers, guns, bombs or rifles are allowed to be carried inside. And no colored plastic bags of Khat, either. Access to treatment is a major problem. For over two years the Ministry of Health has not been paying salaries and the public hospitals no longer function. It is only thanks to the support of the NGOs that free access to medicines and emergency surgery, between the ER and operating rooms, can be guaranteed. The other options are the private health facilities, but there you have to pay for everything. An elderly person told me that even if you are hopelessly dying and you manage to get there, you still have to pay 3 thousand riyal before they pronounce you dead. I met a doctor, on mission for 6 months, being celebrated by his patients and their family members around the hospital wards. Nikos, half Greek and half German, together with his Afghan colleague doctor Wahid, saves the lives of babies, children, of the young and the old, fighters and civilians. Every day, he shares the experience he has accumulated in ten years of working in the most difficult places between Latin America and the Middle East, with his Yemeni colleagues. He decided to become a doctor through vocation.
He was diagnosed with cancer when he was 8 years old. The doctors who saved his life became his “heroes”. And, today, in turn he is becoming the hero for many hopeless people with no means who arrive in the greenish wards of the hospital where he works. The leading cause of death is obviously due to firearms, followed by road accidents, then common diseases and “Happy shooting”. Every time there is a wedding celebration in Yemen, someone ends up in the hospital. Of those who die accidentally, through others who are merely celebrating, they say it was “destiny”. Outside the hospital, a 3-year-old innocent child has started miming the actions of the adults, pointing his toy Kalashnikov at me and saying he would kill me. That he would kill everybody. I saw and photographed people, moments and landscapes that I shall never forget. However, I have also memorized in my mind’s eye things I couldn’t bring myself to shoot, even though I wished to.
The roots of the conflict
To get a complete picture of the context, the causes for the Yemeni political precariousness also have to be analyzed, rooted in a long history of conflicts. They propose, in a smaller scale, the same ongoing dynamics throughout the entire Middle East. In the course of time, the alternation of dictatorships, colonialism, revolutions and external strategic interests, have scarred the poorest country in the Arabic Peninsula, far beyond the eternal conflict between Sunnis and Shiites, two schools of thought in Islam. In 1962, the coup against the monarchy of North Yemen, led to a civil war that lasted 8 years, involving Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Soviet Union, and United States. In 1967 South Yemen obtained independence from the English colonists, but only 19 years later, it had to endure a brutal, albeit short, civil war. Since 1978, Ali Abdullah Saleh has been governing the North Yemen, and once the unification of the North and South Yemen States took place in May 1990, he had the whole country in his hands, but the internal separatist pressures were bound to re-emerge. Under Saleh presidency, domestic politics was based on the close monitoring of military apparatus. Cronyism and brutal measures against dissidents did the rest, with a foreign policy aimed at driving his interlocutors and his opponent’s one against each other. As was the case in Saada between 2004 and 2010, when, on several occasions, the Saudis attacked the Houthis officially stating that it was about defending the territorial integrity of the Kingdom. Nonetheless, the central government in Yemen never had full control of the territory: the legitimacy of tribal groups has always been more important than national laws. And the request of the Houthis to put an end to the growing socio-economic marginalization and to the religious discrimination against the Zaidi community in Yemen was bound to explode again. The economic crisis, corruption and terrorist attacks, which had exacerbated the separatist issue with the South again, favored the rise of Houthis, who first started the protests and then the revolution, which resulted in the current civil war. The intermediate step was the Yemeni Spring, culminating in 2012 in the departure of Saleh from the scene, who formally left the power in the hands of his deputy, Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi, but he kept leading his party and spinning his webs by controlling the key men in the army.
Attacks in Yemen from 2016 to 2019Source: ACLED (Updated dates at 1th july 2019)The military players in the field
The presence of the players in the field in this theatre of conflict cannot be simplified, if we want to understand the complexities of the numerous groups and of the interests involved. The Zaidi rebels, also known as Ansar Allah or Houthi (named after their former leader Hussein Badr al-Din al-Houthi) are a Zaidi Hashemite political movement which is rooted in the mountainous areas near the border with Saudi Arabia. Zaidism, associated to the Shiite Islamic stream, is one of the main Islamic sects in the North of Yemen and the term “Hashemite” indicates a direct descendant from the Islam prophet. The Zaidis governed North Yemen for a thousand years, till 1962, the year of the Republican Revolution, supported by the Egypt of Nasser. Nonetheless, the Zaidi royal family continued to be venerated for its direct progeny from the prophet and, along with its supporters in the north-west of the country, kept a low profile until radical Salafism started spreading, favored by Saudi Arabia and made possible by the former president Saleh.
In view of all this, the 3 years of alliance between the Houthis and Saleh in the current conflict seem even more surreal, even if dictated solely by self-interest. They tipped their hand at the end of 2017, when Saleh tried to play both sides by reopening talks with Saudi Arabia. After having ordered his militias to fight against the Houthis, just two days later, he was killed by his former allies while trying to escape from Sana’a. The enemies of the Houthis, in addition to Saleh’s former allies and to the Hadi government are, above all Al Qaeda, the USA and Israel with Iran being their main ally. For this reason, the interests of Saudi Arabia, which leads the Arab coalition which intervened in the conflict in support of the government forces of the current president are, in effect, right on their doorstep. Yemen is coveted by everyone for its strategic location, controlling the part of the Bab-el-Mandeb Strait which links the Red Sea to the Gulf of Aden; important both as an oil passage and as a trade route. Furthermore, the progress of the Houthis and, consequently, of the Shiite Yemenis, could also strengthen the Shiite minority which, every now and then, challenges the Sunni monarchy’s power in Eastern Saudi Arabia. Then there are the Salafis, part of the Sunni Islam, who follow an ideology, and are pretty conservative; there is also the Islah party, an agglomeration of sheiks, religious and business groups which include the Muslim Brotherhood and the ultra-conservative Salafis. All of them are part of the anti-Houthi coalition. Along with the southern movement “Al Hiraq”, which primarily counter to the north.
In the South-East of the country, formally under legitimate government control, Al Qaeda in the Arabic Peninsula, Ansar al-Shari’a and Isis, keep launching terrorist attacks, while the USA are trying to hit key positions. Finally, there is a myriad of militias and armed groups that only answer in their own interests, continue to proliferate in the chaos. This has led to the current tinderbox, where alliances are shaken, friends become enemies and no one can trust anyone else.
Taiz, outside the enclave
My third stage, after Ad Dhale and Sana’a, is the third most heavily populated city in the country. Taiz, capital of the namesake governorate, houses approximately 5-6 million inhabitants and has been under siege by the Houthis for 3 years. The battles have been going on both on the eastern and northern fronts, but the most brutal fighting is taking place on the western front. The Hadi government forces, with the air support of Ryad and of all the actors composing the Resistance front, are attempting to break the siege from every direction. In one of the few schools still standing, the kids go to attend lessons in the morning, and when lessons finish at midday, tens of displaced families arrive to cook something and have a rest with a roof over their heads. Thousands are camped in tents, others sleep in the streets. At the beginning of 2015, when the rebels invaded the city and fighting began, many civilians left the city center. They were told they could have gone back shortly afterwards, but most of them lost their homes and went to settle in the outskirts of Taiz Hoban, about 3 kilometers from the frontline. I spent 10 days there, inside a five-story building, originally a hotel and then turned into a hospital: the “Mother and Child Hospital”. There is an emergency room and a cholera treatment center on the ground floor. The influx of patients is huge. An anti-vehicle barrier made of concrete separates the street from the hospital. Peddlers have set up their stands in the in-between. Ice cream, sweets, food (sometimes expired), cigarettes, mother and baby clothes. There is a little bit of everything, including Houthi fighters sitting near the stands. Behind them, the drivers rest in their vans with their feet sticking out, while someone is trying to sleep under the sun which reaches 30 degrees in the month of March. Everyone comes from a different village; a long way to benefit from free healthcare assistance. Three-year-old little Hassan, was said to be doomed in another hospital, came in with his aunt; his mother had lost another baby and was sick at home with Post-traumatic stress disorder. A poor family, like so many others, surviving through the cultivation and sale of Khat. Hassan suffers from Thrombocytopenia Anemia and malnutrition, the doctors and nurses who have managed to save his life, have renamed him the “miracle baby”. Fifty meters away, inside another building connected internally to the MCH, there is the “trauma center”, where mainly people with gunshot injuries arrive. Doctor Taufiq, originally from Aden, lives in Taiz and often does the night shift. After 10 p.m. no one can enter. Due to the curfew, it’s impossible to cross the frontline or to pass the checkpoints. In the areas where they live, doctors are training people to stop a hemorrhage in order to give civilians the possibility to last the night and to stay alive until the morning. When they get to the hospital, it’s a race against time. Kids injured by shrapnel or by rocks scattered by explosions while playing in the street or in their own backyard. On 18 March a 25-year-old girl was doing her laundry in the Al Adena district, when she was seriously wounded by an explosion; she arrived in critical conditions accompanied by her cousin. Imar Abdu Najei is her name. Doctor Taufiq, along with other doctors and nurses, were trying to stabilize her: four blood transfusions and a transfer to another medical facility. Imar made it, but she lost both of her legs. Doctors wait under the same sky, with the thunder of airplanes and the dust in their eyes, living on a daily basis, with the fear that something terrible and irreparable could happen. Some months ago, one of their colleagues, Ebraheem Abdulrahman Abdo Mohammed, who went out shopping, returned to the trauma center dying. When they recognized their friend, they all started crying. Because of the difficult living conditions, he had moved, along with his family, from Aden to Al-Hoddiada, and finally to Taiz.
He was happy to work as a watchman at the MCH; with his salary he was able to feed his mother, two brothers and one sister. Ebraheem was a gentle, smiling and warm-hearted person, who died at the age of 24, when a shell hit a local market. Now, one of his brothers has been hired to take his place. The peace talks have already failed many times and nobody seems to really want to silence the weapons. Many analysts cite Bosnia as a basis of comparison to Yemen; it has been increasingly recognized the idea of freezing the conflict through the division of the country in an ethnic-religious mosaic able to guarantee the interests of all. In other words: those of nobody. Under the Latin motto “divide et impera”, revised in a Middle Eastern key, on the backs of Yemeni civilians.
text and photo by Matteo Bastianelligraphic project by: Sara Salmoiraghigraphic project by: Sara Salmoiraghi