Yemen: The Human Story

BaraashIban Middle East/North Africa, Yemen

On the 26th March citizens of the capital of Yemen, Sanaa, woke up to a series of air strikes by a coalition of forces led by the biggest neighboring country, Saudi Arabia. The operation named ‘Decisive Storm’ was initiated after the President of Yemen Abd Rabo Mansoor Hadi appealed to the Arab League to protect the country from the Houthi rebels who now control large swathes of Yemen. A relentless Houthi campaign backed by security forces loyal to former president Ali Abdullah Saleh had advanced into the South taking the major city of Taiz along the way and forced President Hadi to flee the southern city of Aden for the Saudi capital, Riyadh.

It has been 46 days since the Saudi-led air strikes started targeting Houthi bases across Yemen, instigating a heated debate between all political factions of the country on the legality and necessity of such an act to save a President and government that came to power after 33 years of dictatorship. In the midst of this debate, the human story is usually forgotten.

Shuaib Al-Gudaimy is a youth activist who took to the streets in 2011 to protest against the dictatorial regime. He is now in the port city of Hodaidah, having fled the capital after Houthi rebels stormed into his parents’ house searching for him. Shuaib, as one of the main breadwinners of the family, now works in the local market as a porter carrying people’s goods in and out of the market.

Shuaib said: “Some people give me 100 Yemeni Rials, others give me 200. By the end of the day, I get an average of 700 Yemeni Rials”. This equates to 2 US Dollars. “I don’t know how much I can keep and how much I can save to send my family” he said.

Yemen was already a poor country before the recent conflict started, with more than half of Yemenis living on $2 a day. The United Nations Office for the Coordination Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) stated that approximately 15.9 Million people – almost 60% of the population – were in need of humanitarian assistance to maintain basic living standards. Today the same organization estimates that 12 million Yemenis are food insecure and over 300 thousand have been displaced by the current war, and as the war scale expands into new areas, this number will only increase.

“It has been 7 days without electricity” Shuaib said. “People are standing in long queues to buy buckets of ice. The price has increased from 700 Rials to 1600”. Hodaidah is a coastal city where the heat is sweltering, making people’s lives near impossible without air conditioning or electricity. Shuaib elaborated on the living conditions in Hudaidah stating “people go out to sleep in the streets; it’s impossible to sleep inside when there is no electricity.

Shuaib’s priorities like many other Yemenis have shifted from being an activist into a human being trying to secure basic living necessities for him and his family.

While most of the politicians from all parties will agree that there is a deteriorating humanitarian situation, they would also agree that now is not the right time to address them. It is at the end of the day a bargaining chip to use to pressure on the other side to bring an end to the war.

Saudi Arabia announced on Friday through their Ministry of Defense spokesman General Al-Assiri that the city of Saada is a military target and asked all civilians to evacuate the city to avoid being caught in the cross fire. The Houthis and Saudi Arabia may be planning for a long period of conflict but the normal Yemeni citizen cannot endure such a conflict for a lengthy period of time.

Yemen already imports 80% of its food, 90% of its wheat and 100% of its rice. Food prices have soared, some triple their original prices, due to the lack of fuel and food supplies coming into the country. This means that as long as the conflict continues, the 40% of people who were able to secure their own food will eventually not be able to do so, and the money that they are in hold of will soon lose its value.

The Houthis spokesman said on their main channel ‘Al-Masirah’ two weeks ago that the movement is able to resist the Saudi forces longer than anyone can imagine. The movement as a fighting force might be able to stand but the Yemeni people definitely cannot stand the conflict any longer.

Saudi Arabia have the funding to prevent the Houthis from advancing for the time being and stem what it believes is the threat from Iran. However with half of the amount spent on the ‘Decisive Storm’ campaign, it could have enabled the Yemeni government to provide goods and services to the people and saved the legitimacy of President Hadi even before Houthi reached the capital and forced the government to flee.

The deteriorating humanitarian situation should be top in the agenda of all United Nations meetings on Yemen, and should be on the headlines of all news talks instead of having endless political debates on who is legitimate and who is not.

Signs show that the war will continue for at least the coming year with no clear sign as to what the outcome will be. What is clear however is that the Yemeni people will lose lives, their future, and the hope of a stable country.

Baraa Shiban is the Yemen project coordinator for the international human rights NGO Reprieve. He was a member of Yemen’s National Dialogue from 2012-14.