The eyes of the world, and most certainly those of Yemen’s severely traumatized populous, have been fixed on the peace consultations in Rimbo, Sweden – a last-ditch attempt by the international community to save what is left of the country from “the brink of death," as Lise Grande, United Nations Humanitarian Coordinator for Yemen, put it.
Warscapes asked me to give a grounds-eye view from Sana’a, Yemen’s capital, of the key issues contested in Rimbo by representatives of the Yemen’s Saudi-backed government and the Houthi rebels, who control a significant part of the country.
On Thursday, there were two pieces of late-breaking good news:
After week-long peace talks, the Yemeni government and Houthi rebels agreed to a cease-fire in Hodeidah, the country’s most important port, meant to ease the transit of food, medicine and fuel and pull the country back from the absolute brink. Also included is a mass prisoner swap.
Also, in an historic action in the US Senate, lawmakers voted 56-41 to withdraw US support of the Saudi-led war, the first time the US Congress has moved to pull US forces from a military conflict under the 1973 War Powers Act. Though the measure is non-binding and unlikely to become law, its bipartisan support was seen as a powerful rebuke to President Trump’s support of Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who is responsible not only for war crimes in Yemen, but the gruesome murder in October of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi consulate in Turkey.
We Yemenis are desperate for relief. Four years of bloody war here have killed more than 50 thousand civilians and precipitated the world’s worst humanitarian disaster, with seven million Yemeni children going hungry, some 400 thousand of those facing life-threating acute malnutrition. “There is no excuse for these dark realities in the 21st century,” as UNICEF regional director Geert Cappelaere described Yemen’s tragedy. “Wars, deep economic crises and decades of underdevelopment have not spared a single girl or boy in Yemen. The suffering of children is all man-made."
If there is a silver lining to the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, it is that the incident has finally focused the international media and broader international community on the humanitarian catastrophe Yemenis live with every day. The now iconic image of emaciated seven-year-old Amal Hussein, photographed by The New York Times in her last days of life (she succumbed to starvation on November 1st), has drawn attention to the famine and starvation that have gripped the country. But Amal’s acute starvation is one of several varying faces of the war’s deprivation. I will try to give a more nuanced view of the situation as one sees it day to day, as the struggle for daily sustenance varies from the capital to the country.
I currently live in Sana’a, but travel widely in the country both for work (as an analyst working with journalists and aid organizations) and for personal reasons, as much of my family remains hunkered down in our ancestral village. The images of extreme starvation are most certainly real, but they are reflective more of the situation in the countryside than the urban centers. That said, most of Yemen’s population lives in rural areas.
Driving through the main middle- and northern highlands of Yemen – visiting the capital cities of its various governorates as well surrounding rural areas – one can easily observe the struggle and suffering. The bigger cities look now more like small town in that activity is drastically curtailed, any semblance of their former vibrancy visible for only two- or three hours maxevery morning. The markets aren’t busy, to say the least, with commerce shrunken and shrinking further with time.
One can easily identify large numbers of internally displaced people (IDPs) and their impact on conditions in hosting communities. Yet, at the same time, it becomes increasingly difficult to distinguish between locals and the displaced, as compounding hardships extend to everyone. Cash is sparse, and the effort to secure daily bread alone takes a toll. In markets I visited in rural areas in the midlands, the numbers of poor families and beggars wandering around is, really, exceeding the numbers of actual buyers from the surrounding villages.
With the absence of gas and fuel, local bakeries increasingly depend on wood to fire their ovens, and the price of bread has been increasing. Meanwhile, transportation prices – if transport is available, and the roads safe from clashes or airstrikes – keep doubling. In general, traffic has decreased substantially on main- and lesser roads. It is as if the populace of the countryside wakes every week for just an hour or two, then goes back to sleep again.
The relentless battle for Hodeidah – Yemen’s fourth largest city and principal Red Sea port – as well as the collapse of the Yemen’s currency, the rial, which has lost 75 percent of its value since 2015, in particular have made survival extremely difficult for common Yemenis, driving scores to spending their energy searching for local- and/or international aid organizations to register with in hopes of being lucky enough to get a charity food basket to feed their families.
Hunger and starvation, as UNICEF’s regional director put it in the quote above, are indeed “man-made,” part of a systematic strategy by the Saudi- and United Arab Emirates-led Coalition and their western allies since the start of the war. Intentionality is evidenced by their relentless, targeted airstrikes against all kinds of local food supplies, local food factories, agricultural projects and, it seems, almost all chicken farms. The Coalition has constrained the import of foodstuffs, medicines and international aid by besieging and blockading ports and airports. The goal, evidently, is to put pressure on the rebels and turn the populace against them. In actuality, the blockades have had the opposite effect. The Houthis have gotten stronger, while the population in general has become so distracted with its own daily sustenance that no one has interest or energy to mobilize in support of President Hadi and the Saudi-supported regime, with its senior officials and their families living in relative security (and food security) outside the country. By contrast, the UN estimates that some 70 percent of Yemen’s population is “food insecure,” with at least 250 thousand “barely surviving.”
I’m generalizing, but I would say the majority of common Yemenis simply find the war's politics distressing and outrageous, having little to do with them – a merciless regional proxy war, far more so than when it began, in which we are caught up in the middle.
The mass prisoner exchange agreed to in Rimbo is critical. When these exchanges work, they have an extremely powerful effect among the families and communities involved.
Since the start of the war, there have been limited initiatives involving prisoner- or detainee swaps between the warring parties. These have been constrained and narrow, limited to certain fronts in the war, and certain sub-factions and militias. These have often been driven by specific community leaders’ efforts, as in a case, for example, involving the UAE-backed southern resistance forces and Houthi units in the Lahij and Al Dhalea fronts. There have been also some successful and unsuccessful attempts at prisoner swaps between the Saudi-backed Muslim Brotherhood army and Houthi forces in the Mareb, Al Jouf and Al Baidha fronts.
When prisoner exchanges work, they often involve certain officers and sheiks who know one another well crossing the firing lines. Sometimes, communications are made directly, and others at the behest of mediators and facilitators who begin dialogue. Finalizing lists of prisoners to be included, and agreeing to timing, are among the most difficult items negotiated. These sensitive processes usually fall more under a tribal umbrella than an official one.
Such positive sentiments have, so far, too often been overwhelmed by the massive- and seemingly limitlessly funded Saudi- and UAE propaganda machines, which are bent on inflaming new sectarian and regional divisions within the country. They have been so successful that it now feels like mission impossible to reconcile and heal the country’s ravaged social fabric.
Nevertheless, if the mass prisoner agreement signed this week in Sweden works out, it will be a great indicator of the potential for repairing trust between the different parties. So far, more than ten thousand names of prisoners have been exchanged through the International Committee of the Red Cross, so if logistical and technical hurdles can be overcome, this current swap may pave the way to a larger, inclusive political peace treaty – a big step along the road to an end to this bloody, thoughtless, caustic war.
Sana’a International Airport
The vital international airport in Yemen’s capital, Sana’a, has been closed for two years now. It has been nothing short of a lifeline. The airport was previously serving millions of people in Yemen’s North and midlands, including elderly and ill citizens in need of medical treatment, students lucky enough to have visas abroad and wounded civilians. In time, before the airport closed altogether, tickets out became prohibitively expensive, with only one airline operating and hopelessly long lines making it uncertain even if ticket-holders would make it out.
Sana'a International Airport was also used by all UN agencies and international aid organizations to deliver critical urgent aid – from life-saving hospital equipment to kids' medicine and vaccines to basic humanitarian supplies. The fate of the airport has been at the mercy of the Saudi- and UAE-led coalition, which used to open and close it as a lever.
The news that Sana'a International Airport may be reopened has already created widespread public relief. If final logistical and technical details can be hammered out, the airport will service direct flights from Jordan and Egypt, for example, as well as domestic flights connecting Sana’a with Aden, Hadhramaut and other cities. Opening the airport is critical to any enduring peace.
Quieting the Guns
The most pressing issue at the talks in Sweden related to fostering a real and immediate ceasefire in Hodeidah, Yemen’s gateway port for humanitarian aid. Though there have been short periods of de-escalation in fighting over the years, these have invariably failed to halt the war. If the current agreement is implemented, which remains to be seen, it will bring palpable relief, allowing the safe passage of both aid and citizens. The agreement calls for the creation of humanitarian corridors and the insertion of UN-supervised neutral troops, and the UN expects to manage the port for the foreseeable future.
Ceasefires have also been agreed to for two other ports, Salif and Ras Issa, while the agreement includes provisions for a mass prisoner swap. If these prove viable, and lead to a spread of peace to critical fronts in Taiz, Saada and Hajjah, for example, Yemenis may finally breath a real sigh of relief and see a kind of light at the end of such a long, dark tunnel.
At the same time, I imagine that the opportunity to truly reflect on all that’s transpired here will leave us all speechless.
Ahmed Hazem is a socio-political researcher, writer and analyst based in Sana'a, Yemen.