A ferocious war has been tearing Yemen apart for more than a year and a half. It pits the self-styled Popular Resistance Committees and the national army along with Arab coalition support on one side against the Ansar Allah movement or “God’s Partisans”, ethnic Houthis supported by forces loyal to former president Ali Abdullah Saleh.
The north-south divide
Euronews was granted access to one of the war’s frontlines, in Lahj province in the south of the country. From here the Committees and national army are trying to take back the north of the country, town by town. Their objective is to retake Yemen’s capital, Sanaa, in the hands of the Houthis since September 2014.
There are about 10 fronts in total where fighting and bombardments are intense, and there appears to be no let-up or truce in sight.
“We want to reassure our people wherever they are in Yemen, that we will not abandon them , nor leave one inch of Yemeni soil to our enemies. We will continue until we have liquidated all the Houthis and forces loyal to the former president, Ali Abdullah Saleh,” said a regular army officer.
A theatre for regional rivalries
The Arab coalition continues to play an important role in this war through its intensive airstrikes on Houthi positions, dubbed Operation Decisive Tempest and begun in March 2015.
One of the notable successes of this operation has been the expulsion of rebels from the capital of the south, Aden.
Aden, a former British colony, is highly strategic as it controls the Bab al-Mandeb straits, an important international shipping route. It is one of the reasons the coalition made its capture a priority.
“We are ready to liberate all the Yemeni towns under Houthi control, with all the means at our disposal, legal, peaceful, and military. We are ready to free honour and religion from the hands of the Houthis, because they have lost their way and have split from the Yemeni peoples’ consensus and traditions with external support from Iran,” said the governor of Aden, the third in recent times. His two predecessors were killed in suicide attacks.
A third force adds another deadly element
In the security chaos in Yemen al-Qaeda has carved out a solid presence in the south-eastern towns, allowing them to mount attacks on soldiers loyal to the Arab alliance supporting President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi. This means al-Qaeda is a powerful third party in the Yemen conflict.
Houthis have controlled the capital Sanaa since September 21 2014. Control is total. With the support of tens of thousands of fighters from Ansar Allah they have taken over the running of everything, capturing all the key government buildings and their contents.
A new constitution has made the Supreme Revolutionary Committee led by Mohammed Ali al-Houthi the country’s highest authority.
“We are ready to fight until the end for the total independence of our country and the ending of outside interference. We will defeat these invaders. But who are the losers in this war? The children of the Arab peoples and Muslims. In the south our enemies are setting up and supporting terrorist groups while pretending to fight them,” he claims.
Outsiders not welcome
The Houthis are well-supported in Sanaa, in particular from the many Yemeni tribes that make up the core of Yemeni society. Many of Yemen’s military leaders have joined the Houthi movement, making Ansar Allah and the Houthis the strongest and most decisive ground force, especially in the north.
“We believe that Saudi Arabia did not go into this war of its own accord, but was ordered to play the role of leader in this war. We believe it is the US waging this war. They are directing the airstrikes, they are deciding which targets should be attacked from the air, and suppling the co-ordinates,” insists Mohamed Ali al-Houthi.
Everywhere there are slogans on walls and lamposts. ‘Death to America and Israel and the Jews be damned’. There is also support from Hezbollah, with Lebanese fighters and advisors from the movement active in Yemen. Additional manpower comes from military forces still loyal to former president Ali Abdullah Saleh, who resigned after Yemen’s 2001 revolution, but still takes the decisions in a number of key areas.
“We’ve had enough destruction. Why has Yemeni society collapsed in this way? Who brought it about, and to what end? Where is all this taking Yemen? This agression has completely destroyed Yemen. Until now there has been nothing positive gained, and this Saudi Arabian-led attack against us is totally unjustified and we could have fought back harder, but the real question, we wonder, is why are we fighting each other?” said one elderly man.
Yemen’s vulnerable northern border
While we were in Yemen we had to visit the northernmost city of Saada, the birthplace of the Ansar Allah movement and the Houthis. Saada saw plenty of fighting when the former regime was in power, and now it finds itself in the firing line again.
No building is unscathed, and the widespread destruction bears witness to this war and past conflicts. Every district, every street has paid the price for being the Houthi’s home and stronghold.
“Saada holds an important position in this war. Apart from being Ansar Allah’s stronghold it is one of the towns closest to the Saudi border, and so it is one of the towns that has been the worst hit by this war,” reports euronews’ Mohamed Cheikh Ibrahim.
Hard times, hardened attitudes
Support for the Houthis here has been nourished by high explosives. The last several years of siege and aerial bombardment, what locals call the “six wars” against the Ali Abdullah Saleh regime, and the current war against Saudi Arabia and the Coalition, has led to a stiffening, not weakening, of resistance.
“Yemen has strong, brave men and it will be a graveyard for invaders. We will not let them take one step over our border. They only have one destiny, one ending, in this war. Defeat,” said one local man.
Saudi Arabia accuses the Houthis of raiding across its southern border, bombarding border towns, and attacking and destroying military positions along the frontier. The Houthis deny this, and say they are only defending their borders and towns from Saudi aerial attack. They also accuse the Saudis of assassinating thousands of people.
“All sides have committed war crimes, that includes the coalition, that includes the Houthis, that includes anti-Houthi groups that are fighting on the ground because we have gone to all the provinces, we have even documented ground attacks by all armed groups on the ground in Aden and in Taiz. We have said that at this point all sides in the conflict have committed war crimes and that has to be condemned immediately by the international community,” says Amnesty International’s Rasha Mohamed.
Outgunned and attacked with banned weapons
The war in Yemen has seen almost the full range of modern weapons deployed, including some that have been internationally banned, or would seem more suitable for full-scale battlefield use rather than being fired at densely-populated urban areas. Several international organisations including Human rights Watch and Amnesty say cluster munitions have been responsible for the deaths of hundreds of civilians in residential zones.
International reports say there have been clear violations of accepted principles of proportional response and deterrence. The tonnage of bombs and missiles used does not correspond to the military threat faced, and several international voices have been raised to insist the accepted rules of war between nations are being flouted.
“Yemeni experts are struggling to defuse unexploded missiles and bombs, especially cluster munitions, which the authorities say have been scattered over large areas in several places,” reports euronews’ Mohamed Shaikh Ibrahim. “However because of the blockade imposed on Yemen the bomb squads don’t have the equipment to do their jobs.”
Claims and counter-claims
The Houthis accuse Saudi Arabia and the coalition countries of using various internationally banned weapons against civilians. They condemn what they see as an international silence on the subject, and want an urgent international investigation.
“Among the weapons we found British and French bombs, but most are American. We have found that munitions dropped on Yemen, particularly in Marib province, include cluster bombs, white phosphorous, and chemical weapons,” said General Yahya al-Houthi.
Fighters from Ansar Allah took us to the mountain tops surrounding Sanaa, the Jebel faj Attan region, which has been hit by massive bombs trying to destroy underground arms depots. Mountain peaks have been shattered and destruction has been massive. Locals say banned neutron weapons have been used, but we found no evidence of this.
“Our experts have identified the weapons dropped here and they assure us at least one neutron device was used. Mountains have exploded like shrapnel, setting off stored ammunition, and civilians living nearby have been killed,” said Colonel Abdalillah al- Mutamayz.
Collateral damage, collective pain
The bombed-out zone is over two kilometres wide, and there were hundreds of victims according to the Yemeni health ministry.
However the Arab coalition says it targeted ammunition dumps located close to civilian areas, which it insists it did not directly attack. But once those dumps were hit, no-one was safe from the massive detonations.
The consequences of this war on people’s daily lives are terrible, with most of the country’s towns, and especially Sanaa, under siege from coalition forces. Everything is in short supply, or is lacking completely. Every new bomb adds to people’s suffering. Our correspondent saw little or no food on the streets, water pipes spew dirty muck hardly fit to drink, and medicine is all but exhausted. At night there is no electricity.
“We are suffering from this blockade. We have no flour to make bread, there are water and food shortages, and the main border is closed. The port of Hodeida is closed and can’t take humanitarian supplies of food and medicines, and Yemen’s power stations have been bombed, so there’s no electricity,” said one man.
The war means poverty has exploded. Nearly 21 million out of Yemen’s population of 26 million is affected. Some nine million are hungry and threatened by famine. All this is taking place in what was already one of the poorest nations in the Arab world before it was devastated by war.
“Children have died because of the drought, and we were not able to find even one carton of milk. I swear before God I have seen children die of hunger. Women are miscarrying because they go hungry, and we have no medicines to treat anyone,” said one local man.
Blame the UN?
Yemenis who have had enough now organise daily protests in front of the UN’s offices in Sanaa, calling for more aid and demanding that the international community intervene to end the crisis. They also accuse the UN of complicity. It is common to hear people say the UN is doing nothing to help or save them.
“What are the United Nations doing about Yemen? What are they doing for us? Until now it has been incapable of lifting any sieges, incapable of supplying us food or medical supplies, incapable of guaranteeing our safety. What are we going to do?” said Al Mufti Taiz Sheikh Aqil ibn Sahl.
The UN’s representatives find themselves in the dock, accused of failing to provide help, but it seems the UN can plead ‘not guilty’.
“The restrictions on importations of food and medicine and fuel is very difficult for us as humanitarians but also for the general public. I think at the same time, we in the international community put an appeal out for 1.8 billion dollars to address the humanitarian needs. At this point in time, we’re in the fifth month of the year now and we are only at 16% funded,” says the UN’s Jamie McGoldrick.
A nation hanging by a thread
Because of the war and the destruction of so many homes many families have had to seek refuge in makeshift camps, where home for many is just a rudimentary tent where they still have to struggle with food, water, and medical shortages.
The UN estimates that some 2,800,000 Yemenis have been displaced by the war since it began.
“We have nothing here, no clothes, no food, no water.Our situation is very difficult, we are suffering a lot, we are eating scraps from the rubbish, we are falling ill, we are hungry, but we can’t go to hospital. All we can do is pray for God’s help,” said one camp resident.