Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

A Storm that decided nothing, but turned Yemen into a Humanitarian Disaster

People carry the body of a man killed in a Saudi-led airstrike against Iran-allied Shiite rebels, known as Houthis, that hit a site of a weapons cache in Yemen's capital, Sanaa, Monday, April 20, 2015. The strikes on Yemen's rebel-held capital on Monday caused massive explosions that shattered windows, sent residents scrambling for shelter and killed a local TV presenter. (AP Photo/Hani Mohammed)
People carry the body of a man killed in a Saudi-led airstrike aimed to strike weapon depots in Sana’a, Yemen, April 20, 2015, Photo Hani Mohammed

A big mess. That’s what Yemen is in in May 2015, after six weeks of Saudi led airstrikes in the north and fierce fighting between militias in the south. Homes, airports, stadiums, factories, schools, mosques, hospitals and markets are destroyed. Lives are destroyed. The country – already in a deplorable shape before operation Decisive Storm – is destroyed.

‘We will be in a hunger game very soon if the world does not push for fuel and basic food and water,’ a young Yemeni woman states. She is not exaggerating. The Saudi sea and air blockade has made import – Yemen imports 90% of its food supplies – impossible.

Those who can afford it, buy large quantities of food stocks at inflated prices. The very poor are on the brink of starvation. Between them is a large group that is not hungry yet, but fears it will be soon ‘I asked a friend how to make simple pan bread, in case I have to start doing it myself,’ the woman says.

That is, if she can keep the fire going; cooking gas has become scarce in many areas. Not to mention fuel. No fuel means no transport. It also means no generators, and no generators mean no hospital services, no cool storage for medicines, no light, no telecommunications. ‘How will the world know about us?’ people ask on Twitter and Facebook, online while they still can.

And they are right. Most news from Yemen nowadays reaches the outside world through social media. There are hardly any foreign reporters on the ground, local journalists struggle for survival, some local newspapers are no longer printed and if they are, they are belonging to either this or that side. The same goes for television channels.

Meanwhile, Saudi and regional media report that the operation is going extremely well. Which is not true. The coalition has not reached its (official) goal: restoring the (alleged) legitimacy of president Abdurabu Mansour Hadi, getting the Houthi’s back in their home territory and securing stability in the region. Their bet was on splitting the Houthi’s from their ally, former President Ali Abdullah Saleh, and bomb them to the negotiation table. So far, none of this has happened. Decisive Storm has not been very decisive.

On the contrary: Houthi rebels and their allies have virtually taken over the southern port-city of Aden and now have started shelling Saudi villages across the northern border, hardly signs of victory for Saudi Arabia. The Houthi alliance too, has left many dead in their wake, especially in Aden where local militias – defending their city rather than supporting Hadi – have been fighting desperate street battles against them.

In Sana’a weapon depots have been shelled by Saudi fighter jets, located in densely populated areas. They killed not Houthi’s, but people who just happened to live there. Some blame the Houthi alliance for hiding arms in populated areas, others just blame the Saudis for killing innocent people. ‘We walk around death,’ Osama Abdullah, a Yemeni blogger, writes on Twitter. Some cannot stand it any longer and cry out for help on Facebook to leave the country. ‘I can’t stay one more night here. I need to get the hell out of here!’

So far he did not succeed. Even if you have the means, leaving the country is virtually impossible. Sana’a and Aden airport are destroyed, no flights are coming in or going out. Unlike the desperate Facebooker, it is the lack of flights to Yemen that drives many to despair. Thousands of Yemeni’s are stuck outside the country, most of them in Egypt, where they were undergoing medical treatment when the war started. They want to go back, to be with their family and country.

Recently the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs issued a ‘flash appeal’ calling for 274 million USD to alleviate the most urgent humanitarian needs. Saudi Arabia offered to cover the bill single-handedly. Not to everyone’s liking or understanding. ‘As if to compensate for its sins,’ some remarked. ‘If they wouldn’t have bombed the shit out of us in the first place, we wouldn’t need their help,’ others said.

Not surprisingly, when the Saudi’s announced that Operation Decisive storm was to be replaced by Operation Restoring Hope, similar reactions followed. Blogger Haykal Bafana explained – with refreshing cynicism- why the operation was called that way: ‘to restore Saudi hope in the FUBAR strategy-less war they’re waging aimlessly in Yemen.’ FUBAR stands for Fucked Up Beyond All Recognition.

Indeed, what is left of Arabia Felix – happy Arabia – as it was once called? Not only buildings are in rubbles, the fabric of society is. It will be an immense task to mend the deep divisions between Houthi’s and Hadi-loyalists, Houthi’s and the tribes from Mareb, Houthi’s and the southerners, the southerners and northerners who are not with the Houthi’s but against separation, the Southerners among themselves. Not to mention the fact that Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and Islamic State (IS) probably benefit most from the chaos.

And what about the troubled relationship with the neighbour? The Saudi coalition must achieve – an almost unthinkable – total defeat of the Houthi’s and their allies to eliminate any risk of revenge from that side. And even then, there are many Yemeni’s who may not support the Houthi’s, but who are nevertheless fiercely opposing the Saudi interference.

Saudi Arabia wants stability in its backyard. For this, it needs force or friends. In Yemen, it does not have enough of either one at the moment. It would need to send in tens of thousands of well-trained ground troops to stand a chance against the toughened Houthi fighters.

So far, Saudi Arabia or its allies do not seem prepared – probably in both senses of the word – to do this, but this may change with the request of the Yemeni semi-legitimate government to the UN to back foreign ground troops. Whether that would be the solution or just more trouble on the horizon remains to be seen.

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