Famine, secession and bloodshed: Six years of war in Yemen

Famine, secession and bloodshed: Six years of war in Yemen
Six years after Saudi Arabia intervened in Yemen against the Houthis, the conflict is as brutal as ever and has become the world's worst humanitarian crisis.
5 min read
25 March, 2021
Yemen has endured six years of war [Getty]

A few days before Yemen marked the sixth anniversary of its brutal civil war, Saudi Arabia offered the Houthi rebels a ceasefire, in order to put a pause to a conflict that the kingdom thought in 2015 would be over in a matter of weeks.

The proposal was immediately dismissed by the Houthis as “nothing new” and violence continued as normal.

The Iran-backed Houthis, whose stronghold is in the northern Yemeni province of Sa'ada province captured the Yemeni capital Sana'a in September 2014 following a short military campaign.

In 2015, Saudi Arabia formed a coalition designed to recapture Sanaa from the Houthis. At the time, the coalition anticipated a quick in and out mission, as was the case in 2009, when Saudi Arabia fought a brief conflict with the Houthis after they infiltrated Saudi territory.

Yemen’s former president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, requested Saudi help at the time to save his presidency from the northern rebels.

However, almost immediately, Saudi Arabia’s mission was met with scepticism. The landscape had changed from 2009 and the Houthis had not only advanced to Sanaa, but taken complete control of other major Yemeni cities.

In addition, Saleh, who was deposed in 2011 by the Arab Spring protests, formed an alliance with his former enemies, helping them tighten their grip on the Yemeni capital. 

Read also: Agency: Quarter of civilian casualties in Yemen are children

Many people also questioned whether the Saudi kingdom had intervened to help the internationally-recognised government of Yemeni President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi or to take part in regional power politics.

Ultimately, Saudi Arabia failed. The Houthis are stronger and more equipped than ever and six years of war has allowed the rebels to become seasoned fighters. Now, the Houthis are able to launch missiles at Saudi cities and can cause serious disruption to Aramco oil facilities.

Saudi Arabia's aim to restore President Hadi's government to power has not been achieved.

The Saudi war on Yemen has created the world's worst humanitarian crisis and emboldened the Houthis to carry out their own series of human rights violations.

It has also reignited the separatist ambitions of the Southern Transitional Council (STC) and other groups in southern Yemen, posing a risk to the unity of the country.

Civilians targeted by both sides

Less than a week into its war against the Houthis, Saudi Arabia bombed a major piece of civilian structure – a milk factory in the port city of Hodeida, killed 37 civilians and injuring 80 more.

While the indiscriminate attack happened, the Houthis were carrying out their own violent mission, expanding further south in Yemen.

Together with Saleh loyalists, they surrounded the south-western city of Taiz, which remains besieged to this day.

Civilians in Taiz are cut off from food, water and other necessities, while hospitals and schools are routinely shelled. Vocal opponents of the Houthis in the city have been kidnapped.

In October, the Houthis bombed the Al Amal Hospital for Oncology, a children’s cancer hospital, which is located in a densely populated residential neighbourhood in Taiz.

The siege has forced the residents of the city to use rugged and narrow routes for transport and supply, endangering their lives.  Those taking these routes risk accidents, kidnapping and arrests.

Read also: How the odds were stacked against Yemen's Arab Spring revolution

Last month, Yemeni NGO SAM for Rights and Liberties published a report saying the Houthis have recruited over 10,000 child soldiers since 2014. 

The report explained how the rebels use schools and other educational facilities to “lure” children into their ranks.

The group “incites violence” and “teaches the group’s ideology through special lectures”, disseminating extremist ideas and encouraging children to prematurely join Houthi military forces, the report said.

In addition to being indoctrinated with extremist ideas, children suffer food deprivation, imprisonment, physical and sexual assaults at the hands of Houthis. They are commonly threatened with death if they do not obey the Houthis.

One Yemen or two?

Untill 1990, Yemen was two countries - the Yemen Arab Republic in the north of the country and the Marxist People's Democratic Republic of Yemen in the south, with its capital in Aden.

The two countries united that year, but the union has been uneasy. In 1993, southern rebels attempted to secede from the union, but were defeated by Yemeni government forces.

The current war in Yemen has brought back the question of southern independence to the surface. Some observers call this issue a “war within a war”.

In March 2015, the Houthi rebels launched a four month attack on Aden, where President Hadi's government had fled.

After the Houthis were pushed back from the city, secessionist sentiment rose across southern Yemen. Separatists saw the Houthi problem as a “northern” issue spilling into southern territory.

The Southern Transitional Council is now in a power-sharing agreement with the Hadi government, but separatism in the south remains a major force in Yemeni politics and could cause conflict in the near future.

A humanitarian crisis

Six years of war in Yemen has created the world’s worst humanitarian crisis, according to the United Nations.

Currently, more than 24 million people – around 80 per cent of the population – is in need of humanitarian assistance, including more than 12 million children.

2.3 million Yemeni children under five are acutely malnourished and of these, over 400,000 are considered by the UN to suffer "severe" acute malnutrition, at risk of death if life-saving food is not urgently provided. 

Earlier this month, UN World Food Program chief David Beasley returned from a trip to Yemen, saying the country was “hell on earth in many places” and warning that “we are heading straight toward the biggest famine in modern history.”

Read also: Why haven't we declared a Yemen famine? Expert weighs in as aid cuts sting

“Over 16 million people now face crisis levels of hunger or worse,” Beasley added.

Despite the UN not yet officially declaring famine, the international body has warned that 50,000 Yemenis are already living in "famine-like" conditions and 5 million others are just a step away from famine.

Continued fighting, mass displacement of people, crippling fuel shortages and rising food prices have all contributed to the dire situation. 

Six years of war has killed 120,000 civilians in Yemen and the destruction of civilian infrastructure has left people without food, healthcare and other life necessities, as the sceptres of famine and war continue to haunt the country.

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