Yemen's five forgotten wars

Yemen is conspicuously absent from our European news broadcasts. Reports about the backlands of the Arabic peninsula limit themselves to items on abducted or murdered Western tourists and the war on terror. The wave of conflicts in North Yemen from 2004 onwards, and the stream of refugees caused by these conflicts, attract almost no attention.
A seasoned international aid worker with decades experience in hotspots as Afghanistan calls Yemen the most complex country he ever worked in. A quick addition teaches us that indeed, Yemen is quite out of balance. It is the first stop for desperate Somalian refugees, overcrowding a labour market that is even without them already under a lot of strain — the unemployment rate hits the forty per cent. Al-Qaeda groups from Saudi-Arabia and Iraq find in Yemen a new and structural home. Even last year, two Belgian tourists were murdered and three Germans abducted.

Society in Yemen is heavily tribal and one of the most armed in the world, and there is a strong link with Somalian piracy. But above all, the state enters its fifth consecutive year of conflict. Not only does the southern part want to secede, in North Yemen too a civil war is raging for quite a while now. Since 2004 five rounds of gunfire followed each other in the mountains of the northern province Sa’dah.

The last big clash of fighting ended in July 2008, and saw followers of the Houthi-movement — traditional Shiah Zaydi muslims — facing president Abdullah Saleh’s government troops. What exactly triggered the feud remains vague, but most possibly one could trace the conflict back to a mixture of the internal balance of power and ethnic, economic, and religious disputes. The anti-Western Houthis combat the central government, which leans heavily towards Saudi-Arabia and installed salafist — Sunnist — schools in Sa’dah.

A stream of refugees

At least 130,000 civilians fled the fights between the government troops of president Saleh and the Houthi-rebels in the inhospitable North. These people without a home are probably the most invisible victims of war of these times, Human Rights Watch says. Between July 2007 and July 2008 the government issued a complete information stop: local and international journalists were forbidden to visit the region. Although that information stop is no longer in force, reporting the conflict remains a tricky business.
Journalist Adulkarim Al-Khaiwani, who was granted an international press award, was round up and imprisoned several times on charges of connections with the Houthis. His real “crime” was his refusal to stop reporting the conflict. After receiving presidential pardon, at the end of January he got convicted by a special terrorism court. Since 2007, humanitarian aid organisations find great difficulties getting to the refugees, HRW writes in an extensive report. When the fifth war broke out in May 2008, the government blocked every form of trade in the province, including the transport of provisions and fuel. That blockade was in all respects like a collective punishment, a violation of international right, or so HRW maintains.

60,000 people found refuge in seven camps at Sa’dah City, where they receive a little help from national and international NGOs. The other 60,000 find themselves in remote backcountry, where they are all but cut off from aid organisations. Especially UN-organisations get almost no access to these places, in spite of president Saleh’s promise that they could bring help.

Taking risks

“Not much has changed since HRW published its report at the end of last year”, says Marius Posthumus of the American NGO ICS, calling from the capital Sanaa. “The government allows access to Sa’dah on an ad hoc basis. It is indeed true that the government doesn’t forbid access structurally, but nevertheless you never know whether there will still be unofficial road blocks because of ‘security reasons’.” It is mainly a question of risk-assessment, Posthumus continues. Aid organisations have to be prepared to take risks and to travel without escort. And not everyone in the international community does that. “In at least fifty per cent of the cases you can travel to Sa’dah without incidents”, is the laconic judgement.

The international aid organisations have no exact data on the precise amount of humanitarian needs or the number of civilian victims. “Numbers are lacking. But the biggest problems are presumably the lack of access to gas and diesel and other resources, which is aggravated in rural areas by the lack of infrastructure.” Research conducted by NGOs who got access to the fifteen districts of Sa’dah has to chart the exact needs. President Saleh, in the meantime, sent a conciliation team to the region and promised to ameliorate access to medical aid for wounded fighters and civilians. The reconstruction fund however, announced in September last year, is still not much more than an announcement.

International security

The international donor community, including the European, has not engaged enough in the conflict since 2004, HRW says. Europe didn’t succeed in putting forward a joint stance on the access modalities to Sa’dah, and this although the international community’s interests are best served with a stable Yemen. In a briefing paper the established British Chatham House warns for the enormous challenges Yemen has to face. With 45 per cent of the population having to get through the day with less than two dollars, Yemen is the poorest country of the Arabic world.
There is not only the enormous unemployment rate and the fast growing population; the state revenues are entirely focused on oil fields that are running dry. This instability threatens to make Yemen into a lawless zone between Northern-Kenya, Somalia, the Gulf of Aden and Saudi-Arabia. When piracy, organised crime and aggressive Jihad groups get a free reign here, this can have far-reaching consequences for the internal security of Yemen’s neighbouring countries and for the safety of the shipping routes and the oil transport through the Suez channel.

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