The Plight of Northern Yemen: A Life of Conflict, Dust and Ruins

By in Saada

The remote region of northern Yemen has been devastated by six wars and is cut off from regular aid supplies. A delegation of the UN relief agency and the EU recently visited the area for the first time -- and found child warriors, desperate refugees and cities of dust.

Photo Gallery: Life Amid the Ruins in Northern Yemen Photos
Alexander Smoltczyk

The wars came like the seasons, and people became accustomed to them, counting them like years of their lives: the first war, the second, the third…

The sixth war in northern Yemen was the worst. It ravaged a country that was already on its knees. Each new round of hostilities was more complex and ruthless than the last, and fought with more expensive weapons. The conflict grew like a cancerous tumor, fed by suffering and increasingly multi-layered interests.

"What do you need," Kristalina Georgieva, the European commissioner for international cooperation, asks a haggard, toothless man on a recent trip to the war-torn country. "Help," he replies.

Humanitarian missions here are simple. Everything is scarce, water, flour, medicine, schools and clothing. Fuel, transport, beds, shade and justice. Everything is welcome. It's that simple.

And there's enough money to provide help. The EU will provide €19.5 million ($27 million) this year, and the refugee agency of the UN, the UNHCR, will provide almost $10 million.

All that needs to be done is to get the supplies to where they are most urgently needed. But that's the problem. "We need access, access, access," says Georgieva. "We know best where the need is greatest," the governor of Saada replies. The aid, he says, should be handed over to him.

A Fragile Non-War

Georgieva was in the country with Antonio Guterres, the head of the United Nations refugee agency UNHCR. It was an unusual mission -- such joint trips aren't customary on the international aid circuit. But the situation in northern Yemen is so serious that customs don't matter, they say.

The delegation walks through the ruins of the center of Saada. The sight of the devastation is made marginally more bearable because all the buildings are made of clay, and because children are clambering over the ruins everywhere. For some reason, clay ruins are less disturbing than mangled concrete.

The electricity comes from generators and the water has to be transported into the city in canisters. But many are happy to be able to live here. Outside the city, the situation is even worse. "Malnutrition among children under five is worse than in Darfur at the start of the conflict there," says a leading aid official. Some areas have been cut off from any healthcare for the last five years.

There has been a ceasefire in the northern provinces of Yemen since August 2010, but it is a fragile state of non-war that could end at any time. The six waves of war flushed too many weapons into the country, and too many people have their own interests in the conflict. "We must show now that peace yields development, otherwise it will start again," says Georgieva.

The government is trying to play down the conflict. "The Houthis are basically just a family" says one Yemeni diplomat accompanying the delegation. No government likes to admit that it doesn't have any power in large parts of its country. Checkpoints mark a circle of around seven kilometers around the city. Beyond that line is a barely accessible region that could end up determining the future of Yemen.

A 'War on Terror'?

The Houthi are a tribe of Hashemites, which makes them descendants of the Prophet Muhammad. Their religion, Zaidism, is a branch of Shia Islam, but their rituals are very similar to those of Sunni Muslims. Houthis and Sunnis pray in the same mosques.

But their issue isn't a religious one. "The Houthis feel neglected by the central government. They mainly want development," says Georgieva.

The conflict has been fanned by Yemen's mighty neighbor Saudi Arabia, which suspects the Houthis of being close to Iran and which has tried to spread its own strict interpretation of Islam, Wahhabism, in the region.

And the government in the Yemeni capital of Sana'a has portrayed the rebellious Houthis as supporters of al-Qaida in order to justify its campaign against them as a "war on terror." The justification has also led to the use of US weapons, supplied for the fight against al-Qaida, in the war against the Houthis.

The war in northern Yemen "has violated two fundamental pillars of Yemen's stability: a political formula premised on power-sharing and the gradual convergence of the two principal sectarian identities," the International Crisis Group, an NGO, wrote in a recent analysis.

Guterres, the former prime minister of Portugal, and Georgieva, an ex-World Bank official, get along well. Colleagues say they are a stroke of luck for international disaster relief because they simply focus on getting the job done. They sit on the floor in huts and ask what supplies are lacking and how they can help to improve things.

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