Saada Under Siege

by RANNIE AMIRI

“One of the reasons I’m here is to try to give a bit more profile to a conflict, and its humanitarian consequences, which had been fairly low on the list of the international media’s priorities.”

– John Holmes, UN Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator, at the conclusion of a three-day visit to Yemen (IRIN News, 12 October 2009).

“I saw children [in al-Mazraq camp] on the brink of death due to acute malnutrition and dehydration … I have never seen such a sight since I became UNICEF regional Goodwill Ambassador in 2003 – not when I was in Darfur five years back, or anywhere in this region.”

– Mahmoud Kabil, UNICEF’s Goodwill Ambassador for the Middle East and North Africa, on his visit to al-Mazraq refugee camp, 300 km northwest of Sanaa (IRIN News, 20 October 2009).

Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s latest campaign against Zaidi rebels in the northern governorate of Saada – aptly dubbed “Operation Scorched Earth” – has raged since August 12, leaving the residents of the war-torn province bordering Saudi Arabia utterly devastated.

The conflict between Yemen’s government and the Zaidis dates back to June 2004. Mutual recriminations between the parties over the underlying motives of other continue to forestall any meaningful settlement; the government claims the rebels want to revive the Zaidi Shia Imamate overthrown in 1962, while the rebels point to the systemic political and socioeconomic marginalization of their community. Constituting at least a quarter of Yemen’s population, they maintain they only wish to reassert their legitimate rights as citizens (for additional background, please see “Yemeni Daggers Unsheathed”).

Add to this the somewhat-truthful accusations of foreign interference, and you have all the necessary ingredients for a proxy-war, a protected struggle, and a humanitarian crisis.

According to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, 50,000 Yemeni civilians have been displaced since August alone, bringing the total number of internally displaced persons (IDP) from the northern governorates of Yemen (Saada, Amran, al-Jawf and Hajjah) to 150,000. By UNICEF’s count, one-half of them are children. The most intense clashes between rebel and government forces have taken place in Saada, and as expected, its people have suffered the most.

Giancarlo Cirri, the Word Food Programme’s representative in Yemen, screened children in Saada City and the surrounding IDP camps. He found that 4.5 percent of the children in those camps suffered severe malnourishment and nearly 13 percent moderate malnourishment. He reported to IRIN News that, “The nutrition situation in the city was even more serious, with 12.6 percent of children severely [malnourished] and 27.2 percent acutely malnourished.”

The true extent of the calamity in both Saada City and its governorate is likely an underestimate, both due to logistical constraints placed on relief agencies by the fighting as well as other (quite deliberate) obstacles placed in their way by the government. In addition, there is a complete media blackout on the area.

Since the war’s inception, President Saleh has wasted no time in either implying or directly inferring that the Iranian government has trained and aided the Zaidi rebels (also known as “Houthis”; named after their first leader, Hussein Badr al-Din al-Houthi). The government alternatively labels the Houthis as “Shia rebels” as a way to further impugn Shia Iran as having cause to interfere in the fighting, a designation now routinely adopted by the major media outlets. Although the Zaidis may technically be Shia Muslims, in practice, they are much closer to the four Sunni schools of Islam.

Iran’s purported support of the rebels is not an unreasonable query, although evidence substantiating the claim has been wanting. Saudi Arabia’s direct interference and role in aiding Yemen’s government however, and more disturbingly, its despicable practice of forcibly returning civilians fleeing the conflict back to the war zone,is indisputable.

The contempt and avowed hostility Saudi Arabia and its Wahabi establishment has for Shia Muslims is well-known (the ideological footnotes distinguishing Zaidis from other Shias being largely irrelevant to them), and is one important reason why they have provided both moral and material support to the Saleh regime’s attempt to put down the uprising strictly through military means.

That being said, it was not only morally inexcusable, but a violation of international law when Saudi authorities forced hundreds of fleeing Yemeni civilians back across the border, denying them safe passage and sanctuary from the fighting (Bloomberg, Sept. 16).

Human Rights Watch, in a letter to John Holmes prior to his visit to Yemen, implored him to:

“Call on Saudi Arabia to immediately cease its refoulement [unlawful forced return to persecution or a situation threatening life or freedom] of Yemeni refugees by opening its border posts to all refugees fleeing the conflict zone seeking safety in Saudi Arabia and by ending its deportation of Yemenis fleeing the conflict who have already entered Saudi Arabia.”

Joe Stork, Deputy Director of Human Rights Watch’s Middle East and North Africa division, also wrote, “To date, the Yemeni government has not responded to calls by the UN Secretary-General and UN agencies for the establishment of humanitarian corridors to allow civilians to safely flee the conflict zone and to guarantee agencies safe passage to reach civilians, including the displaced, who remain.”

The Yemenis in Saada – and I say Yemenis, because regardless of whether they are called Zaidis, Houthis, or Shias, they are still Yemenis – are trapped between the forces of their own government to the south, and a country denying them refuge to the north..

Much as the Israelis blamed the Palestinians of Gaza for their malnutrition, starvation, disease, and impoverishment (a perverse exculpatory practice – blaming the victim for their own misery), Saleh’s government is doing no less to the residents of Saada and surrounding governorates.

By allegedly “cracking down” on al-Qaeda, Yemen has been lauded by the United States for pulling itself back from the brink of “failed state” status. Yet a country and leadership that demonstrates such disregard for the welfare and well-being of its citizens, while simultaneously perpetuating the humanitarian disaster engulfing them, can never be considered to be anything more than the most wretched kind of state there is.

RANNIE AMIRI is an independent Middle East commentator. He may be reached at: rbamiri AT yahoo DOT com.

 

Rannie Amiri is an independent commentator on Middle East affairs.

Like What You’ve Read? Support CounterPunch
September 03, 2015
Sal Rodriguez
How California Prison Hunger Strikes Sparked Solitary Confinement Reforms
Lawrence Ware
Leave Michael Vick Alone: the Racism and Misogyny of Football Fans
Dave Lindorff
Is Obama the Worst President Ever?
Vijay Prashad
The Return of Social Democracy?
Ellen Brown
Quantitative Easing for People: Jeremy Corbyn’s Radical Proposal
Paul Craig Roberts
The Rise of the Inhumanes: Barron, Bybee, Yoo and Bradford
Binoy Kampmark
Inside Emailgate: Hillary’s Latest Problem
Lynn Holland
For the Love of Water: El Salvador’s Mining Ban
Geoff Dutton
Time for Some Anger Management
Jack Rasmus
The New Colonialism: Greece and Ukraine
Norman Pollack
American Jews and the Iran Accord: The Politics of Fear
John Grant
Sorting Through the Bullshit in America
David Macaray
The Unbearable Lightness of Treaties
Chad Nelson
Lessig Uses a Scalpel Where a Machete is Needed
September 02, 2015
Paul Street
Strange Words From St. Bernard and the Sandernistas
Jose Martinez
Houston, We Have a Problem: False Equivalencies on Police Violence
Henry Giroux
Global Capitalism and the Culture of Mad Violence
Ajamu Baraka
Making Black Lives Matter in Riohacha, Colombia
William Edstrom
Wall Street and the Military are Draining Americans High and Dry
David Altheide
The Media Syndrome Between a Glock and a GoPro
Yves Engler
Canada vs. Africa
Ron Jacobs
The League of Empire
Andrew Smolski
Democracy and Privatization in Neoliberal Mexico
Stephen Lendman
Gaza: a Socioeconomic Dead Zone
Norman Pollack
Obama, Flim-Flam Artist: Alaska Offshore Drilling
Binoy Kampmark
Australian Border Force Gore
Ruth Fowler
Ask Not: Lost in the Crowd with Amanda Palmer
Kim Nicolini
Remembering Wes Craven’s The Hills Have Eyes
September 01, 2015
Mike Whitney
Return to Crisis: Things Keep Getting Worse
Michael Schwalbe
The Moral Hazards of Capitalism
Eric Mann
Inside the Civil Rights Movement: a Conversation With Julian Bond
Pam Martens
How Wall Street Parasites Have Devoured Their Hosts, Your Retirement Plan and the U.S. Economy
Jonathan Latham
Growing Doubt: a Scientist’s Experience of GMOs
Fran Shor
Occupy Wall Street and the Sanders Campaign: a Case of Historical Amnesia?
Joe Paff
The Big Trees: Cockburn, Marx and Shostakovich
Randy Blazak
University Administrators Allow Fraternities to Turn Colleges Into Rape Factories
Robert Hunziker
The IPCC Caught in a Pressure Cooker
George Wuerthner
Myths of the Anthropocene Boosters: Truthout’s Misguided Attack on Wilderness and National Park Ideals
Robert Koehler
Sending Your Children Off to Safe Spaces in College
Jesse Jackson
Season of the Insurgents: From Trump to Sanders
August 31, 2015
Michael Hudson
Whitewashing the IMF’s Destructive Role in Greece
Conn Hallinan
Europe’s New Barbarians
Lawrence Ware
George Bush (Still) Doesn’t Care About Black People
Joseph Natoli
Plutocracy, Gentrification and Racial Violence
Franklin Spinney
One Presidential Debate You Won’t Hear: Why It is Time to Adopt a Sensible Grand Strategy