A bag of green qat leaves in one hand, Kalashnikov in the other. That’s how Battalion Commander Fouad Mahmoud departs for the front. His men in the pickup truck carry their own supply of the energizing leaves. Chewing qat is a habit in Yemen, even in war. With leaf-stained teeth, Fouad explains: “In Europe, you drink wine.”
Fouad is a fisherman. When he’s not on duty, he and his fishing rod can be found can be found on the beach by the Red Sea, right across from the army base. To forget that he’s been fighting in Yemen for years, in a conflict described by the United Nations (UN) as the worst humanitarian crisis in the world. Fouad has fought everywhere along the Red Sea shore. “Those weren’t serious wars”, he says. “But this is. This is a very serious war.”
Now, he’s stationed near Hodeida, the port city on Yemen’s west coast. A coalition led by Saudi Arabia is fighting the Houthis here, a group that has taken a large part of North-Yemen, including the capital Sanaa. In Hodeida, the lives of a quarter million civilians are at stake, according to the UN. Before he jumps on his pickup truck, maybe Fouad can explain to our readers what this war is about? Bag of qat in hand, he sits down under a tree, in the shade.
“This is a war with a religious purpose”, the young commander explains gravely. “We don’t see the Houthi militias as Muslims. They’re Shiites, we’re Sunnites. We see them as infidels. They have no part to play in this country. When we take Hodeida, all Houthis will be killed and they’ll be stopped.”
On the way to the army base, we see brand new beige MRAPs, Mine Resistant Ambush Protected vehicles. Wondrous conveyances of modern warfare, designed by the United States, allegedly bought by the United Arab Emirates, and now here in Yemen, driven by fighters in tank tops, traditional loincloths and sandals. Fouad is headed for the front in the same outfit. “This is fine for me.”
His commander, who has joined the conversation, shows his appreciation of this attitude. “The only things that matter, are your weapon and your bullets.”
Fouad is one of thousands of fighters this side of the front, that includes “our men” in Yemen. The coalition of Arabic countries, for whom Hodeida will be the endpoint after over three years of battle against the Houthis, is supported by the West. The UN and the Netherlands expressly support the government of President Hadi, the legitimate government in Yemen, who consider the Houthis to be illegal militia. The U.S. and the U.K. are involved in the large-scale sale of weapons to the two most powerful countries in the anti-Houthi coalition: Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.
The Emirates are rapidly expanding their influence in South-Yemen. Early this year, a coup was staged in Aden, endorsed by them. They control a lot of the checkpoints. Around Hodeida as well, the Emirates seem to be in charge now. A conversation between the American Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, and the Emirates leader - he understands all of the coalition’s ‘safety concerns’, but insists on a ‘political solution’ - is interpreted in the Arabian Peninsula as the green light for the attack on Hodeida.
A brief war
At the army base of the Amalre (‘Giant’) unit, the UN’s warnings (“250 thousand people could lose everything - including their lives”), are met with shrugs. “The Arabic countries that are part of this coalition are UN members as well”, says Commander Hamed Hamadi. “It was decided internally there. We’ll wage a brief war in Hodeida.”
“Everything is going according to plan”, his head of planning Menasi Hogari tells him. Yemen does not only have the weapons, but also uses the language of a modern army. There’s a reason the operation is called Golden Victory.
What’s that like, a brief war in Yemen? Western journalists barely see the frontline in Hodeida. Yemen itself is difficult to reach because of visa problems, logistical drawbacks and safety risks, let alone reaching the heart of the war. But press officer Aseel al Saqladi drives journalists from Yemen and the Emirates to and from the front in his unarmored Toyota pickup truck daily, machine gun the back, tuft of qat against the windshield. De Volkskrant is welcome to join him in the passenger seat.
It’s Thursday, the 21nd of June, several days after the Arabic coalition in Yemen announced that it has retaken the Hodeida airport. The road is safe, they assure us. After all, the frontline is far away, near the airport.
As promised, the drive starts out calm, in the fishing village of Khawkah, taken long before. In their encampment, soldiers from Sudan, partner in the Arabic coalition, marvel at their Yemeni brothers in arms, sporting their loincloths and sandals. The Sudanese commander, Ibrahim Abdallah Mahdi Issa, standing straight as a rod on his desert boots, pulls his impeccable uniform a little tighter. He has no comment, except this: “It’s very important to look like a true military man. Formal.”
On the other side of the road, we see a different tableau of this war: a refugee camp, with the Emirate flag emblazoned on the tents. The food scarcity is driving poor inhabitants to take drastic measures, such as impersonating a refugee in hopes of a plate of food. “Other people are occupying tents here, just because that way, they get a free meal every day”, says Saida Ali Awal Hodeibi, fled from the front town of Kerish. “Because of them, we don’t have a tent and have to sleep in the sun.” A cohabitant from relatively safe Mocka confesses guilt. “Other families need these tents more than we do. But if we go back home, we won’t have any food.”
Refugees from Hodeida
There was no room for the first family from Hodeida in the refugee camp. They’ve moved into a small thatched hut. “Everything was good in Hodeida, until the war began”, says the lady of the house, Negad Mohammed. “We had enough to eat. But we lived close to the airport, where they’re fighting, so we had to leave.” By means of pamphlets, the anti-Houthi coalition is summoning civilians to leave the city. A local tribal leader, Agdalqani Almafa, will later lament: the largely Sunni citizens of his city are paying the price for the war against the Zaidi Houthis. Several families who tried to run, were killed by a coalition bombing. “The international community is not lifting a finger. Compare that to the attention one drowned Syrian child got.”
Seventy kilometers south of Hodeida, just outside the village of Al Faza, something unexpected happens. Press officer Aseel takes his unarmored pickup truck off the paved coast road in the direction of Hodeida. Switching gears, he drives onto the beach. It starts as a drive over the sand dunes, which would attract hordes of bathers in safer areas, past the thatched huts of the village of Al Faza. But Aseel accelerates at every bush. What danger does he see there, dozens of kilometers south of the official frontline, in an area long taken by the coalition?
Houthis. They’re hidden in the thickets along the road. In the days before we arrived, they had snipers shooting at vehicles from a kilometer away. “In groups of four at a time, they attack from the bushes”, says Ibrahim al Ashwal of the 3rd Support Unit, at a foraging post where you have to search high and low for water in the summer heat, but qat is ubiquitous.
In the week when the coalition threatened to retake the airport, the Houthis closed in on them from behind, by firing at the coast road. This reduced about ten kilometers of the supply route of operation Golden Victory to a wagon trail on a sandy beach. Maximum speed: walking speed. Signs that say ‘caution, mines’ mark the west side of the route. The east side is green with bushes.
The Houthis are rebels from the north of Yemen. In the 1990s, they promoted their unique religion: they’re Zaidi Shiites, a Shiite cult that exists virtually only in Yemen. Traditionally, Zaidis and Sunnis went to the same Mosque, but in recent years, there have been sectarian tensions. The Houthis’ religious battle became political: supported by the crossed-over President Ali Abdallah Saleh and his armory, the Houthis took Sanaa, the capital of Yemen, in 2015, meaning to subjugate the rest of the country to their regime afterwards.
Western governments have little affinity for the Houthis, who call themselves Ansar Allah (‘Helpers of God’). First, they’re supported by Iran, even though it’s not clear to what extent. Furthermore, there are links to terrorist organization Hezbollah, which, in all probability, is assisting the Houthis on-the-spot. “I wish I was one of your fighters”, Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah sighed in a recent speech.
Now in its fourth year of war, Yemen is well on its way to becoming the Vietnam of the Arabic world, with dire consequences for the citizens of this torn country. At first sight, that’s difficult to understand. The Houthis are merely a militia army without an air force. They don’t seem to be a match for the international coalition with the most modern Western weapons and airplanes. Only here at the Red Sea beach, does the problem become clear: the Houthis are unsurpassed when it comes to guerilla tactics.
Twelve thousand fighters
“Our planes can’t see them through the trees”, says Commander Nabeel al Mashushi of the Giant Unit. He claims to have twelve thousand fighters on the ground. The Sudanese are here with ten thousand men, they say. But in the Arabic world, they’re not fussy about adding an extra digit: on the way to Hodeida, these numbers are nowhere to be seen. The front is vast and conspicuously desolate, along dozens of kilometers of coast road.
When things get dicey, Aseel turns up the music. A thumping beat with old language from the Quran. About they who are doomed because they’re fighting for the wrong side. About the fire that will devour the hypocrites. And, more contemporary, about the battle of the ‘lions’ of the Yemeni army. “Until the Red Sea moans with all the corpses.” But the sounds don’t drown out what’s happening outside. Three times, from the pickup’s loading platform, the gunman opens fire at the bushes.
Close to the airport, there’s a stranded MRAP, one of those powerful American army vehicles, the fencing twisted, powerless against the Houthis’ tactics. At a destroyed gas station right before the airport, motorized traffic comes to an end.
Those who want to see the airport - the situation is ‘perfect’, ‘safe’ - have to walk, accompanied by fighters on sandals, across open terrain. It seems sensible to stay under the roof of the gas station, where Abdallah Ali (21) tells us he’s waging a ‘jihad against the Persians’. After all, the Houthis are supported by Iran.
More than a week later, a short but important message appears on the website of The National, an Emirates newspaper. In a video about the great victories of the coalition in Hodeida, it’s mentioned in passing that after ‘heavy battles’, Al Faza has been retaken. Al Faza is the village with the thatched huts along the beach of the coalition’s wagon trail. Apparently, the Houthis managed to advance that far. A little later, the Emirates’ Minister of Foreign Affairs announces on Twitter that the battle for Hodeida is on hold. Officially ‘to create space for negotiations’.
It’s time to reflect on the words of Commander Nabeel al Mashushi, spoken in the safety of his army headquarters. “I blame the landscape. There really are a lot of trees on the side of the road.”
Translation by Lisa Negrijn
Difficult to reach and dangerous country
In 17 days, correspondent Ana van Es travelled straight through Yemen, a country that’s been war-torn since 2015. Yemen is difficult to reach for journalists. Visa procedures are long and opaque, battling parties regularly refuse journalists on the scarcely available flights and safety risks at the chaotic fronts are high.
The battle between the Houthi rebels and the internationally acknowledged government is now focused on the port city Hodeida, where a humanitarian crisis is looming, according to the UN. Ana van Es is the first Western journalist who managed to reach the Hodeida front. This is her story, the first part in a series. From Aden, the temporary capital of the internationally acknowledged government, Van Es travelled by car through the frontline to Sanaa, the official capital of Yemen, taken over by the Houthi rebels. Along the way, aside from the hunger and war in Yemen, she also paid attention to the fate of Yemeni women and the last coffee farmers.
The chance for peace seems to have disappeared
In 2011, the Arabian Spring also reached Yemen, where protests erupted against President Ali Abdullah Saleh, who had been in power for over two decades. A year later, he was forced to resign.
His successor Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi did not manage to quell the rebellion and form a unity government. The Shiite Houthis, supported by Iran, advanced farther and farther from the north, and in 2015 eventually took over the capital Sanaa.
Hadi fled to Saudi Arabia, after which his remaining government, acknowledged by the West, tried in vain to endure in Aden.
In 2015, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, with the support and weapons of the West, got involved in the battle to permanently drive out the Houthis from Yemen.
Because of the heavy bombardments, the most severe humanitarian crisis in the world broke out, which caused hundreds of thousands of civilians to flee, and brought famine to three-quarters of the population.
A diplomatic solution to the crisis has as yet appeared impossible. The United Nations warn that with the military solution, which has now reached a climax with the battle for Hodeida, the chance of peace in Yemen has disappeared completely.