ReportWar in Yemen

War in Yemen: 36 hours in the capital of the Houthi rebels

Since the Houthi rebels took the capital of Yemen three years ago, Sanaa has been under siege. Ana Van Es drives there, through the frontline. Among all the decay, it appears there is still a Ministry of Tourism. And everywhere you go, death is wished upon America and Israel.

Ana van Es
Houthi rebels keep watch over Sanaa on Friday during a demonstration that seeks to celebrate the motto 'Death to the United States and Israel'. Beeld Reuters
Houthi rebels keep watch over Sanaa on Friday during a demonstration that seeks to celebrate the motto 'Death to the United States and Israel'.Beeld Reuters

In Sanaa’s War Museum, Yemen always wins. “Yemen is the burial ground of all attackers”, says Warrant Officer Nabil Saleh al Azab. He routinely gives visitors a tour of this patriotic building, about the countless wars Yemen has fought since the Stone Age. Canons being pulled by camels. Decorations of honor from the kings of Mokka, from the time before Islam. But also a banner with feats of arms in the current war: 4,850 compatriots killed.

This number, which is questionable, dates back three years ago. It’s impossible for the War Museum to keep up with the current state of affairs: many more have died. It’s all the same for the visitors. At 9 a.m., droves of them start piling in.

A family from besieged Hodeida follows the tour with keen interest. Only two weeks ago, they fled, for fear of air strikes. Now, they’re on a little day trip to the War Museum. But if you ask old Al Azab how he feels about this war that’s mainly taking the lives of Yemenites, by the thousands, words of criticism escape his lips in this propaganda-filled showroom. Perhaps they’re words of sadness. “This war is unnecessary. Everything has been destroyed.”

Unfortunately, criticizing the war is controversial. We have to go now, a government guide tells us. To the car, now. The visit to the War Museum is over.

Houthi rebels in Sanaa. Beeld AFP
Houthi rebels in Sanaa.Beeld AFP

Trucks in a tailback on the frontline route

Sanaa, the capital of Yemen, which has been in the hands of Houthi rebels since 2015, is under siege, but won’t give up. In the past years, the anti-Houthi-coalition led by Saudi Arabia has repeatedly carried out air strikes on the city, often with bombs made in Western arms factories. Hundreds of civilians died in those air strikes. The Sanaa airport is closed to civil aircraft, as ordered by the coalition. But if they intended to cut the city off from the outside world, they’ve failed. Many other roads lead to Sanaa.

The war in Yemen is one in which you can drive through the frontline by car. A couple of kilometers down the road, battles are fought to the death, but several roads are open to all traffic. Yemenites cross through the frontline with a deftness betraying routine. After all, the battle between the government and the Houthi rebels is intertwined with the genesis of Yemen as we know it.

Houthis see themselves as representatives of the Zaidi Muslims, a Shiite cult which exists almost exclusively in Yemen and ruled it for a thousand years, until they were defeated by the Sunni government in the late 20th century. This war, which started three years ago, is far from being the first war of its kind. In this early stage of the 21st century, the Houthis and Yemen’s government have already come to blows ten times.

How do you enter Sanaa as a journalist?

The Houthi rebel territory in Yemen is virtually inaccessible for journalists. Relief workers and diplomats are flown into Sanaa by the UN or aid organizations such as the Red Cross. They’re the only ones allowed to land in the city by the coalition fighting the Houthis. There are no commercial flights.

Last year, The UN announced a 'no journalists policy' on all flights to Yemen. Aid organizations adhere to this policy. Rumor has it that the anti-Houthi coalition led by Saudi Arabia is forcing the UN to do this. There is no way of checking whether that’s true. Journalists who want to do their job in Yemen are forced to take risks because of the UN policy. Volkskrant correspondent Ana Van Es travelled through the frontline of the southern port city Aden to Sanaa by car, a dangerous drive of ten hours there and twelve hours back. All routes to Sanaa go through tribal areas. At countless checkpoints, sometimes manned by extremist fighters, foreigners run the risk of arrest or kidnapping.

In order not to stand out during the drive, Ana Van Es dressed as a Yemenite woman: in an abaya, a niqab covering her face with an extra veil, and long gloves. For the duration of this journey, she was her driver’s wife, which could be proved with a marriage contract. In conservative Yemen, it is nearly unthinkable that a fighter at a checkpoint would talk to a woman directly. Our Amsterdam-based newsroom and our local contact in Aden stayed in constant contact during the entire journey.

The Shelves remain stocked

The frontline routes, an attempt to maintain a workable situation during the war, are not without risk. It’s at least a ten-hour drive from the rebel town of Sanaa to Aden, the temporary capital of the internationally acknowledged government, mostly on unpaved mountain roads. Every few minutes, there’s a checkpoint manned by militia fighters, subjecting travelers to interrogations and the risk of being arrested, as well as the danger of nearby battles coming a little too close for comfort.

And yet, the road is used a lot. Busloads of passengers commute back and forth. As soon as the sun sets, the tailbacks start: endless parades of trucks, cargo piled on high in the port of Aden, moseying along on the unpaved mountain roads leading north, to stock Sanaa. In the eastern direction, there’s a lifeline from Oman to Sanaa, via the city of Marib, which has become rich from the frontline trade in household gas.

All parties profit from this arrangement. Pro-government fighters make money from charging a toll at the checkpoints. In Sanaa, the shelves remain stocked, with or without air blockade.

“It’s an informal agreement: that road must remain open”, says Maeen Abdul Malik Saeed, Minister of Public Works and Highways in the internationally acknowledged government. Keeping the frontline routes accessible is his most important task. From Aden, he confers about this with the enemy in Sanaa. Not with the minister of the rebel cabinet, that’s prohibited. But with civil servants in charge of road crews, so that the Houthis will continue to maintain the roads as well.

Minister Saed bends over. “You should know: everything goes through the frontline. In Marib, they have qat from Taiz. I recognize that qat, because I’m from Taiz. I ask you: how does qat get out of Taiz? That’s through the frontline. It’s far away. It’s dangerous. And yet, Marib has fresh qat from Taiz every day. It’s really quite simple. On the road, first there’s a government checkpoint and then a Houthi checkpoint. They only close during intense battles.”

A child that had to flee is being weighed in Hajjah. Beeld AFP
A child that had to flee is being weighed in Hajjah.Beeld AFP

The closer to the war, the better the road

That’s exactly how it appears to be. Near the front, we see the first of minister Saed’s road workers. The closer you get to the war, the better the road is. After hours of sand and crushed rock, shortly before the crossing, there’s smooth asphalt. The difference between the last government checkpoint and the first Houthi checkpoint is imperceptible in passing. Both sport a scaffolding in the middle of the road, with the Yemenite flag, rag-clad fighters carrying Kalashnikovs standing next to it.

Whereas at other checkpoints, you’re subjected to endless questioning, at these dangerous outposts, no questions are asked. The fighters understand what you’re here to do: to drive through the frontline, full speed through a couple of kilometers of no man’s land, until you reach rebel territory.

After the first Houthi checkpoint, hidden in the bushes at a Mosque, there’s a car with darkly tinted windows. In it are two civil servants from the rebel government. Seated in the back is ‘fixer and also civil servant’ Mohammed, dressed in a white robe with a jambia, the traditional dagger for men in North-Yemen. Seated in front is Fouaz, dressed in the uniform of the contemporary Arabic intel man: silent shoes, a button-down shirt and a hat. Fouaz is our ‘guide’ from the Ministry of Information. He takes pictures of every meeting I have in Sanaa, ‘for the file’. During every conversation, he scribbles along in his notebook.

In the government-ruled parts of Yemen, journalists can move about freely, whereas here, the rebel government decides who I can or cannot meet. “It’s the law’, says Mohammed. “Every journalist has to be accompanied by a guide from the Ministry of Information. Is that different in Aden? You see, there’s no real government there!”

Mohammed reikt een hartvormige krans aan van witte bloemen. Het is een geschenk. De mannen lijken opgetogen. Het gebeurt zelden dat westerse journalisten Sanaa bereiken. 'Vanaf nu zul je een ander Jemen zien', zegt Mohammed. 'Veilig. Aardige mensen. Heel anders dan aan de andere kant. Ik begrijp niet waarom ze dit aan de andere kant niet willen, en wij niet nog gewoon één land zijn.'

Mohammed hands me a heart-shaped garland of white flowers. It’s a gift. The men seem cheerful. Western journalists rarely reach Sanaa. “From here on out, you’ll see a different Yemen”, says Mohammed. “Safe. Nice people. Very different from the other side. I don’t understand why they don’t want this on the other side, and why we’re not just one country anymore.”

A perfect world of illusions with only one blemish

I can only stay in Sanaa for 36 hours. My visa from the Houthis arrived too late. The crucial stamp from the National Security Bureau was always missing. “Their headquarters were hit by a Saudi air strike last year”, says Mohammed, “and for security reasons, they never opened a new office and conduct most of their business by phone.” That phone, he means, is difficult to find in the rubble of this city.

Despite the war, Sanaa is still beautiful, a city like an ancient fairytale, high up in the mountains, where, on the nights that there are no air strikes, it’s so quiet - a dog’s wail, the call to prayer from the Mosque - you could believe there’s no war here. But at every crossroads, there are women begging. Many streets have chunks missing: buildings that were obliterated by air strikes. The buildings that are still there, are painted with battle cries. “No to American terrorism” is one of the friendliest.

Sanaa is still reeling from the last political murder. From a roof terrace high above the Old Town, the medieval fortress of villas built in the heyday of Zaidi Islam, it’s impossible to miss the marble behemoth in the south: the Saleh Mosque, named after former president Ali Abdallah Saleh, who made Yemen into what it is today. He was always against the Houthis and had their leader Hussein al Houthi killed, until suddenly, he helped put them in power. Late last year, Saleh was murdered. His name has disappeared from the city. The Saleh Mosque is now called the Shaab Mosque (People’s Mosque).

The tour by Mohammed and Fouaz, the civil servants working for the rebels, starts at the heart of the humanitarian drama that Yemen has become: the Severe Acute Malnutrition Ward of the Seventy Hospital, better known as ‘the hunger room’. This is where malnourished children end up, or children suffering from cholera, or both. Like Basha, with her protruding belly. At four months old, she’s still at the weight of a newborn baby: 2,4 kilos. She’s from the countryside. Her father sells qat. Her mother, dressed in black robes, also appears to be skin and bones. They weren’t able to afford going to the hospital sooner.

“It’s difficult for the mothers to leave their village, to leave the other children at home”, says doctor Hannah Abdelrahman. “If they’re too late, the children die in the emergency room.” Abdelrahman, who speaks perfect English from behind a black niqab, works two jobs herself: here in the morning, in the afternoon she goes to a private clinic, because the salaries at the hospital are paid only once every four to five months at the most. It’s been like that for a long time.

A woman and her child are making their way down to a clinic in Hajjah. Beeld AFP
A woman and her child are making their way down to a clinic in Hajjah.Beeld AFP

The visit to the hospital provides a rare opportunity to talk to the regular inhabitants of Sanaa. Aside from them, I only manage to speak to high officials of the Houthi government during my 36-hour stay. I ask to speak to a group of youths from Sanaa, with the help of the local employee of the Yemen Youth Project, backed by the Netherlands and asking these young people for their opinion on day-to-day matters. Impossible, says Mohammed. “The Ministry of Information said it’s out of the question.”

The atmosphere becomes tense when an acquaintance from the Netherlands, working for a medical NGO in Sanaa, walks into the hotel lobby unsuspectingly to say hello. Fouaz disappears to make a lot of phone calls. Mohammed: “The Ministry of Information wants to have control over everything. He was not on the program.”

What is on the program? An interview with the minister of Tourism. In war-torn Sanaa, his ministry is firing on all cylinders. While neighboring government buildings have been bombed to oblivion, in these rooms with stained-glass windows and cheerful holiday posters, people are still being promoted, new employees are hired and an they’ve even set up an entirely new department. Whereas doctors at the Severe Acute Malnutrition Ward usually have to make do without a salary, the civil servants at the Minstry of Tourism are properly paid.

It’s a perfect world of illusions, with only one blemish: tourists have long stopped coming to Yemen. When was the last one here? The Minister, Nassir Mahfouz, has no idea. “Years ago.” Why the Ministry of Tourism even still exists? “That’s a difficult question.”

The Minister of Tourism understands why tourists avoid Sanaa now that the Saudis are bombing it. But shunning the entire country, that’s taking it too far if you ask him. Many areas in Yemen are safe for tourists: the Marib Dam, the loam skyscrapers of Hadramaut, which are the oldest skyscrapers in the world. “You’d be lying if you said it was unsafe there.” He suspects that Saudi Arabia has had a hand in the mass tourism boycott.

Because of a shrewd move, the money’s gone

In the streets, Sanaa seems plagued by problems of a different order. The money’s gone, because of what was possibly the government’s shrewdest move in this war: moving the Central Bank of Sanaa to Aden. With the goal of draining all of the Houthis’ reserves.

In his dry statistician’s words, Assistant Minister of Finance Ahmed Mohammed Najar tells us about the fate of Yemen, which has been the poorest country in the Arabian Peninsula for years. Before the war, almost half the population already lived below the poverty line. Since then, that number has risen to 85 percent, according to Najar. In other words: more than four-fifths of the inhabitants of the rebel territory in Yemen does not earn enough to meet the most basic necessities of life.

With the move of the Central Bank to Aden, the last reserves are gone. In Sanaa, they tried to use food stamps to enable people to buy food. The attempt failed, because there is no money to pay shop keepers afterwards. Then how are the inhabitants keeping themselves alive? By becoming self-sufficient. “People are moving from the city to the country villages where they were born, and growing their own food there.”

In Sanaa, the war has seeped through to the Unesco World Heritage alleys of the Old Town. Mohammed takes me to one of those monumental houses, now bombed to pieces. Mohammed is certain: “Ordinary, innocent people used to live in this house.”

The final exams continue in Sanaa. Beeld AFP
The final exams continue in Sanaa.Beeld AFP

Pute coincidence

Who gets hit by the air strikes in Yemen, is a matter of pure coincidence. In the Abu Bakr school, Houda Mohammed, 45 years old, is still shaking, sitting on a little mattress. She fled from Hodeida, as did the neighbors. In the morning, they said goodbye to one another, then they drove out of the city: she and her family in one van, the neighbors in their own. The neighbors were hit by an air strike: twelve people dead. Only one woman survived. “Sheer misfortune.”

But in the Old Town, not everything seems ordinary or innocent. A motorcyclist drives by, slowly, because of all the pedestrians, with a yellow-green emblem on his leather jacket that looks an awful lot like the emblem of the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah. A week before, Hezbollah openly declared its support of the Houthis. It’s impossible not to notice he Houthis’ battle cry painted on the monumental houses. Thunderous lines, applied in fresh spray paint.

God is great / Death to America / Death to Israel / Curse the Jews / Victory to Islam.

This slogan can be seen everywhere in rebel territory. At checkpoints, highway overpasses, government buildings, and three times at the entrance of the War Museum. In the Old Town, the slogan is also painted on ordinary houses everywhere. Five times over several dozen meters in the alleyway at the world-famous Fulayhi Mosque. How are Saudi pilots to understand that their bombs could kill innocent families, when this slogan is painted on houses? What does this battle cry say about the Houthi movement?

The opportunity to ask this question arises when the Minister of Tourism wants to meet again. He’s planned an evening at home, deliberating with other leaders from the rebel government. In a modest apartment in the center, the pro-Hezbollah channel Al Mayadeen is broadcasting scenes of war. Plastic buckets are placed on the floor here and there, to spit out qat leaves. The deliberations take place on throw pillows. The men are joined by an important sheik from Hodeida and the shadow governor of the island Socotra, who, as does almost every other government employee, says that he regularly consults with his colleague on the other side of the front.

And, seated on a little rug below the television, praying, there’s a man named Obeid Salem Bin Dubay'. In Sanaa, he moves in the highest circles of power. Bin Dubay' has worked for the president’s bureau since 1990. He served under ‘martyr former president’ Saleh. “He was never against the Houthis.” Later, he served under the current President Hadi. “Always hesitant. He never made any decisions. He doesn’t seem to have changed at all.”

Bin Dubay' is not a Houthi, he says. But his children live in the government capital Aden and he can’t visit them. Not because of the route, “of course the frontline route is open”, but because at the government checkpoints, he’s registered as a Houthi. A high-ranking one. Maybe he can explain the slogan?

“It’s just a slogan”, he says dismissively. “Politics.” But it does have some truth to it. “America and Israel are trying to create a new Middle East. Look at Libya, Syria, Tunisia, Iraq and even Yemen. They’re against Islam.” That Yemen won’t see peace any time soon, he blames on the U.S. and Britain, countries that supply Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates with weapons. “They’re making a lot of money from this war. And they dismiss every peace proposal. They’re calling the shots in the UN.”

The Minister of Tourism has a joke to tell us about the UN. A very good joke, according to Mohammed. To be precise, it’s about Martin Griffiths, the UN negotiator that’s working tirelessly for a peace deal for Yemen. He says that all parties in Yemen want peace, particularly the Houthis. As if anyone in Sanaa would take a man like that from the UN seriously. No, it’s crystal clear to the Minister of Tourism: Martin Griffiths is visiting Yemen with a different agenda. “He’s the last tourist in Yemen.”

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