(The Guardian) — The country is plunging further into a humanitarian crisis while fighting between Houthi rebels and troops loyal to the president leaves many fearing for their lives.
The war in Yemen has intensified in recent days, with the southern city of Aden rocked by some of the most ferocious street battles since the start of hostilities and the capital, Sana’a, enduring one of the worst sustained air raids in the last month.
The humanitarian situation is growing increasingly desperate after five weeks of aerial bombardment and blockade by a Saudi-led coalition, with major shortages in fuel, food, water and medicine causing a “generalised catastrophe” in the Arab world’s poorest country, aid workers say.
“The fighting is at its worst,” an Aden resident who fled the frontline and took refuge in another area of the city said by telephone on Thursday.
Fierce street battles raged through much of Aden, a stronghold of supporters of the ousted president, Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi, who is in exile in Saudi Arabia. Popular committees made up of local youth and other fighters are battling Houthi rebels and troops loyal to the longtime strongman of Yemen, Ali Abdullah Saleh, who was replaced by Hadi in a deal brokered by the Gulf states after Arab Spring-style protests.
The Houthis, who hail from the northern province of Sa’ada and are members of the Zaydi sect of Shia Islam, took control of Sana’a in a surprise offensive last autumn, and laterplaced Hadi under house arrest. After he fled his detention to Aden, the Houthis and their allies launched a campaign to seize the southern port city, prompting a Saudi-led coalition, fearful of the rebels’ close ties to Iran, to launch Operation Decisive Storm, a series of air strikes to block the rebels’ advance.
The Saudis renamed the campaign “Operation Restoration of Hope” last week,and the air strikes have intensified in recent days, signalling the coalition’s resolve in fighting the Houthis.
The resident from Aden said the Houthis and their allies were shelling residential streets to terrorise civilians and were taking refuge from air strikes in densely populated neighbourhoods. He also said the rebels had posted snipers in buildings and many locals were too terrified to leave their homes for fear of being shot.
“We are barely getting our daily food, we are besieged everywhere and things are deteriorating for the people,” he said. “There is a great wound in the people’s spirit.”
The man, who said two of his close relatives had been killed fighting the Houthis, said some weapons and ammunition had been supplied by the coalition to aid local fighters in the battles, and that the resistance is now better organised, but that it was not enough to reverse rebel gains.
“I think reconciliation with the Houthis after this would not be possible,” he said. “The people can never forget these massacres.”
On Friday, the Saudi defence ministry said three Saudi soldiers and dozens of Yemeni rebels were killed overnight after the rebels and their supporters launched a cross-border attack on the kingdom’s southern Najran province.
The air strikes, which appear to have checked the Houthi advance in the south and destroyed large quantities of military gear and ammunition, have done little to alter the balance on the ground.
The campaign has killed more than 1,000 people in five weeks, and injured more than 4,300, according to UN figures. About 9 million Yemenis are believed to be in dire need of humanitarian assistance, and 150,000 have become internal refugees, often fleeing the city to village homes that lack basic services and infrastructure. More than 100 children have been killed in the conflict and more than 170 injured, according to figures released last week by Unicef, which said the estimates are conservative because not all the casualties have been documented.
In Aden, residents often hide in their homes. Ambulances and health workers have been attacked in the course of the fighting, and health facilities and schools have been occupied by fighters in the southern city. Children have also been recruited to take part in combat, Unicef said.
Many residents in areas affected by the fighting now fear dying in the crossfire if they make the journey to undersupplied hospitals for treatment.
Widespread fuel shortages are also taking their toll, with hospitals quickly running out of material to run their generators, which are crucial amid the electricity outages affecting most of the country. The lack of fuel also means water pumps that provide clean drinking water cannot be operated, leaving many civilians forced to drink dirty water.
An ongoing siege and blockade has worsened the humanitarian situation. Only limited food and medical supplies are getting to the country in recent weeks by boat or air, with damaged airport runways now unable to receive large cargo planes after initial consignments of emergency aid were flown in.
The security situation, along with fuel, food and medical supply shortages feed into each other. Aid workers cannot move supplies to affected areas due to security restrictions, and limited fuel means vehicles are unable to drive along exposed and vulnerable roads.
After a recent air strike at Faj Attan, a suburb of Sana’a, which wounded hundreds, a local hospital urged residents to donate fuel so it could operate generators to treat the wounded.
“It’s a vicious cycle,” said Marie Claire Feghali, a spokeswoman for the International Committee of the Red Cross in Sana’a.
Feghali said fuel and electricity shortages are severe, with the capital getting just one hour of electricity a day. Yemen also imports 90% of its food, leading to major shortages and skyrocketing prices amid the blockade, she said.
Hospitals cannot function due to the lack of fuel and electricity and combatants are not respecting the neutrality of medical workers, who have been forced to evacuate hospitals close to the frontlines, including Aden’s al-Joumhouria hospital this week.
“You cannot imagine how painful it is to see the patients that were just so afraid that they were getting out with IVs and everything still attached to them,” Feghali said.
She said the fighting in Aden has prevented civilians from going out to obtain food and water or to leave the city to seek shelter elsewhere. No one is moving bodies still l ying in the street for fear of being shot.
Feghali called for an immediate humanitarian pause in the fighting to allow crucial supplies in and to permit civilians to get out of combat zones.
André Pérache, the head of mission of Médecins sans Frontières in Yemen, said all hospitals are facing fuel shortages as well as a lack of emergency medication, surgical material, IV fluids and medicine for chronic illnesses such as diabetes.
He described the humanitarian situation as a “generalised catastrophe” that was likely to become increasingly desperate as time wore on.