by Pauline Canham, Student Editor
I stepped off the Yemenia Airways flight, and onto a bus, transporting me and a dozen or so Yemeni nationals the short distance to the arrivals terminal at Aden International Airport. It was April 2014 and my brief visit to the country, once dubbed ‘Arabia Felix’ or ‘fortunate Arabia’, came amidst a build-up of political tension. Just 11 months after my visit, Yemen would tragically descend into what is now described as the world’s worst humanitarian disaster.
The coming week marks the 5th anniversary of the launch of ‘Operation Decisive Storm’, the Saudi Coalition offensive against Houthi rebels on 25th March 2015. The anniversary was marked with the closure of airports to all traffic, except for humanitarian aid, due to concerns that the coronavirus would exacerbate what is an already catastrophic situation.
Yet again at the top of IRC’s Emergency Watchlist for 2020, the fragile hope brought about by a recent de-escalation in the conflict was rocked by a renewed surge in fighting in some provinces. The UN Special Envoy to Yemen, Martin Griffiths said last week that Yemen is at a “critical juncture” and urged warring parties to “de-escalate now” to prevent a slide back to greater violence. His statement came after what he described as “the most alarming military escalation” which included a Saudi air strike in February that killed more than 30 civilians. He also reiterated calls for access to the Safer Oil Tanker, as fears of an environmental disaster grow. The ship, anchored in the Red Sea, contains 1.15 million gallons of crude oil, and experts fear it could explode at any time, due to a lack of maintenance.
In a statement to the Security Council on 12th March, the UK Permanent Representative to the UN, Karen Pierce said that the crisis “cannot be allowed to deteriorate any longer”. The renewed violence has pushed even more people out of their homes and into camps around the country with three quarters of the 4.3 million internally displaced being women and children.
UK arms sales to Saudi Arabia unlawful
The civilian death toll in Yemen led to a British High Court ruling in 2019 that declared UK sales of arms to Saudi Arabia unlawful. Despite this, the Government has continued to grant arms licenses to the Saudi Kingdom, in what were described as “inadvertent breaches” of the ruling. The UK, US and other European Governments came under pressure to cease arms trading with Saudi Arabia after a number of so called ‘targeted’ attacks resulted in high civilian casualties. One such attack killed 40 children and injured 56 while they were travelling on a school bus in the Sa’ada district in 2018.
Despite Human Rights Watch describing that incident as a war crime, Saudi Arabia has increased its arms purchases and those involved in the business of selling them have been accused of having blood on their hands. In what appeared to be an eerie echo of German-American political philosopher, Hannah Arendt’s theory of the ‘banality of evil’, an official working at the UK Export Control Joint Unit, which signs off on shipments of weapons to Saudi Arabia said “I’m doing what I’m told and doing my job, but I’m uncomfortably aware that Adolf Eichmann said the same thing.”
Amnesty International is calling on the International Criminal Court (ICC) to investigate executives and officials involved in the sales of arms used in alleged war crimes in Yemen. Working alongside the European Centre for Constitutional and Human Rights (ECCHR), they are requesting an investigation into 26 specific airstrikes which resulted in the unlawful killing or injuring of civilians “and destroyed or damaged schools, hospitals and other protected objects.”
Memories of a different Yemen
My flight from Qatar to Yemen’s southern coastal city of Aden in 2014 had felt unexpectedly like a family outing, with me in a role akin to visiting cousin from a distant land. There was a fair amount of curiosity as to why I might want to visit Yemen during such a ‘delicate’ moment in time. Though the Saudi-led intervention was still almost a year away, sporadic violence was commonplace and protests by Al Hirak Al Janoubi (Southern Secessionist Movement) were held regularly in Aden. Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) had been very active in Yemen and there had been kidnappings of Westerners by the group or their affiliates.
But whatever apprehension I had before my departure was quickly soothed. I was welcomed warmly from the very moment I stepped on the Yemenia jet in Qatar all the way through to my eventual departure from Aden. I was embraced by the famously generous Arabic culture of my hosts, Yemeni people considered by many as the friendliest and most welcoming to visitors in the world.
Of course security was tight, there were checkpoints all over the city, we had several power cuts, and on one occasion Aden Mall was evacuated due to an escalating skirmish in the surrounding streets, but what I witnessed was a resilient community continuing with life undeterred. The beaches were busy with families enjoying the spring sunshine, children swimming, young men riding horses along the sand and women having lunch with friends. It was a happy atmosphere with no hint of the tragedies yet to come less than a year later.
My hosts took me to Aden’s historic sites, long since abandoned by visitors from around the world who used to flock to the South Arabian coast for winter sun. The stunning 11th Century Sira Castle, embedded into a rocky peninsula in a prime defensive spot in the Gulf of Aden, and the incredible Cisterns of Tawila, estimated to be 1500 years old. But my lasting memories were not of rock and stone, but rather of joy, laughter, friendship and a sense of living life in the moment that I realised I had lost.
On the way back to the airport, as I stressed about getting there on time, my friends pulled over at a small roadside tea stand. Little glass cups of red tea were passed through the window and as I sipped at the sweet hot liquid, my friend turned up the car stereo, stepped out into the middle of the road and began to dance. These poignant memories have become more precious with every anniversary of the war that passes.
What now for Yemen?
This anniversary brings with it the threat of coronavirus on top of an already perilous humanitarian situation. But for Yemen’s collapsing health system, coronavirus is simply another issue on a growing list of threats. Among the immediate concerns, in addition to the escalation in violence, is the impending rainy season, which every year heralds the onset of a rise in cholera cases. In 2019, Yemen recorded 860,000 cases of the disease and 56,000 cases have already been recorded in 2020. Oxfam’s Yemen Country Director said “This is a health crisis hiding in plain sight. It’s shocking that this ongoing crisis is getting so little attention.” With health workers needed evermore urgently, they too are coming under attack, being targeted by all warring parties in a blatant violation of humanitarian law.
The situation on the ground in Yemen is incredibly complex, with various proxy battles playing out between vying Gulf neighbours, most notably Saudi Arabia, UAE and Iran. The UAE, officially part of the Saudi Coalition, recently tested the relationship with the Kingdom when it backed Al Hirak Al Janoubi to seize Aden from forces loyal to President Hadi, still internationally recognised as Yemen’s leader. The Yemeni people, as always are caught in the cross-fire between major global powers, hungry to secure their positions in such a strategic location on the Bab al-Mandeb strait at the mouth of the Red Sea.
As we hunker down to protect each other from coronavirus, Yemen slips silently into a 6th year of war, unreported by a world focused on an unseen enemy of a different nature.
About the Author:
Pauline Canham is the HRC Blog’s student editor. Pauline is studying a Masters Degree in Human Rights and Cultural Diversity at Essex, after 20 years in the broadcasting sector, working for the BBC and AlJazeera, with a focus on large change projects including the BBC’s move into the new Broadcasting House in 2013, and the re-launch of Al Jazeera’s Arabic Channel in 2016.