Yemeni women reflect on war in a city ravaged by air attacks
As the war on Yemen enters its fourth year, women in Sanaa say death and destruction stalks every family.
Sanaa, Yemen – Suha Salem tries to hide her pain and anguish, but the suffering inflicted upon her by Yemen’s relentless three-year-war is etched on her face.
As her eyes shift from left to right, the conflict has devastated nearly every neighbourhood in the densely populated capital, she says, with death and destruction stalking every family.
“My brother was injured by a landmine and had his right leg and left hand amputated,” she told Al Jazeera.
“Another relative was shot and is now paralysed.”
The indiscriminate loss of civilian life was so widespread, Salem said, that she feared for her children’s psychological future.
“I know of a lot of people whose relatives were killed by shelling and air strikes.
“Their psychological and physical health is dire. How do you console someone who’s lost so many loved ones?”
Since 2014, Yemen has been wracked by a multi-sided conflict involving local, regional, and international actors.
The Houthis, a group of Zaidi Shia Muslims who ruled a kingdom there for nearly 1,000 years, exploited widespread anger against President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi ‘s decision to postpone long-awaited elections and his stalled negotiations over a new constitution.
The Houthis marched from their stronghold of Saada province to Sanaa, and surrounded the presidential palace, placing Hadi under house arrest.
Prompting one of the world’s worst humanitarian crises in decades, a coalition led by Saudi Arabia intervened on March 26, 2015, at Hadi’s request after the Houthis continued to sweep the south and threatened to conquer the last government stronghold of Aden.
While the coalition and local militias successfully fended off the Houthi takeover of Aden, the air attacks it carried out failed to dislodge the rebels from Sanaa and much of the rest of the country.
Instead, the more than 16,000 air raids it launched resulted in mass civilian casualties with weddings , medical facilities and funerals not spared the bombardment.
“Every time we think the situation will improve, it gets worse and worse,” Salem told Al Jazeera, sighing despondently.
“The war has brought us no good… the Arab coalition has not served Yemen. It’s serving its own interests.
“If the warring sides care about Yemen, they should make concessions and lift us from this plight.”
Women have been displaced, traumatised and even killed. They've been exposed to the highest forms of cruelty and targeted by both parties.
Women are humiliated
As the conflict enters its fourth year on Monday, residents and activists told Al Jazeera the fighting has extracted a grave toll on the civilian population, with women suffering disproportionately.
“The war has humiliated women,” Afaf Al-Abara, a Yemeni journalist focusing on humanitarian issues, told Al Jazeera.
“Women have been displaced, traumatised and even killed. They’ve been exposed to the highest forms of cruelty and targeted by both parties.”
According to Yemen’s Ministry of Human Rights, at least 1,665 women had been killed or wounded since the start of the war with both sides routinely denying them access to medical and humanitarian aid.
More than 18 million civilians were currently hemmed in by the fighting, with at least 10 million – a number greater than the entire population of Sweden – requiring immediate humanitarian assistance.
Getting accurate information on the death toll is difficult, but Save The Children estimated at least 50,000 children died in 2017, an average of 130 every day.
Residents told Al Jazeera, the cost of food and fuel had skyrocketed, with soaring inflation leaving the poorest most vulnerable.
Speaking on the third anniversary of the war, Geert Cappelaere, UNICEF’s regional director for the Middle East and North Africa, said many desperate parents had been forced to “marry off their daughters” to provide for their families.
“Close to 80 percent of Yemenis live in poverty and parents have to make the difficult choice of either sending their children to beg, work or marry them off at an early age.”
In a survey across six provinces, UNICEF found 75 percent of female respondents were married before they turned 18, with half of all the girls surveyed wed before they turned 15.
‘Hope is shattered’
Some Yemenis told Al Jazeera they were optimistic their situation would improve, pinning their hopes on Martin Griffiths who was recently appointed as the UN’s special envoy for Yemen.
But, many others said there was little prospect for peace.
“We are still waiting,” Ahlam Saleh, a high school graduate in Sanaa told Al Jazeera. “I graduated from school last year, and I thought the war would stop. But it still rages. No one knows what will happen tomorrow, next week or in the coming months.”
Like several Yemenis nationwide, she thought the Saudi-led coalition would push the Houthis to the negotiating table. “That hope is now shattered,” she said.
“It turns out that the Houthis are stronger than we expected after former President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s death, and that the Saudi coalition is not serious in returning Yemen back to normal.”
‘Prepare for death’
Also exploiting the turmoil were southern secessionists, backed by the United Arab Emirates (UAE), who were continuing to gain ground in southern Yemen and push through their claim to independence.
Armed and funded by Abu Dhabi, the Yemeni government has frequently clashed with the UAE over its support for the secessionists, accusing it of trying to exploit the conflict for its own interests.
In May, the London-based Middle East Eye reported that Hadi had accused Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed, the crown prince of Abu Dhabi, of acting as an occupying force, as opposed to a liberation force.
And in August, a confidential report by a UN Security Council panel of experts, found that members of the Saudi-led coalition were pursuing individual agendas – the result of which had further weakened Hadi’s leadership.
Ahlam Othman, a 35-year housewife in Sanaa, told Al Jazeera: “Neither side was interested in ending the tragedies unfolding across the country. When my children ask me if the war will be over soon, I simply reply with Inshallah [God willing].”
With fighting showing no signs of abating, Othman said it was too difficult to offer a simple “yes or no” answer to that question.
“Every day we are prepared to meet death, and this is how it’s been for the past three years. Every day we prepare.”