Yemen: An unviable and unlivable state

Even if foreign intervention ends, the war will not stop until Yemenis decide to forgive.

Fighters loyal to the Houthis hold up posters with the portraits of fallen comrades killed in recent battles, during a mass funeral for them at al-Saleh Mosque in Yemen's capital Sanaa on February 16, 2021 [File: AFP/ Mohammed Huwais]

The Yemeni coastal city of Hodeidah is known for its beautiful beach. I, like many city residents, like to stroll along the water, when the battlefront is quiet and it is relatively safe to be outside. On these occasional walks, I pass by a disturbing new feature of my city that emerged in the past few years: pictures of hundreds of deceased fighters lining up the streets and changing every so often.

The images of all these young men always seem alike: they all have the same tired, brown faces with sad eyes that did not seem to have anticipated their premature death.

Many of these pictures are circulated on social media as well. But instead of condolences, often the comments below them descend into gloating and insults. Seeing the hatred and misery permeating these exchanges under  solemn announcements of the deaths of boys as young as 13 years old makes me terrified.

I realise that the war has completely destroyed the social fabric of my country. It has devastated Yemen and disfigured it beyond recognition. The polarisation, hate and desire for revenge that I see every day make me fear that this war may never end. How can the families of fighters on the opposite sides of the front line ever learn to live side by side? How will their children go to school and play together? How can we put aside all the pain and suffering, all the insult and injury to come back together as a society?

Thinking of these questions today makes it difficult for me to grasp that just 10 years ago we were going through a moment of unprecedented national unity.

In March 2011, Yemen joined the Arab Spring. The protests in the streets inspired many dreams of political opening and civilian power at the helm of the state. Yemenis of all walks of life joined demonstrations across the country demanding a better life for themselves and future generations. The youth who were at the forefront of the protests were proud of their political and religious plurality. I still remember people of different backgrounds praying side by side and taking photos with each other as friends.

But the spirit of unity we felt during the revolution was short-lived. The revolution was undermined and overtaken by a coup. Then came the Saudi-led military intervention and the war. Former comrades who protested together in Sanaa’s Tahrir Square turned into bitter enemies. Tens of thousands of people have been killed in this bloody war and millions have been starved.

More than half of Yemen’s population of 30 million face varying levels of food insecurity, with three million children suffering from acute malnutrition.

As the Yemeni state has disintegrated, social provision has disappeared and the economy has been shattered. The war has completely decimated the infrastructure in the country and caused shortages of all basic goods, including fuel.

Auke Lootsma, the United Nations Development Programme’s country director in Yemen, recently said that if the war does not stop, the country will turn into an “unviable state” that will be beyond repair.

But Yemen has become not just an unviable state, it is also now a place where people can no longer bear to live together. For foreign observers, it may be difficult to grasp the devastation Yemeni society has suffered. In the foreign media, the war is often explained through sectarianism, a north-south divide and tribal rivalries. It is almost like conflict is perceived as natural to Yemen.

But the rifts this war has caused go beyond these imagined “natural divisions”.

There are three fronts now open in three different cities: Hodeidah, Marib and Taiz. All the fighters are Yemeni, the majority are locals, many are from the same sect and even from the same tribe or extended family. And yet, they fight for opposing sides and they kill each other as if they have been enemies for centuries.

Earlier this year, I went to mourn with a woman who had lost her 20-year-old son on the front in Hodeidah. He along with his brother had no religious or ideological affiliation with the Houthis (also known as Ansar Allah), but nevertheless, decided to join them because it was the only way to provide for the family. Her pleas and crying did not dissuade them from going to the battlefield to get a meagre wage.

When I saw her, she was smiling quietly. She told me that she had lost her ability to cry and that she did not feel anything. She did not want to talk to her other son or try to dissuade him from going to war. The Ansar Allah leaders often say: “He is in heaven eating apples,” as a metaphor for the bliss that a dead fighter supposedly feel in paradise. As she talked to me about her son, the woman stretched her lips, saying sarcastically: “He is eating apples in paradise and has left me here to eat yoghurt.”

It is not unheard of for members of the same family to fight on different sides. I recently read on social media about a young man named Abdelmalik who was fighting with the Houthis in Marib, while his father, Mutia, was fighting for the other side. Both of them were killed on the same front.

There have been other cases I have heard of about brothers, relatives, friends fighting against each other. To say that the conflict in Yemen is a fratricide would not be an exaggeration.

The front lines do not follow any “tribal” or “sectarian” logic. They cut across communities, even families, and leave many people stranded, without their natural social surroundings. That much became clear when the large prisoner exchange happened in October 2020. Many families had to cross into “enemy territory” in order to go see their released loved ones, “deported” to the “other side”.

Tightly knit communities that have lived in peace for as long as they have existed, have been ravaged, divided and dispersed. And unfortunately, local media has been playing an exceedingly active role in drawing lines of division across Yemeni society.

Footage of battles and the capture of prisoners are broadcast proudly on the official TV channels of the warring parties as propaganda to mobilise support. Dead bodies are often displayed accompanied by war cries, while prisoners of war – visibly afraid and intimidated – are forced to repeat scripted “confessions”.

Yemeni journalists and intellectuals of various affiliations do not shy away from writing public comments in which they gloat about the capture of prisoners of war or the death of Yemeni combatants.

And even when Yemeni journalists go abroad, they still persist in this type of behaviour. In 2017, I, along with several other Yemeni journalists, travelled to Jordan to attend a workshop on humanitarian journalism. All of us went through the same difficult and dangerous journey to get there. We braved insecure roads, checkpoints and airstrikes; we went through the same airports in which we were treated in the same inappropriate ways. We all arrived with the same bad memories, the same grief for those who we have lost and the same fear for those we left behind at home.

We shared so much and yet, when we sat down at one table in the workshop, we could not find a common language. Each defended a warring party they sympathised with and some went as far as justifying war crimes.

It seems clear that the Yemeni people, in addition to the many deprivations they are suffering from and the loss of loved ones and livelihoods, are also experiencing a terrifying absence of the most basic form of humanity.

Many believe that the war will end when the external support given to the warring parties by Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Iran is cut off. But I doubt it. I fear the urge to seek revenge will keep the war going, and so will the desire to evade justice by those who committed massacres and grave violations.

Since 2015, several attempts at peace talks have been made. So far, only one round held in Sweden in 2018 has been considered a success. However, more than two years later, the only provision of the agreement reached in Sweden that was carried out was the release of prisoners of war from detention centres. These centres now have been refilled with new detainees.

If Yemenis want this war to end, they have no choice but to shake hands and forgive. They will have to accept living next to the murderer of their loved ones and sending their children to the same school as his children.

This is the only way to save our country, once called “Arabia Felix”, from becoming an unviable state.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.