Journalism from the heart of crises

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  • Security checks delaying urgent healthcare for Syrians fleeing Islamic State: UN official

    The UN says people fleeing so-called Islamic State are being prevented from seeing medical workers until they undergo security screening at a displacement camp in Syria, despite travelling long distances in the winter cold and after enduring months of food shortages.

     

    As of last week, the UN’s World Health Organisation said 35 children and newborns had died in the last two months either en route or shortly after arrival to al-Hol, the main camp where people leaving IS territory are taken.

     

    A spokesman for the Syrian Democratic Forces, the US-backed Kurdish-led alliance of militias fighting off the last vestiges of IS in Hajin and surrounding areas of Syria’s eastern Deir Ezzor province, insisted they are putting the health needs of new arrivals first.

     

    A total of 25,000 people have fled to al-Hol camp in Hassakeh province since the beginning of December, 10,000 of them since 22 January.

     

    The SDF controls the territory around al-Hol camp and screens people leaving IS territory to separate off those suspected of being IS members and fighters from civilians. This is done at multiple locations in Syria, including at al-Hol.

    "I personally made sure that medical teams are receiving newcomers before any specific screening or measures."

    With priority given to the screening process, new arrivals are being made to wait “too long in the reception area at the camp before medical triage takes place,” Elizabeth Hoff, the WHO’s representative in Syria, told IRIN. “When they come to the camp, we want to see them immediately,” she said. “If there are sick children or critically ill patients, we don’t want to wait until they are finished [the screening].”

    Hoff said most of the 35 deaths were from hypothermia or hypoglycemia; cold and hunger. IRIN was with the SDF when it met a convoy of people fleeing IS in January, and many said they had been living with severe shortages of food and medicine for months.

     

    Mustafa Bali, spokesman for the SDF, denied Hoff’s assertion that security was being prioritised over health.

     

    He told IRIN that “no security screening is being conducted before the provision of medical and logistical services,” adding that medical care was provided by the SDF’s specialist medical teams in what he called a “humanitarian corridor” between the IS-controlled areas and displaced persons’ camps.

    “It is untrue that we subject new arrivals to security screening before medical check-up,” he said. “I visited the humanitarian corridor more than once and I personally made sure that medical teams are receiving newcomers before any specific screening or measures. In addition to the availability of medical teams, food stuffs, water, and essentials are being distributed.”

     

    UN call for earlier help

     

    This is not the first time screening procedures for members of IS have come under scrutiny. As IS has been beaten back in Syria and Iraq, rights groups have expressed concern about separation of families, arbitrary detention, and a lack of transparency in the process.

     

    In a 1 February statement, the UN’s agency for refugees, UNHCR, said it was “concerned about the persistent practice of confiscation of identity documents and movement restrictions imposed on residents of internally displaced people (IDPs) and refugee camps in Hassakeh governorate.”

     

    Hoff also said that WHO, along with other UN agencies, had asked to set up a waystation between Hajin and al-Hol where they could treat emergency medical cases and provide other aid. The journey to the camp is approximately 250 kilometres from Hajin, and she said health workers “need to interact earlier – we cannot wait until they come to the camp”.

     

    “We have asked the forces in control [of the area] for access at the al-Omar oilfield centre [on the route from Hajin to al-Hol] so we can meet them and have a health point to perform medical check-ups there, and also have some ambulances to pick them up and send trauma and critically ill patients to hospitals for treatment,” Hoff said. “Because people are dying… If we interact earlier, we can send ambulances, get people to the hospital earlier.”

     

    Hoff said the request was made over two weeks ago.

     

    Bali denied the SDF had received any such request, saying: “Claims that the UN has requested the establishment of a station near al-Omar oil field are false and we received no request from any side to set [up] such a station.”

    “People are dying… If we interact earlier, we can send ambulances, get people to the hospital earlier.”

    A spokesman for the US-backed coalition referred questions back to the SDF because, he said, those “forces provided support to the civilians on the ground, not the coalition.”

     

    UNHCR failed to respond to questions about its part in the request to set up a waystation on the way to al-Hol. But in its 1 February statement the agency said that “humanitarian actors have collectively requested forces in control of the area to designate a transit site en route for al-Hol where life-saving assistance can be provided.

     

    “This initiative remains unimplemented more than two weeks later,” the statement added, noting that “little or no assistance is provided en route to the hungry and cold people, the vast majority of whom are women and children.”

    (TOP PHOTO: Muhammad, 15, fled al-Sousah village in Hajin as violence escalated and sought safety at al-Hol camp along with his older brother. CREDIT: Delil Soleiman/UNICEF)

    as/ag

    Security checks delaying urgent healthcare for Syrians fleeing Islamic State: UN official
    The Kurdish militia fighting IS insists it is putting medical assistance first
  • Whatever happened to the ceasefire deal in Yemen?

    Yemen’s warring parties agreed a UN-brokered ceasefire for the Red Sea port city of Hodeidah back in December but, seven weeks on, deadlines have come and gone and much of the accord has still not taken hold.

     

    The deal prompted hope that the parties might keep meeting and eventually find a negotiated way out of the war, providing respite to Yemenis, who the UN now says are “more vulnerable and hungrier than at any time” in a conflict marked by repeated warnings of famine.

     

    That there was a deal at all represented progress. There hadn’t been much expectation that the Houthi rebels and the internationally recognised (but mostly exiled) government of President Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi would find common ground at the talks at a castle outside Stockholm, if their representatives showed up at all.

     

    In the end they did shake hands on – although not sign – a deal that has become known as the Stockholm Agreement. It included a ceasefire in Hodeidah, a “mechanism” for a prisoner exchange, and a “statement of understanding” on Taiz – a city and province that has seen some of the most sustained fighting in a war that has gone on for 46 months and killed tens of thousands of people.

     

    The Hodeidah deal has garnered the most attention, largely because humanitarians have been warning that a battle in the city would be catastrophic for a country that is so dependent on imports – especially as the port is in the north, where some 70 percent of Yemenis live.

    The wording of the Stockholm Agreement is vague. That lack of clarity is either a design flaw or a feature, depending who you ask: it has allowed the parties to haggle over details and delay the process, but it may also have been the best that the UN envoy, Martin Griffiths, could get out of two sides who have been fighting each other for years.

     

    Griffiths defended the Hodeidah agreement last week as “generally holding”, saying “initial timelines were rather ambitious” given the “complex situation on the ground”. But with headlines describing the accord as “shaky”, “fragile”, even as “failing”, here’s a deeper look at what was agreed, what has happened since, and what to expect.

     

    An agreement in stages

     

    The first step outlined in the Hodeidah agreement was an immediate ceasefire in the city and around the port of Hodeidah, as well as around two other nearby ports and oil terminals.

     

    While there has been a decrease in fighting – and an all-out assault on Hodeidah has been put on pause – both sides have accused the other of multiple violations of the ceasefire. A monitoring mission the UN Security Council approved on 16 January is still not fully in place to verify these claims.

     

    Humanitarian sources on the ground told IRIN that while airstrikes on the city have stopped, fighting hasn’t decreased enough to allow aid delivery to take place unhindered or to make Hodeidah safe for aid workers or civilians.

     

    “So far the agreement hasn’t translated to the level of access and impact that we would want in terms of addressing the massive needs, not just in Hodeidah, but across other parts of the country.”

    The World Food Programme says it hasn’t been able to assess the damage to grain silos reportedly hit by shelling at the port earlier this month – or to get to the location of those stores since September.

     

    Karl Schembri, regional media advisor for the Norwegian Refugee Council, told IRIN from Hodeidah that services in the city are still very limited and that the main hospital is damaged and inaccessible because it is on a front line. “Electricity is only commercially available and very expensive,” he said. “Medical facilities are basic; some hospitals can deal with minor surgeries.”

     

    The next step in the agreement is a “mutual redeployment of forces” from the area, with security in the city becoming the responsibility of “local security forces”.

     

    However, the sides disagree on who those “local security forces” should be. Griffiths and his team have been shuttling between countries and capitals since the December handshake trying to find common ground on this and other points of contention.

     

    The withdrawal, which hasn’t happened yet, has been overseen by a UN-chaired Redeployment Coordination Committee set up by Dutch general Patrick Cammaert. The committee has so far met only three times, most recently on Sunday on a ship moored off the Red Sea – neutral territory.

     

    Danish general Michael Anker Lollesgaard is now set to take over from Cammaert, who the UN says only planned to be in the post for one month. Further steps are envisaged under the Hodeidah agreement, but full redeployment – which was supposed to happen within 21 days – is the hurdle that needs to be crossed first.

     

    Sultana Begum, advocacy manager for the NRC in Yemen, said there needed to be a lot more progress on the ground despite a “glimmer of hope in the past few days”, including the meeting on the boat.

     

    “The political talks have yet to deliver,” Begum said. “So far the agreement hasn’t translated to the level of access and impact that we would want in terms of addressing the massive needs, not just in Hodeidah, but across other parts of the country.”

     

    Prisoner exchange ‘hanging in the balance’

     

    There was talk of a prisoner swap before Stockholm – Griffiths told the UN Security Council he was “about to conclude” an agreement on the matter in November, before the talks were even a sure thing. Then the prisoner swap became part of the Stockholm accord, which says the parties agreed an “executive mechanism on activating the prisoner exchange agreement”.

     

    While the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) has said it is ready to facilitate the swap, which it originally expected to be completed by the end of January, the parties have disagreed since Stockholm on the lists of names.

     

    On 29 and 30 January, one Saudi prisoner was returned from Sana’a to Riyadh and seven Yemenis were sent in the opposite direction (A Saudi Arabia-led coalition, which includes the United Arab Emirates, is fighting on the side of Hadi’s government).

     

    But the hoped-for main trade, which ICRC director of operations Dominik Stillhart described on Monday as “hanging in the balance”, is much larger. Each side currently has a list of up to 8,000 names, but Stillhart said some of those people cannot be accounted for. “What we now see on both sides [is that] they don't have [all the prisoners] because a lot of them, they probably died during the conflict,” he said.

     

    The two sides began meetings about the swap on Tuesday in the Jordanian capital, Amman. Griffiths said the discussions were to finalise the lists, adding that “success in this regard is not only of huge importance for those who will be released and returned to their families, but also for the broader political process in which we are engaged together.”

     

    Osama al-Fakih of Mwatana for Human Rights – a Yemeni rights watchdog that documented at least 624 civilian cases of arbitrary detention, enforced disappearance, and torture in 2018 – noted that civilians, including journalists, are expected to be included in the exchange.

     

    “The prisoner exchange deal matters a lot to Yemenis,” he told IRIN. “A large number of families have suffered very much from losing their loved ones as arbitrary detainees or forcibly disappeared, let alone those who were tortured or died due to torture.”

     

    Future risks

     

    If the Stockholm Agreement – particularly the Hodeidah deal – falls apart, it could precipitate the sort of large-scale battle humanitarians have warned could lead to massive civilian casualties, including a possible siege on the city and the destruction of Hodeidah’s vital port.

    "The prisoner exchange deal matters a lot to Yemenis. A large number of families have suffered very much from losing their loved ones."

    IRIN could not independently confirm reports from several sources that Houthi rebels are taking advantage of the current lull in fighting to mine parts of the city, but elsewhere in Hodeidah province the rebels have left behind landmines as coalition troops advanced.

     

    Médecins Sans Frontières says one in every three emergency surgeries it performs in a Taiz hospital set up for treating landmine victims is on a child. “The principal victims of these lethal hazards have been civilians, many of whom have been killed or maimed for life after unwittingly stepping on an explosive device,” the organisation said in a January statement.

     

    Away from Hodeidah, fighting, shelling, and airstrikes continue, including in the provinces of Saada and Taiz, where the “statement of understanding” appears to have yielded nothing. There has also been an uptick in fighting just north of Hodeidah in Hajjah province, where eight people were killed and 30 wounded on 26 January in the shelling of a displacement camp – Saudi Arabia’s aid body blamed the attack on Houthis.

     

    In a sign that patience could be wearing thin with alleged Houthi violations, Emirati Foreign Minister Anwar Gargash tweeted last week that the coalition had struck 10 Houthi training camps outside the province and was “prepared to use more calibrated force to prod Houthi compliance with [the] Stockholm Agreement”.

     

    Whether or not the offensive on Hodeidah resumes, aid workers stress that the deal was meant to be a first step towards eventual peace in Yemen. Humanitarian needs endure, in and outside of Hodeidah. At the end of this month, donors will convene in Geneva as the UN asks for $4 billion to aid Yemen in 2019, a record amount for one country.

     

    “The needs are going up, not down,” said the NRC’s Begum. “And the Hodeidah agreement hasn’t had any significant effect on the overall humanitarian situation in Yemen. Hodeidah is one piece of the puzzle – we need the agreement to stick – but so far, even there, it will take much more to transform a very dire humanitarian situation.”

    (TOP PHOTO: A displaced Yemeni girl sits next to an armoured military vehicle at a camp in the Khokha district of the western province of Hodeidah, on 21 January 2019. CREDIT: Saleh al-Obeidi/AFP)

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    Whatever happened to the ceasefire deal in Yemen?
    “The needs are going up, not down”
  • Transcript of interview with Saudi Arabia's ambassador to Yemen

    This transcript has been edited for clarity

     

    Q: You were in Stockholm… There was a lot of optimism after the negotiations, after the agreement about Hodeidah, and now it seems [to be receding]. How do you see things playing out on the ground?

     

    A: Actually I think [retired Dutch] General Patrick [Cammaert] is starting to do his job. I think the UN and General Patrick should start to implement the agreement. They did a good job, to start. Yes, there is a delay. And we hope this delay is just to build… the relationship with the two parties, and also to re-organise themselves, or even start to organise themselves, because there is no entity there [at the port], with Mr Patrick. I think what I heard from [UN envoy] Martin Griffiths is that they will start this week to implement the ports, then they will go to phase two, to prepare withdrawal from the city.

     

    Q: Does that mean there is now agreement between the parties on what “local security forces” means? That has been a point of contention.

     

    A: There are still discussions between the Yemeni government, the Houthis, and General Patrick. But I think they will solve it.

     

    Q: Is there agreement on who should do security in the port?

     

    A: I think this is clear, but there is a difference on who the people should be. There are security units, and police units, and also Red Sea port authorities, and they will be responsible for the ports. But it is about the names - who they will be. I think they will depend on [who was in the port authority] before September 2014, before the Houthis controlled the ports.

     

    Q: But are most or many of those people, from the Red Sea port authority, not gone?

     

    A: No… I think the military and security people, part of them left. But the Red Sea Port Authority, maybe 95 percent of the people are still there. Because they are civilians, they are doing their job, the Houthis brought new supervisors and they appointed a new director. So the change will not affect the port’s operations.

     

    Q: So at this point you would be comfortable with the Red Sea Port Authority running the port, but it’s a question of who is on the list?

     

    A: I am not in the negotiations. I am just following the negotiations. [The talks on implementing Hodeidah] are between General Saghir Aziz from the Yemeni government, and General [Ali al-] Mushki from the Houthi side. I will be be honest with you: Mushki was a general before he joined the Houthi side. And that’s good… Yes, he’s working with a militia. But his background, he’s not a militia guy. And that’s the difference. Yes, he’s working with the Houthis because they’re paying his salary and they’re taking care of his family. He has his reasons to work with them, but actually he is a general.

     

    Q: You have been at various attempts at talks, including Stockholm. Does negotiating with the Houthis legitimise their role… in Yemen?

     

    A: It’s clear to everyone. The Houthis are still a militia. And we do not deal with them as a party, because they are not a party… and they do not call themselves a party… They say “we are Houthis, we are Ansar Allah.” But who is Ansar Allah? Are they a political party? No. They are a militia. Now, I think if they start to negotiate with the Yemeni government and the other political components, they will find themselves among the other Yemeni components and they can participate in any government in the future like any other party. But [right now] the Houthis are still a militia. They themselves believe they will continue as a militia. And this is not acceptable.

     

    Q: So you feel it is ok to negotiate with them at this point, but at some point you would like to see them transition into a party?

     

    A: Do you mean Saudi Arabia or the Yemeni government? Because Saudi Arabia will not negotiate with a militia. We negotiate and work with governments. And our main goal is to restore the legitimate government. It is about the state, rebuilding the legitimate state. And our program here at the Saudi Development and Reconstruction Program for Yemen, one of our main goals is to rebuild the state.

     

    Q: One criticism of how the UN has structured the talks is that there are only two sides: the Yemeni government, and the Houthis. As you know well, Yemen is much more complicated than that, with various other groups including the southerners, Islah, and others. What do you think of the two-sided approach?

     

    A: Yemen is complicated. If you look at the south, there is a complicated issue in the south [with a long history], what they call the southern issue. They discussed it in the Yemen National Dialogue [Conference]... Yes, the issue isn’t solved 100 percent, but they agreed on the outcomes... Also the Saada issue was solved, they have 35 representatives [in the NDC]. The Houthi side participated in the Yemeni national dialogue…. The Houthis destroyed all this. They destroyed the national dialogue outcomes, they destroyed the state, they destroyed institutions, they destroyed the army, the security, even hopes. Now we should solve the main problem… It’s not easy to solve in one day, and in one day sign an agreement. But [the UN talks] have opened the way to a roadmap to solve all Yemeni problems. And they will not be solved in a military way. They will solve it by talks, by discussing the issues at the table. I think we should start with the main problem, which is the key to solving the other problems. That is that the Houthi militia controls the state, they control the institutions. You will not find in history a militia that controls a ballistic missile or fighter jet. Please, give me an example.

     

    Q: Hezbollah?

     

    A: No. They bring it from outside but they cannot control the Lebanese jets. They bring them from Iran and build them.

     

    Q: So you do think that the two track approach is right for now to solve the main war?

     

    A: Yes, and then the Yemenis should be at the table in Sana’a, talk to each other, about their future. South, north, if you look at the Yemenis who have suffered from the Houthis, they will not accept this happening again. If you are in Taiz, if you are from Hodeidah, or even from Saada or Marib you will think about your future or your kids’ future. You will say, “look, how can we stop anybody from repeating this.”

     

    Q: But there are many different groups part of your alliance - they don’t necessarily take orders from who they are supposed to and they don’t have the following of the local population. So if the big war ends, is there a possibility that Yemen will become a series of smaller wars?

     

    A: Don’t try to imagine more and more. Make it simple, because we know Yemen before [President] Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi. Let’s talk about Ali Abdullah Saleh’s time [as president]. He just controlled three cities: Sana’a, Taiz, and Hodeidah. And sometimes Aden. The other cities, he didn’t control. The local authorities, the local tribes...  that’s what controlled these provinces. We know 100% Ali Abdullah Saleh did not have a strong government. He just controlled by establishing fighting between the tribes. And trying to cause differences between the people. After the war, yes, the situation will not be good. But it will open doors for everybody to speak out about his issues. And then we will start, all of us - the Yemeni government, GCC [Gulf Cooperation Council] countries, and the international community - to support this government to build their capacity, to expand to control all of Yemen. And that will take time.

     

    If you look at Iraq as an example, the USA was there. The USA spent billions of dollars [on reconstruction], but also Iraq has a lot of resources - the government has oil, rivers, and agriculture. But because nobody supported the government in political competence, they lost it [control of the country]. We will not [let this happen] to Yemen. All Yemeni parties - Houthis, southerners, Taiz - should participate in the government, and should work together on a roadmap. They will need time. They need two, three or four years to start bringing their country back.

     

    Q: Speaking of time, we’ve heard the next round of talks will be in January… There is a very limited agreement for Hodeidah, the Taiz part is not going anywhere, do you really think there is a prospect for a political solution at this point?

     

    A: I think the UN and some other countries would like to have a round two tomorrow, not at the end of January… but I think the most important thing is the implementation in Hodeidah. If there is implementation in Hodeidah, from two sides, especially from the Houthis, as they are controlling the ports and city… if they withdraw and start to implement the agreement, that will open a big door to a comprehensive political solution.

     

    Because Yemen does not belong to Hadi or the Houthis. There are a lot of Yemenis [parties] [lists GPC, southerners, Islah, others in the government alliance]... Some of them don’t care about Hadi himself. They care about the project of Hadi, which means the legitimacy of Hadi, the legitimacy of the state. If you have a president, you should keep him until you transfer to another president in a peaceful way. This is what Yemenis are looking for. Even if they are with Hadi now, they are not [all] with Hadi himself, they are with this project. In Yemen there are two main projects. One is the state project, which still now is in the hands of Hadi. And there is the militia project, which is mainly in the hands of the Houthis.

     

    If you can convince the Houthis to accept engaging with the state project in a roadmap: to handover their weapons, to stop using military means… then we will have a new government with all Yemeni components to control Yemen. Then everybody can support this state, which is still fragile. And we will work to support them, to unite them, to build security.

     

    I think there is no effective round of talks between Yemenis if Hodeidah is not implemented. Maybe they say “ok, we will go to Jordan, or Kuwait, or Germany, or wherever [for further talks].” But they will not do any good. And [UN envoy] Martin Griffiths will find himself at a wall. Because everybody will blame him because he did not do anything at Hodeidah. That is the negative. The positive is, if I am Yemeni, a Yemeni political figure, if I saw with my eyes that Hodeidah was implemented, I would put pressure on Hadi to accept the framework, to accept a comprehensive political solution which sometimes might even hurt Hadi’s authority. That means, if the Houthis implement Hodeidah, everybody will pressure all parties to come to the table and make it succeed.

     

    Q: Speaking of pressure, before the Stockholm talks there were warnings Yemen was about to fall into famine, the killing of [dissident Saudi journalist Jamal] Khashoggi, there was a lot of pressure on Saudi Arabia and a lot of press attention on Saudi Arabia’s role in the war in Yemen. How did that affect the negotiations?

     

    A: Look. Everybody repeats that, you are not alone. But I will explain it to you in a different way. Let’s talk about Kuwait [in 2016]. We were there, and we supported the Houthis engaging in good faith. We invited them to come to the south of Saudi Arabia in a city they call Dahran al-Janoub. We spent two weeks there with them. We sent ten convoys to Saada to support them. We released Houthi prisoners and they released Saudi soldiers. And also we met with [Houthi negotiator] Mohammed Abdelsalam Faleitah, myself I traveled with him five times to Kuwait. And also I engaged myself to talk to the Houthis, to convince them to engage with Yemeni parties.

     

    And at the end of these talks Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed, the ex UN envoy to Yemen, introduced what they called his initiative. It consisted of two parts: a security arrangement, and the a arrangement. He said we should first sign on the security arrangement and then we can go on to sign another one. The security arrangement [talked about withdrawal from “Zone A.” The  Houthis were to withdraw from [that zone, which was] Taiz, Sana’a, and Hodeidah - just the cities, not the provinces. There was a High Yemeni Committee for Military and Economy, which was going to be responsible for Hodeidah. In the beginning the Houthis accepted. But before the talks finished on the 17 of Ramadan 2016, Mohammed Abdelsalam Faleitah traveled to another country for two days and he came back, and he said no. And Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed, in front of the Security Council, said clearly that in Kuwait we succeeded until the last days. And the Houthis refused. And you can review what he said in the Security Council exactly.

     

    If you look at what happened in Stockholm, it’s the same thing. The Houthis will withdraw from the ports, and will open the siege on Taiz... In this agreement in Stockholm, in Taiz they will open corridors, and they will have a ceasefire for the city and they will demine there. Now if you look at the situation now it is the same as Kuwait, it is the same goal.

     

    Yes, it’s talk time... but what we asked for at [previous rounds of negotiations in] Kuwait is happening now, because of [pressure on] the Houthis, not because of us. Everybody says maybe because of those pressures [we are ready to deal], they make connections with the timing. That’s not true. The truth is we succeeded in our diplomatic efforts. We used political means to satisfy our goals to restore legitimate institutions and government to Yemen.

     

    If we finish in Hodeidah and Taiz, we have just Sana’a [to negotiate]. And that will be easy for the Houthis and for us.

     

    Q: To make an agreement on? Why would the Houthis want to withdraw from Sana’a, when that would basically leave them with just Saada?

     

    A: There are different kinds of withdrawal and it is a complicated issue... If they would like to stay in Sana’a without weapons, this is possible.

     

    Q: So you still consider UNSC Resolution 2216 the framework?

     

    A: Yes, we [can] apply it in a different way. Let’s say if we are out of Hodeidah, 100 kilometres away, because in Kuwait [the plan] was 150 kilometres… We were surrounding the Houthis from three sides. The Houthis were under pressure. They knew in the next days we would take over the ports and city [of Hodeidah].

     

    Q: So you are saying there was more pressure on the Houthis than on you?

     

    A: Sure. The Houthis would not agree to come to the table without military pressures.

     

    Q: But was there not pressure from your allies?

     

    A: Yes, there was pressure on us. But even with this pressure, we satisfied what we are asking for.

     

    Q: Surely your allies, like the Americans, must have given you a push.

     

    A: No, it’s not a push. Think about it. If we attacked the port, if we attacked the city, and we… destroyed the city, what would happen to the US government, UK, our allies there? It is clear. They would find themselves in a bad position. So they had two choices: to listen to their people, and that means they would hurt us. Or they hurt themselves, and they would lose their authority [with their own people]. So they would go with the first option, to hurt us, which would hurt our relationship between the governments. So that meant wanted to help them, and they wanted to help us [by making a deal in Hodeidah].

     

    And they have given us good advice from the first day of the war. And we discuss it, we… discuss and debate. It’s not about orders, it’s about their interests, and our interests.

     

    Q: You brought up public concern about the war, and I think there is a growing awareness in the US and other countries about the humanitarian crisis in Yemen. Was this part of the pressure, or as you say, discussions with your allies?

     

    A: No. The humanitarian situation is a pressure on everybody. Because nobody, even us, we don’t want to see kids in Yemen in a bad situation. We do not just say that for you or for the media. They [Yemenis] are our brothers. And we are fighting there to restore hopes, not to kill Yemenis. We spent billions of dollars to support the war, the economy, the humanitarian situation. And we will continue to support Yemen. We don’t want Yemenis to hate us or to see us as their enemy. We are not their enemy. Yes, maybe the Houthis and some people under the Houthi control or some people who don’t understand the situation, but most Yemenis know that Saudi Arabia is there to support them.

     

    And yes, we’ve made mistakes, like other countries do, during the war. But we did a lot of things for the Yemeni people. For the humanitarian [side] we spent [billions of dollars]… And we are also very upset by the humanitarian situation…. We have our YCHO [Yemen Comprehensive Humanitarian Operations] plan. We did that. It’s not about pressure. It’s about the situation in Yemen. We are there to help them, to bring hope...The Houthis are very aggressive and they use the humanitarian situation and try to escalate the situation by different means.

     

    Q: How do they do that?

     

    A: They continue to violate the humanitarian convoys, they take the convoys sometimes. They steal relief and humanitarian staff… But we have a lot of evidence of this, and we’ve sent it it to the UN organisations... The Houthis put pressure on [aid workers], and if you are there in Sana’a, and you are with UNICEF or WHO, who will protect you? Nobody will protect you. Yes, your organisation will be very upset. Your organisation will try to save you. But nobody will protect you if they kill or hurt your friend. But if somebody in Saudi Arabia or the coalition hurts someone in the UN organisation, we are responsible state. We will be responsible to respond to these people, to the courts, to the states. But in Yemen, nobody will hold them accountable.

     

    Q: What about your accountability to civilians? Coalition airstrikes are considered to have caused the majority of civilian deaths on the ground. JIAT has investigated and said it will pay compensation in some cases, has this been paid?

     

    A: Yes, they started.

     

    Q: How many people have been compensated?

     

    A: I don’t know exactly but I know they started with the Yemeni government, who as a part of the coalition, are responsible for its people. They sent us a list and there is a fund responsible for that. And they started to do it. I think we are trying to accelerate this mechanism, and it will work more and more, because it just started a couple of months ago.

     

    Q: On the humanitarian situation, the coalition has been blamed for delaying ships coming in, particularly to Hodeidah.

     

    A: This is all a story, and it has been solved. There was misunderstanding and miscommunication between the UN, the special envoy, and the coalition. As YCHO we met with different UN organisations like UNVIM, WFP, and OCHA. And we have a good mechanism to ensure clearance in less than 24 hours, 24 hours maximum. And… if you look at any statement it doesn’t mention anything about the clearance, even [UN resident coordinator in Yemen] Lise Grande and [UN relief chief] Mark Lowcock, when we talked to them, they said “thank you for that. Thank you for your mechanism for the ships going to Hodeidah.” I am sure about that.

     

    Q: In the war at large, airstrikes have hit civilians, healthcare facilities and infrastructure in Yemen and contributed to the humanitarian crisis. What’s your answer that Saudi aid and reconstruction efforts are just a PR effort, trying to fix your image?

     

    A: It’s not PR. And anybody who says that wants to hurt us. But if someone is neutral, he should study and see with his eyes and research how much Saudi Arabia did for the UN organisations, King Salman [Humanitarian Aid and Relief] Center, Saudi Development and Reconstruction Plan for Yemen, and for the economy.

     

    I will give you an example. When we deposited 2.2 billion dollars to the Central Bank, is it PR? No. It is 2.2, just for the Central Bank. When we provided $60 million US dollars in oil derivatives for electricity power stations, is it PR? When we issued $350 [letters of credit for] businessmen to import basic food to the Yemeni people, is it PR ? They are our permanent brothers, and we are there to support Yemeni government and Yemeni people also.

     

    But… they still say it is PR.

     

    About the damage that you mention. I am sure 100 percent the coalition is implementing IHL [international humanitarian law]. And we are responsible countries - we are twelve countries [in the coalition] - and we implement NATO standards. And also we investigate in each accident and sometimes they say yes [we were wrong], and sometimes no, they clarify their position. And they continue to investigate… This is war and some things happen because of the war. I think the coalition did a good job. It is a clean war for us. Because we are aware of what we are doing there in Yemen. We are there to reinstate their state.

     

    Q: You talked about reinstating the state, and you have talked about reconstruction. How do you plan to reconstruct a country during a war? How can you plan for what people need when a war is still going on?

     

    A: First of all, this connects to your previous connections about existing in Yemen. This war is for two main things: to restore the legitimate government of Yemen, and to secure our national security. Yemen is a poor country. Before the war, Yemen’s rank in terms of poverty was 138. The Yemeni government budget is less than around $10 billion. It’s nothing for a big country like Yemen with 26 million people.

     

    Our strategy in Yemen is to develop and reconstruct, and these are two different things. Development - there was no development in Yemen before the war and we are trying to develop now areas that are out of the war, like Mahrah, Hadhramaut, Socotra, Marib, Jawf [provinces]. They are safe, so we can start there. Because we spent time to push, to convince, to urge the Houthis to come to the table and accept a deal... so we will start where there is security and stability and there is no war there... And we have convinced the Yemeni government to work with us. And I think in 2019, we will have a lot of projects in Yemen, in different provinces in Yemen, from Saudi Arabia, from Emirates, from Kuwait, and also from the Yemeni government. And I am sure America will engage, and Europe will engage, because they will not wait for the Houthis to engage. Yemenis are dying. Yemenis are in a bad situation. Not because of the humanitarian cases, because of the economy.

     

    Q: But I think it’s the same thing. The economy is so bad that you can’t buy food.

     

    A: So we can start. Now in Saada, Amran, Hajjah, how do the people live there? In all Yemen, 70 percent of Yemenis depend on agriculture, and fishing. This is a big field, we can work on the agriculture, we can work with the fisherman to give them a chance to live. To grow food, sell it in the markets, also to export it to Saudi Arabia. We will have a mechanism to support all Yemenis everywhere, through different access. We are not in Saada, we are not in Amran, we cannot go to Sana’a, but we can work with institutions, private and semi-governmental like the social fund, workers’ fund, villagers’ fund, and private sector. And also we can work easily in some areas controlled by the Yemeni government.

     

    Q: What specifically are you doing to revitalise the economy. I know you deposited money in the Central Bank, but it is not for use, it is for shoring up the currency. What else are you doing?

     

    A: For the Central Bank we are working with the governor - not just Saudi Arabia, the quad - US, UK, Saudi Arabia, Emirates, and with IFC [International Finance Corporation] and also the World Bank to build and support the Central Bank in Aden. We deposited the $2.2 billion, and we are urging other countries like the Emirates to also deposit another billion to the Central Bank. That will help the economy, and it will help the rial. Also if you look at the $60 million dollars [in oil derivatives] that we gave to the Yemeni government to operate power stations, we cut that from the Yemeni budget. So now they have in their hands $60 million they can use to, say, bring services. We urged them to do it. And that will help people. Any amount in Yemen, it makes a difference.

     

    Q: What about encouraging the Central Bank to issue more letters of credit to importers?

     

    A: We are doing it. Saudi Arabia has issued more than $350 million letters of credit and they will continue to do so. Last week we issued more than $50 million letters of credit from Saudi Arabia’s central bank. We received the orders from them [Yemen’s Central Bank], because there is a mechanism [for letters of credit to go through Saudi Arabia] - the Houthis and previous Central Bank governor spent our [previous deposits] for nothing. We have to be sure the Yemeni government or Central Bank will be used to help Yemeni people.

     

    Q: So the letters of credit that were issued just now are to Yemeni importers?

     

    A: Yes, to Yemeni importers only.

     

    Q: One of the biggest issues in Yemen is poverty. It’s not necessarily there isn’t enough food in Yemen, it’s that people don’t have money to buy it. What else are you doing for that?

     

    A: All UN organisations are trying to ignore Aden. They are ignoring Aden port, I don’t know why. Maybe I can guess. They would like to save Hodeidah, they are afraid to mention Aden port and say it’s a good port, they are afraid somebody will attack Hodeidah port.

     

    If you look at Aden, it is the biggest port in Yemen. We can give you the numbers to clarify our position. Last week we provided two cranes to Aden port and we helped Aden port authority to govern and try to increase the capacity of the procedures, of importing. Also we provided one crane to Mukalla. And we will open another port from al-Khadra in Najran, so there will be two land ports [from Saudi Arabia into Yemen].

     

    Q: But international organisations say Aden is at capacity and doesn’t have the capacity to store and mill grain like Hodeidah. Is that something you would look into in your reconstruction plans?

     

    A: That’s not true. Aden is the biggest port and can receive millions of tons from different kinds of food or commercial shipments. It is about the location of Hodeidah. They are trying to hurt Aden port to save Hodeidah. Hodeidah is the second port of Yemen, and we know the figures before the war.

     

    But I agree with them if they close Hodeidah, there is seventy percent of the people of Yemen in the north and it is not easy to bring the food from Aden to the north.

     

    Q: It is very expensive to do this if you consider…

     

    A: It is very expensive, it is very risky, there are a lot of issues… and because of that they say a lot of false, wrong information. In 2016 [former UN Relief Chief] Stephen O’Brien said in of the Security Council said Hodeidah port is receiving 80 percent of the imports to Yemen. We have 21 ports to Yemen. This guy is crazy.

     

    Q: Could he have made a mistake?

     

    A: No he meant it. I will give you know another number and you can check it yourself. The UN and other international organisations now repeat the number that there are 1.2 million government workers who do not receive their salary workers. Did you see that before?

     

    Q: I’m familiar with the issue of the salaries.

     

    A: How many people?

     

    Q: I don’t have an exact number in front of me.

     

    A: The last tweet from the ICRC two weeks ago, they made it emotional. It’s PR…[They said] that in Yemen there are 1.2 million government workers who do not receive their salaries for more than two years.” That’s not true.

     

    Q: Ok, so what is true?

     

    A: The truth is that 650,000 [government employees] receive their salaries.

     

    Q: Every month?

     

    A: Every month.

     

    Q: Paid by whom?

     

    A: Paid by the Yemeni government, through the Central Bank and the Ministry of Finance.

     

    Q: Is that only people in government controlled areas?

     

    A: Yes and also civilian workers everywhere. If he works in Sana’a and goes to Aden to do his job there he will take his salary.

     

    Q: And what about a teacher who lives in Sana’a?

     

    A: They do not receive anything. That’s true. But when you repeat the number 1.2 million just to convince the people to give you money, it’s just not true.

     

    Q: You mentioned the UN and international organisations several times. Do they back your reconstruction plans? Are they involved?

     

    A: No, we talked to WFP, we talked to the World Bank, we talked to Islamic Bank, and also we talked to Mark Lowock and Lise Grande, we briefed them and invited them to come and participate any time.

     

    Q: So they are not involved?

     

    A: World Bank yes, we will work with them. Islamic Bank would like to engage and work with us. USAID, DIFD, are engaging and would like to work with us. And also the French visited.

     

    Q: So this support is still in discussion?

     

    A: Yes, because we started only five months ago.

     

    Q: I understand it is early days. I saw the presentation [on the Saudi Development and Reconstruction Program for Yemen al-Jaber heads] but a lot of it appears to be what is going to be built in the future. Is there an actual plan now?

     

    A: We hit the ground, we are there.

     

    Q: In some places, yes. But is there a larger plan other than the PowerPoint, are there more than feasibility studies?

     

    A: Yes.

     

    Q: The Wall Street Journal recently published an article about [the Saudi Development and Reconstruction Program for Yemen’s] projects in Mahra in which locals objected to the Saudi presence there. What’s your response to the argument that redevelopment and reconstruction is just part of the military effort, that it is a continuation of the war and and effort to keep Saudi Arabia’s power in Yemen?

     

    A: Mahra is the gate for smuggling. Before the war, during the war, and after the war. And we have a strategy in Yemen: secure, stable Yemen.

     

    And our goal won’t end if the Houthis come into the government. We should keep supporting the Yemeni government with or without the Houthis. If the Houthis participate in the government, we will support this government. Even if the prime minister is a Houthi, we will support this government. Because it is not just about Yemen. It’s about our national security. When they smuggle drugs from the Arabian Sea [from Mahra] they don’t want to bring them to Yemen, they want to bring them to Saudi Arabia. If they smuggle weapons [they are headed to Saudi Arabia]. Because the price in Saudi Arabia is different. A [handgun] gun in yemen is $500. If you smuggle it to Saudi Arabia you can sell it for $5,000 dollars.

     

    Another example: drugs. Nobody in Yemen uses drugs, except for qat. But in Saudi Arabia there are a lot of people… kids… they will use it. And that has a high cost. Now in Mahra the coast is 50 kilometres. There were no coast guard soldiers there. Zero. Nobody was protecting this area.

     

    Also from Omani territory there are some smuggling networks that are continuing to do their jobs from before the war, using the weakness of the Yemeni side... We talked to our brothers in Oman, and they are now doing a good job to protect their side. But from the other side there was nothing, from the coast or from the land. What we are doing there is training the security and the coast guard. And we are also doing development and reconstruction for the people of Mahra. Because if I am a Mahra citizen and you said, “Ok, I will bring the coast guard and I will bring the border guards and there will be no security and new arrangements,” but there is no income, how will I work? But if we develop, and provide the security… and also education and also schools - we started to build eight or nine schools - and hospitals, [school] busses, agriculture, fisheries, and boats and airports that means Mahra will be strong enough to continue to work. Even if we withdraw from Mahra after the war, it will be a strong province.

     

    And look, Mahra and Hadhramaut...We already transferred the power from the Saudis and Emiratis to the Yemeni side.

     

    Q: How is that working?

     

    A: It’s working. Because we are still there to supervise and train. They need somebody to lead them… it’s complicated. If they work, let’s say, we will decrease the smuggling… unless those people work with the smugglers, as a mafia. Those people in Mahra and Hadhramaut are good people. They don’t want to work with the smugglers, they are ashamed to work in smuggling… now we finished in Hadhramaut and Mahra we will continue to support the Yemeni government in places like Abyan and Lahj [provinces]… also with terrorism - al-Qaeda and Da’esh [so-called Islamic State], after Syria, they might decide to go to Yemen. If we are not ready to fight them in Yemen before they enter we will find ourselves after this war fighting al-Qaeda and Da’esh.



    Q: So you do see development as part of a security strategy?

     

    A: Yes. We built also an anti-terrorism center there.

     

    Q: What does that mean?

     

    A: That means there is no center to fight al-Qaeda. If we build this center in Mahra airport that means all countries, all allies who are fighting al-Qaeda, they can find themselves in a good place to support the Yemeni government in fighting al-Qaeda or Da’esh… It’s preemptive… we are trying to prevent Yemen from falling into the hands of Da’esh or al-Qaeda after this war.

     

    Q: Is [the presence of Da’esh or al-Qaeda] something you are worried about?

     

    A: Yes, we are very worried. Because after this war, some people in Yemen would like to have Da’esh and al-Qaeda, especially the Houthis, they are very happy to have Da’esh and al-Qaeda, to continue fighting, saying “I am here to fight al-Qaeda and Da’esh.” They said that in 2014 when they controlled the north of Sana’a and Amran... They said “we are here to fight al-Qaeda.” And they will continue to repeat that. And that means some people, some tribes in the middle and the south also say they will engage with al-Qaeda to fight the Houthis.

     

    Q: As you suggested, people and groups officially allied with the coalition are working with al-Qaeda because they want to fight the Houthis. Is this a concern?

     

    A: We are afraid of that. We have a lot of Zaidis [the sect the Houthis belong to] fighting with the Yemeni Hadi government: military leadership, tribal leadership, political leadership, half of the people fighting the Houthis are Zaidi. Because it is not about Zaidi or Sunni or Shafi’i[the Sunni majority in Yemen]; it’s about security and stability.

     

    Q: I’m going to ask you about another media report, the New York Times report that there are child soldiers from Sudan fighting with the coalition. What is your response? Are there child soldiers fighting with the coalition?

     

    A: It is false. How did this guy go to this Sudan, make a report, find some kids and say let’s make a story about Saudi Arabia and the kids. Why not come to Aden, Jezzan, Saada, Hajjah, or anywhere…

     

    Q: Well, it’s not easy to go there.

     

    A: You can go. A lot of journalists visit... i think some people are working for some countries or organisations that would like to hurt Saudi Arabia and [they] say “let’s keep Saudi Arabia in a bad situation” because of Khashoggi’s case. They would like to use different cases to make Saudi Arabia out as a bad country. We are clear: There are no kids fighting with us, from any country, from Yemen, from Sudan, from any country. And anybody who would like to be sure, who would like to… report, he is welcome to come, meet, and go there... but don’t try to play games [and write] bad things that are not accurate.

     

    Q: In your opinion, what responsibility does Saudi Arabia have for the current humanitarian crisis in Yemen?

     

    A: Actually are the ones who make it lower. The Houthis are increasing the humanitarian situation. We are the ones who are trying to facilitate humanitarian and commercial shipments to Yemen, through Jeddah and Jizan through our land, through Wadiyah, from everywhere.

     

    At the same time we are the ones who support the UN organisations with money to fund them, from 2015. From 2015 we are the ones who covered the UN pledge. Yes, there is a war. But that doesn’t mean that this war, we can stop it, because the Houthis want to control the country. We are trying to make a balance between security, stability, and restoring the legitimate government. At the same time we are trying to avoid Yemenis from the humanitarian situation.

     

    If we look at this war Saudi has a main strategy, the main track is the political track, which did not start now, it started in 2011. If the analysts would like to be fair they should think about that. Saudi Arabia started the political process in 2011 when we introduced the GCC [Gulf Cooperation Council] initiative. Which is a Saudi initiative, although we call it the GCC initiative because our brothers participated in it.

     

    From 2011-2014 we spent $7 billion to support the Yemeni government: $3.2 billion in oil derivatives; $1 billion to central bank $450 million for the social fund; $3 billion for infrastructure and social service projects.* Electricity in the north of yemen, 80 percent of the electricity power stations there are Saudi-funded, it’s not Yemeni or international, it’s Saudi funded. [Look at] Marib 1 and Marib 2 [power stations], and we are ready start with Marib 3, which will increase the capacity of the power stations.

     

    In 2014 when the Houthis took over Sana’a, we did not engage, nobody engaged, because the Yemenis found themselves with a partnership agreement that gave Houthis six seats in the government, and when it changed from Saleh to Hadi government, we did not engage in a war. We tried to take the Yemenis from civil war to the political track. Then the Houthis continued to attack, and Hadi himself escaped to Aden, and when he escaped to Aden, we did not bring our troops there. We were waiting and trying to convince the Houthis and other parties to stop fighting. And Hadi, his first statement, when he arrived to Aden, said “please, Houthis stop the war, we are ready to engage back and talk at the table.” The Houthis and Saleh refused. Then the war came, and then it was a war of necessity not a war of our choice. We supported the talks in Geneva in 2015, we supported the Kuwait talks in 2016, and we are the ones who supported the talks in Stockholm and that is what Mr Martin Griffiths said clearly to the media and the Security Council. And we will continue to support Mr Martin Griffiths to find a solution… we will support the political process. This is the main track.

     

    We have another two tracks. The military track: the main aim of the military track is to support the political track to force the Houthis to come to the table. And also to restore the legitimate [government], to restore the state… We will not accept Yemen to become a Somalia, and we will not accept another Hezbollah in the south of Saudi Arabia. We are not Israel, and they are not Hezbollah. They are Yemeni, they are our brothers, we have the same culture, the same traditions and we help them and will continue to do so.

     

    The third track is the humanitarian track, and please go back to 2013 and look for the UN HRP [Humanitarian Response Plan] 2013, it is 10.2 million people in Yemen need help. You can read it again.

     

    This is the fourth track: it is economy, development, and reconstruction. We are the ones who support the economy. Nobody [else] supports the Yemeni economy. We saved the rial, we saved the Central Bank, we saved the electricity power stations, we saved the private sectors and we are trying to support everybody. This, my friend, is the Saudi strategy to support Yemen.

     

    When the Yemenis agree on a comprehensive political solution, we will stop the military track which supports the legitimate Yemeni government and we will support their security, economy, the political process, and work with Yemenis to finish the political process, to build their economy and develop and reconstruct their country.

     

    *IRIN could not independently verify these or other figures

    Transcript of interview with Saudi Arabia's ambassador to Yemen
    9 January 2019
  • Saudi envoy says Hodeidah deal make-or-break for Yemen peace efforts

    A political solution to nearly four years of war in Yemen is possible as long as the shaky ceasefire deal for the northern port city of Hodeidah takes hold, Saudi Arabia’s influential ambassador to Yemen has told IRIN.

     

    Mohammed al-Jaber, who is the public face of Saudi Arabia in Yemen and is said to have a direct line to Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman, suggested the Hodeidah deal could lead to further fruitful UN-backed peace talks if it succeeds but might be their undoing if it doesn’t.

     

    “I think there is no [next] effective round of talks between Yemenis if Hodeidah is not implemented,” al-Jaber told IRIN in an interview in his Riyadh office. “If the Houthis implement Hodeidah, everybody will pressure all parties to come to the table and make it succeed.”

     

    The next round of what the UN officially calls “political consultations” are expected later this month, but warring sides are still at odds over the finer details of the Hodeidah deal and there are fears it might soon collapse. Aid groups warn of a spiral towards famine if fighting restarts around the city – a key entry point for commercial imports and humanitarian aid, especially for parts of the country under Houthi control.

     

    Hashed out at December negotiations near Stockholm but still to come into effect, the ceasefire deal is supposed to see both Saudi-led coalition forces and Houthi rebels withdraw from Hodeidah city and eventually Hodeidah province, with “local security forces” taking over and the UN playing some role in managing the port.

     

    While the ambassador was quick to emphasise that he is not an official party to the negotiations – Saudi Arabia’s position is not to negotiate with the Houthis and the UN process is two-sided, between the internationally recognised Yemeni government and the Houthi rebels – he was in Stockholm and recounted locations, attendees, and results (or lack of) past talks in detail.

     

    ‘A clean war’

    IRIN sat down with al-Jaber at a pivotal point in the 46-month war. The conflict has left tens of thousands dead and millions without enough to eat, while decimating a health system that has been unable to cope with two waves of cholera and destroying the country’s already weak economy.

     

    Away from the debate over Hodeidah, the broader war is ongoing: a Houthi drone hit a Yemeni military parade the day after IRIN spoke with the ambassador, fighting in the southern city of Taiz continues, and the coalition has been pounding the capital city of Sana’a with airstrikes.

     

    In a wide-ranging interview in his Riyadh office, al-Jaber said his country is waging a “clean war” in Yemen, is doing all it can to lessen Yemen’s humanitarian crisis, and is already planning for its redevelopment and reconstruction despite ongoing fighting.

     

    A military strategist by training who heads up two bodies that focus on humanitarian, development, and restronstruction aid to Yemen, the ambassador strongly dismissed the idea that any of this assistance was an attempt to polish his country’s tarnished public image.

     

    “It’s not PR. And anybody who says that wants to hurt us,” al-Jaber said. “But if someone is neutral, he should study and see with his eyes and research how much Saudi Arabia did for [funding] the UN organisations, [with its own relief projects], and for the economy….[Yemenis] are our permanent brothers, and we are there to support [the] Yemeni government and Yemeni people.”

     

    The view in Riyadh

     

    Saudi Arabia’s public position on Yemen has been fairly consistent since March 2015, when it began airstrikes along with a multi-country coalition to support the government of President Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi, who was forced to flee the country by Houthi rebels and their allies, including fighters who sided with former president Ali Abdullah Saleh.

     

    Saudi Arabia sees the Houthis as an Iranian proxy and a threat to its borders and says its mission in Yemen is to restore Hadi’s government.

     

    Few expected the war to drag on this long – in fact, the coalition said it was ending the initial military operation a month into its bombing, officially swapping it out for “Operation Restoring Hope” – a peacebuilding effort aimed at forging a political solution in Yemen and shoring up Saudi Arabia’s national security.

     

    Al-Jaber, appointed to his job in late 2014, also used the word “hope” when discussing the Saudi role in the war.

     

    “We are fighting there to restore hopes, not to kill Yemenis,” he said. “We spent billions of dollars to support the war, the economy, the humanitarian situation, and we will continue to support Yemen. We don’t want Yemenis to hate us or to see us as their enemy. We are not their enemy.”

     

    He said he remained “100 percent sure” that the coalition was waging the war in line with international humanitarian law.

     

    “We are responsible countries,” he said. “We are 12 countries [in the coalition] and we implement NATO standards… I think the coalition did a good job. It is a clean war for us, because we are aware of what we are doing there in Yemen. We are there to reinstate their state.”

     

    Saudi Arabia’s air campaign has been blamed for the majority of the nearly 7,000 violent civilian deaths the UN has been able to count in the war.

     

    In August, an airstrike hit a bus full of children in a rebel-held northern part of the country, killing a reported 40 children and 51 people total – one of several civilian atrocities that rights groups say violate international law. A UN group of experts has said it believes individuals on all sides of Yemen’s conflict may have committed war crimes.

     

    In response to questions about such strikes, as well as hits on civilian infrastructure like hospitals, al-Jaber admitted that Saudi Arabia had “made mistakes”, much as “other countries do, during war.”

     

    “We investigate each accident,” he said, referring to the Joint Incidents Assessment Team, or JIAT – a body set up to look into “claims and accidents” in coalition operations but whose members are not disclosed to the public.

     

    Findings are usually only released in summary press releases and can be hard to track, but an August report by Human Rights Watch said JIAT investigations were inadequate and that the watchdog was “unaware of any concrete steps the coalition has taken to implement a compensation process or to hold individuals accountable for possible war crimes.”

     

    Al-Jaber said the coalition began the compensation process “a couple of months ago” but that he didn’t know how many people had been compensated so far. “I know they started,” he said. “The Yemeni government… sent us a list [of names] and there is a fund responsible for that… we are trying to accelerate this mechanism.”

     

    Aden, Hodeidah, or both?

     

    The international community says there’s no alternative to Hodeidah for avoiding mass hunger in the country, not only because of the port’s overall capacity – including to store and mill flour – but also because it is in the north of the country where 70 percent of the population lives (and Houthis are in control).

     

    In November 2018, the Saudi-led coalition closed most air, sea, and land entries to Yemen for two weeks after a Houthi rocket was fired at Riyadh, causing aid agencies to warn of imminent catastrophe. Even before that, aid groups said the coalition had delayed and diverted the entry of crucial supplies, including fuel.

     

    Al-Jaber said the “humanitarian situation was pressure on everybody”, but that he believed the importance of Hodeidah had been exaggerated and that “UN organisations are trying to ignore Aden port”.

     

    The Saudi-led coalition has been pushing for increased use of Aden, but UN relief chief Mark Lowcock said earlier this month that the southern port has a “severe congestion” problem. Trucking supplies from Aden to the north adds cost and can be risky, which al-Jaber admitted.

     

    In a briefing on 9 January at the UN Security Council, Lowcock said that fuel imports are now rising and more ships are trying to get to Yemen’s ports, but commercial food imports were still at their lowest since the UN began monitoring in 2016.

     

    Al-Jaber said the coalition had been unfairly accused of deepening the humanitarian crisis through delays in allowing shipping to reach Yemen, particularly Hodeidah. What he called a “misunderstanding” is now resolved and the UN and the coalition have a mechanism to ensure ship clearance at Hodeidah in “24 hours maximum”, he added.

     

    If anything, al-Jaber said, Saudi Arabia is lessening the humanitarian crisis. It has contributed $901 million to UN-led humanitarian appeals for Yemen between 2015 and 2018, according to UN funding data, and he also mentioned the $2.2 billion Saudi Arabia had deposited in Yemen’s Central Bank and $350 million in letters of credit to Yemeni importers he said had recently been issued (a number IRIN could not independently verify).

     

    Looking forward

     

    While all eyes remain on Hodeidah, al-Jaber was also keen to talk about development and reconstruction – an approach he said feeds into the two main aims of the war: “to restore the legitimate government of Yemen, and to secure our national security”.

     

    Al-Jaber said the Saudi Development and Reconstruction Program for Yemen, which he has been working on for the past few months, is already being rolled out in parts of the country the government controls.

     

    IRIN wasn’t shown the overall plan but was given a PowerPoint presentation on projects that have begun – new school buses, textbooks, and beefing up power stations by shipping $60 million in oil derivatives each month – as well as some that are still in the works, like new hospitals and an airport.

     

    But how do you reconstruct a country you don’t completely control, in the midst of a war?

     

    Al-Jaber, who said he had briefed the UN about his plans and invited them to collaborate, anticipated support from other organisations, including the World Bank, and said it’s best to start in areas the coalition controls as “they are safe”.

     

    His strategy also involves beefing up borders to clamp down on smuggling, and making sure al-Qaeda and so-called Islamic State (Da’esh in its Arabic acronym) do not take hold in the country.

     

    He said he was “very worried about” this, both because the Houthis could use their presence as an excuse to continue fighting and because “some people, some tribes in the middle and the south, also say they will engage with al-Qaeda to fight the Houthis.”

     

    The disparate nature of the coalition Saudi Arabia heads, and the loose and often tense alliances that support Hadi’s government, mean Yemen’s war could yet fracture into a collection of disastrous smaller conflicts.

     

    Al-Jaber was candid that several parties currently on side with the government, including southern separatists and the powerful Islamist Islah party, may not fully back Hadi. Rather, he explained, they agree with the “Hadi project” – that is, the legitimacy of his government.

     

    “When the Yemenis agree on a comprehensive political solution, we will stop the military track which supports the legitimate Yemeni government,” the ambassador said. “And [then] we will support their security, economy, the political process, and work with Yemenis to finish the political process, to build their economy and develop and reconstruct their country.”

     

    For the full interview, read the transcript here.

     

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    Saudi envoy says Hodeidah deal make-or-break for Yemen peace efforts
  • UN food agency demands ‘immediate end’ to aid fraud in Yemen

    Diversion is preventing food aid from reaching people who need it in Yemen, including “many” in the Houthi rebel-controlled capital Sana’a, the World Food Programme said Monday, calling it an “outrage” that aid was being siphoned off with the involvement of local officials.

     

    The UN’s food relief agency said it uncovered the misappropriation in a review during recent months, when it found that “at least one partner organisation” affiliated with the Houthi Ministry of Education in Sana’a was committing fraud. It added that local officials were manipulating the lists that determine who receives aid, records were falsified, and trucks were “illicitly” removing food from distribution centres.

     

    “This conduct amounts to the stealing of food from the mouths of hungry people,” WFP executive director David Beasley said in a statement, which said the agency was “demanding an immediate end to the diversion of humanitarian food relief in Yemen.”

     

    “At a time when children are dying in Yemen because they haven’t enough food to eat, that is an outrage,” Beasley said. “This criminal behaviour must stop immediately.”

     

    Conflict has left some 16 million Yemenis severely food insecure: WFP says it supplies some eight million people a month with food aid, and aims to increase that number to as high as 12 million as the situation verges on famine in some parts of the country. WFP reports that this will cost $152 million per month. It received $954 million for Yemen operations in 2018.

     

    For three years and nine months, Houthi rebels have been fighting the government of the internationally recognised (but exiled) President Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi and his allies, who are backed by a Saudi Arabia-led coalition. Throughout the war, all sides have been accused of preventing aid from reaching its targets, with aid agencies saying an on-off blockade of northern Houthi-run ports by the coalition is a major cause of hunger in Yemen.

     

    Earlier on Monday, the Associated Press reported that “factions and militias on all sides of the conflict have blocked food aid from going to groups suspected of disloyalty, diverted it to front-line combat units or sold it for profit on the black market.” Quoting a former Houthi aid official, the AP investigation alleged that 15,000 monthly rations were being siphoned off in Sana’a.

     

    Prior warning

     

    An internal WFP audit, started in November 2017 and released in March 2018, highlighted “political interference” and risks of aid diversion in Yemen.

     

    ”The de facto authorities [Houthis] continue to impose restrictions that impact WFP’s ability to provide assurance that assistance is reaching the most food insecure and vulnerable populations,” the audit said. “Lack of access due to insecurity, interference by the de facto authorities, and the large number of distribution sites have led to monitoring gaps in certain governorates and districts.”

     

    The audit singled out the Houthi Ministry of Education for criticism, saying there were “significant weaknesses and poor performance” in its delivery of food. The ministry handled 40 percent of WFP’s food aid recipients in Yemen, according to the audit.

     

    WFP and other UN agencies often use local partners, including government agencies, both to determine who needs aid and to deliver it. However, such arrangements typically involve independent needs assessment, monitoring, and end-user verification procedures to make sure aid ends up where it is intended. The audit found that Houthi authorities denied WFP the opportunity to even check “the validity of beneficiary lists”.

     

    WFP said in Monday’s statement that authorities in Houthi-controlled areas had “repeatedly resisted” efforts to overhaul the relief system in Yemen, including changes in how those who receive aid are selected, more monitoring of where the aid goes, and nationwide biometric registration of those enrolled for food aid.

     

    “I’m asking the Houthi authorities in Sana’a to take immediate action to end the diversion of food assistance and ensure that it reaches those people who rely on it to stay alive,” said Beasley.

     

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    UN food agency demands ‘immediate end’ to aid fraud in Yemen
  • What’s at stake in Yemen peace talks

    As talks opened in Sweden today aimed at setting a framework to eventually end Yemen’s 44 months of war, a new report stopped short of declaring famine but said that 20 million Yemenis are hungry and need food aid.

     

    Lise Grande, the UN’s top humanitarian official in Yemen, told IRIN that the Integrated Phase Classification (IPC) report found that of the 20 million, 238,000 people “are barely surviving. Any small change in their circumstances, any disruption in their ability to access food on a regular basis, will bring them to the brink of death.”

    Grande said these people are mostly in four provinces where “conflict is raging”: Taiz, Sadaa, Hajjah, and Hodeidah.

     

    Since March 2015, Yemen’s war has pitted Houthi rebels and their allies against the internationally recognised (but exiled) President Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi, backed by a Saudi Arabia-led coalition.

     

    Their fight has had devastating consequences for civilians. Asking for a record $4 billion for humanitarian assistance next year, the UN said this week that 24 million people, some 80 percent of the population, are in need of assistance.

     

    Read more: Briefing: Yemen Peace Talks

     

    “As parties to the conflict in Yemen sit down at the table this week, we urge them to look as closely as we do at the humanitarian implications of this war,” read a statement from Mohamed Abdi, Yemen country director for the Norwegian Refugee Council.

     

    Here are a few of those implications for the millions of Yemenis stuck in the war – still being waged some 5,000 kilometres away from the castle outside Stockholm where the warring parties are gathered to hash it out.

     

    20 million hungry

     

    Despite recent warnings of famine from UN officials (UN aid chief Mark Lowcock said in late October that there was danger of a “great big famine engulfing” Yemen), not to mention some increased media coverage of the country featuring striking pictures of emaciated children, the IPC report means an official declaration of famine is not imminent.

     

    That doesn’t mean people aren’t going hungry or dying because they don’t have enough to eat: the threshold for declaring famine is high, and requires an amount and quality of data that may not be collectable in Yemen. In past famines, many deaths have happened before a proclamation was made.

     

    Read more: Deaths before data

     

    The IPC’s scientific methodology is intended to separate the process of declaring famine from politics by implementing uniform measures across countries. It uses a five-point scale to measure food insecurity, and Grande said 152 of Yemen’s 333 administrative districts are now classified as level 4 emergencies, adding: “this means that close to half of all districts in the country are one step away from catastrophe.”

     

    While the results of the IPC survey were presented to UN agencies and NGOs Thursday, the report itself has not yet been released. Several UN sources said it was delayed because of confusion in the implementation of new IPC protocols, but a senior food security expert following the situation said he was “baffled why they are not releasing the report”.

     

    7,000 – 57,000 dead

     

    While various numbers are floating around, we simply don’t know how many people have died as a result of Yemen’s war, be it from hunger, bombs, bullets, or disease.

     

    The UN’s human rights office keeps statistics on the number of civilians who have been killed and injured in violence and, as of today, they count 6,906 killed and 10,861 injured since the end of March 2015. The UN says these figures are a “conservative estimate”, given their strict requirements for verification and access constraints in some parts Yemen.

     

    ACLED, which collects data on political violence and utilises numbers from the Yemen Data Project, estimates that more than 57,000 people (including combatants) have died in Yemen’s war.

     

    Like the UN’s, these statistics only include violent deaths, so they don’t take into account the more than 2,500 Yemenis who died since last April in two waves of cholera, a disease that should be easy to treat.

     

    Yemenis with chronic diseases or other ailments are also likely dying at an elevated rate, uncounted: The World Health Organisation says almost half of Yemen’s health facilities and hospitals have been destroyed as a result of the war, and points out that patients with diagnoses like cancer – the WHO says that’s 35,000, with 11,000 more diagnosed every year – struggle to access treatment.

     

    For its part, Save the Children estimates that 85,000 children may have died of disease and starvation since the conflict escalated in 2015.

     

    More than 2 million displaced

     

    UNHCR, the UN’s agency for refugees, says that more than two million Yemenis are currently internally displaced, meaning they’ve had to flee their homes but remain inside Yemen’s borders.

     

    An estimated 455,000 people have been displaced (some sources put the number as high as 600,000) since a government and coalition offensive began moving up the Red Sea coast in June through Hodeidah province and into the Houthi-held port city of the same name.

     

    Some displaced people are staying with family members, or renting accomodation if they have the money. But many are sheltering in schools or other public buildings, and others are sleeping out in the open or in makeshift shelters.

     

    Leaving home doesn’t just mean the loss of a place to sleep; displaced people are likely to lose their sources of income as well as the local support networks they fall back on in hard times. They are also often at higher risk of contracting diseases like cholera because of poor conditions and difficulty obtaining clean water.

     

    Untold numbers impoverished

     

    Hunger, death, and displacement have been worsened by (and have contributed to) Yemen’s ongoing economic collapse.

     

    While some people – namely those connected with various sides in the fight – are enriching themselves in Yemen’s war economy, most Yemenis are in a downward spiral.

     

    Pretty much every economic indicator for Yemen is dire: while official statistics are no longer available, the World Bank says anecdotal evidence points to a GDP that has contracted by 40 percent since the end of 2014; foreign remittances are down; and Yemen’s currency has been in freefall for months (although it made a slight rebound last month from a record low in October).

     

    Prices of just about everything are up, and the inability to buy food, rather than the lack of it in markets or shops, is a major reason people are going hungry. The UN says fuel prices have doubled in the past two years, and the price of food basics has jumped by 60 percent in the past year.

     

    So, what to expect?

     

    The talks, which are officially called “political consultations”, are unlikely to solve any of these problems right away, or even bring an end to the war.

     

    That’s actually by design: UN envoy Martin Griffiths is first hoping to set the stage for future peace talks, as well as focus on a series of “confidence-building measures”.

     

    On Thursday, he announced that one of these measures, a prisoner swap agreement, had been signed. The deal will be overseen by the International Committee of the Red Cross and Red Crescent (ICRC).

     

    Also on the list: re-opening Sana’a airport to civilian traffic; stabilising Yemen’s economy; and securing a truce in Hodeidah.

     

    The last item is of particular concern to humanitarians, who have long warned that a port closure would bring even further disaster to Yemen, which imports most of its food and has already seen a decrease in commercial ships willing to take the risk of docking at Hodeidah given the recent violence.

     

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    What’s at stake in Yemen peace talks
    "Any small change in their circumstances... will bring them to the brink of death"
  • Briefing: Yemen peace talks

    Momentum is building for new talks aimed at ending the war in Yemen, which has continued for more than three and a half years and left millions of civilians in need of humanitarian aid.

     

    The last official round of UN-led peace talks was held in Kuwait in 2016 and went nowhere, as did previous attempts to resolve Yemen’s discord after Houthi rebels took the Yemeni capital, Sana’a, in 2015.  

     

    Why do new talks suddenly seem possible, who would be involved, and could they really lead to peace?

    What’s the latest progress?

    Speaking to the UN Security Council on Friday, UN special envoy Martin Griffiths said he had received “firm assurances” that the warring parties would attend talks in Sweden. He said he would soon head to the Yemeni capital, Sana’a, to finalise logistical arrangements for the negotiations, which he said he hoped to reconvene “shortly”.

     

    The war in Yemen has claimed more than 6,000 civilian lives (according to one independent conflict monitor) without much attention paid to it, but a confluence of factors means there’s now at least a chance of getting the warring sides to the negotiation table.

     

    As fighting for the Red Sea port of Hodeidah intensified earlier this month, the UN was warning of famine, the US Congress was increasingly questioning America’s role in the war, and the killing of dissident Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in an Istanbul consulate brought new scrutiny to Saudi Arabia in general, as well as to the suffering of millions of Yemenis.

     

    Griffiths, meanwhile, was shuttling between capital cities, seeking backing for his bid to restart talks.

    “Everything that has been tried before is being repeated [by the UN], but there is a twist…"

    Speaking to IRIN before the Security Council briefing on Friday, Yemen analyst Hisham al-Omeisy expressed scepticism about how the UN talks had been run until this point, but he said recent events meant some sort of breakthrough was now possible.

     

    “Everything that has been tried before is being repeated [by the UN], but there is a twist… the Houthis are under pressure because of Hodeidah, so they may be more amenable [to talk],” he said. “Likewise, the Saudis are under a lot of international pressure and the spotlight is on them to look like they want peace. The dynamic is different now. It could put more pressure on [everyone].”

     

    But Yemen’s war is complicated, with splinters even within the warring sides. Getting delegations to the negotiating table is likely to be an organisational and diplomatic juggling act that Griffiths’ team will have to perform right up until the last minute. Attendance, let alone progress towards peace, is anything but guaranteed.

    What’s happening on the ground?

    The start date for Yemen’s conflict is debated, but the most commonly cited marker is March 2015, when a coalition of states headed by Saudi Arabia began airstrikes in support of President Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi.

     

    Hadi, still the internationally recognised president, had been forced to flee Sana’a by Houthi rebels (officially called Ansar Allah), who had joined up with forces loyal to the former president, Ali Abdullah Saleh.

     

    While clashes are still common in certain areas, like Taiz, by 2017 the larger war had become something of a stalemate, with the Houthis holding Sana’a, Hodeidah, and other northern provinces, including their stronghold of Saada.

     

    Things started to change this summer as forces allied with the Hadi government and the Saudi-led coalition – which hold key provinces like Marib and Aden – began to slowly move up the Red Sea coast towards the strategic port city of Hodeidah.

     

    In early November, relying largely on airstrikes and UAE-backed militias on the ground, this alliance made it closer to the centre of Hodeidah city, a vital entry point for aid and commercial goods.

     

    It now appears the coalition has ordered its troops to pause – a possible sign that it and the Hadi government are ready to talk. While there’s no official ceasefire and still some skirmishes, the lull is a welcome break for civilians in the city and a chance for humanitarians to deliver aid.

     

    Perversely, the previous uptick in fighting may also have signalled the coalition’s willingness to explore negotiations – an attempt perhaps to gain more of an advantage going in. “Before every round of talks to date there has been heavy fighting,” pointed out Peter Salisbury, a Yemen analyst for both Chatham House and the International Crisis Group.

    Who is invited?

    Technically, the talks wouldn’t be peace talks. They would be “consultations”, and only the main “parties to the conflict”, to use the UN’s language, are expected to be involved.

     

    That means two delegations: the Houthis and Hadi’s government.

     

    If they make it to Sweden, Griffiths hopes to get both sides to agree to a “framework” that “establishes the principles and parameters for UN-led, inclusive Yemeni negotiations to end the war, and restart a political transition.”

     

    In short, the warring parties would talk about starting official peace talks. This alone would be something of an achievement, given what Salisbury described as “lots and lots of bad faith and complete lack of trust” between the groups.

     

    The General People’s Congress (GPC), the longtime ruling party set up by Saleh – who was killed in Yemen in December 2017 – had sided with the Houthis but is now divided. It is not expected to be officially invited, although some of its members would likely be part of any Houthi team.

     

    Despite the lead role the coalition plays in the war, Saudi Arabia and the UAE would not technically be part of the talks. But even if these countries and other international forces, including Iran – which the UN says supports the Houthis with weaponry – weren’t officially in Sweden, they would still likely play an influential role via back channels.

    Who is left out?

    Who is not brought into the peace process may be just as important as who is at the table, analysts say.

     

    That’s because Yemen’s war was never really between just two sides. After years of fighting, alliances have fractured and changed, while some areas of the country, like the provinces of Marib and Hadramaut, have begun local experiments in self-governance.

     

    One powerful group expected to be left out of the talks is the southern secessionists, some of whom are represented by the Southern Transitional Council, who are nominally on the side of Hadi and the coalition but have their own interest in independence. Much of what the Yemenis refer to as the south is, confusingly, in the eastern part of the country.

     

    The southerners hold major sway (and arms) in parts of Yemen, and Griffiths told the Security Council that “the just resolution of the southern issue should be achieved, in my view, during the transitional period,” meaning they wouldn’t be officially represented in Sweden. “There is unfinished business in the south of Yemen,” he added.

    “I think the UN-led negotiations process is kind of disconnected from the reality on the ground.”

    Rasha Jarhum, a southern activist who spoke at the Security Council on Friday on behalf of a group of women’s organisations, criticised the two-sided approach to talks, which has led to the “total exclusion of the southerners and their cause from the current peace framework and negotiations.”

    She also issued a call for another group to be given more prominence: women. While women are now taking up a role in the negotiations – on an advisory group and Griffiths’ “gender team” – they need to be “present at the table and engaged in decision-making,” Jarhum said.

     

    Nadwa al-Dawsari, Yemen country director at CIVIC, an NGO that advocates for civilians in conflict, also voiced concern that the UN approach is wrongheaded. She said the country is far more divided even than it was at the start of the war.

     

    “I think the UN-led negotiations process is kind of disconnected from the reality on the ground,” al-Dawsari told IRIN. “It is trying to bring together the main conflict parties... and most of the country is not under the control of any of these parties, but instead is controlled by other local forces… Assuming there are political negotiations that end up with a settlement between the main conflict parties, how will that trickle down to the local level?”

    Will the talks happen?

    Griffiths finished his remarks to the Security Council with a caveat. “I think we are almost there,” he said. “We need to focus to make sure that nothing disrupts the path to that meeting.”

     

    There have been disruptions before. A September attempt to convene in Geneva went nowhere when Houthi rebels didn’t show up.

     

    The end of November then became the goal after a string of carefully choreographed statements in late October throwing support behind both a ceasefire and talks – from US Defence Secretary James Mattis, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Griffiths himself, and then UK Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt.

     

    The goal posts were later moved to the end of this year.

    “They might not end the war, but they will make Yemenis’ lives less difficult as they struggle to survive.”

    In addition to the rush of statements and the pause of fighting at Hodeidah, there are other signals that suggest there might just be a meeting of some sort in Sweden.

     

    Last week, the UK said the Saudi-led coalition had agreed to allow the aerial evacuation of some Houthi fighters out of the country. An attempt to do the same before the failed September meeting flopped.

     

    Griffiths also told the Security Council he was “about to conclude” an agreement between the parties on an exchange of prisoners and detainees. In peace talks parlance, that’s a “confidence-building measure”, and a sign that the parties are at least able to agree on something.

     

    How might life improve for civilians?

     

    For some observers, small wins are the best that can be hoped for.

     

    “While striking a political settlement seems to be far-fetched at the moment, the UN envoy [Griffiths] can pressure the main conflict parties to take serious measures to reduce civilian harm,” said CIVIC’s al-Dawsari.

     

    “Opening Sana’a airport [closed to commercial flights for two years], halting attacks on populated areas, [an] exchange of prisoners, and refraining from disrupting humanitarian aid delivery are all good steps,” she suggested. “They might not end the war, but they will make Yemenis’ lives less difficult as they struggle to survive.”

    (TOP PHOTO: A father and his sons stand in front of their house after the building next door was hit by an airstrike in Sana'a, August 2018. CREDIT: Becky Bakr Abdulla/NRC)

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    Briefing: Yemen peace talks
  • Famine in Yemen: A primer

    Warnings of famine in Yemen are coming hard and fast these days, with UN Relief Chief Mark Lowcock telling the Security Council on Tuesday that “there is now a clear and present danger of an imminent and great big famine engulfing” the country.

     

    The truth is that Yemen has been teetering on the edge of famine for much of its more than three and a half years of war, and while food prices have recently shot up thanks to a collapsing currency, this is not the first time humanitarians have rung the alarm bells.

     

    Back in November 2017, the Saudi-led coalition fighting Houthi rebels and their allies temporarily closed Yemen’s air, land, and sea borders in response to a rocket sent by the Houthis towards Riyadh. Eighteen NGOs issued a statement then expressing concern that “the humanitarian situation is extremely fragile and any disruption in the pipeline of critical supplies such as food, fuel, and medicines has the potential to bring millions of people closer to starvation and death”.

     

    Read more: Yemen “starvation” warnings as Saudi Arabia shuts borders

     

    The blockade was later eased and some aid was allowed in, but as we pointed out at the time, when it comes to averting famine, commercial imports are more important than relief supplies.

     

    Read more: Yemen needs commercial imports to avoid famine

     

    In most of Yemen, shops and markets still sell food. But many people simply don’t have the money to buy it. Yemen’s currency has been in freefall since September, causing a spike in food and fuel prices and even further impacting the average Yemeni’s ability to purchase what they need to survive.

     

    Read more: “If the war doesn’t kill us, the food prices will”

     

    Millions of hungry people live in Yemen. The UN now estimates that 14 million Yemenis, half the country, could soon be in what it calls “pre-famine” conditions; that means they will rely on aid to survive. That number may rise even more if Yemen’s Red Sea port of Hodeidah is closed by fighting; the coalition is currently intensifying an offensive on Houthis in the city.

     

    But declaring a famine is a technically complicated process, as this account from South Sudan illustrates:

     

    Read more: How to declare a famine: A primer from South Sudan

     

    We don’t yet know if and when famine will be declared. Analysts are reviewing market, health, and nutrition surveys from across Yemen to determine if the situation crosses the technical threshold of “famine”. In order to avoid false alarms and crying wolf, strict requirements must be met before a situation can be designated a famine. And even that declaration can still be held up or delayed by political concerns – governments and warring parties typically don’t want to admit to a famine on their watch.

     

    In 2011, the UN declared the first famine of the 21st century in Somalia, caused by war, drought, and restricted relief access. The announcement was met by a wave of new funding, international media and diplomatic attention, and more determined efforts to work through blockages. The declaration, based on the same Integrated Phase Classification methodology that Yemen analysts are using, had no automatic effect but galvanised an international response, including $1.25 billion in 2011. Any famine declaration is an admission of failure: later studies showed that about half of an estimated 260,000 Somali deaths took place before the pronouncement.

     

    For now, just when an official declaration of famine will come, if it comes at all, is still unclear. What we know for sure: malnutrition can be deadly, and right now it’s making some Yemenis more susceptible to diseases like cholera and diphtheria.

     

    Read more: Cholera returns to Yemen, with powerful allies

     

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    Famine in Yemen: A primer
  • UN experts signal possible war crimes in Yemen

    A UN group of experts on Yemen has found that individuals from Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, the government of Yemen, and Houthi rebels and their allies have all committed violations of international law that may amount to war crimes in the country’s three and a half year war.

     

    In a report released Tuesday, the Group of Independent Eminent International and Regional Experts on Yemen catalogues a litany of abuses during the conflict, which began in March 2015 and has pitted Houthi rebels and their allies against a Saudi Arabian-led coalition backing the internationally recognised (but deposed) government of President Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi.

     

    The UN human rights office counts 6,475 civilian deaths and 10,231 between March 2015 and this June, but believes the real figure to be significantly higher.

     

    The report said coalition airstrikes have caused most of the documented civilian casualties, with residential areas, marketplaces, funerals, weddings, and medical facilities hit.

     

    “There is little evidence of any attempt by parties to the conflict to minimise civilian casualties, said Kamel Jendoubi, the group’s chair, in a statement. “I call on them to prioritise human dignity in this forgotten conflict.”

     

    Last week an airstrike killed 22 children and four women who had reportedly been fleeing violence in Hodeidah province, and the week before a strike on a bus in the northern Saada province killed more than 40 children. Both have been blamed on the Saudi-led coalition, and the UN’s humanitarian chief Mark Lowcock condemned the attacks and called for an impartial investigation. The Saudi-led coalition insists it does not target civilians and investigates when it makes mistakes.

     

    The 41-page report devotes significant space to the restrictions the coalition has imposed on shipping into Yemen, as well as the closure of Sana’a airport to commercial traffic (including most medical evacuations).

     

    Yemen traditionally imports 90 percent of its food, as well as most food and medical supplies, and the UN says 22 million people, some two thirds of the country’s population, need some form of humanitarian assistance.

     

    The report says that given the severe humanitarian impact naval and air limitations have had on the civilian population, “such acts, together with the requisite intent, may amount to international crimes.”

     

    “As these restrictions are planned and implemented as the result of State policies, individual criminal responsibility would lie at all responsible levels, including the highest levels, of government of the member states of the coalition and Yemen.”

     

    The Houthi rebels and their allies loyal to former and now deceased president Ali Abdullah Saleh are also accused of impeding the delivery of aid and other important goods, particularly in the city of Taiz. While investigators were unable to visit Taiz, which has seen some of the worst fighting and a series of sieges in the war, the report says that based on the information it has, restrictions imposed by Houthi-Saleh forces between July 2015 and January 2016 appear to have violated international law. It added that shelling by the Houthi-Saleh forces had likely caused the majority of civilian casualties in Taiz.

     

    The report confirms “widespread arbitrary detention throughout the country, and ill-treatment and torture in some facilities.”

     

    The group of experts report came out of a compromise resolution in the UN Human Rights Council last September – several European states and Canada had been pushing for a formal commission of inquiry into the war in Yemen, while Saudi Arabia and several other Arab states proposed sending international experts to work with an inquiry led by Hadi’s government.

     

    The experts said they had sent a confidential list of individuals who may be responsible for international crimes to the UN high commissioner for human rights.

     

    (TOP PHOTO: A child stands in the middle of destroyed buildings in his Sana'a neighbourhood. CREDIT: Yeyha Arhab/ICRC)

     

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    UN experts signal possible war crimes in Yemen
    “No possible military advantage could justify such sustained and extreme suffering of millions of people”
  • In Iraq, families linked to so-called Islamic State suffer for their relatives’ sins

    Basa’ad has spent the last two years in a camp in Iraq’s western desert, slowly losing her eyesight and coming to the realisation she might never go home.

     

    One of her sons, aged 25, was recently sentenced to 15 years in prison for taking a job as a water truck driver for so-called Islamic State after the militant group took over her small village near Fallujah.

     

    This association means she and her extended family are unable to receive the security clearance all displaced Iraqis need to return to their villages, towns, or cities.

     

    Across the country, thousands of Iraqis – families of IS members, even their drivers, cooks, and cleaners – are stuck in the same limbo: rejected by their own societies and left to an uncertain future.

     

    “I’m living in a very bad situation,” Basa’ad says, clasping her tattooed hands as she sits on the floor of her tent in Anbar province’s Ameriyat al-Fallujah camp. “I’m so tired, and I can barely see… What will become of me?”

    Her question is one Iraqi officials and local leaders are struggling to answer. Most agree this sort of prolonged isolation doesn’t bode well, neither for those unable to leave the camps nor for the future of the country. But nobody seems quite sure what to do.

     

    Fear of radicalisation

     

    Iraqi officials, especially those from majority Sunni Anbar province, are quick to point out that they have firsthand experience of the relationship between lengthy detention and extremism.

     

    The US Army held tens of thousands of men in Camp Bucca, not far from Basa’ad’s hometown, as it fought off a violent insurgency that grew after the toppling of Saddam Hussein in 2003.

     

    Prolonged detention provided fertile breeding ground for radicalisation: by the time Camp Bucca closed in 2009, it is believed to have held no less than nine men who later formed the leadership of IS.

     

    It’s a cycle nobody wants to see repeated. Khaled Saadi al-Yawar, who represents Anbar on the prime minister’s National Reconciliation Committee, tells IRIN he doesn’t want his children to see the violence that was visited on his hometown of Ramadi, the provincial capital that IS occupied for more than seven months in 2015.

     

    He calls stopping the pattern “a war without a rifle”, and believes it will only be won if the families of IS members – now mostly in camps – are reintegrated into society.

     

    “I don’t want my kids to live the same tragedy I live,” al-Yawar says. “And if I continue punishing the children of IS, I will eventually create an enemy for my children.”

     

    But that doesn’t mean al-Yawar, or other Iraqis who fell victim to IS, are ready to let bygones be bygones. Fallujah mayor Issa Saer al-Assawi says that while he wants to see family members come home again, it’s still early days.

     

    “To live under IS control for three years, it’s not a short time, and it’s not easy to fix.”

    “We live in a tribal society, and [bringing families home] is a complicated process,” he says. “We’re worried about revenge attacks by those who can’t separate between the family and the crimes of the son or father.”

     

     

    Renunciation

     

    There is a path home for those with connections to IS, but it’s not one everyone is willing to take.

     

    For any family in Anbar, returning home means first obtaining permission from multiple intelligence and military bodies.

     

    This process involves several (sometimes conflicting) databases, usually takes months, and is easily drawn out by the smallest complication, like having the same name as a wanted member of IS.

     

    For those related to convicted IS members, or related to those missing or dead who are suspected or known to have been members, one path home can be renunciation – declaring, in court, that they have no connection with their relative who belonged to or worked with IS.

     

    Al-Assawi says this happens; he’s even seen fathers go as far as signing warrant letters for their own sons.

     

    But not everyone is ready to make this sacrifice, including Basa’ad, whose other four sons and husband are missing. She opted not to renounce her son even though a tribal leader told her it was the only way she could go home.

     

    “I will not renounce him,” she says, with tears in her eyes. “I don't know what is going to happen to the rest of my family... I only have him in prison, to be released in 15 years. That’s the only son I have.”

     

    Re-education and reconciliation

     

    Many officials insist IS families need some sort of re-education before they can go home, but there’s been no countrywide attempt to make this happen.

     

    “With these families, especially with the kids who have committed no sins – it was their fathers – the issue needs to be resolved ideologically,” Sattar Newrouz, spokesman for the Ministry of Displacement and Migration, tells IRIN. “It’s possible some of them have been negatively influenced by the thoughts and beliefs of terrorists.”

     

    The government doesn’t want to leave these families in camps, he says, but they need to “look after... those who might be easily influenced by extremism.”

    We are lying to our people and to ourselves; we say that we are securing Iraq [from IS and extremism] but in reality we are creating an extremist generation.

    Fallujah mayor al-Assawi would also like to see some sort of re-education process, and says the government’s reconciliation committee should be consulting psychologists, doctors, security officers, and tribes to get it right. So far, he says, the committee is moving “very slowly”, and from what he’s seen “all they have done is held workshops in Baghdad.”

     

    Al-Yawar, whom IRIN met at one such event in the Iraqi capital, agrees that the committee he sits on isn’t doing nearly enough – but he says that’s because it has virtually no budget to put its plans in place.

     

    The workshop was hosted by Sanad for Peacebuilding, an Iraqi non-governmental organisation bringing together leaders connected with Anbar – including al-Yawar, tribal sheikhs, and security officials. It was aimed at rethinking a covenant many tribes signed (but not all implemented) when IS first came to Iraq, putting in place strict barriers to return

     

    The officials mulling how and when to bring families back home all say they know camp life was hard, and they often mention the harsh conditions displaced children are growing up in. But they are also concerned about what separating one group of Iraqis from society could mean for the future of the country.

     

    “We are lying to our people and to ourselves; we say that we are securing Iraq [from IS and extremism] but in reality we are creating an extremist generation [by keeping families in camps],” says General Tariq Yousef al-Asl, deputy commander of the Anbar Hashd (Sunni tribal militias who have officially joined up with the majority-Shia Popular Mobilisation Forces).

     

    “Not necessarily an Islamist extremist generation, but maybe [an] ideological or criminal [one],” he adds.

     

    In the absence of major government initiatives, it’s often left to tribal leaders to conduct small-scale reconciliation in their communities.

     

    Sheikh Fawzi Abu Risha, one of the leaders of a powerful Anbar tribe, describes vouching to the security services for the parents of a dead IS fighter. This was after he had held many meetings with their neighbours to remind them that the couple had committed no crime.

     

    He says the tribes interested in reconciliation (not all are ready yet) need more support from the state “to distinguish between who is clean and who is dirty”.

     

    Abu Risha says he knows how difficult life is for the family members stuck in camps. But it’s been hard for him, too. Asked how he’s able to think about helping the relatives of men who killed his own family, the elderly sheikh tears up: “We just feel sympathy for the kids and women, this is the main reason. We will sustain the pain and suffering, just for the kids.”

     

    as/ag

     

    Guilty by association, they find themselves unable to leave camps and return home
    In Iraq, families linked to so-called Islamic State suffer for their relatives’ sins

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