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.”
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)