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Understanding the silence behind the war on Taiz

October 29, 2015 at 10:24 am

When Yemen is covered in the media, it is usually branded as “the forgotten war”. The bulk of the coverage is on the Saudi airstrikes on Sana’a, which have caused considerable damage. Houthi crimes are being significantly ignored, especially in one particular area in which the Houthis are losing their grip, but increasing their ability to destroy: Taiz.

To understand why the Houthis and forces loyal to ousted President Ali Abdullah Saleh have implemented the worst siege of all in Yemen, knowledge of the modern political history of Taiz is imperative. Four years ago, Taiz was where the revolution that led to the ousting of Saleh began. More importantly, it is known for being sympathetic to the Muslim Brotherhood. Although the Brotherhood party in Yemen, Islah, was not formed until 1990, much of the pretext for the political “Islamification” of Yemen as we now know it took place in Taiz.

In 1979, a border war erupted between North and South Yemen; Taiz was one of the provinces in which the Marxist South used to put the North at a strategic and ideological disadvantage. This put Saleh, who was appointed as president of North Yemen shortly before this conflict in July 1978, at a bigger disadvantage as not only did he have to fight the South, but also their infiltrators coming into the north through Taiz, along with surrounding provinces. Saudi Arabia also felt a threat coming from South Yemen, as its ideology could have threatened the stability of the kingdom if it was to spread; hence, the tactical alliance between Saudi and Saleh, which was supported by the West, which viewed South Yemen’s Marxist ideology as a threat to its sphere of influence in the region.

In an attempt to water down the threat, the then Saudi monarch, King Khalid Bin Abdulaziz Al-Saud, along with former US President Jimmy Carter, strengthened the North Yemeni military. King Khalid also felt it would be appropriate to shape North Yemen ideologically, so not only did he fund political and military officials to gain their support, but also prominent tribal figures.

Just as there were North Yemenis who were sympathetic to Marxism, there were many Southerners who rejected Marxism and escaped to the North; with Taiz being directly on the North-South border it became a common destination for both. This ensured its security via Islamification (which met little resistance, as Taiz had a reputation for being open to the Muslim Brotherhood ideology), but also meant that it became a target for Saleh’s brutality, as he became paranoid about the province.

When the Islah Party was formed, it enjoyed a lot of support in Taiz. The main tribe leading the Brotherhood, Al-Ahmar, are from Sana’a, though one of their leaders, Mohammed Al-Yadoumi, is from Taiz. He worked with the North Yemeni intelligence services as well as the military until 1985, when he stepped down and founded Al-Sahwa newspaper, which is known for its pro-Brotherhood and pan-Sunni sentiments.

Taiz then became the cradle of the Yemeni revolution that forced Saleh to step down; many of the protestors were pro-Islah. The revolutionary history of Taiz and its status as an Islah stronghold explain why the Houthis and Saleh’s forces are so harsh towards it. They are known for their indiscriminate attacks on civilians; no one is left unharmed. They shell civilian areas on a daily basis and have imposed a blockade on all aid going into Taiz, with the exception of hygiene kits (though such aid is futile as water is not allowed in). Children in Taiz are kidnapped routinely and forced to work against their own people; youngsters from other provinces are also being kidnapped and forced to fight, which is a common Houthi tactic. Details of one such case are on social media: 10 year-old Abdullah Taleb was hospitalised due to his injuries and then kidnapped and forced to fight in Taiz. Journalists and social media activists, especially English-speakers, are also targeted by the Houthis in a bid to censor any exposures of their crimes.

Conflict researcher Nadwa Al-Dawsari has strong connections on the ground in Yemen and she highlighted to me the extreme suffering imposed on the people of Taiz. Hospitals have been attacked, she said, so that most medical services are now being provided by private hospitals, only four of which are open. Already, their capabilities are stretched as they do not usually accommodate so many people. Ar-Rawda Hospital is one of them and in September it announced that it can only deal with emergency cases, which excludes the majority of injuries.

Al-Dawsari also explained that one of the larger public hospitals in Taiz, Al-Thawra, closed due to the war but re-opened in September, since when it has been reported that it has been subjected to raids, shelling and the kidnapping of its staff by the Houthi and Saleh forces. A lack of fuel and medical supplies, including oxygen, means that many of those injured are left to die in the hands of helpless medics.

Food supplies are another major issue. Pre-war, Yemen imported 90 per cent of its food, and now there are two blockades affecting Taiz. The Saudi blockade stops any shipments from entering Yemen, apart from aid, which means that most of the food imported pre-war is now not allowed in. There is also the Houthi-Saleh blockade on Taiz, which prevents any food from the aid approved by the Saudis from entering Taiz. The little that is smuggled through is usually only smuggled into the city. According to London-based Yemen analyst Abdulalem Al-Shamery, the majority of the people who live in nearby villages are at an even bigger disadvantage, because this makes it harder for them to acquire food.

It has been reported that the bank accounts of NGOs and individuals who have received donations from the Yemeni diaspora are being compromised and the money is being stolen by the Houthis. Thus, fewer people are able to buy the little food that is available, or to buy food that has been smuggled through the blockade. One eyewitness report said that when the Houthis were unable to stop a water truck from entering Taiz they urinated in it to contaminate the contents.

It is clear that the history of Taiz is far more significant to today’s context than might be imagined and Saleh’s fear and hatred of Taiz is far stronger than many people who are familiar with Yemen would like to admit. Taiz’s history also partially explains why the Saudi-led coalition is not assisting the resistance in Taiz in the same way that it is in other areas, such as Mareb, although the coalition forces have started to arm and train Taiz over the past few weeks as it becomes more apparent that it needs to do so in order for the overall operation to advance. Rashad Al-Sharbi, a spokesman for Taiz, claims that 90 per cent is free from the Houthis and that victory is near. However, putting the Houthis at a territorial disadvantage does not necessarily mean that they will be defeated. Rather, as a militia they can blend in with the civilian population much easier and then destroy as much as they can.

The situation in Taiz also points to the wider scheme of the conflict, and possibly one of the only solutions. While Saleh has power and his allies are strong, Taiz will always be threatened, with its innocent men, women and children on the receiving end. This, along with the Gulf Cooperation Council initiative to grant Saleh immunity, which enabled him and the Houthis to wreak havoc on Yemen, prove that the ex-president cannot be negotiated with; as long as he still in the frame of Yemeni politics, the whole of Yemen will be at risk.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.