Saturday,21 July, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1266, (15 - 21 October 2015)
Saturday,21 July, 2018
Issue 1266, (15 - 21 October 2015)

Ahram Weekly

Taiz on the brink of disaster

Yemen’s city of Taiz, under siege and without support from President Hadi’s government or the Arab coalition targeting Houthi-Saleh forces, is battling for survival. Amira Howeidy reports

Al-Ahram Weekly

The women standing in silent protest for two hours carried different items: an empty plate, two thin loafs of bread, a live chicken, a bottle of water. Children held a pack of biscuits, a potato, a yellow zucchini and white candles.

Everyone carried placards protesting the siege imposed on Taiz by Houthi fighters and forces loyal to ex-president Ali Abdallah Saleh, and which has tightened in the last two weeks. “No water, no wheat, no vegetables or children’s milk,” read one sign. “The siege is killing Taiz,” proclaimed another.

The birthplace of the 2011 uprising against Saleh, Taiz is located 250 kilometres south of Sanaa and is Yemen’s third largest city-  rarely finds it way into the news. This week it made itself visible on social media with a steady stream of grim images showing the impact of the war — now in its seventh month — on the city’s population.

In one picture, donkeys carrying piles of wood for cooking purposes are seen making their way through a Taizian street past a pharmacy called “Happiness”. In another, a child is lying face down, possibly asleep, on a bed of empty plastic water cans waiting to be filled. Images of a water truck barely visible through the bodies of hundreds of Yemenis jockeying for their share are now all too common.

The Houthi-Saleh alliance seized Taiz in March but was pushed out of the city in August. Its fighters remain stationed at its strategic exits leading to Aden, Ibb, Sanaa and Hodeida, controlling all movement in and out of the city.

Taiz has been ravaged by the war between the Houthi-Saleh forces and the local resistance for months. Infrastructure, schools and hospitals are badly damaged and the situation has deteriorated sharply in recent weeks.

“We are under full siege,” said Sadeq Shujaa, secretary general of the Taiz branch of the Doctors and Pharmacists Syndicate. “Not one drop of water has been allowed inside Taiz for the past two weeks,” he told Al-Ahram Weekly by phone.

Houthi-Saleh forces haven’t publicly declared a siege or any policy preventing gas, fuel, water and food supplies from entering Taiz. According to Shujaa, however, 12 trucks loaded with humanitarian aid supplied by UN-affiliated agencies weren’t allowed to enter the city. All of the supplies were seized by Houthi-Saleh forces. Residents are using wood in place of cooking gas. There has been no electricity for months. Now some are using solar panels to generate power.

Taiz, like the rest of Yemen, is an arid city that has always suffered serious water shortages. Now the water problem has reached an acute stage, with only one functioning desalination station. Prices of stocked bottled water have surged, creating a black market and driving most people to resort to wells, which often produce unclean water. Areas close to the Jabal Sabir Mountain — which is under the resistance’s control — have had some water delivered to them from the mountain’s springs.

“None of this comes close to covering the minimal needs, forcing many, myself included, to drink bad water,” said Abdulbassit Assabri, an activist who works with volunteer groups that provide shelter for internally displaced people (IDPs). “It’s not unusual for people to have fights over water, which have gotten violent in some cases and resulted in deaths,” Assabri added.

“Many have to walk for two kilometres just to get just one litre,” he told the Weekly, “and the state is nonexistent here since March.”

Months after the Houthis, a Shia rebel group, overran Sanaa in September 2014, President Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi fled to Aden. The Houthis and Saleh forces seized several cities, including Taiz in his pursuit. Once Hadi escaped to Saudi Arabia in March, Riyadh formed an alliance of Arab countries and launched a military operation against the Houthis to reinstate Hadi, who moved members of his government to Saudi Arabia.

Twice this summer, the exiled government declared Taiz a disaster zone, but has failed to provide assistance to the city. When the Saudi-led alliance recaptured the southern port city of Aden from Houthi-Saleh forces in August, followed by Al-Anad military and air base, Taiz, in the north, was expected to be their target for liberation. Aden has since been the Yemeni government’s headquarters, with Prime Minister Khaled Bahah based there.

But little has changed two months later. Taiz remains a battlefield between the local resistance — including Islamists — and the Houthi-Saleh alliance. “People in Taiz are so disappointed, they feel there’s a conspiracy against them,” said Assabri.

Outraged by the water shortages, activists in Ibb, north of Taiz, announced plans to organise what they called a “water march” in at attempt to bring attention to the crisis.

“My relatives in Taiz told me their children go to sleep feeling thirsty, so they bought ten litres from the black market and are afraid they’ll run out of it,” said Hakim Al-Bakari, one of the march’s organisers.

The march was scheduled to set off from Ibb University Tuesday morning, but was thwartedMonday when dozens of Houthi forces raided a meeting by the organisers and arrested 30 activists and reporters.

Yemen relies on imports, but a blockade by Saudi Arabia — which seeks to prevent arms shipments to the Houthis — has dramatically hindered supplies to the region’s poorest country.

International aid groups have repeatedly warned of the risk of famine, but the situation has only gotten worse, with restrictions on essential goods being imposed also within Yemen.

The World Health Organisation said this week that the conflict has claimed at least 5,462 lives and injured 26,447 people. According to Antoine Grand, head of the International Committee of the Red Cross in Yemen, only one per

cent of fuel needs entered Yemen in September. Taiz, in particular, has an acute shortage of water, fuel, electricity and medical supplies, he added.

Aid and international human rights groups have been conspicuously absent in Taiz, largely because of the siege and the problem of communicating because phone networks are not working, but also because the city has been completely neglected, critics say.

“There are war crimes committed by the Houthis in Taiz and they’re not being documented or reported on,” said Nadwa Al-Dawsari, a Yemen expert from Taiz and nonresident fellow at the Washington-based Project on Middle East Democracy.

“The focus is on Sanaa, but Yemen isn’t just the capital. Where are the international rights groups?” she asked.

According to a report released by local civil society groups and syndicate representatives Monday, 194 children were killed by Houthi shelling and 63 by Saudi-led coalition air strikes in Taiz between March and September. Fifty-nine schools have been affected by the war, while 62 serve as refugee shelters for IDPs, said the report. Since April, when the fighting began, schools have stopped operating.

No breakthrough is in sight and essential food reserves are running out in Taiz. Elements of Al-Qaeda have reportedly joined the resistance, stoking fears of how Taiz’s future will be shaped by desperate coalitions battling for control of the city.

Taiz is of strategic importance to the Houthi-Saleh alliance because it is an important gateway between the north and the south. This makes it equally important for the Arab coalition, if they are to advance to Sanaa at any point in time.

But the city might be viewed with suspicion by the Arab coalition because of Islamist elements in the resistance, said Al-Dawsari.

“I think they’re too scared of the Muslim Brotherhood’s control [in Taiz], so they’re slowing down their military advance,” she said. But if the siege persists, Al-Dawsari adds, “People will die, not because of bombs, but of thirst, malnutrition and hunger.”

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