Private Eyes in the Sky
How Commercial Satellites Are Transforming Intelligence
By Ayisha Amr
On September 24, I traveled to Yemen’s most populated city, Taiz, which has been under heavy fire for six months. The country’s Shiite Houthi rebels are struggling to wrestle Yemen’s cultural capital from fighters loyal to the country’s exiled president, Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi, and have imposed a blockade upon the city. To enter Taiz, I—along with many of the anti-Houthi activists, politicians, residents, and other reporters—was forced to take a longer, unpaved route, which cuts through the valleys that sit at the foot of massive green mountains. Once in Taiz, I had to wear a niqab and hide my camera, computer, and cell phone. But I was able to travel the city undisturbed since Houthis usually refrain from searching women.
During the 2011 Arab Spring, Taiz was the first city in Yemen to rise up against the 33-year dictatorship of Ali Abdullah Saleh. The city’s Freedom Square soon became the epicenter of the revolution as it swept the rest of the country. But now Taiz is divided into war zones. The hilltops and outskirts of the city are in hands of the Houthis, who descended from the country’s northern region, took over the capital in September of last year, and then began marching southward. The city center is controlled by a mixture of fighters who are led by a tribal leader linked to Yemen’s Islamist Islah Party, which is loyal to the internationally recognized government.
As I walked through Taiz’s main streets, I witnessed the scale of destruction in the city. The United Nations estimates that the death toll has reached 5,400, nearly half of which are civilians. The upscale neighborhood of Haoudh al-Ashraf, once home to expensive hotels and restaurants, was recently captured by the Houthis. Its buildings are now gutted and pockmarked with shell holes. The Yemeni-Swedish Hospital for Children sustained heavy damage after Houthi snipers used the building to attack Yemeni forces. The city’s second largest hospital, al-Thawra (the Revolution), is still functioning—one of the few—but cement walls have been built in front of the windows to protect patients from sniper fire. The hospital receives between 30 and 40 patients a day. But because of staff shortage and lack of medical supplies, 50 percent of the wounded die.
The Houthis have also set up checkpoints, which are manned by young qat-chewing militiamen who blockade most entrances and prevent civilian access to basic necessities such as fuel, medicine, water, and food, worsening the already severe humanitarian crisis unfolding in Taiz.
The Saudi-led coalition, which waged a campaign to roll back Houthis after Hadi fled the country in March (but who returned to the temporary capital in Aden last month), carried out a series of air strikes in Taiz, including one that inadvertently killed hundreds of civilians. The standoff in Taiz is rooted in the division within the ten-member U.S.-backed Saudi-led coalition. Part of the coalition, including the United Arab Emirates and Egypt, opposes arming the Muslim Brotherhood’s Islah Party, from which the Yemeni resistance leader Said Hamoud al-Mekhlafi hails. Saudi Arabia, on the other hand, is a longtime backer of the Islah Party, but has been shifting its alliances and directing most of its financial support to ultraconservative Salafis.
On the once busy commercial districts and main streets, such as Gamal Abdel-Nasser Boulevard, shops are now shuttered, hotels are empty, and the doors of restaurants, clinics, barbers, and tailors are sealed off. Meanwhile, mountains of garbage fill street corners and an overwhelming stench fills the air. Garbage trucks stopped picking up the trash after the city was hit by a severe fuel shortage. The lack of sanitation then triggered an outbreak of the mosquito-borne dengue virus. Hundreds have fallen ill.
But dengue fever isn’t the worst threat facing citizens of the town. “The siege is lethal,” Mohammed al-Sabri, a member of the resistance’s city service committee, which answers to an executive council chaired by al-Mekhlafi, told me. Indeed, in less than a month, 31-year-old Moniera Mahyoub lost her husband and her two daughters in separate incidents. Her daughters were killed by shrapnel and a stray bullet killed her husband.
“In a blink of an eye, they were gone,” she told me. “When I hear bombing, I snatch my two sons, the only ones left, run to the kitchen, and hide in there.”
She showed me a closet where her two daughters had scribbled on the walls, “We love you Mama.”
AYISHA AMR is a pseudonym for a reporter who writes from Yemen and Egypt.