Afghanistan’s Moment of Risk and Opportunity
A Path to Peace for the Country and the Region
One Tuesday night in the al-Shamasi neighborhood of Yemen’s southern city of Taiz, Khadija Naji, 32, watched over her three sons. They were sitting on the sidewalk near a school where she and several other families had been living after relentless fighting between the Houthi rebels and government forces had forced them to flee their homes. It was Ramadan, the Muslim holy month, and a neighbor was on his way with a hot meal so that Naji and her family could end a day of fasting. Then from out of the sky, a mortar shell whistled through the air and landed in front of the school. The blast killed Naji, her boys, and the neighbor who was bringing dinner.
The Houthis, rebels who seized Sana’a in September 2014 and forced President Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi to flee to the port city of Aden, control roughly 40 percent of Taiz’s outskirts. They are supported by forces loyal to Ali Abdullah Saleh, the former president of Yemen who was ousted during the Arab Spring and whom Hadi replaced. The Houthis control all the roads in the outer areas of Taiz that lead into the city, except for a narrow pathway through the Taluq mountains that residents and fighters opposing the Houthis’ existence had built earlier this year. The control of the roads has enabled the Houthis to enforce a blockade, denying residents medical supplies, equipment, and sometimes food. Even worse, as Human Rights Watch noted in a 2015 report, Houthi rebels had “repeatedly fired mortar shells and artillery rockets indiscriminately into populated neighborhoods.”
I arrived in Taiz just days before Naji was killed. Houthis have since shelled several residential areas in the strip of land close to Houthi militia–controlled areas, as well as public places such as the busy market of al-Bab al-Qadiem (the Old Gate) at the heart of the old town in the center of Taiz. It is located far from the frontlines near the city’s periphery, and so should have been relatively free from bombardment. And yet a blast there on June 3 killed nine people and injured 24.
These attacks are part of the Houthis’ strategy to fight the resistance, a mixture of fighters from opposition parties—mainly the Islamist Islah Party and the Socialist Party—along with civilians, including students, doctors, and laborers who volunteered to take up arms and drive the Houthis out of their city. The resistance is loyal to president Hadi and the Saudi-led coalition.
Omar Ahmed, a doctor from Al Roda Hospital, one of two main hospitals in Taiz, told me that since the fighting intensified several days ago, he has seen an uptick in the number of wounded admitted to the hospital. He estimates that around 90 percent are civilians injured by mortar and Katyusha rocket attacks on residential areas. It is not surprising that thousands have fled the city to nearby areas, leaving behind a ghost town. Shops remain closed, bullet holes riddle the walls, and remnants of rocket shells lie scattered among the rubble.
The shelling, Ishraq al-Maqtary, a lawyer and a member of a national committee appointed to investigate allegations of human rights violations, told me, “is just as intense as the beginning of the war last year: around a few shells every day causing massacres.” The human rights committee was created seven months ago by Hadi himself. It aims to document atrocities and violations committed against civilians from all sides—that means Houthis, those fighting under Saleh, the Saudi-led coalition, and even thugs belonging to al-Qaeda who have joined the resistance. In its own investigation, the United Nations found that the Saudi-led coalition was certainly not blameless for civilian attacks. It is responsible for 60 percent of war-related injuries and deaths of children since last year.
At Taiz’s other main hospital, Al Thawra, I found around 30 patients waiting for kidney treatment. Electricity shortages have forced the hospital to use a generator to run its dialysis machines. The day I arrived, the heavy load caused the old generator to falter and delay care. Fahmy al-Hanany, the head of the hospital’s kidney center, said that the blockade has affected medical care at all levels at the hospital.
Elsewhere in Yemen, the fighting has slowed, in part because of the peace talks being held in Kuwait. But it has done little to end the war. “After 60 days of the peace talks, the UN couldn’t enforce a decisive or organized plan for the negotiators that would force the two factions to commit them to establishing a unity government and coordinating military withdrawals,” Baleigh al-Mekhlafy, a Yemeni journalist and researcher said.
Taiz is bearing the brunt of that indecision where the battle rages on to control the country’s cultural capital. “The Houthis want to extend the war in Taiz to gain more grounds on the talks,” Rashed Muhameed, a member of the socialist party in Taiz, told me. “They know that if Taiz falls, other cities will follow.” He pointed out how protests in Taiz sparked nationwide demonstrations in Yemen during the 2011 Arab Spring. On October 14, 1963, riots against British occupation broke out in Aden, triggering armed resistance against British control, but Taiz, too, was at the center of the revolution that eventually resulted in independence. Most of all, Taiz is a strategic gateway between the country’s north and south.
For now, however, there has been no decisive victory either way. Some blame the stalemate on the lack of Saudi commitment. “The stalemate in Taiz reveals a contradiction within the Saudi-led coalition members,” Ahmed Othman, a spokesperson from the Islamist Islah party, said. “It’s like they want us to resist but not necessarily to win.”
Many believe that the Saudis and its coalition could have helped free Taiz from the Houthis, just as they freed Aden, which Hadi’s government has declared the temporary capital, but it seems that the Saudis are more concerned with about who will be in charge after the war ends. “There’s difficulty in knowing what will happen afterward, who will take over from all the different groups on the ground now, whether it’s Salafists, Muslim Brothers”—the Islah Party—“or the national army. The coalition countries have differences among each other. Not all of them want the Islamist Islah Party to take over.”
Near the remnants of the mortar shell that killed Naji, I saw boys playing, seemingly unaware of the tragedy that had occurred days earlier. They belong to the very few families who linger on in the neighborhood that sees daily shelling. I asked one local if he thought he should leave the place. He answered with “Allah Kareem”—may God save me. It is an understandable sentiment; that might be the only hope.