ADEN, Yemen – 24 April 2018: The war is still going on, and Houthi militia are still targeting Yemen; its people, its infrastructure, and its integrity. The Yemeni people and the Arab Coalition Forces are clashing militarily, and we wanted to be at the center of the war; we wanted to monitor the reality and the humanitarian situation caused by the Houthi crimes. Egypt Today was the first English-Egyptian newspaper to break through the Kingdom of Fear; we wanted to experience the realities faced by the Yemeni people. We embarked on a 30-day trip that began in Yemen and ended in Riyadh.
According to official and international statistics, as per the United Nations Humanitarian Needs Report for the year, the number of people needing assistance reached 22.2 million Yemenis. The number of displaced people in the country reached 3.44 million, while the number of war casualties was 43,000 among which 13,389 were killed and 30,000 were wounded during the period from January 2015 to February 2018. Of these numbers, 5,212 were children who died or were injured, according to statistics of the Yemeni Ministry of Human Rights.
Making the arrangements was not easy and the preparation took more than five months, working amongst contacts and procedures. The journey was not simply for a day or two, and was not to just one or two places. The investigation took us through five Yemeni governorates, initially moving through the liberated governorates of Aden, Lahj and Marib, and leading to the front of Nahm, the first directorate of the province of Sana’a under the control of the Houthis, and which is currently subjected to clashes with the Coalition Forces.
I have not forgotten the fear and anxiety that besieges the Yemeni people, and me amongst them. The mission is in a highly unstable country, ravaged by warfare, and its officials and citizens are trying hard to bring the country back to life. We came to report how the Houthis transformed people's lives into a daily tragedy; bombing, indiscriminate killing, forced disappearances and mines are what the Yemeni people have been resisting for many years.
We also came to examine the role of the Coalition in restoring hope to Yemenis through its military and humanitarian support. We conducted a series of interviews with politicians and officials in Yemen and Riyadh to highlight the reality of the situation in Yemen, in addition to carrying out investigations that reveal the effects of the war on various sectors of life.
We listened to the testimonies of those who suffered Houthi crimes in Aden, monitored the catastrophic situation in besieged Taiz, and documented victims’ stories in the face of indiscriminate bombing across the five governorates. We also met with residents of the camps of Maarib, the displaced from Sanaa and Zamar, and others in areas under the control of Houthi militia.
We monitored the tragedy of an Arab country that turned into a Kingdom of Fear. We listened to human stories from the heart of hospitals and refugee camps. We conducted extensive investigations in the streets of Yemen, which revealed the secrets of business recruitment among the Houthi militia. We also obtained documents that prove the Houthi plan to spread Shiite ideology, allow the Faqih to rule and to change the curriculum in Yemen. Many people refused to speak, share their names or faces, in fear of brutal reprisals from Houthi militiamen.
Aden, the economic capital and the Eye of Yemen as Yemenis like to describe their city, is the site of many significant historical events, and was where our journey began. The city, which sits on the Gulf of Aden coast, boasts a tremendous landscape which brings the sea and mountains together.
Aden has become a target for Houthi militants since March 2015, and although war has left its mark on its every inch, one feels the warmth of the streets in its eight districts. However, one also feels the city's attempts to recover and advance again following its liberation in July 2015, and its declaration as the interim capital of the internationally recognised government.
From the first moment of our arrival at Aden airport, the Yemeni people were filled with love and welcome. Being Egyptian helped to open difficult doors and unlocked the hearts of the people, facilitating our mission inside Yemen. We found a delegation from the Presidential Palace welcoming us and welcoming the first Egyptian newspaper to the heart of the events taking place in the country.
A Southern Resistance fighter walks past a damaged part of the international airport of Yemen's southern port city of Aden July 24, 2015. REUTERS/Faisal Al Nasser
The legitimate government, in cooperation with the Coalition Forces, has rehabilitated the airport following attempts to destroy it. Inspection procedures continue in the area surrounding the airport, Khor Maksar. There are some buildings that still bear the effects of the war on their walls, while some shops remain in business, selling wood or furniture. On the road security guards stand in wait, but they do not wear uniforms, which often makes it difficult for passers-by to verify their nature and intentions. A absence of security and comfort prevails
Resistance is carved on the walls
"We will stand firm against terrorism": Expressions that draw praise and criticism alike are spread across banners all the way to the city. Pictures and signs of the martyrs of the Houthi shells, or pictures of those they kidnapped in the context of their violations of Yemen are also plastered across walls of buildings-turned-paintings, with words condemning Houthi terrorism, documenting the determination of the Yemenis to win the war.
“No retreat and no escape until the implementation of the decision": It is no different in the areas of Crater and Khor, where the broken walls of the University of Aden are marked with the same kind of additions, befitting the university and the enthusiasm of its youth.
The fingerprints of the war on the faces of Yemenis
Uncle Hasan drew our attention by sitting on the roadside. I went to him and knew that he was one of the displaced from Al Hadida. He said: "All Coalition Forces are standing with us and we thank them, without you our country would have been lost."
"I was driven to Aden two weeks ago after my family and I spent a period of time in the hands of the Houthis," he said. “The Houthi rebels have raged violently and have taken children and young people from the streets for recruitment. They use them as human shields in the war, and those trying to escape from the front are killed. That's why I fled with my children to Aden.”
“We are living in hunger and deprivation and sickness, and the infants are not able to find milk,” Uncle Hassan further explained. “The Houthis are scattered in the streets and hide disguised as sellers to watch people and the weapons in the streets; snipers are positioned on the rooftops of the 7th of July area. They are also stealing relief and aid from the people and leaving them to starve, especially in the countryside. Ein Zebib doesn't have food or work, and the prices of the goods in the shops have doubled. A kilo of rice now costs 500 riyals instead of 300, and liter of oil now costs 800 riyals, and in the end I say to Houthis: ‘What you're doing is no good for Islam or Muslims.’”
Scenes of Houthi instigated destruction and subversion cannot be unseen for many in areas of Aden, notably in: Kreiter, Mualla, Tawahi, Khor Maksar, Mansoura, Dar Saad and Al Bureijah. In each of these areas we found widespread destruction, and countless homeowners were forced to migrate internally or externally with their families.
In the Khor Maksar district we were stopped by the destroyed buildings; not one house or family was without a martyr or a wounded member, damaged by the war that hit the doors of Yemen with little notice. The invasion of Khor Maksar, the most ferocious of the Houthi rebels’ endeavors, killed more than 122 people and left 724 injured between March and July 2015, according to statistics from the Yemeni Ministry of Human Rights.
We found Mohammed al-Yaqtini, a resident of the area sitting by a tree in front of one of the destroyed buildings.“The war started from here, the Houthi missiles hit us, the houses were bombed and many people were martyred. The houses were used as military barracks, forcing people to migrate to rural areas and places inside Aden. The situation may be calmer in places like Mansoura, leaving homes that were targeted indiscriminately by snipers, or destroyed by missiles fired by Houthi rebels without mercy.”
A destroyed car is seen on a street of the al-Mansoura neighbourhood of Yemen's southern port city of Aden March 13, 2016. REUTERS/Fawaz Salman
"We were trapped and the Houthis did not allow us to move," he said. "There are buildings that were burned to the ground, and the craters of Makassar, Al-Taha, Arish and Kretter were the areas most war-torn." On June 24, we heard two explosions in the university housing and in Al-Ezabiya neighborhood, where more than 40 people were killed and wounded.
"Aden has begun to take its first steps towards improvement, especially in terms of repairing electricity, road, and other key infrastructure. The security condition is also improving, but the city still needs further development, especially in terms of the economy," he concluded.
Khor crushing the most ferocious sweep
Mahdi Mohammad saw several members of his family killed and two injured. Mohammad was one of the people who witnessed the war from the beginning - since the very first missile that struck Maasheq Palace. The second missile, fired on March 25, marked the Houthis invasion of various regions of Aden. Bereavement came with the first wave of indiscriminate shelling of the population on March 25, 2015, in Al Saada district in Khor Maksar. The first shell killed 17 youngsters that were sitting on the street. Buildings continued to fall ever since.
"Terror was dominating everything and everyone, and the children were terrified. Shops selling the daily needs of the citizens closed. Now the shops are back, though limited, but at least they are doing better than they were during the fighting," Mohammad explained.
In Khor Maksar, we found a huge burned building, followed by several other destroyed buildings. When we asked around, we learned that it was a huge mall, the Mall of Arabia, and that it was hit by a Houthi missile.
This mall was considered the second largest after the Aden compound, and was hit in 2015 when it had only been established for one year. It was the prime destination for many and generated millions of riyals, and was attached to a hotel, but the strike also managed to hit a number of cars along with two restaurants in the vicinity of the mall.
“We were beaten and bombed from July 14 to 16, 2015. It was the third day of Eid al-Fitr and people were chanting slogans such as ‘Death to America .. Death to Israel’. Around 100 were killed and many were wounded, including many women and children, according to the estimates from the Ministry of Human Rights in Yemen,” a member of the popular resistance in Aden said. He has witnessed the most egregious massacres, the one of Dar Saad. “We were trying to help the children, but the Houthi rebels were beating anyone trying to aid the injured,” he explained.
Al-Rowaie said: "We were two months ahead of them, hearing about the massacre of Al-Tawahi, which took place in May. They were hit by the mortar. They tried to flee from the Tawahi area after the Houthi rebels entered, but they spotted them escaping by boat from the port of Al-Tawahi and killed dozens of families including women, children and old people."
The bombing in the month of Ramadan
“From Dar Saad to Al Mansoura area we monitored many of the violations and crimes committed against the Yemeni people,” said Zandi Mohammad, a resident in the region. "During the bombardment over Ramadan in 2015, at first they fired four shells, and a day later two more. A lot of poor people died, about 30 died and 40 wounded.”
“The sight of the children and women was sad, especially when a child and his mother were martyred together. It made us hate the Houthi rebels more and more. We will fight them and many of us have come to the popular resistance.”
From the Brega region of Aden, Amran Mohammed, a Brega citizen, said: “In the period leading up to the liberation of Aden on July 17, 2015, the Houthi rebels intensified their strikes, firing Katyusha rockets on the districts of Brega in Salaheddine, Kubgain, Ghadir, Brega, Tiger Code, and Bir Ahmed.”
Yemeni human rights activist Hammoud al-Deeb, president of the Yemeni Center for Human Rights and Development, asserts that the same methodical technique was used two months after the Aden incident on the first day of Eid al-Adha on September 24, 2015. The Houthi rebels fired a Katyusha rocket on the livestock market in Tahrir Street in the center of the city of Taiz in conjunction with intense artillery shelling that targeted several residential neighborhoods adjacent to the market, resulting in nine deaths and injuring 35, all of them civilians and five of them being children, according to statistics from the Center.
The children of Yemen are the fuel of the war and its real heroes. In every region, the small, slender bodies bear the hallmarks of violations against humanity as an eyewitness to history on what human wars are capable of. These include Ammar Jassem, a boy not yet 7-years-old, who went to play with his friends on the night of Eid al-Fitr. He asked his father to prepare the Eid gift. "Ammar, when you come back,” his father replied.
Ammar told us: "Talaat (one of his friends) was playing beside the house and I was with several other sons of the neighbors, including Ahmed, Ghassan, Hussein and Mohammad.” He was silent for a short while, as though his innocence was wrestling with the scenes in his memories, and then continued: “A missile killed my friends. I woke up in hospital and I asked about my friends. I was told they had died. I know that the Houthi rebels killed them.”
His father continued to say: "On the last day of Ramadan, on the eve of Eid al-Fitr before Maghrib, Ammar asked me to come out and take some clothes in a nearby yard. They (the children) were happy with Eid. I was waiting for him. Then suddenly I saw the streets upside down. I did not reach the place. The people covered the bodies of eight children. My son and three of them were on the brink between life and death. One of them was blind. I ran to the hospital. They told me the right leg must be amputated and that his other one had shrapnel wound. The real problem came when he woke up and we didn't know how to tell him about his leg.”
I asked Ammar about his wish, and he answered with determination, looking older than his age: "To take revenge from the Houthis because I will not be able to play again."
Violations are continuously displayed
Violations in Aden varied, with killings, injuries, arrests, enforced disappearances and torture widespread. The population was regularly targeted with mortars, Katyusha missiles and mines. The total number of establishments hit is 17,930 so far, enforced disappearances and arrests so far amount to 17,899 cases; even the humanitarian work of the Yemeni people was subjected to violations. The Higher Relief Committee monitored the prevention of the entry of 65 relief vessels and 615 trucks, including the bombing of four trucks, the detention of 13,815 relief baskets, looting and trading on the black market.
Minister of Human Rights Dr. Mohammed Askar, in Yemen, told us that the humanitarian situation in the country in general was not good before the war. Around 60 percent of Yemenis were below the poverty line. After the war, the humanitarian situation deteriorated dramatically. The deterioration reached a peak in 2015. That year, the Houthis sought to turn schools and hospitals into operation centers and military barracks, to make them military targets for coalition fighter jets, subsequently accusing them of targeting the population.
The minister referred to the formation of several committees from the Yemeni side competent in handling human rights violations. For instance, there’s the Committee for Compensation of those affected by these strikes, and the National Commission to investigate allegations of human rights violations. There were investigations conducted regarding 17,000 complaints, of which 3,000 were proven. President Abed Rabbo ordered their transfer to the prosecution and then the judiciary. “We also have a team of senior experts in the Human Rights Council, which was established by Decree No. 36/31 of 2017, whose mission is to verify the human rights situation in the country and investigate the violations. Moreover, recently a headquarters of the Ministry of Human Rights was established in Aden to receive complaints from citizens and offer awareness of international law of all human rights instruments to stand against any violations of any party against civilians,” Askar said.
Abdul Aziz al-Maflehi, the former governor of Aden and advisor to the Yemeni president, assures that since the armed uprising by the Houthi rebels and al-Damar militias, every sector in the province has been attacked. The rebels committed war crimes and focused on destroying the infrastructure, especially schools, colleges and the University of Aden, and used many as war stations and shelters. On the other hand, Houthi rebels fired Katyushas on June 17 and 19, 2015, targeting the Aden oil refinery and the Museum of Aden. They destroyed 153 schools, and the number of students who had to cut their education short due to the war amounted to 17,582 in primary schools and in 27,290 in secondary schools, Maflehi stated.
According to the Yemeni Coalition for Monitoring Human Rights Violations, the war in Aden has left 500,000 people displaced and pushed almost 200 into hiding.
Shelling of the University of Aden
Dr. Khodair Sour, head of the University of Aden, explained that the university was hit by a Houthi rebel bombardment in June 2015. The headquarters included seven educational centers for doctoral and master's students, in addition to administrative buildings. He noted that no one had been spared from the shelling, but that the university will be restored and the reconstruction of the destroyed buildings will be carried out this year.
University of Aden Campus, Yemen - Photo courtesy of University's website
From inside the university, Hussain al-Mahmoudi said to Egypt Today: "The Houthis bombed the engineering building. I lost my colleague Ammar and another colleague who was in education. We were preparing to graduate. The truth is that we have lived through horrific moments. We stopped studying at the university and fled from Khor Maksar because the attack was so severe. Thank God, life has returned to what it was before the war.”
Abd al-Fattah Farid, a resident of the university area and an eyewitness to the events, described the bombing of the university as "horrific". He explained that the Houthis used it as military barracks, a storage place for weapons and a platform for firing rockets into other areas. Studying stopped and the students turned into heroes of popular resistance.
The Tragedy of Tawahy
"The sea swallowed 20 families in Tawahy in moments, and the bodies were not found.” This phrase was repeated from the people of Aden, whom I met and drove with to the Directorate of Tawahy together to monitor the scene of the tragic event closely.
Inside the port we met with Adel Harbi, one of the workers in the Department of Tourist Guidance and a witness to the incident. He said that after a Houthi sniper killed the commander of the fourth military zone on Nasser Hadi, they moved from al-Ma'ala to Tawahy. Since the entry of the Houthis, the people began to gather every day in groups. The boats take them to Brega and Mansoura to escape.
A structural building and pier of the city of Aden, Oct. 20, 2010 - Wikimedia/T3n60
On Wednesday, May 6, at 10 a.m., they struck the port from the Dikka al-Bakari area, attacking it with four mortar shells. The first one struck the port, and people were injured by shrapnel and others drowned on the boat that was stranded on the beach. Another three struck the sea while families were rushing to the boats with their children, leaving dozens stranded and hopeless.
Harbi continued to discuss the war scenes: “We were trying to save them and take them to the military hospital of Basheib. Their clothes were soaked in blood. After that, we worked for more than five days to remove the bodies from the bottom of the sea. The Houthi rebels are very devious. Aden was full of beautiful hotels, but they ruined it all. We are steadfast and confident in the legitimate government and coalition. We prefer chasing Houthi rebels until the last moment in our lives; we will get them out from Sana'a and all of Yemen will return to us.”
Smiling while resisting
Despite all the manifestations of destruction and signs of sabotage from Houthi rebels in Aden, one can still feel the attempts to revive the country and return life to normal. We went to the market in Mansoura, and we spotted shoe shops, toiletries, clothing, hardware and electrical tools. Nearby there were some restaurants, and some of the international chains such as Baskin Robbins that are still visited by customers from several places, although high prices reduce the purchasing power of the population.
We also moved to the "People's Crater" market or the "Old City" market, the most famous and most important Aden market, located in the center of the city, otherwise known as Old Aden. Although it still bears traces of the destruction of the war, it was still breathing. There we met with Muhammad Zen, the keeper of an antique estate, in order to familiarize us with the details of the area and the market. He told us: “When the Houthis entered they attacked with tanks and cannons. The snipers were above the mountains that are adjacent to us, and they hit several malls in the market. We hope the situation is getting better. I say to the Houthi rebels: ‘Our Lord will destroy you’.”
In the area of Sira we found another form of resistance to the war, the children at the gates of amusement parks were carrying colored balloons. We approached them to know their story and how they defeated the with a smile.
RUBBLE- A Houthi militant walks through a government compound following Saudi-led air strikes, in the northwestern city of Amran in July 2015. REUTERS/Khaled Abdullah
Mousa al-Rabie and Abdullah Zuhair and Ahmed al-Labni suffered during their escape from Sanaa. "The Houthis fired at our houses, and the youth of the resistance faced them. Without weapons, but not afraid of them; we hate them because they destroyed our country," said the 13-year-old. The six-year-old Mousa said: “I hope to wipe out the Houthis and bring back our country.”
As for Ahmad, he says that he comes from time to time to the playground often with his friends. He does not care about what the Houthi rebels do, but what he knows is that he left his city in Sana'a and came without his toys.
"Since the liberation of Aden, the government has faced several challenges in the provision of basic services, especially after the destruction of the infrastructure due to war and facilities, particularly electricity networks, and providing cash to pay employees' salaries," said Mohamed Nasr Shazly, deputy governor of Aden. The establishment of security and stability is a challenge, since Houthi rebels and extremists are trying to stir unrest and destabilize Aden.
The Department of Security of Aden recently announced the arrest of a team of photographers from the Islamic State. They had high-tech photography equipment in their possession, including cameras, lenses and aerial photography drones. Inside a base used by an Islamic State cell in Aden, weapons, explosives and photographic equipment was found, which was used to record attacks.
In February, the Islamic State conducted a double suicide attack on the headquarters of the government's anti-terrorism forces in Aden, killing 12 people, including a woman and her three children.
In the next episode we monitor:
Houthi rebels’ violations of hospitals and the suffering of patients. Victims tell stories of coming back from the dead.