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Hiding in sewers and other aspects of daily life in Yemen

A Yemeni youth comforts his mother as they grieve over the death of his brother who was killed during clashes between fighters from the Popular Resistance Committees and Shiite Huthi rebels, on September 21, 2015
Ahmad al-Basha (AFP/File)
Kids are the main victims. The ‘safe zones’ built cannot protect them from the horrors, residents tell i24news

“I need hope,” retweeted Nisma Alozebi on Twitter, from her home in Aden, during a recent lull in the fighting in Yemen.

The daily bombardments on the southern port city by the Saudi-led anti-rebel coalition, as well as by the Huthi rebels themselves have “destroyed so many things, especially in my neighborhood,” she tells i24news in several on-again, off-again interviews.

Alozebi, a civil engineering student, and others in Yemen spoke to i24news about daily life in the midst of a five-month civil war via intermittent interviews conducted through telephone and Whatsapp, a text messaging application and Skype.

“Our everyday life? We have no bomb shelters, no sirens ahead of airstrikes. We hide in our homes, in our basements, in sewers,” says Sanaa resident Hisham al-Omeisy.

Mohammed Huwais/AFP

The war has led to the deaths of at least 4,900 Yemenis, hundreds of them non-combatants. But the deaths of civilians are rarely acknowledged by the Saudi-led coalition. As coalition spokesman Brig.Gen.Ahmed Asiri bluntly responded: “Why would we acknowledge something that doesn’t exist?” after he was asked by journalists whether the airstrikes had killed noncombatants.

The nine-nation Saudi-led coalition was formed in March to dislodge the Iranian-backed Huthis and restore the Saudi-backed government they had ousted. But do the Yemenis themselves support the coalition and are they truly being held hostage by the Huthis, as the Saudis claim?

Nisma Alozebi

All-Omeisy told i24news that the residents of the capital, which the coalition says it wants to liberate from the Huthis, are themselves mainly Huthis. “So when the Saudis say they want to liberate Sanaa from the Huthis, they want to eliminate Sanaa from itself.”

The Huthis, he says, came into Sanaa “on a wave of discontent,” and when they took control of the capital, the residents said “let’s see what they can do for us.” But, he adds, the hope that the Huthis would improve the quality of life quickly dissipated. “It’s only gotten worse. There’s no electricity, no gas, barely any fuel to pump our water and we are quickly running out of food.”

Nisma Alozebi

The people of Sanaa are also “choking” on the blockade imposed on Yemen by Saudi Arabia, al-Omeisy says. The hospitals in the capital are out of life-saving medication and have no fuel to run their backup generators. The foreigners who used to work as doctors and nurses have fled.

‘They went to look for wounded fighters to kill’

In Aden, says Alozebi, the Huthis tried to shut down hospitals when they took control of the town, including the AlJomhoria Hospital in the Khormaksar neighborhood where her friend Salwa was working as a volunteer nurse. “On the day the Huthi militia took control of Khormaksar, they entered the hospital kicking everyone out and went looking for wounded local fighters to kill,” she said.

Salwa is one of many Adeni women who have volunteered to cover the lack of healthcare workers in the city. “They stay for days, living in the hospitals, leaving their families and loved ones at home, so they can be there to help the wounded,” she said.

The women are not only helping in the hospitals, they are also cooking meals for those fighting, as well as helping to clean up the city.

Nisma Alozebi

“My aunt cooked every morning extra meals for the locals fighting against the Huthis, although we didn’t have much to give but she was determined to give as much as she could,” Alozebi said.

‘Children wake screaming from nightmares’

In Sanaa, the fighting has just accentuated the rule of the tribal culture with its attendant violence. “I was given a gun at 12 and a machine gun at 16, by my father, who is more Western than most,” al-Omeisy explained.

The children are the main victims of the war. The war has closed all schools in the country.

Those above the age of 15 are fighting, the rest stay at home with their mothers, al-Omeisy said.

They have seen homes, orphanages, stadiums, hospitals and other civilian infrastructure targeted by both sides.

Mark Kaye, the Interim Advocacy and Communications Director and Emergency Response Personnel for Save the Children in Yemen, echoed al-Omeisy’s accusations. “Save the Children is seeing the indiscriminate nature of the war. Civilian infrastructure is being destroyed by both sides, with schools, hospitals and even water treatment plants being targeted,” he told i24news.

At least 10 million children rely on foreign humanitarian assistance to survive. Malnutrition rates have gone up 150%, and as much as 300% in some places, he said.

“Children aren’t eating enough and are therefore getting sick. But there are no health clinic to help them, 25% of all doctors before the crisis were foreign, and now they have all left,” he said.

Save The Children

The psychological impact the fighting has had on the children is immense. “Children have spent the last five months witnessing bombings, seeing their homes destroyed and losing their friends and family. We are seeing children become more introverted, more nervous, they look up towards the sky in silence whenever they hear a sound like a plane.” Teenagers have begun wetting their beds. Some wake in the middle of the night screaming from nightmares.

Save the Children runs a number of “Child Safe Zones”, Kaye told i24news, to which children can escape the horrors of the war, where they can play soccer and get psycho-social care from volunteers.

Mohammed Awadh/Save the Children

‘Vindictive Saudis are destroying our heritage’

And everyday life continues, he said, laughing as he recalled hearing explosions and realizing that it was just fireworks for a wedding in the neighborhood. “You just get on with life. People just hope for the best, it is out of our hands so we just pray.”

Save the Children/Mohammed Awadh

It is not only the civilian infrastructure seemingly being targeted by the Saudis and the Huthis. So are Yemen’s heritage sites, of which they are extremely proud. In fact, while Saudi Arabia had been betting on the Yemeni people turning against the Huthis, many are actually turning against the Saudis. Saudi Arabia is “being vindictive, destroying our culture and heritage. They are worse than the Huthis,” says al-Omeisy.

And what about leaving? “Those who could afford it have already left,” al-Omeisy said. The only exit from Yemen is via Amman, Jordan, and that can cost a family over $5000. But 70% of Yemenis are unemployed, unable to afford the cost.

For Alozebi and the other residents of Aden, “there is a huge amount of destruction, but it has made people more determined than ever to bring Aden back to how it used to be.”

Anna Ahronheim is a journalist at i24news. She tweets @aahronheim

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