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Welcome to Yemen, Where War Has Turned Cities Into a Living Hell

VICE News witnessed destruction on the streets of Sanaa, and spoke with Yemeni citizens struggling to survive amid shortages of water, fuel, and other basic supplies.
Photo par Alex Kay Potter

The fatigue of war is evident on the streets of Sanaa in the form of shattered glass that residents have given up on cleaning away. Airstrikes by a Saudi-led military coalition have hit residential areas of the Yemeni capital with such regularity that there is little point in replacing windows or clearing streets of the piles of debris that will only reappear and grow larger within days or hours.

Ramadan, a month of fasting during daylight hours that is also an opportunity to break bread with friends and family, began on June 18, but there is little excitement about the fast or the Eid festival that follows it. Food is scarce, money is tight, and there will be little of the customary gift giving that usually marks the end of the fast.


Khaled Al-Arishi drives a taxi to support his large family of 11. He is one of four brothers of working age, but the only one employed since the war began. Two of his other siblings lost their jobs in the first weeks of the bombing campaign. Fuel shortages shuttered the restaurant they both worked at, making Khaled the sole breadwinner. The airstrikes, which the Saudis have said target military installations, have forced the family to relocate twice since April, and Khaled had to borrow money for the cover the cost of moving. His mother sold gold she received decades ago as part of a dowry, her only financial safety net.

In debt and with his expenses rising, Khaled needs representatives from the two opposing sides in the conflict currently meeting for talks in Geneva, Switzerland to reach a peace deal. "We just want this war to end, I don't care what the solution is," Khaled said. "Israel can come govern for all I care."

Related: To Win Its War in Yemen, Saudi Arabia May Have to Split the Country in Two

A Yemeni family, displaced after their home was destroyed by a Saudi airstrike, pose for a portrait in the room of a school where they now live in Sanaa. (Photo by Alex Kay Potter)

A low bar was set even before the talks began when a delegation of Houthi rebels and loyalists of former president Ali Abdullah Saleh, who together control much of the western half of the country, refused to board a UN-provided flight from Sanaa to Switzerland that was scheduled to depart on June 13. They were eventually coaxed into attending, arriving a day late and missing out on a meeting that UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon had flown to Geneva to attend.


Ban, who has dealt with some of the most complex and intractable crises in the organization's history — including Iraq, Syria, Libya, and the recent Ebola epidemic — has a reputation for unflappability and cordiality, but even he remonstrated harshly with Yemen's warring factions earlier this week.

"Yemen's very existence hangs in the balance," Ban said. "While parties bicker, Yemen burns… We don't have a moment to lose."

Related: Yemen's Peace Talks Stay Dysfunctional, While Civilian Death Toll Keeps Rising

A young Yemeni girl helps her family gather water from a public tank in Sanaa on June 4, 2015. Water no longer flows into most homes, and families either have to order a water truck or gather from public spouts paid for by wealthy citizens. (Photo by Alex Kay Potter)

Ban's words have proven depressingly prophetic. On June 18, a fistfight broke out between supporters of Yemen's president-in-exile Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi and members of the Houthi-Saleh delegation during a press conference.

The brawl reportedly began when a woman in a pink hijab threw a shoe at Hamza al-Houthi, one of the Houthis' main representatives at the talks. Shoe throwing is a pointed insult in the Arab world. So too is calling someone a "dog," as the woman reportedly did, while also accusing the Houthis of "killing the children of south Yemen." Her remarks were not without good reason. Some of the fiercest fighting on the ground in Yemen is taking place in the south of the country, particularly in the southern port town of Aden. Houthi militias and military units loyal to Saleh have laid siege to the town in the face of stiff resistance from local fighters.

Related: Yemen: A Failed State


Yemeni men dig through the rubble of a collapsed home to free the bodies trapped underneath in the Old City of Sanaa on June 12. A suspected Saudi airstrike demolished four houses, one with a family of five inside. (Photo by Alex Kay Potter)

The Saudi-led aerial campaign started three months ago and is aimed at dislodging the Houthis — who the Saudis claim are a proxy for their great rival Iran — from the towns and cities they control, and restoring Hadi, a friend of Riyadh, to power. The Saudi campaign began when Hadi fled the country in March as the Houthi-Saleh military alliance closed in on Aden, his last refuge. He previously fled Sanaa in February after a month under house arrest. The Houthis have controlled the capital since seizing it with surprising ease in September of 2014.

As part of their Yemen campaign, the Saudis, supported by their close regional ally Egypt, have maintained a naval blockade of the country. Food and fuel supplies have slowed to a trickle in a country that is hugely dependent on imports. Water in Yemen is mainly produced using diesel-powered pumps, and is also now in short supply. As a result, prices of basic goods have soared across the country, if they are available at all.

Related: Greed, Brutality, and an Unraveling Coup in Yemen

Yemeni women pray over the body of Basim Sharqawy, killed by shrapnel from an airstrike while walking in the street in Sanaa. He had married only four months prior, and his wife is two months pregnant. (Photo by Alex Kay Potter)

When fuel was most scarce, just before a brief five-day ceasefire in May, Yemenis desperately resorted to filling generators with a concoction of rubbing alcohol and a bathroom cleaner whose main ingredient is hydrochloric acid. The short-term fix will eventually destroy the generators' motors, but there were few other options when gas reached $150 for just over five gallons (20 liters) on the black market. Lines at fuel stations meander for miles, with some queuing for days at a time.


Sanaa has been in more or less perpetual darkness since the bombing campaign began. A few fortunate areas receive up to an hour or even two of electricity each day. Other neighborhoods go a week or longer without a single hour of power. The darkness has only beautified the night sky over Sanaa's ancient and picturesque Old City, its gingerbread houses now covered with a blanket of stars shining brightly over the city. The missiles falling from warplanes and anti-aircraft fire from the Houthis are less charming.

Related: 'Aviation Issues' Nearly Derailed UN Talks About the Crisis in Yemen

Noqom Mountain is seen in the background of the Old City in Sanaa on May 23, 2015. A weapons cache inside Noqom exploded after an airstrike, causing missiles and fire to rain down on the surrounding neighborhood. (Photo by Alex Kay Potter)

For Umm Hamdi, a mother of five children under 13, the darkness is far from the worst consequence of being without electricity or fuel. To get water, she and her children must now fetch it from a mosque in her area, which provides free water for neighborhood residents who cannot afford it. Hamdi says life has been hard since a 2011 popular uprising turned into a conflict between rival factions within the Saleh regime. Things hardly improved under Hadi's abortive interim presidency. Now the family is at a breaking point.

'We are living in hell. Every day it seems life cannot get worse but then somehow it does.'

Hamdi's family lives near the presidential palace, a perpetual target for Saudi airstrikes. Since the start of the campaign she has gone to bed each night wearing her headscarf, she says. If the neighbors must dig through rubble for her body one day, she wants to be dressed modestly. She wants to maintain her dignity, even in the face of the privations of war.


"The past four years have been difficult, and the children are accustomed to going without certain things," the mother said. "But I will not let them go without clean clothes. Less food, no new clothes for Eid — we would rather eat rice everyday than live in filth."

Related: Rebel-held Defense Ministry Bombed in Yemen, While Population Remains in Crisis

A Yemeni man stands in shock at the sight of four collapsed homes after a suspected airstrike in the Old City of Sanaa on June 12, 2015. (Photo by Alex Kay Potter)

If life is bad in Sanaa, it is far worse in Aden, the southern port city where a combination of Saudi airstrikes and fierce block-by-block battles between the Houthis and the southern resistance fighters has left the city in ruins. Snipers haven't even spared the first responders trying to gather bodies in the city's smoldering heat. Two members of the Yemeni Red Crescent society have been killed in the city, with four killed in total throughout the country since the beginning of the war. "We are living in hell," says one Aden resident who was forced to flee to the city's outskirts after his home was reduced to a pile of rubble. "Every day it seems life cannot get worse but then somehow it does."

At the state-run Al Thawra hospital in Sanaa, the city's largest, doctors say they are running painfully low on a wide range of needed medical supplies, including anesthesia. Hospitals are rationing what is left to only the neediest patients as their beds fill beyond capacity.

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A stuffed animal among the rubble left by a Saudi airstrike that killed a family of six in Sanaa on June 13, 2015. (Photo by Alex Kay Potter)

"We distribute the medicine we have, but what we lack is up to the families of the injured to go out and search for among the city's pharmacies or the black market," says Abdullatif Abu Taleb, the hospital's assistant manager.

The situation is pushing Yemen toward total collapse, aid agencies say. The crisis is rapidly reaching the point where it is outweighed only by the dire situation in Syria, which recently entered its fifth year of civil war. Already the poorest country in the region before the war, around 80 percent of Yemenis — some 26 million people — now need humanitarian assistance of some kind. At least 2,500 have been killed, 11,000 injured, and 1 million more have been displaced from their homes, according to the UN.

"What is frightening is that it took Syria two or three years to get to the point Yemen is now at," says a senior aid worker. "But Yemen's war has only been going on for three months. The situation was so bad for the poor before that this has simply been the killing blow."

Follow Ahlam Mohsen, Peter Salisbury, and Alex Kay Potter on Twitter: @mohsenah87, @altoflacoblanco, and @alexkpotter

Related: Inside War-Torn Yemen: Sanaa Under Attack

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