Advertisement
News by VICE

Under Fire: Inside the Siege of Aden

VICE News got rare access into the southern Yemen port of Aden — under three-month siege from Houthi rebels that is choking all supply routes into the city and exacerbating a deep humanitarian crisis.

by Medyan Dairieh
Jul 31 2015, 12:00pm

Photo par VICE News

"They're firing at us. The Houthis are firing at us." We squatted on deck as rockets arced across the sea. It was late June, around 7am, and I was on a boat to Aden. 

The Yemeni city has been besieged by Houthi rebels since March, and subjected to a Saudi coalition-imposed sea blockade. So it is difficult to access. The Qatari aid shipment I was traveling on had made a pact with the Houthis to allow for safe passage, but they seemed to have abandoned the arrangement. 

The small shipment of supplies included medicine, surgical equipment, food, and oil for cooking. There were doctors and a local government official on board. Nobody was armed. The small crew spoke excitedly and debated turning back to Djibouti. After some deliberation, however, we transferred onto a smaller boat to get into port.

Photo by Medyan Dairieh

I was traveling to Aden to witness the effects of a three-month siege that was choking all supply routes into the city. Its residents are under attack from Houthi rebels who oppose exiled President Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi's government, which they drove from the capital Sanaa in February. The Houthis are attempting to make gains in the strategically valuable port in the south of Yemen. 

Airstrikes from a Saudi-led coalition — which has the support of the UK and US — as well as the arrival of reinforcements, have this week helped the self-designated Southern Resistance movement in the city recover lost ground from the Houthis, and reopen aid corridors.

The city is still facing a humanitarian crisis, however, brought on by four months of fierce fighting and the Houthis' stranglehold on the city's supply chains. 

Watch the VICE News documentary, The Siege of Aden here:

During my week in the port it became clear that Aden's residents are in urgent need of basic supplies. Food is scarce, with no rice, milk, or flour for bread. Trash is piling up in the streets, there are no toilets, and Dengue fever is rife. One government official told me that every day between 20 to 40 people die from the spread of illness. 

A plume of thick black smoke rising over the city heralded our arrival. It was an oil refinery, containing thousands of tons of fuel, that had been hit by a Houthi rocket. 

Related: The Rise of the Islamic State in Yemen

We were told it contained enough oil to support up to 7,000 families. "We have to let it burn out," Salem Al Ghadi, the refinery's head of security told VICE News, however. It is likely to burn for weeks, he said.

I was last in Aden a year ago. There were shops, electricity, internet, and a competent infrastructure. At night people congregated in the streets and sat outside cafes as if it was a European city.

Now, it has completely changed and shots ring out at all hours of the day. The city is full of bombed out, crumbling buildings, and none of the doctors working in the hospitals have been paid for months. The schools have become makeshift refugee camps.

Photo by Medyan Dairieh

"People are living in extremely difficult conditions due to the lack of essential services — lack of sanitation, food, and hygiene." Mahmood Ali Sadi, a local government official told me. "Everyday there are 20 to 40 new martyrs because of the spread of illness."

The people I met mostly said they wanted peace, safety, and stability — but they are willing to fight for it. There is not a significant military presence inside the city, but militias are organising and arming themselves to fight the Houthis.

Related: Inside War-Torn Yemen: Sanaa Under Attack

"The defenders of the city are university students, architects, writers, businessmen, and normal people," Sadi added. "We don't have an army with which to fight against the occupiers of our land."

Indiscriminate shelling attacks on homes and civilians have hardened the population, and with the help of the Saudi-led coalition airstrikes, they have been able to resist a Houthi takeover.

Photo by Medyan Dairieh

"The resistance in Aden and the rest of the southern areas would not have held for the past three months were it not for the people and their support," said Ali Saeed Al Ahmadi, a spokesman for the Southern Resistance movement. "Everyone agrees that these criminals can't be accepted and there is no way to coexist with them in any way."

Political parties across the spectrum had united to fight the Houthis, he added. The fierce resolve of the Southern Resistance movement may deepen divisions between the north and south, however. The city's militants are working with supporters of exiled President Hadi to drive out the Houthis, but many of them are southern separatists who oppose Hadi and want a split with the north of the country.

"If southern people wanted disengagement or separation or independence that is their guaranteed right," said Ahmadi. "It's time the people get back their right of self-determination and they will choose the formula they want."

As told to Ben Bryant 

Follow Ben Bryant on Twitter: @benbryant