Around 4:30 pm on a sunny April afternoon in 1937, the left-leaning, staunchly republican residents of the Basque town of Guernica were startled—then horrified—by the bombing campaign of the Nazi German Condor Legion, which struck them over and over again for two hours. The raid, in support of the fascist forces of General Francisco Franco, shocked the conscience of the world and inspired Pablo Picasso’s most renowned painting. I saw it most recently in Madrid this spring. What leaped out at me most powerfully was not the busy carnage, the startled stallion, or the awkward corpse. It was the woman off to the left holding a dead baby, inconsolable, engulfed in madness. What came to my mind was how coarsened our global conscience has become, given that hundreds of Guernicas are happening every month in Yemen—and not even Reddit users seem to be taking note.
Last Tuesday, a Saudi-led airstrike bombed al-Atera village in the province of Taiz south of Sanaa, striking a refugee settlement and killing 20 innocent civilians. The victims were internally displaced people, many from the same family. They included seven women and four children. You wonder if a surviving mother held her limp child the same way Picasso’s bereaved woman did.
Across northern Yemen, the Saudi-led coalition has repeatedly struck civilian facilities—schools, hospitals, and key bridges used for food transport. The airstrikes, to which the US military gives logistical and strategic aid, have turned old Sanaa, a UNESCO heritage site dotted with the country’s distinctive gingerbread houses, into rubble.
The area is held by the Helpers of God (Houthi) militia, which took over the capital in an ill-considered move in September 2014 and consolidated rule over much of the north and west of the country in the succeeding months, overthrowing and expelling President Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi. Houthis derive from the moderate Zaydi branch of Shiism and resent the increasing influence of Saudi hard-line Wahhabism. By March 2015, Saudi Arabia and its allies intervened on the side of Mansour Hadi and the portion of the army loyal to him, taking the southern port of Aden and bottling up the Houthis in what had been called “North Yemen” until 1991.
The Saudis maintain that the Houthis are backed by Iran, but they are mostly a local, nativist movement. Iranian support for them is minor. While the Saudis have been active mainly from the air, their ally, the United Arab Emirates, has organized elite fighting units of southern Yemenis from the separatist Hirak faction, who now overshadow the regular army in the south and east, which is loyal to Mansour Hadi.
The intensive bombardment around Taiz, Yemen’s third-largest city, came as part of the coalition’s attempt to take that city and the entire province from the Houthis. Taiz is now split between Houthi-controlled areas and neighborhoods in the hands of forces loyal to Mansour Hadi. Coalition sources claim that they have taken control of the road from the Houthi-held Red Sea port of Hodeida to Taiz, cutting off the major avenue of Houthi resupply to the city, which lies to the south of the capital of Sanaa. The United Arab Emirates now appears to control another important port, Mokha, which overlooks the entrance to the Red Sea at the Bab al-Mandab straits. Abu Dhabi is installing a long-term UAE garrison there. Some 10 percent of world trade goes through the Red Sea via the Suez Canal.