The Suffering Underclass of War-Torn Yemen

The Suffering Underclass of War-Torn Yemen

The Suffering Underclass of War-Torn Yemen

“I feel the pain of my homeland as they do,” he said. “There’s no difference between us and them. Our only difference is the color of our skin.”


Last week, President Biden pledged to end United States support for the Saudi-led war in Yemen. He also reversed a Trump-era terrorist designation of an Iran-allied rebel group known as the Houthis whom the Saudis are fighting. Both moves were heralded by human rights groups as a good first start in trying to bring peace to this shattered country, which is in its sixth year of war.

Much more, however, needs to be done in order to end the violence and the suffering that has come with it: More than 233,000 people have died as a result of the war; some 16 million Yemenis currently live in situations that are food insecure; and some parts of the country are slipping into famine, the United Nations recently warned.

Merely ending US involvement cannot bring peace to Yemen; active efforts at peace building are required. On a recent trip to the country, I saw a country more divided than ever, with at least five armed groups (and a plethora of local militias) vying for control of territory.

The war has exacerbated and laid bare ethnic, religious, and infrastructural problems that were allowed to develop under the reign of Ali Abdullah Saleh, a strongman whom the United States backed first because of his anti-communist stance and then because of his pledges to fight Al Qaeda and other Islamist groups. If any progress is to be made, it will involve engaging all the concerned parties, including some of the very poorest in society, in order to create a country where the marginalized are not ignored and grievances are not allowed to fester until they result in bloodshed.

The countries that have sponsored the war have an obligation to help Yemen emerge from the mess of violence it has been plunged into. Since the bombing of Yemen began six years ago, the United States has logistically supported the Saudi-led coalition’s attempt to beat back the Houthis and refueled coalition planes. The United States has also sold more than $60 billion worth of weapons to Saudi Arabia, even as it was clear from the very early days of the war that the Saudi air force’s bombing runs were hitting not just military targets but civilian ones too: factories, wells, schools, hospitals, homes.

As the war began, in 2015, Wadi al-Qadim, a ramshackle suburb of the central city of Ta’iz, became a battleground. Residents began to flee as Houthi rockets fell among their homes, and Saudi ordnance destroyed their houses. The city was brutally divided between an agglomeration of militias, coalition-backed forces, and the rebels. As one of the head men in the area used to say: War affects everyone, not just soldiers.

“There was an air force camp nearby,” Bayan Fouad, a car-washer in his 30s from Wadi al-Qadim told me. The camp had been seized by the Houthis in early 2015 and the coalition was trying to dislodge them. “When the planes came and bombed the camp, they hit our village.”

Fouad estimated that in one strike, about a hundred people from the area had been killed when bombs fell among their homes, but as with many mass-casualty events in Yemen, an exact number was difficult to determine. The resources (medical, governmental) frequently aren’t there to count the dead.

The people of the suburb belonged to the Muhamasheen, a sort of undercaste of Yemenis who, if they are employed, do the most menial of jobs—collecting scrap metal, street sweeping, and cleaning cars. Unlike other Yemenis, who are affiliated with tribes who can support them in times of trouble, Muhamasheen (whose name means “the marginalized”) are outside of the tribal order.

Muhamasheen are looked down upon by other people in the country—they are also referred to as al-Akhdam (the servants)—and seen as dirty. This is reinforced by the murky perception that they are the descendants of ancient Ethiopian occupiers of Yemen, and because many of them have darker skin than other Yemeni Arabs. Many of the internally displaced and the starving in the country belong to this group.

Activists among the Muhamasheen say that the discrimination dates to their enslavement in the 12th century. Even though social castes and slavery were formally abolished in the 1960s, the Muhamasheen often remain trapped in the strictures of a tribal system where justice often occurs through informal channels. A popular saying runs, “Don’t eat with the Akhdam because worms come out of their plates.”

The Muhamasheen settlement at Wadi al-Qadim was typical of the minority’s neighborhoods across the country: Shacks and lean-tos cleaved to the periphery of a large city. Even so, “life was like heaven,” according to Aisha, a grandmother who lived in the area at the time. “Yes, we were scavengers, but at least we had steady salaries.”

After the Saudi strike that Bayan Fouad described, the Muhamasheen of Wadi al-Qadim decided to flee south, walking and hitching rides through curving mountain valleys. Along the way, front lines shifted between militias and rebel groups.

After about 40 miles, they arrived at the town of at-Turba, which had become choked with refugees fleeing the fighting to the north. Some 8,000 families (in Yemen, the average family is around seven people) had been displaced to Turba. An estimated 4 million people are internally displaced across Yemen at the moment because of the war.

In Turba, the residents of Wadi al-Qadim settled at the al-Fajr al-Gdeed school, a complex of three squat cinderblock and concrete structures that serves 1,200 students. Now, 57 families live in the school, and the students only have 11 classrooms to study in. Teachers across Yemen lament the fate of education during the war. “The future of Yemen is being lost,” a professor from Ta’iz recently told me.

The al-Fajr school has become a camp for internally displaced people, supported by the United Nations’s International Organization of Migration, but resources are scarce, and families can barely afford to support themselves.

Residents there complained about the paucity of warm blankets for Turba’s cold evenings, the lack of electricity, and the shoddy structures that those who live outside the classrooms have to live in. After six years of war, Yemen is heavily reliant on aid from other countries, and because of a shortfall in humanitarian funding in 2020 from Gulf countries and aid slashing by the Trump administration, only 50 percent of the UN’s programs in Yemen are funded.

Yemen’s problems are compounded by rampant currency inflation, which has made food vastly more expensive. When I visited the al-Fajr school last December, I was told time and time again that people cannot afford to support themselves and that cash handouts were not adequate to feed their families. I heard that, a day before I visited, two children had been rushed to the hospital with severe acute malnutrition, a condition that can affect a child’s development for the rest of his, her, or their life.

While I was at the school, I was approached by Amani Abdulsalam, a 23-year-old mother. She held out a tin of powdered infant formula and said, “Each one of these costs about five dollars—that’s two weeks work at least.” She entered the tent that she lives in behind one of the school buildings and brought out her 1-month-old daughter, whom she had swaddled in a dirty fur comforter. The hot air swarmed with flies and stunk of rotting excrement. “She hasn’t opened her eyes yet, not for a month,” she said. “Babies need milk.”

The Muhamasheen minority number between 500,000 and 3.5 million (exact figures, as often is the case in Yemen, are hard to come by). When they are displaced, they are particularly at risk. Rania Rajji, an academic who has studied the Muhamasheen and authored a 2016 report on the group, told me that the war had exposed the vulnerabilities of the Yemeni system. “Knowing how dire the humanitarian situation is in Yemen, how severely the conflict has affected the general population, then naturally it will disproportionately affect people who are already vulnerable on a socioeconomic level,” she said.

The Muhamasheen “are vulnerable by not knowing they are vulnerable,” Rajji said. “They are not allowed to marry outside of their caste. They live in slums, and they are not integrated in the main cities.”

Before the war, some progress was being made toward integrating the Muhamasheen into normal life. At the National Dialogue Conference, set up to legislate the regionalization of the country after a revolution in 2011, the Muhamasheen were represented, albeit scantily—they only had one seat in the 565-person council. Under the banner of the National Union of the Marginalized, Muhamasheen activists were able to advocate for the community’s rights, such as the ability to buy property, which had not been granted to many, especially in rural areas.

When the war came, much of that progress was swept away, Rajji told me. The Muhamasheen were among the first to be displaced, and host communities were often deeply prejudiced toward them.

But like other IDPs, the Muhamasheen cannot safely return home. The residents of the al-Fajr school have lived there for almost six years. Most are terrified at the prospect of returning to Wadi al-Qadim. “A month ago, we went back to our neighborhood for a wedding,” Zeyneb ar-Rabbui, a young lady in a yellow headscarf told me. “When the bride’s procession left the tent, one of the guests was hit by a sniper’s bullet.”

The discrimination against the Muhamasheen of al-Fajr is extreme. I was told by residents that thugs come at night to harass the Muhamasheen and steal their motorcycles. “There’s no work here,” Bilal ar-Rabboui, a young man with a scrawny beard told me. “Nobody wants to hire us for anything. We can only wash cars and beg.”

In the last few years, the local government has come under pressure to move the displaced people from the al-Fajr school. At one point, an area of farmland outside town was allocated for this purpose, but when a small group of the al-Fajr residents went there, a local farmer threatened them and warned them not to come back.

Hussam al-Mishraki, the head of the local government’s executive unit for IDPs, told me that it was very difficult to keep them at the school. The school’s committee had protested to the police, and the threat of eviction hung over the displaced people constantly.

Recently, I was told that a new site, on a rural plot, called Doba’a al-Dakhel, was almost ready for the residents of the al-Fajr school to move into. When I was at the school, I heard from many of the residents that they did not want to move, because at least the market in Turba allowed them to eke out a basic existence. “We don’t have any other choice than to put them far away,” al-Mishraki said.

When the people of Wadi al-Qadim arrived at Turba, they elected a representative, a sheikh, to mediate between them and their host community. Abdu Said ar-Rabboui is in his 50s (“we never received birth certificates”) and has a series of gold teeth that he’s prone to flash in a broad grin (“I’ve had them for 10 years: Before that I didn’t have any teeth”).

When I asked him if there was discrimination against the Muhamasheen in their new home, he gave a wan smile. “The people here look at us like a wound,” he said. “They want to remove that wound from their body.”

Abdu Said, like the others, left Wadi al-Qadim because of the war, “the constant bombing, the mines, the mortars.” When I asked if any Muhamasheen had been drawn into the fighting, he replied, “Muhamasheen don’t fight. We deal with people equally.”

The Muhamasheen are Yemenis who should participate in Yemeni society and in any peace process, ar-Rabboui insisted. They should be involved in the peace effort as well: It is the duty of all Yemenis to work to end the war and rebuild the country. The war is crushing all groups, ar-Rabboui said, and everyone should be sad to see the disintegration of the country into violence and death. “I feel the pain of my homeland as they do,” he said. “There’s no difference between us and them. Our only difference is the color of our skin.”

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