Editor’s note: On October 8, a series of Saudi-coalition airstrikes on a funeral reception in Sana killed more than 100, including many prominent Yemeni leaders, and injured hundreds more. The strike led to calls among Yemenis for counterattacks against Saudi Arabia on its border with Yemen, and the Obama administration announced an “immediate review” of its support for the Saudi coalition.
In the center of Djibouti’s capital city, which is also named Djibouti, is a restaurant named Mohamed Ali Basha. It opened just over a year ago, and swiftly became popular with waves of Yemeni refugees, arriving in droves across the narrow strait that separates the Arabian Peninsula from Africa, fleeing conflict in their home country. At lunchtime, the restaurant’s two pastel pink–painted rooms are crammed with people breaking huge charred fish with their hands and rolling the pieces into traditional flatbread. The dishes here are simple, delicious, and serve as a kind of comfort food for Yemenis stranded in Djibouti. “This is their favorite food,” Mohammed al-Gobany, the restaurant’s manager, told me in May. Al-Gobany is himself a refugee, from the city of Ta’iz. He left Yemen seven months beforehand. After the lunchtime rush had passed, we sat and chatted about what he had seen as war tore his city apart.
Ta’iz is in the central part of Yemen, between Sana and Aden. The city was once known for its 800-year-old hilltop castle and its many universities. “It was Zahrat al-Mada’en”—a flower among cities—“Now it is the ruined one among all cities,” another refugee, Rakeeb Muhammad, a 22-year-old computer science graduate from Ta’iz who is now living in Djibouti, told me. Yemen has been embroiled in a civil war since last year that has seen a Saudi-led coalition support the ousted president, Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi, against an armed movement from the north of the country called the Houthis. The Saudis say that the Iranians are supplying the Houthis, although there is scant evidence that Tehran has provided anything more than limited support for the faction. The Saudi-led coalition, on the other hand, is provided with logistical support by the United States, and much of the weaponry it uses also comes from this country.
The conflict continues to exact a horrific toll. According to the UN, more than 10,000 people have been killed, many of them civilians, and well over 3 million have been displaced. More than 180,000 Yemenis have fled to neighboring countries, and the rest are refugees in their own country. The country’s cities are shattered. “Ta’iz is totally in ruins now. Hardly any residents are living there; no food, no petroleum products, nothing at all,” Muhammad said.
After peace talks in Kuwait collapsed in early August, the Saudi bombing has intensified, turning other cities to rubble. Saudi defense spokesman Ahmad Asiri told reporters earlier this year that he envisioned a military attack on Sana, the nation’s capital, a city with a pre-war population of just under 2 million people, if a deal was not struck. “We have troops around the capital,” he said. “Sana will be free soon.” On September 12, a United Nations coordinator condemned the coalition’s “unrelenting attacks on civilians.” Just over a week later, on September 21, a bill to halt $1.15 billion of weapons sales to Saudi Arabia died on the Senate floor. Arguing against the bill was Republican Senator Lindsey Graham, who laid out the reasons to supply weapons to “our friends in Saudi Arabia” in the cool language of Realpolitik. “Saudi Arabia has shared intelligence with us,” he said. “They have allowed us to use their air bases in time of conflict. They are all in against I.S.I.L.”—another name for the Islamic State—“and they are great allies against the ambitions of the Iranians. When you add up the pluses and the minuses of the relationship with Saudi Arabia, in my view, it is not close. The pluses outweigh the minuses.” On the same day, an airstrike carried out by the Saudi-led coalition on the western port city of Hodeidah killed and injured dozens.
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In July of 2015, Yemen’s tourist board tweeted two juxtaposed images of Ta’iz’s castle. The first image shows the building intact before the conflict, and the second shows it after the Saudi air force bombed it in May of last year because the Houthis were using it as a strategic base; only a few walls and battlements are left, surrounded by a pile of rubble. When the war began, Ta’iz fell quickly to the Houthis, but within a few weeks a local resistance force gathered. Allied with the Saudis, and later with groups affiliated to Al Qaeda and ISIS, the resistance began to take the battle to the Houthis.
The citizens of Yemen have been caught between these two warring factions. Al-Gobany and others I spoke to from the city talked about random shelling and bombing from both sides. “We follow neither the Houthis nor the resistance,” al-Gobany told me. “We do not carry arms, so we had nothing else to do but to look for a job, for a source of income, and therefore we had nothing else to do but to leave to Djibouti.” Al-Gobany, 40, has a neatly trimmed mustache and thinning black hair. As we spoke he held a large wad of khat leaves in his left cheek. Chewing khat is, in al-Gobany’s opinion, “a social activity in order to meet friends.” “It connects you to other people,” he said. In Ta’iz, al-Gobany had worked as a day laborer, at times selling khat and at others manning a friend’s shop. He made money every day, he told me, and lived in the Berbasha neighborhood of Ta’iz with his wife and two children, near the al-Saqr soccer stadium.
The situation in Ta’iz, according to al-Gobany, was fairly calm into early April last year. “We used to hear the shooting between the resistance and the Houthis and so on, but as ordinary citizens who have no interest in these things,” he said. But then, on April 18, al-Gobany was sitting with a group of friends chewing khat in a two-story shop near the Bab al-Kebir, an ancient arched gate that leads into Ta’iz’s marketplace. There had been a power cut and everyone in the group was depressed. They wanted morning to come so they could see, and they were also unnerved by the sounds of shooting, which at that point only happened at night. Then they heard jets in the sky above them.
At around 2:00, al-Gobany decided to call it a night. “We had a yard at home, and I finished chewing the khat there. I had a cigarette and then I headed to go into the house. Suddenly the entire place turned red,” he told me. “The dark sky turned red.” He was seized with terror. “Whoever heard the bombing thought that his own house had been hit. This is how strong the explosion was. Then after five minutes, exactly five minutes, another bombing happened,” al-Gobany told me. Small stones were shaken from the roof of his building and hit him as he stood in the yard. He worried that the friends he’d just left behind were dead. “You would think it was judgment day,” he said.
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The war in Yemen may seem far away from the United States and its interests, but the Saudi-led coalition is using sophisticated weaponry made in the West and logistical information provided by the United States and other countries. Last year, the US government approved just shy of $1.3 billion worth of smart bomb sales to the Saudi government, in what was interpreted as a move to satisfy Riyadh after the Obama administration closed the Iran deal, which the Saudis had opposed.
But the weapons the coalition are using are not all smart weapons. Almost two-thirds of those killed in Yemen by Saudi Arabia have been civilians. Reports by Human Rights Watch this past February and May indicated that the Saudi government had fired US-made cluster bombs into civilian areas (according to Foreign Policy, the White House has since halted sales of cluster munitions to the Saudis). In April, another Human Rights Watch report found that, in March, two US-supplied 2,000-pound bombs were dropped in coalition airstrikes on a densely crowded marketplace in north Yemen. Some 97 civilians, including 25 children, lost their lives. Since the peace deal collapsed, the Saudi forces have pounded Sana, hitting a market, a school, and a potato chip factory. Civilian casualties have markedly increased since then, with over 300 killed and 400 wounded.
In Ta’iz after the bombing, al-Gobany found that his friends were safe. The ordnance had landed in a stadium nearby. But as the Saudis intensified their strikes, his neighborhood started to empty out. People traveled for safety to the countryside. They moved back to their ancestral villages, or took boats across the Mandeb Strait to Djibouti. Al-Gobany’s wife, his son Kareem, and his daughter Reetaj went to stay with relatives in the countryside. Al-Gobany was worried that a militia might try to break into his home, so he remained in Ta’iz with his brothers and his mother. He wasn’t afraid, because his family was not aligned with the resistance or with the Houthis. “The Houthis can recognize their friends, and the resistance can recognize their friends,” he said. “As for those who have nothing to do with this war, they recognize them too.”
But the war still took its toll. Services in the city broke down, and hospitals ran out of medicine. Recently, doctors from Ta’iz said they were running out of oxygen tanks, necessary for the most basic operations. Because such supplies are frequently held up at checkpoints, locals have taken to smuggling them over the mountains, strapped to the backs of camels. “Freedom of movement is limited,” al-Gobany said. “There is no peace. No hope.”
The bombing, too, was incessant from all sides. The Berbasha neighborhood was controlled by the Houthis, so it was shelled by the pro-Hadi forces. Al-Gobany remembered one day when he was out running an errand when the two-story shop near the Bab al-Kebir was hit by missiles. Scores of people were killed. “Those who have no interest in this war are the first victims,” al-Gobany said. “There might be two people from the resistance in one place and the Houthis might shoot at them. But they might kill 70 or 80 ordinary people.” Al-Gobany started to make preparations to leave for Djibouti, where he had been promised a job by a friend. On the last day he was in Ta’iz, he said, pro-Hadi fighters moved close to his neighborhood and rockets started falling close to his house.
Before he left Ta’iz, al-Gobany had arranged to travel in a boat from Aden captained by a man named Bassam. He left early and had to go through many checkpoints, “maybe a hundred checkpoints,” and at each one he had to prove himself over and over again. “You find that the treatment differs from one person to the next.” Militiamen would test his accent and scrutinize his documents. His strategy was to remain honest, and say he was going to Djibouti. He crossed the frontline at a town called al-Raheeda, about 20 miles south of Ta’iz, passing from Houthi-controlled territory to an area under the control of southern separatists allied with Hadi.
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Al-Gobany hasn’t seen his family since he left Yemen on November 13 last year. His wife and children are still in al-Hugariya, and his mother and brothers are guarding their home in Ta’iz. It was too dangerous for them to make the journey, he reasoned. “My goal now is to make some money for my family and send it to them,” he told me. He calls his family every day, but he worries for his children, and the children of Yemen. When talking about the fate of his country al-Gobany used an Arabic expression, kadaa wa kadar, which means, “everything is written.” He does not believe the problems there can be fixed quickly.
He worries about Yemen’s youth. “Kareem for instance, who is 6 years old, should get enrolled in a school now,” al-Gobany told me. “But due to this situation, there are no schools. I mean that he might get an education when he is 10 years old, or when he is 15. This makes you sad for your child. Sad that he did not get the opportunity to receive an education, or to receive love and affection. What did he receive instead? The total opposite of these things: fear and intimidation. Any father would feel this way—not just me.” Al-Gobany lamented that the war stoking violence and extremism among young people. “These children, the new generation, those who are 18 or 20, for instance—what is going to be their mentality? Is such a person going to be aggressive? Or would he for instance think about forming a gang? Forming a gang to be stronger?”
Rabi Abdullah is a member of the generation al-Gobany was talking about. He is 19, with a light dusting of a mustache on his upper lip. He was a student in Yemen and also worked as a fisherman. When we met, he was wearing a yellow T-shirt and was taking pictures of himself on a new phone, although he said he had not yet bought a calling card. He is from a town in Yemen close to the Mandeb Strait. The area has been fought over by the Houthis, who have taken the nearby port of Dhubab, and pro-Hadi forces. “In the town of Dhubab, all the houses are destroyed,” Abdullah told me. “Everyone moved to Bab al-Mandeb.” As in Ta’iz, both sides have devastated the area with rocket and bomb attacks.
“The war has been very destructive, not only materially, but in terms of separation from our world,” Abdullah told me. “I lost many of my friends. We had to run. We had to go from our lives.” He shook his head. “In the beginning, we knew that the bombing was only in Ta’iz and Sana. Only in these places. Then the bombing came to our town. Nine people died.” He told me about a friend whose house was destroyed. A car had just parked near his house. The coalition usually warns civilians before they bomb houses in his area, Abdullah told me. But no warning came for his friend. A coalition airstrike struck the car, presumably because it had come from a Houthi-controlled neighborhood, shattering his friend’s home along with it. “With this house, they did not give a warning. They just bombed it.”
Abdullah fled his town last November with his parents and his five siblings on a fishing boat. On the journey across the strait, he was terrified they would be targeted by rockets or patrolling aircraft. He said that, from the start, he had heard there was a chance of repatriation. “I want to go to Europe, because we hear that the people in Europe are good and the weather is good. The name of America is scary: There, there is bad and good,” he said. “But if they sent me to America I wouldn’t say no.”
Things were calmer in Abdullah’s town now, he told me. “I’m not afraid to go back,” he said. “The only fear I have is that there will be a confrontation between the Houthis and Hadi, and that there will be another sad situation.” Still, he had faith that he could make a life that wasn’t overshadowed by war. “I was a student in high school when I left last year,” he said. “I want to continue school to be a teacher. I don’t want to be a soldier.”