Civilians bear the brunt of war in Yemen
BEIRUT - An overdue life-saving aid operation began in Yemen after a five-day humanitarian truce went into effect, halting battles among Yemeni armed groups and bombardments by a Saudi-led coalition against Iranian-backed Houthi rebels.
The truce, which comes after seven weeks of non-stop fighting and coalition air strikes, was meant to allow relief organisations to deliver much-needed assistance — especially fuel, food and medical aid — to the war-afflicted civilian population.
The fighting wreaked havoc in the Arab world’s poorest country, killing more than 1,400 people and injuring some 5,000 others, mostly civilians, since coalition air strikes started March 27th, according to the United Nations. As many as 120,000 people have been displaced, demonstrating once again that civilians bear the biggest brunt of wars. “The current situation in Yemen is extremely dangerous, specifically with regards to the impact on basic human rights of civilians,” commented Belkis Wille of Human Rights Watch (HRW).
Accusations of violations of human rights and rules of war, which call on belligerents to avoid targeting civilian populations, have been alleged to have been committed by both sides of the conflict. HRW said it documented several instances in which indiscriminate shelling and bombardment, including two coalition air strikes in the Houthi heartland in north Yemen, caused civilian casualties.
Though the conduct of ground fighters was more difficult to monitor due to lack of access to information, HRW reported grave human rights violations against civilians. “Serious violations were perpetrated, not only by Houthi fighters but also by the other side, including units loyal to President [Abd Rabbo Mansour] Hadi and the so-called Southern Resistance fighters,” Wille said.
Human Rights Watch warned the Houthis had intensified recruitment of children, another violation of international law.
In addition to being caught in the crossfire, civilians were the hardest hit by the coalition-imposed naval and aerial blockade, which caused critical shortages of food, water, fuel and medical supplies. In a country that imports some 90% of its food and fuel, the blockade on ports, airports and ground routes proved to be detrimental.
With electricity and water systems damaged in the main cities, acute shortages in fuel and medical supplies forced several medical facilities to shut down, leaving scores of injured civilians and patients without treatment.
Marie Claire Feghali, a spokeswoman for the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) in Sana’a, said hospitals were struggling to deal with the large number of dead and wounded.
“In Taiz, the centre for treatment of patients with kidney diseases has stopped working, and, in Aden, hospitals are in the line of fire and ambulances are stolen or shot at,” Feghali told The Arab Weekly.
Even before the war, Yemen suffered from years of internal strife and political upheaval.
The latest round of violence aggravated the precarious situation for its population of 24 million, more than half of whom live below the poverty line.
Aid agencies were trying to take advantage of the ceasefire, which went into effect May 12th, to deliver life-saving assistance to the hardest-hit sections of the country.
Feghali said the ICRC would continue with its urgent medical response, which included delivery of fuel to hospitals and assisting those facilities with medical equipment. “Our teams have also been active in fixing damaged water pipes, mainly in Aden, so that the water keeps on flowing as much as possible,” she added.
But the delivery of humanitarian assistance was not void of controversy and threats. Iran triggered Saudi and US warnings when it announced that a warship would escort a cargo ship loaded with Iranian aid destined for the Houthi-controlled area. Saudi Arabia said no ship would be permitted to reach Yemen unless there was prior coordination with the coalition.
Furthermore, media affiliated with both sides of the conflict expressed caution and pessimism concerning the truce. The pro- Houthi Al-Thawra daily warned Yemenis about trusting foreign aid workers stating, “Beware of the traitors at home and abroad who may come under the pretext of providing aid from the Red Cross or elsewhere, as they may enter the country under the name of delegations to become the hands and eyes of aggression.”
The pro-government Saudi daily Al-Watan ran the headline “Cautious truce, while Iran trifles”, alluding to Iranian humanitarian ship.
In the meantime, Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud doubled the oil-rich kingdom’s aid commitment to Yemen to $540 million.
Sustainable aid is a main concern, especially considering that a solution to the complex crisis in Yemen appeared to be far away from being reached.