Paolo Lembo, ex-UN Yemen mission chief between 2014 and 2016, still remembers it with dismay.
“In the night between March 25 and 26, 2015 — when the Saudis started bombing Sana’a — we were caught by surprise: the UN didn’t know about it, and there were hundreds of international organizations’ workers who were driven out of the country because insurance companies don’t account for bombs.”
Three years on, Saudi bombings have killed some 15,000, a number which doesn’t account for the many who died for famine or disease, above all the current cholera and diphtheria epidemics. The sunni coalition’s embargo and no-fly zone make it impossible to deliver food and medicines.
Yemen is cut roughly in two: the Houthi rebel-controlled north, and the south, formally in the hands of Mansour Hadi’s government, but actually ruled by separatist militias. Al-Qaeda and so-called Islamic State are also present.
Al-Qaeda achieved a certain degree of success among the population, after providing a welfare system, mostly in the south-eastern Hadramaut region. But then it was damaged by intense US military operations.
There isn’t a more complicated conflict than the one in Yemen: it can’t be boiled down to a Sunni-Shia fight, nor to an influence war between Saudi Arabia and Iran.
Yemen has the richest culture in the Arab peninsula, but it has always been politically fragmented and ruled by tribes. Only an illusory state, which could in theory be partitioned.
There has hardly been any diplomatic effort to resolve the crisis. In this stalemate situation, Lembo thinks it is essential to “intervene in the flow of weapons to the Sunni coalition led by Saudis, and used against the Yemeni population.” Many countries are involved, with the US topping the list: stopping over in Riyadh last May, President Donald Trump signed arm sales contracts for over $120 billion.
Secondly, Lembo suggests we must prepare the way for “all parties to be flexible discussing peace agreements — and there is currently no flexibility. And it is necessary to relieve the immediate needs of the population, who need food and medicine urgently.”
Let’s take a step back to remember the causes of the conflict: President Mansour Hadi called in the Saudis when the Houthis — Zaidiyyah Shia rebels — descended onto Sana’a from Saada, in the north.
All this happened in September 2014. At the start of 2015, Houthis took power in Sana’a. Under growing pressure, President Mansour Hadi asked the Saudis for help — and they could not tolerate a Shia government in neighbouring Yemen.
According to international observers, a third of the bombing targets of Saudis and their allies over the last three years were civilian buildings: schools, hospitals, mosques, markets and residential districts. “Targeting civilians is part of a military strategy implemented in other warzones, too,” says Laura Silvia Battaglia, writer of graphic novel The Yemeni Bride. “The USA did it in Iraq and Afghanistan, Israel did it in Gaza, and the Saudis violate international law, too: civilians are their designated victims.”
The risks are high. “The country is in ruins,” Battaglia says. “Three generations of Yemenis have no future and could give birth to sectarian actions as happened in Iraq.” She agrees with Lembo: “The West is complicit in this dramatic situation; its silence is due largely because many sell weapons to Saudi Arabia and its allies.”
In the last three years, the Saudis and their allies have even destroyed Sana’a’s UNESCO world heritage archaeological sites and palaces. UNESCO director general Irina Bokova says it is a case of “cultural cleansing, voluntary acts of destruction of a historical and cultural past, both Islamic and pre-Islamic, that isn’t in line with Saudi ideology.”
Cristina Muradore, a Veneto’s Institute for Cultural Heritage consultant who has had to put all activity on hold because of the war, remembers well the most hit sites: the Marib dam, many sites dug up by an Italian archaeological mission, including the sixth century BC city of Baraqish, in the semi-desertic al-Jawf region, and other pre-Islamic temples such as the one in Awam.
Unfortunately, even world heritage sites such as Sana’a and the city of Shibam Hadramaut have been repeatedly bombed, and downgraded to threatened heritage — as are all historical sites in Yemen, including Saada’s old town and many minor villages.