In Yemen′s war, locals struggle to stay neutral | Middle East| News and analysis of events in the Arab world | DW | 17.11.2018
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Middle East

In Yemen's war, locals struggle to stay neutral

Ever more Yemenis are siding with the Saudi coalition or Houthis to safeguard a salary and a semblance of protection. But some are determined to stay neutral, despite the obstacles they face. Mat Nashed reports.

On the morning of October 6, Rahab* was hauled away from a student demonstration in the heart of Yemen's capital, Sanaa. Like her peers, she was fed up with soaring food prices and a lack of basic services, so she joined the protests against the Houthis who control the capital. The violent militia, which belongs to the Shiite offshoot Zaidi Islam, crushed the demonstration within minutes.

"When the [Houthis] took me, I thought I was never coming back [home]," said Rahab, a 20-year-old activist. "Most of the protesters with me were women. The [Houthis] released us at night, but only after we signed a pledge not to protest again."

Civilians in Sanaa are trapped between the repressive rule of the Houthis and the indiscriminate offensive of the Saudi-led coalition. The latter seeks to dislodge the former and reinstate the internationally recognized government of President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi.

But Saudi Arabia's war has caused millions of Yemenis to starve by restricting imports and suspending salaries of more than a million civil servants in Houthi-held areas. The Houthis are reportedly exacerbating the crisis by kidnapping people for ransom.

Read moreYemen's collapse puts families on the brink

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To survive, more people are picking sides in the war to earn a living or secure an exit from the country. But Rahab and others refuse to do so, leaving them with few advantages and little protection.

"There are many other women who escaped [from Sanaa] to the city of Marib and I think many of them will be part of the Saudi alliance soon. But I'm also against Saudi Arabia's aggression," Rahab told DW.

Fighting to survive

The war has brought Sanaa to its knees and Yemenis are divided over who to blame. Residents say the city barely has electricity, pushing most people to burn coal or rely on solar energy for power. Fuel is also in short supply, but food and water are scarcer. Rami*, 29, said that the Houthis and the Saudi-coalition are equally responsible for ruining the city.

"I hate them all. There are hardly any jobs in Sanaa unless you have personal connections with a political faction," he told DW. "Civilians are starving, and I hear that many people are stealing to feed their families now."

Read moreMass starvation looms quietly as civil war in Yemen rages

Infografik Jemen Humanitäre Krise EN

Fighting appears to be the only source of reliable income, giving Saudi Arabia an advantage. Several people told DW that the Saudis lure fighters away from the Houthis by paying in their own currency, which is much stronger than the Yemeni rial.

But Rami says that he would smuggle himself into Saudi Arabia before picking up arms. For now, he survives by selling plastic bags to shops that sell khat, which is an amphetamine-like stimulant that many Yemenis chew.

"I hardly make money, but I will never fight. People have to allow themselves to be brainwashed to fight, but neither my friends nor I can do that," said Rami.

Adam Baron, a visiting fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations in London, adds that people who are politically active have little space in Yemen to remain neutral. He says that false allegations can land people in jail and that the Houthis often detain perceived opponents.

"People are putting each other in a box, so more people are thinking that they should just choose a side to get some benefits," Baron told DW.

Taken hostage

Yemeni pro-government forces advancing (Getty Images/AFP)

The war has brought Sanaa to its knees and Yemenis are divided over who to blame

Neither the Saudi coalition nor the Houthis have attempted to safeguard civilians. As the former starves the country, the latter profiteers from the dire humanitarian crisis.

Human Rights Watch (HRW) has reported that the Houthis are holding opponents and perceived opponents hostage in secret prisons, where many are beaten with iron rods, whips and assault rifles. Many of the hostages are journalists and activists who have little to no affiliation with factions in the war.

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"In almost all cases the families of victims were asked to pay a ransom to secure the release of their loved ones, but many of these people are already very poor," Kristine Beckerle, the Yemen researcher for HRW, told DW. "It's awful because the Houthi leadership knows that [hostage-taking] is happening and they can stop it if they want."

Rahab, the activist from the demonstration, considers herself lucky that she was released so soon. But since she's been warned, the consequences could be more severe if she protests again.

For now, she focuses on aiding her people, and says that her community trusts her because she doesn't belong to any political or religious faction. With winter coming, her main priority is organizing an online group of volunteers to donate and distribute clothes to poorer Yemenis. Despite her best efforts, she remains pessimistic about the future.

"Children, women and the elderly are dying daily, and all sides are accountable for the bloodshed," she said. "The war is also taking a psychological and emotional toll on me. It's not easy to watch an entire society die."

Watch video 04:03

Starving Yemenis eat leaves to survive

*Surnames withheld to protect their identities

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