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'The war in Yemen has destroyed us'

Nasher Sharif Sanaa, Yemen
August 31, 2019

The war in Yemen shows no signs of abating. In a personal account from Sanaa, a Yemeni journalist shares his account of how life has changed for ordinary Yemenis under Houthi rule after half a decade of fighting. 

Yemen militia fighters firing mortars
Image: picture-alliance/AP Photo/N. El-Mofty

War does not bring good things even when they say it will. This war has destroyed us, though it had been said that "it will help us." They told us about the plan to "build a modern Yemen," but this has been replaced by war and destruction carried out by various extremist religious militias. 

There has been an end to political rights and freedom of expression, something Yemenis dreamed of before the troubles with the Houthis started in 2014. All the while there have been discussions around a peace settlement and legislative elections, the violence has increased and the number of poor and starving people is increasing day by day.

Extremist armed groups are practicing what appears to be ethnic and political cleansing in the areas they control. First it was their political opponents, now they are targeting their allies, too.

A map of Yemen showing Sanaa and Aden

In a way, the various parties in the war have all become similar. 

Every armed party describes its activities as a "duty to maintain security against traitors and enemy agents," usually those who belong to another party. Yet not one of these "governments" cares to pay salaries, provide services or protect the rights of ordinary Yemenis. Instead, their roles are dedicated to imposing power by force, collecting money from people, squashing their opponents' rights, and occupying their property.

A choice between bad and bad

The reality in the capital, Sanaa, today is that you no longer have the right to demand payment of salaries for teachers and employees, or to demand health services. The world supported a militia while it eliminated everything related to law in my country, and turned the rest of the political forces into militias. Our choice is between bad and bad. Imagine a life without eyes and limbs — that's what life looks like without rights, protection and a rule of law.

Read moreYemen's collapse puts families on the brink

Journalism has become a crime unless you are willing to praise politicians and characterize their crimes as part of the solution. The independent press has been eliminated.

Aftermath of an attack against a local tribe in Yemen
Soldiers in Marib burnt cattle and destroyed homes and property to consolidate power in the city Image: privat

A friend of mine runs a civil society organization and they are no better off. The Houthis control everything, and instead of the annual permit that local organizations had to obtain in the past, they now have to obtain individual licenses for everything. The only thing that's left for him to ask permission for, he says, is to go to the bathroom.

Anyone who opposes the Houthis is either whisked away or killed, and they are using the courts to do so. Most recently, on July 9, a court in Sanaa sentenced 30 people — politicians, academics and journalists — to death for "treason." The Houthis claimed these people were agents who followed the enemy — Saudi Arabia and other Yemeni parties in the cities of Marib and Aden. This is just one of the many repressive ways the Houthis are using to clamp down on any opposition.

Outside the capital, the situation is no better. I recently went to cover a story in Marib, a city around 200 kilometers (125 miles) east of Sanaa. The area is ruled by the Yemeni Congregation for Reform Party (Islah), the Islamic party considered to be part of Yemen's internationally-recognized government that is in opposition to the Houthis.

The Islah had implemented a military campaign against the Ashraf tribe to increase its power in the area. They used tanks, artillery and armed extremists and the scenes were horrifying. Homes and private property including cars were burnt and destroyed. Many locals have been forced to live in tents, stay with relatives or flee to Sanaa.

Life in Sanaa

Economically, the situation in Sanaa is growing worse. More taxes and customs are levied every day, regularly bankrupting small businesses. In addition, the Houthis are demanding companies pay royalties to finance their activities and support the war in the name of the "war effort."

After 5 years of war, Yemenis on the brink

When the Houthis first got into power, there were many who believed they were against corruption, but today people feel fear, hatred and anger. If someone criticizes the Houthis in public, for example on public transport, others join in and voice their support. 

After five years of war, there are some things that Yemenis have learned to do to avoid experiencing even more hurt. We don't look at the faces of pictures of so-called martyrs, which are everywhere, and don't switch on the news.

Read moreCovering Yemen's 'forgotten' war

For example, if you happen to browse through the martyr pictures, you may encounter a relative who became a member of a militia and believes that you do not deserve to live if you do not support him. Or you may chance upon the face of your friend whom you have not met in a long time. The news, meanwhile, may bring you the voice of another friend who has become a criminal — talking through the media about the importance of war as he travels the five-star hotels of the world and earns thousands of dollars as the representative of your pain.

We have been forced to live without passion and hope. Our dreams have been put on the forbidden lists and our politicians and the world have let us down. We care more about how we can become invisible, how we can survive. Staying alive and being able to celebrate another birthday is the most important achievement during this war — sometimes the only thing that's left.

Nasher Sharif (name changed to protect his identity) is a Yemeni journalist based in the capital, Sanaa.

Gouri Sharma contributed to this piece.