SANAA,YEMEN– “Before the war started, my family used to drink traditional Yemeni coffee on the rooftop of our home next to the University of Hodeida. During those long winter days years ago, my friend and I would go to the beach to play while the adults sat around and conversed, chewing gat leaves. When the U.S. recently called for a ceasefire, I asked myself: why should we have to wait another year to return home safely?”
Aisha Ahmed, a 22-year-old who lives just 100 meters from the University of Hodeida, pondered this question as she fled her home on Saturday as the Saudi-led coalition, supported by the United States, renewed its large-scale offensive on western Hodeida accompanied by heavy bombing runs on the many residential areas surrounding her home. The new offensive has thrown the port city, already suffering from an unprecedented humanitarian crisis, into despair.
So far, the violence — which erupted just hours after the U.S. called for a renewed effort to restart Yemen’s peace talks, a move welcomed by the Houthis — has been centered around Hodeida, especially in the areas near its university, its international airport, and the Kilo 16 district.
Over the weekend, over 200 coalition airstrikes using 500-pound guided bombs targeted families seeking shelter in attics near the university and the airport. 50th Street and the Kilo 16 district, home to the main highway linking Hodeida with Sanaa less than five kilometers from the city’s busy fish market, have seen some of the worst destruction since the beginning of the war.
Residents living near the University of Hodeida, where smoke and fumes are rising as a result of the incessant bombing, told MintPress that the sound of warplanes dropping bombs have pierced the sky since Friday afternoon. Residents estimate that at least 24 airstrikes have hit the areas directly surrounding the university, prompting them to seek shelter indoors as they fear to venture out of their homes.
Declining to give her last name, Mana’h, who beseeched international organizations to rescue her four children along with her mother-in-law, has been besieged in her home on 50th Street.
Mana’h told MintPress:
For three days, we’ve heard the sound of jets in the sky, intense shelling and air strikes, and they are still coming.”
Medical sources in Sanaa and Aden, where wounded and killed fighters are transported, told MintPress that over 200 fighters and civilians have been killed and dozens injured over the past 24 hours.
The situation is expected to worsen as coalition forces continue operations in Hodeida. The port city is the entry point for over 70 percent of imports into the impoverished country, which is already suffering from famine.
In the al-Hali District, which lies on Hodeida’s western coast, coalition aircraft targeted the home of two displaced families, killing a couple and seriously injuring their child. Subsequent bombings of the area prevented rescue workers from retrieving bodies from the rubble.
Before the assault on Hodeida began, the coalition sent more than 10,000 fighters to the city’s outskirts. On Thursday, the coalition deployed another 30,000 fighters near the city’s eastern entrance. Local reports indicate that some of the fighters are from local Al Qaeda and ISIS affiliates as well as Sudanese mercenaries equipped with tanks and other military vehicles.
Hodeida is not the only city in Yemen to face a renewed bombing campaign in recent days. In Sanaa, more than 30 airstrikes targeted the al-Dulaimi airbase and the Sanaa International Airport, destroying a fire truck belonging to Yemen’s Civil Defense. The coalition claims the airstrikes are targeting Houthi rocket launchers, but the airport administration rejected the accusations.
Violence spurs mass mobilization of volunteer fighters
The fresh round of coalition violence has prompted huge numbers of Yemeni residents to take to the battlefield in the largest draw of volunteer fighters since June when the coalition began its campaign against Hodeida. A Houthi military field commander told MinPress that thousands of fighters have mobilized in the city and an additional 10,000 are on standby.
Yemen’s armed forces and allied volunteer fighters have thus far been able to thwart the all-out Saudi-led offensive to seize the country’s strategic Red Sea port, killing over 100 coalition-backed fighters according to Brigadier General Yahya Saree, spokesperson for Yemen’s Armed Forces.
Houthi forces also fired two domestically-designed smart missiles at coalition troops in southern Hodeida. The missiles — dubbed the Badr P-1 and unveiled just last week — hit their designated targets with great precision, according to a military field source. The source added that Houthi forces destroyed over 20 vehicles and tanks and promised to publish footage of the recent operations.
Forced to flee again
For days, Aisha Ahmed’s mother would pull her four children back from the windows every time the sound of warplanes grew close. Eventually, the airstrikes became too close for comfort and on Saturday, the family fled the area near the University of Hodeida to seek shelter in the heavily-defended city center. Aisha is one of the hundreds of civilians displaced by the recent offensive.
Civilians have continued to flee from their homes in the university, airport and 50th Street districts — areas which were considered relatively safe as they were far from the front lines before Thursday. Closing their shops and often leaving most of their possessions behind them, civilians are forced to flee in the shadow of apocalyptic scenes of destruction — miles of skeletal buildings full of the stench of corpses still trapped beneath mammoth slabs of concrete.
Red Cross spokeswoman Sara Alzawqari said an estimated 3,200 families in Hodeida – some 22,000 to 28,000 people — were in need of basic necessities including food, water and shelter.
The recent Saudi-led offensive is a blow to recent warnings from the United Nations and international organizations, which have repeatedly warned that a military campaign on Hodeida would have devastating consequences for the country’s residents.
World Food Programme (WFP) spokesman Herve Verhoosel said that the recent increase in military activity in Hodeida threatens the security of the WFP’s life-saving operations.
On Saturday, the United Nations children’s agency (UNICEF) said that every 10 minutes, a Yemeni child under five-years-old dies of preventable diseases and severe malnutrition, his remarks came following meetings with families in Sanaa and Hodeida.
Brutal conflict has made #Yemen "a living hell" for children.
— UNICEF Yemen (@UNICEF_Yemen) November 4, 2018
Geert Cappelaere, the regional director for the Middle East and North Africa at UNICEF, told reporters Sunday in the Jordanian capital Amman that Yemen has turned into a “living hell” for all children, with thousands dying every year from malnutrition and easily preventable diseases. Cappelaere explained:
Yemen is today a living hell — not for 50 to 60 percent of the children — it is a living hell for every boy and girl in Yemen.”
“Over the past few days, I and others around the world have paid close attention to U.S.-led efforts to stop the war against Yemen. But after three days of calling for peace have passed, few people seem to be interested in peace … [we see] nothing but more escalation on all fronts,” Ahmed explained.
The United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Saudi Arabia claim their operation against Hodeida will force the Houthis to the negotiating table by cutting off their main supply line, a tactic which the coalition tried and failed in June when the coalition launched a similar scorched-earth campaign against the port city. The June offensive ultimately failed and triggered the United Nations to push for peace talks in Geneva. Yemen’s Ansar Allah (Houthis) and its allies were receptive to those initiatives as well as previous diplomatic interventions meant to end the war.
In June 2017, Houthi representatives began secret talks with Saudi Arabia in a bid to find a political solution to the war. The talks, held in the Saudi province of Dhahran al-Janoub near Yemen’s border with Oman, have been ongoing since 2015.
The Houthis and their allies from the political party of former Yemeni president Ali Abdullah Saleh also joined UN-backed peace talks in Kuwait in 2016.
Moreover, the Saudi-led coalition’s escalation comes just days after most of Yemen’s political parties, including that of the former government loyal to Riyadh, welcomed all efforts to restore peace following an unprecedented call for a ceasefire from the U.S. following the killing of former Saudi regime loyalist-turned-critic and columnist for the Washington Post, Jamal Khashoggi.
Despite welcoming Washington’s call to end to the three-year-long Saudi-led war on Yemen, Sanaa still considers the move an attempt to mitigate international pressure in the face of Yemeni suffering.
Last week, United Nations Envoy for Yemen Martin Griffiths called for all concerned parties to engage constructively with UN efforts to resume political consultations and to agree on a framework for political negotiations. But a high-ranking official in Sanaa told MintPress that no national Yemeni delegation has so far received a call or invitation from the United Nations or other international parties for a new round of negotiations.
Abdullah Ali, a Yemeni analyst and politician, said the reason behind the recent escalation was the 30-day deadline for the resumption of peace talks announced by the U.S., which has been interpreted by the Saudis and Emiratis as an invitation to intensify their bombing campaign in order to take control of the strategic Hodeida port.
He expects the Saudi-led coalition to use Hodeida as a bargaining chip when they enter UN-brokered talks scheduled to take place in Sweden later this month, adding “it would be a blow to the Houthis and Hodeida residents if the coalition controlled the port just weeks before talks, but not a killer blow.”
Neither the Houthis nor local Hodeida residents show any signs of ceding control of Hodeida, Yemen’s most strategic port.
The Saudi-led coalition has subjected Yemen’s civilians to unspeakable atrocities, including seemingly non-stop airstrikes, a crippling blockade as well as a military campaign rife with torture, rape, and assassinations. Despite that, over 100 Yemeni politicians, including military officers and dignitaries, signed a statement on Monday calling for a revival of the peace process.
The killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi sparked around-the-clock global news coverage and an international outcry, yet the U.S.-backed and Saudi-manufactured humanitarian disaster in Yemen has yet to trigger an international uproar. Hodeida’s people should not have to continue to wait to return safely to their rooftops and enjoy a cup of traditional Yemeni coffee.
Top Photo | Homeless children stand on the road in Hodeida, Yemen on Feb. 12, 2018. The United Nations children’s agency recently said that Yemen’s economic crisis and the relentless violence at a key Red Sea port city risks leaving millions of children and families without food, clean water and sanitation. Nariman El-Mofty | AP
Ahmed AbdulKareem is a Yemeni journalist. He covers the war in Yemen for MintPress News as well as local Yemeni media.