On the night of June 9, Saudi-led coalition jets conducted huge airstrikes on Yemen’s capital, Sana’a, which had been relatively quiet in previous weeks.
The raids came as the United States Senate was considering a bill blocking a $110 billion arms sale to Saudi Arabia, whose coalition - to which the US has provided arms and logistical support - has been accused of war crimes by United Nations monitors. That Senate effort to block the arms sale was narrowly defeated Tuesday (6/13), technically allowing the sale to go forward. President Donald J. Trump has referred to the sale, negotiated to a large degree by his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, as the crown jewel of his recent trip to the Saudi kingdom.
Warscapes spoke with a Yemeni correspondent in Sana’a about the strikes, which he witnessed, as well as the wider war, famine and cholera epidemic ravaging the country. Due to the extremely delicate security situation in Yemen, our interviewee - referred to below as “Amjad” - asked us not to use his real name.
Michael Bronner: First of all, how are you doing?
Amjad: I’m fine, surviving. It’s crazy here.
MB: It sounds like it. There’re news reports today that a Saudi-led airstrike hit the Yemeni capital, Sana’a. You were nearby. Tell us what you saw and heard.
Amjad: We thought the airstrikes were over in Sana'a and peace was coming, with the possible reopening of Sana'a Airport and an easing of the siege, especially with the [current] socioeconomic crisis and the catastrophic humanitarian situation, in addition to the spread of disease. We thought they would not return to their madness and war crimes again and again and again. Yet, they struck again in middle of a busy civilian neighborhood and nearby a local market and main traveling road - killing three small kids and their [grand]mother. The airstrikes last night were so crazy - as if they were revenging something. Airstrikes were everywhere in Sana'a. There hadn't been any strikes for the last two weeks [in Sana’a], then suddenly – in the last two or three days – we started hearing the jets passing close by again. Then last night, there were strikes all over – for five- to seven hours. It started maybe at 7- or 8pm and kept up until midnight. For me, and other Yemenis here, people act like they don’t care anymore: You can see people moving around the city in taxis, in the market, kids playing around, no one cares – no one looks up anymore, khalas. But this was different: This strike was really strong. It shook the whole city.
MB: And it kept going continuously for four- or five hours?
A: Yeah, it kept going. Every hour airplanes were going and coming. We didn’t know what they were hitting. We were on social media – WhatsApp, Facebook – trying to find out. People kept saying, “It hit nearby; it hit here; it hit there.” You can hear it, but we didn’t know. The second and third ones were really strong; they felt like they were destroying a huge residential compound or even moving the mountains.
MB: So you were in the Shumaila market with your family?
A: Yes. Because it’s Ramadan and Eid is coming.
MB: Was it crowded?
A: Very. Very. People are trying to live normal lives, going to the markets, walking in the streets – it was very crowded. It’s the most popular local market – a big qat market, a big market for clothes, food, secondhand clothes. All kinds of people go there – from beggars to middleclass. Lots of workers and their families don’t have salaries anymore, and the big markets accept these government-issued coupon cards we are using now instead of giving money. Like the Stone Age. Instead of getting your salary, you can buy goods. So the market was very crowded, everyone out with his family.
MB: Was there panic?
A: Yes, after the fifth airstrike. It was huge. People started running. There were ambulances, and people really got scared because they thought maybe they will hit the market. So for, like, twenty minutes or half an hour it was very crazy.
MB: You mentioned that you were surprised by the airstrike – that they had abated lately. Why do you think that is, prior to this attack?
A: Maybe because of international pressure. Or because they keep hitting the same place, like, 200 thousand times! There no point in continuing to hit the same place over and over, so every couple of months they will stop for a month. Maybe they will attack for a week, then they will stop for a month, then they will hit again. This is in Sana’a, but the news from the surrounding areas is that it’s continuous airstrikes – operations going on every day.
MB: It’s been reported internationally that there were children killed in Sana’a in this airstrike.
A: Three from the same family.
MB: Ages 12, 7 and 3 – and their grandmother – killed when their home was hit. That’s what was reported on ABC News, Al-Jazeera and others.
A: There was cell phone footage on the web all night, but it’s been removed, or blocked on YouTube and other media; today I couldn’t see it anymore. But if you see the pictures, it’s in the middle of a busy neighborhood, in a poor area far away from the military camps they usually target. Millions of Yemenis all night were following this crime, watching the photos and the vids in social media - seeing the father crying and screaming searching until he found the bodies of his tiny kids among the rubble and the destruction. The people are so mad and frustrated, wondering what is the crime or the guilt of this poor family from Ibb to be killed in such brutal way in the middle of Sana’a. Many were commenting on social media, thanking King Suliman and his brave, courageous Air Force - and all the countries who support [the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia] with arms and logistics - for their lovely Ramadan gifts.
MB: So, it’s a civilian area – there are no military targets nearby?
A: No. As usual, a civilian area. Some Saudi media outlets were trying to say they were targeting a Houthi leader, but it’s just four homes in the middle of the city – no military camps. It’s close to the funeral hall they targeted.
MB: The funeral hall that was hit in October – the Saudi coalition airstrike that killed 140 people and wounded more than 500.
A: Yeah. You could see from the photos [of the house site], it looks like a nuclear bomb hit. It got a lot of attention [on social media] because people have cellphones and there’s a little bit of Internet here and there, so they can document it immediately.
MB: You’ve been moving around the country a bit. I want to ask you about that – some of the things you’re seeing outside the capital.
A: I was in Ibb, and travelled between there and Sana’a. I travel from time to time. I just go to my village just to see my mother or visit friends there, or do some small work here and there.
MB: Is it difficult to travel around the country?
A: Very difficult. The country is divided into four zones. For us here in the midlands, we cannot go to Marib; cannot go to Al-Jawf; cannot go to Hadramawt; cannot reach Aden. It’s very dangerous. A professor I know was coming back [to Sana’a] via Marib and was captured at a checkpoint. Any activist – if you are writing in Yemeni social media – they are watching you and will arrest you at the checkpoints. They ask for your passport. They know everything. Even in the North, it’s mission impossible. From Ibb to Aden, for example, there are maybe 13 to 17 checkpoints.
MB: And the checkpoints are manned by the government side, or both sides?
A: It’s different factions – you name it. Just in Aden, for example, there are Hadi’s forces [troops loyal to the internationally-recognized government of President Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi] and the Emiratis in the same city. There are so many parties. It’s very difficult. Even if you’re with an international NGO, you must have permission to move anywhere. So all the activists are operating or doing their work from Turkey, Qatar, Emirates, or Saudi Arabia, including the big government or military officials. They fly in and out again after two days. It’s not safe anywhere. There are demonstrations in Aden – it’s not safe even in Aden. There was news that they would open Sana’a airport this week, but it’s as usual just propaganda, fake news, rumors.
MB: So, the airport is closed?
A: Yeah. Yemenia [the Yemeni airline] is not really functioning anymore. Actually, the day before yesterday, because of [lack of] maintenance, a flight was very close to crashing very quickly after departing from Aden; they had to turn back and [make an emergency landing in] Aden with only one engine.
MB: The World Health Organization is reporting that there are now more than 100 thousand cases of cholera in Yemen. Is the epidemic evident in everyday life?
A: Yeah, yeah. I visited some hospitals. Lots of health facilities have been targeted and are not functioning – there is no budget. UNICEF, the World Health Organization, MSF and other organizations are trying to support, but there is such poverty, garbage is all over the streets. There is a big water crisis, in terms of clean water. People are poor, and even though they are driven to prevent the disease, it’s spread everywhere. Here, for my family, we are fine, but all the family in the villages just visited us a couple of weeks ago and it was a big disaster. They all have diarrhea, acute diarrhea, and I had to stay with them in the hospital for two- or three days until most of the kids and my brother’s kids recovered a little bit.
MB: So, your family that came down from the village, and they’re all suffering from diarrhea?
A: Yes, because they don’t have good facilities, and because even though the medicine is not that expensive, it’s not available. We keep hearing that there’s Saudi aid coming –there’s a lot of aid coming from the coalition – but it never reached their area, and now the problem is spreading more South – really, everywhere. Even in some parts of Aden.
MB: And before the war, cholera wasn’t a big problem in Yemen, right?
A: Of course, we might have some normal cases from time to time, in certain limited areas, but not widespread. The hospitals are full. Most of the cases are very poor families – women and kids and elderly people.
MB: What about food?
A: Here [in Sana’a], it’s available, but of the price is triple because of the siege, and people don’t have money in their hands. I mean, with the economy in crisis, no salaries, no jobs – we’re now the third year like this. There are lots of poor people in the streets – you can see them. Before, we used to have only a few marginalized people. Now, it’s common. They pass by through all the shops, where they give them one riyal, five riyals, some clothes, anything they can.
MB: The World Food Program is saying that there are 17 million people in the country they classify as “food insecure” – they don’t have enough food – and one-in-four of those are severely threatened by lack of food. Do you see evidence that the situation is this dire as of that as you move around the country?
A: Lots of evidence – very, very easily you can see it – in your close relatives, your family, in your neighborhood, people who you walk with in the streets, you can easily see it, and it’s getting worse when you go to more rural areas and the countryside. People don’t have any income. Because they stopped the export of certain kinds of fruits to Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States, we might have some fruits and vegetable here in the market. But then they started to export them again to Saudi Arabia, and there was some movement in goods between Yemen and Saudi Arabia. But it’s very difficult. There are lots of signs.
MB: Last time we talked, you were trying to find some solar panels to use for your home. Are a lot of people relying only on solar panels now?
A: Yes, but of course only the middle class and the rich, because it’s very expensive. If you’re lucky, you will get a 35- or 50-ampere care battery, and you might have one or two lights. You might be able to watch TV for an hour or two maximum. So all the streets are dark, and no one is using a fridge anymore.
MB: People aren’t using refrigerators at all?
A: No. And there is no heater in the house. Nothing. Maybe some of the big shops, they might have a generator, though the diesel and the fuel is very expensive. You might find something cold in some of the shops, but not all of them. If you have money, you might be able to buy some juice or fruits or some cold food for your family.
MB: So, there’s no central electricity at all?
A: It’s done. Done. Even in the liberated areas – the so-called liberated areas, like in Marib or in Aden. The people are demonstrating in Aden, especially now, starting the summer season because it’s so hot – it’s a big chaos, even in Aden, In Hudaydah, it’s a bigger disaster, and the Red Sea coastal cities and towns are as hot as Aden, and people are really poor. In, in all of those areas the coalition forces liberated, they don’t have anything – no electricity – and there’s lot’s of corruption. Everyone thinks it’s “open season” – for example, over control of a gas refinery. The legitimate government isn’t functioning. And of course, the elites, the journalists, officials and military leaders are outside the country. They might come to the front for a day or two for photos, and they are outside the country again.
MB: You mentioned that, but how do they get in and out of the country if the airports are closed?
A: Because from Marib, it’s close to the Saudi border. And also, military flights are operating. In Aden, it’s controlled by the Emirati forces, so officials who are loyal to them or journalists keep coming and going through their military airport.
MB: What about qat? Are people still chewing qat?
A: Yeah, but not much because the prices – people do not have the money to buy anymore. They focus more on food and other priorities.
MB: So, President Trump – even today, during his Press Conference – touted the $110 billion dollar arms sale he says he negotiated with Saudi Arabia. The US Senate was considering a bill that would block that arms sale, citing civilian deaths from the Saudi-led coalition bombing campaign. What would you tell US lawmakers?
A: They shouldn’t [allow the sale]. They shouldn’t. But I don’t know if my words are going to make a difference. Maybe all this war is because of arms sales and arms testing – it’s billions and billions of dollars. For me, it’s shocking, because if you see civil society in media – the international community in the UK, Europe and US – from one side, they’re promoting human rights and democracy, good governance and so on, and from the other, they are just killing us.
Michael Bronner is editor-at-large at Warscapes.