“Hodeidah is empty, Marina, there is no one there anymore”, says Noura to me this morning, in a short telephone conversation that is repeatedly interrupted because of the bad connection. Noura moved to Sana’a a week ago, fleeing the horrendous violence that has exploded in the city of Hodeidah since Thursday 14 June, the day before the start of Eid Al-Fitr. On that day the Saudi Led Coalition, mainly consisting of mercenaries and ground troops of the United Arab Emirates army, soldiers of the Yemeni National Army and Hiraak al-Tihama started the long planned attack on Hodeidah, Yemen’s main port on the Red Sea. In the past six months the United Nations and many humanitarian organizations have asked the Saudi-Led Coalition not to attack Hodeidah because 90 per cent of Yemen’s import, including most humanitarian aid goes through its port, but their calls have been to no avail. An attack on Hodeidah does not only lead to hundreds of thousands of displaced people who will flee the city, but also to a dramatic increase of famine and death in the country as a whole. Why is the international community unable or unwilling to prevent this from happening? And why do we hear so little about this humanitarian disaster in the Western media?
According to Finian Cunningham, the silence about the horrific war in Yemen, and in particular the Western government’s silent approval of the attack on Hodeidah, has to be seen in the light of the West’s support to the “genocide” of Yemenis. In his article Cunningham argues that Western media whitewash the criminal role of the American, British and French governments by narrowingly focusing on the humanitarian disaster the attack causes while omitting the crucial military support these governments give to the attack. Instead of giving a balanced insight into the details, interests and background of the war in Yemen, Western media portray the war mainly as a fight against the “Iran-backed” Houthis, and in doing so produce a simplistic and wrong image of the real issues at stake. While the Houthis are indeed a Shia-inspired insurgency, and there are definitely political and ideological connections between the Houthi movement and Iran, there is no evidence for military support, according to Cunningham. The “Iran-card” is only played to justify Saudi Arabia’s involvement in the war in Yemen. Yet, while there is no evidence for Iranian support to the Houthis, Western support to the Saudi-led Coalition (SLC) is far from hidden. There are numerous reports that show that the US, UK and France are providing military aircrafts, equipment and weapons, in addition to intelligence to the SLC.
Cunningham’s views are in line with those of Isa Blumi, who in his recent book Destroying Yemen: What Chaos in Arabia Tells us About the World (University of California, 2018) argues that the war is a serious attempt of the “empire” to destroy Yemen and get access to its rich oil resources. Based on a very detailed analysis of centuries of Western, or better: capitalist, involvement in Yemen, Blumi shows how Saudi Arabia, supported by Western governments, have gradually increased their hold on Yemen, in particular in the past four decades when Ali Abdullah Saleh was in power. Saleh has sold Yemen to “empire” the West’s development aid, by accepting Saudi’s financial and ideological involvement, which made the country completely donor dependent, and gave his support to the so-called war on terror. During Saleh’s reign (1978-2011) Yemen has lost its independence and free spirit.
While Blumi’s analysis based on years of research is very convincing, reading his book also leaves me with questions. First of all, while Blumi explains the background of the rise of the Houthi movement he says almost nothing about their oppressive “regime”. In the past four years the Houthis have killed and arrested hundreds of politicians, human rights activists and journalists, closed down NGOs and other civil society initiatives and imposed a social order in which many human rights have been curtailed. Many Yemenis want the war and the Saudi bombings to stop, but they also want an end to Houthi oppression. When the attacks on Hodeidah started, one of my friends said the ground troops were welcome as he hoped that they would succeed in overthrowing the Houthis. But now this friend also fled to Sana’a as the violence in Hodeidah was too much to take. Neglecting the role that the Houthis play in this war, whether or not they are backed by Iran, is also an omission.
Secondly, Blumi’s book is a structural analysis of the global political economy in which Yemen plays a much larger role than many of us would think. Bringing this to light is extremely important, and that is also why I applaud Blumi’s achievement. Yet, reading about the master plan to destroy Yemen leaves very little to no hope for change. Only at the last few pages we read that “Yemenis will bend but not break, and prove to be the deadliest, unflagging enemy empire has ever known” (page 200), which gives a little glimmer of hope. But how this will happen remains a question.
While Blumi may be right that there is little hope when we look at the larger picture, the narratives of people on the ground can show us the many ways in which people are resilient, resist and bring about change. In my view, this is where anthropologists can play a role. We can understand how to fight “the empire” only by analyzing and understanding the dynamics on the ground, and how people turn politics into lived experiences. A macro-perspective does not teach us how to deal with a post-conflict situation but a bottom-up approach can reveal how we should foresee the future of Yemen, from the eyes of its people, and that is the commitment of engaged anthropologists. So while the Western media is silent about the atrocities taking place in Yemen, both committed by the Houthis and the Saudi-led Coalition, we need to listen to people’s voices and base our analysis and actions on what they tell us.
And Yemenis are willing to speak, despite the repression they are currently facing. When I asked Noura if she was willing to talk to a Dutch journalist on the phone, she immediately said yes. “Let him call me, Marina, I will tell him exactly what is going on in Hodeidah”, and so did other friends, also those who stayed behind because they have nowhere else to go. I regularly receive voice messages in which people tell me about the horrific situation in the country. While foreign journalists are almost unable to enter the country (see for example the account of Dutch journalist Lennart Hofman about the difficulties of getting into Yemen), Yemenis are doing their utmost best to get attention and make the world listen. Let us bring those voices out, in the media and in our analyses, so that we get a more complete view of what is going on in times of war and conflict.
Marina de Regt is assistant professor at the Department of Social and Cultural Anthropology of the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam. She specializes in gender issues in Yemen and Ethiopia.