‘If the world knows, they’ll stop the war’: Reflections from Southern Yemen

A woman walks past a building in the city of Aden, destroyed during the height of the ground fighting there in early 2015. Since then, the ground fighting has subsided in Aden and southern Yemen, but residents continue to suffer in many ways due to the extreme economic stress caused by the ongoing war. Mohammed Taleb/Oxfam

Last month, Oxfam America’s Scott Paul visited southern Yemen to better understand the ongoing humanitarian crisis affecting millions throughout the country – a crisis in dire need of a peaceful solution.

From April 12 to 22, I visited southern Yemen in order to better understand the drivers of the humanitarian crisis taking place there and throughout the country. I devoted most of my time to appreciating the gendered impacts of the conflict, speaking with Yemeni organizations on the obstacles to their ability to lead the humanitarian response, building a more detailed understanding of the capacity of the port of Aden, and meeting people affected by the conflict. Some of what I observed only confirmed what I already knew: Throughout Yemen, incomes are declining as prices skyrocket and public services collapse, leaving families unable to afford basic necessities. But I came away with a new understanding of the southern people’s feelings of voicelessness. Many seem to assume that the absence of high-profile airstrikes and the presence of institutions associated with the internationally recognized government mean a better life. This is not the case. Communities in southern Yemen are suffering deeply and crying out for recognition and help. Too often, they have not been heard.

The names of people in this story have been changed for their protection.

Ali in Lahj        

Ali has one thing going for him that most Yemenis don’t: a regular salary. The vast majority of Yemen’s 1.5 million civil servants haven’t been paid since August 2016, as they work to maintain their country’s collapsing social safety net. But Ali, a teacher, earns a salary of 36,000 Yemeni riyals (YER) every month.

I met Ali in Malbeyah, a small hamlet in Lahj governorate on the border with the neighboring governorate of Taiz. It took three-and-a-half hours of driving from Aden to get there, half of it on a poorly maintained dirt road. Date palms – tragically unharvested since the workers no longer have the equipment or know-how to climb them to pick their fruit – surround the village. Ali was the first to introduce himself to me, eager to explain the situation so people around the world might better understand.

Fighting between the Houthis and forces associated with the Government of Yemen is close, just on the northern side of the mountain overlooking the village, but Ali and his family feel safe here. Still, the reality of war touches everything in Yemen, even for people who haven’t had to dodge missiles, shells, and landmines. Before the conflict escalated, even here, at the foothills of the Sarawat Mountains, miles away from any paved road or major city, sacks of flour were available for 200 YER (at the 2015 exchange rate, about 90 cents). Today they cost 1,200 YER (about $2.50 USD). Water from a pump and well that Oxfam’s team rehabilitated is the only affordable resource in town. The prices are set by the community so they will be able to afford future maintenance and repairs without outside aid.

Even Ali’s salary isn’t nearly as nice as it sounds. Before the war, Ali’s salary was worth about $170 a month. Thanks to the collapse of Yemen’s economy and financial institutions, his 36,000 YER are now worth about $75. Every month when his salary runs out, Ali asks local shop owners if he can buy food on credit. When the answer is no, Ali’s family eats less. Thankfully the shop owners usually agree, but only on the condition that the manager of the school guarantees the loan.

I asked Ali what he wants people to understand and what they could do to help. “I have no more words to explain,” he replied with resignation. “If the world knows, they’ll stop the war. This is all because of the war.”

Fatima, 85, standing next to her home in Malbeyah village, Lahj governorate, Yemen. Omar Algunaid/Oxfam

Fatima and Haidar, Displaced to Lahj

For Ali, the war is an economic chokehold tightening every day, not a threat to his physical safety. For Fatima and Haidar, it’s both.

Fatima invited me to an area behind a house that has been her home since 2016. The area was covered by a sheet, which appears to provide adequate protection against the sun but not from the cold, rain, or snakes. Fatima is 85 years old.

“We are suffering a lot,” she told me. “We don’t have mattresses and I sleep on this rough ground.” When I asked her why she left her home village, in the Moza’e district of Taiz governorate, her eyes filled with fear and anger. She swung her arms into motion to illustrate the furious pace of airstrikes and shelling before using them to shield her head to demonstrate just how vulnerable she felt, and still feels, to the bombardment. I wanted to listen to her as much as she wanted to talk, without asking her to relive even a moment more of her traumatic experience and journey than she was willing. “I will cry with bloody tears,” Fatima added. “As you see, we are here like sheep.”

On the central road in Malbeyah, as I prepared to depart, Haidar stopped me to recount his own flight and his current travails. Haidar used to live in Zebid, a historic town in Hodeidah governorate. He explained to me that the town collapsed around him – healthcare and water were unavailable, and food was unaffordable. Airstrikes and ground fighting put his life in danger every day, but what concerned Haidar most were the landmines. They seemed to be everywhere, but no one knew exactly where. Malbeyah is safe, but the life here is hard. “I only have money when people need me to carry blocks and cement up the hill,” he told me. If the war stops, he’s confident that he can find a job back home, but for now, this is the best place for him to be.

Yemen’s war is escalating

Over the past three years, violence in Yemen has spiraled out of control. Merciless ground fighting has destroyed whole cities and airstrikes on health clinics, schools, factories, and farms have become so commonplace that they no longer raise international alarm. But even the occasional headlines of violent, combat-related deaths are themselves infinitely more visible than the plight of Yemen’s women and girls, who are disproportionately suffering from malnutrition, disease, and child marriage (which, once on the decline, is now again on the rise). Through its indifference, the international community has allowed these abominable violations to become the background noise to the war in Yemen.

During my stay, this already brutal conflict took yet another unmistakable turn for the worse. In the space of 10 days, Yemen saw scores of civilians killed in armed attacks, including an airstrike on a wedding party. The assassination of a protection officer working for the International Committee of the Red Cross further demonstrated that there are few boundaries the parties to the war will not cross. This targeted attack on an aid worker not only ended a life; it threatens life-saving support to millions Yemenis who have no alternative.

And instead of pursuing an urgent peace, the parties are doubling down on impossible strategies to win the war. The pace of ballistic missiles into Saudi Arabia appears to be increasing by the month, while the Saudi Arabia-led coalition presses ahead with a military offensive to seize Hodeidah, Yemen’s most important port. If the coalition proceeds with this attack, the offensive would likely ignite the largest famine and public health crisis in a generation. United Nations Special Envoy Martin Griffiths told the Security Council that it would, “in a single stroke, take peace off the table.” Yet, few international actors have warned against this attack. At an April 17 hearing before the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Acting Assistant Secretary of State David Satterfield refused to rule out the possibility that the U.S. would continue supporting the coalition if it moves ahead in Hodeidah.

Damaged water and sewage systems in Al Sikh Osman, Aden, Yemen. Oxfam

Aden is at peace but still suffering from war

International humanitarian efforts in the southern governorates are based out of Aden, the capital of South Yemen before unification in 1990. Even more than Sana’a – Yemen’s northern capital – Aden’s streetscapes bear the marks of a vicious battle.

In 2015, forces aligned with the Houthis and former President Ali Abdullah Saleh captured most of the city, but were eventually driven out by a combination of forces aligned with the government of Yemen and the Saudi Arabia-led coalition. Today, a drive down the city’s main thoroughfares showcases its open wounds. Piles of debris accumulate alongside buildings still standing, with caved-in sides and facades pock-marked with bullet holes. Many residents talk openly but with heavy hearts of their family members shot dead by Houthi snipers and intense shelling. And for many, the memory of humanitarian agencies’ outcry on behalf of Yemenis in the North stands in stark contrast with their silence and absence during the battle of Aden. I’m usually proud of my affiliation with humanitarian work, but this failure in Aden makes me ashamed. We owe Adenis a profound apology and a promise not to forget them in the future.

Today, there is no sniper fire or shelling in Aden. Fresh fruit hangs from shop windows and restaurant workers sling massive platters of rice and goat in front of their patrons. The streets hum with a pleasant bustle. But beneath the veneer of normalcy is the same economic chokehold I saw in remote Malbeyah. High prices mean that bread – not to mention the ubiquitous fruits, rice, and goat – is a challenge to afford for most families. Drivers form long lines at gas stations to buy fuel at exorbitant prices so they can get to and from work next week, knowing full well they’re spending that night’s dinner money. For some, the lack of work, high prices, and lack of access to safe water is life-threatening. Women and girls, who have come here from the countryside, are especially vulnerable to harassment and gender-based violence as they carry out their daily chores.

Even big businesses are threatened. According to the Aden Chamber of Commerce, more than 200 factories and businesses that closed during the fighting in 2015 have yet to reopen, leaving tens of thousands of people out of work. The businesses that are open are struggling to survive and keep workers employed. One of my colleagues, a lifelong Adeni who regularly bears witness to the misery of the poorest Yemenis in the surrounding governorates, could not contain his distress after our visit to the Chamber of Commerce: “I know people are suffering, but these are the rich guys. When things get bad, they raise prices and stay rich, no problem. It’s always been like that. If they’re complaining, we’re really in trouble.”

Cars queuing for fuel in Al Masoura District, Aden. Oxfam

Import restrictions are hurting Yemenis everywhere

Since 2015, the Saudi Arabia-led coalition has imposed severe restrictions on imports through the Houthi-controlled ports of Hodeidah and Saleef, including, for the past five months, a complete ban on containerized cargo. Business should be booming in Aden, Hodeidah’s main competitor and now Yemen’s only container port – but it isn’t. A few months ago, the coalition began blocking the importation of cars, solar panels, batteries, and spare parts in most cases. The coalition diverts all containerized cargo to Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, for a first round of inspections and then conducts a second round of inspections in Aden. Ships are denied clearance to berth if even a single container holds a prohibited item. The inspections in Jeddah and Aden, and the back-and-forth of clearance requests, are killing business in Aden’s port and further undermining the local and national economy. After all, why ship a container to Aden for $2,000 USD when it costs $700 USD to ship it to the Saudi port of Jizan?

Business in bulk and break bulk (bagged, boxed, etc.) cargo is substantially better in Aden than the rest of the country, but it is nowhere near enough to make up for the deficit caused by the restrictions on Hodeidah. In particular, more grain can’t be accommodated. Aden has only three grain siloes and small mills, which are at full capacity, compared to the seven in Hodeidah. With grain prices already through the roof, and the possibility of military escalation ending or limiting imports through Hodeidah and driving prices ever higher, this is key. The Aden Port Development Company has made its concerns clear, but is being ignored by parties to the conflict intent on downplaying the humanitarian impact of military operations at Hodeidah.

In fact, no one really seems interested in anything the Port Development Company is saying. In January, following intense criticism of its decision to further restrict imports through Hodeidah, the Saudi-led coalition announced its Yemen Comprehensive Humanitarian Operations plan, a central pillar of which is to expand the capacity of the ports of Aden, Mukullah, and Mokha. The port authorities excitedly submitted a list of requests that would substantially increase safety and capacity at the port; equipment to replace the looted lighting system so they can work at night; equipment for the port’s control tower, and a tugboat to help ships navigate the harbor. More than three months after the offer to invest in the port, Saudi Arabia has yet to agree to any of these requests. Instead it has offered four mobile cranes to match those funded by USAID and emplaced in Hodeidah, even though the Port Development Corporation maintains these would not be useful in Aden. This follows a pattern by all of the parties to the conflict: make bold promises to improve people’s lives and take steps toward a better future and then dismiss those same people and their legitimate demands as irrelevant when the spotlight fades away.

Residents of Taiz City collect water from an Oxfam water tank. Many place their jerry cans in line during the evening to make sure they get water the next day. Abdulnasser Al-Sedek/Oxfam

Military activity around Hodeidah would be disastrous for southern Yemenis

In the past few weeks, I’ve read and heard reports of the coalition and the Houthis recruiting local forces in Hodeidah governorate for what promises to be one of the cruelest episodes in one of the world’s cruelest wars. International attention has rightly focused on the effects of the fighting on Yemen’s population in northern cities and towns. They are amongst Yemen’s poorest people and they rely on food and fuel from the Hodeidah port, which will inevitably close for an extended period if the fighting makes its way to Hodeidah city. Concern also extends to the tens, potentially hundreds of thousands of local residents who are likely to flee the area in search of safety and services, as many like Haidar have already done.

But few thoughts have been spared for the millions who live in the South – in Aden, Lahj, al-Dhale, and the surrounding areas in southern governorates – adding insult to the injury of overlooking them in 2015. Accommodating displaced people from the North has already put poor southern communities under stress. As more families flee the fighting, simply maintaining the life-threatening status quo will be a struggle. Southerners are already baffled and frustrated that goods imported through the Port of Aden – now Yemen’s only functioning container port – are unavailable in local markets. That’s because, according to port officials and the Aden Chamber of Commerce, roughly 80 percent of all cargo imported into Aden goes north toward Sana’a, where many of Yemen’s wealthiest people still live. Given the purchasing power of people in Sana’a, that percentage only stands to increase if the coalition proceeds with an offensive that stops, limits, or diverts imports through Hodeidah.

Therefore, the Hodeidah offensive is unlikely to achieve what appears to be its principal objective: to reduce the percentage of imports and their attendant revenues from ending up in Houthi control. Instead, it would reduce the total amount of Yemen’s imports in the North and South evenly, precipitating a whole new level of suffering throughout Yemen.

The international community must support peace

“If the world knows, they’ll stop the war.” Ali’s logic is clear, but it has not yet come to pass. For more than three years, the international community has enabled fighting rather than intervened to stop it. It has provided arms, financing, and other forms of military support to the different parties, encouraging them to seek a better outcome on the battlefield than they can get at the negotiating table. For the Yemeni parties as well as their international patrons, the daily suffering of people throughout the country is abstract and irrelevant to their political aims. 

For the U.S. government, this has meant a policy of unconditional and indefinite support for the coalition’s military offensive, even as U.S. officials urge de-escalation and acknowledge that the coalition cannot prevail on the battlefield. But momentum has been shifting. Nearly a year ago, forty-seven senators voted to block a new sale of precision-guided munitions to Saudi Arabia. Earlier this year, a more far-reaching measure garnered nearly as many votes. Soon (perhaps as early as this week), a new, bigger sale of precision weapons will be sent for consideration in the Senate, where it is likely to face strong resistance. And in addition, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee may be poised to consider a measure that would end mid-air refueling of Saudi jets unless it Saudi Arabia takes steps to make peace, increase humanitarian access, and reduce civilian casualties. Presently the requirements imposed on Saudi Arabia are vague, but if they are sharpened in Committee, this legislation could set limits on U.S. engagement in Yemen’s war.

Efforts like these – not just in Washington but in capitals around the world and at the United Nations – may help push the war to an end. For people everywhere in Yemen – the South included – that day cannot come soon enough.

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