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How Global Politics Made Yemen's Humanitarian Disaster

Ola Ali Salim's husband vanished five months ago and is presumed dead. She fled Yemen by boat and now lives with her daughter at a refugee camp in Obock, Djibouti. (Arezou Rezvani/NPR)
Ola Ali Salim's husband vanished five months ago and is presumed dead. She fled Yemen by boat and now lives with her daughter at a refugee camp in Obock, Djibouti. (Arezou Rezvani/NPR)

The war in Yemen is one of the worst humanitarian crises in the world. Largely started as an internal fight between rebels and their government, it's now a much more bloody battleground in the regional rivalry between Iran — which backs the rebels — and Saudi Arabia, which backs the government.

An NPR team spent weeks working to get a picture of the war, which has often taken place out of public view. NPR traveled with the Saudi military into Yemen, interviewed people in rebel-controlled zones, and then traveled to Djibouti, in East Africa, a destination for Yemeni refugees.

What emerged were the stories of people like Ola Ali Salim.

Salim is a citizen of Yemen, now a refugee. She had one daughter with her husband, who supported the family by driving a motorcycle, carrying one or two passengers at a time on the back of the seat.

Earlier this month, after fighting intensified in his hometown Hudaydah, Yemen, Ali Abdul Karim loaded his family into a small fishing boat and made a nine-hour overnight voyage to Djibouti and to the U.N. refugee camp in Obock. (Arezou Rezvani/NPR)

Last year, her husband was driving around the capital city, Sanaa, when it erupted in violence. A former president was trying to switch sides in the civil war and was killed. Sanaa was also being bombed by a Saudi-led coalition fighting Yemen's Houthi rebels. Amid explosions and gunfire, Salim simply stopped hearing from her spouse.

"He never called. We don't know any news of him, so the only explanation is that he's dead," she told NPR. "They didn't find the body."

It was only her latest loss. In a separate incident, three of her cousins were killed in what she believed to be an airstrike by the Saudi-led coalition — the only side in the battle with an air force.

In December, she packed a few belongings and traveled to the coast, hiding her grief beneath the black head covering, or niqab, which Yemeni women are expected to wear. She brought along her 12-year-old daughter. They boarded a small boat that bobbed across the Gulf of Aden in the middle of the night. They arrived in the African country of Djibouti, where NPR interviewed her.

Djibouti can have something of the feel of the movie Casablanca — a former French African colony, which serves as a way station or last refuge for the desperate. But there was nothing romantic about Salim's flight. She lives in a United Nations refugee camp in a tent with a floor of desert sand. She is within sight of the water and nearly within sight of the country where she lost her husband.

Azizah Salim and her two children ended up in the Obock refugee camp when she fled Yemen after her husband died last year and fighting in her town escalated. Her one wish for her children is that they remain healthy. (Arezou Rezvani/NPR)

The war that displaced Salim has a U.S. connection, which was on exhibit in Washington this week. Saudi Crown Prince and Defense Minister Mohammed bin Salman visited the White House and got a warm welcome from President Trump, who showed pictures of U.S. military hardware sold to Saudi Arabia.

A globalized conflict

The U.S. has provided targeting information, equipment and aircraft refueling to the Saudi air campaign, which has been widely criticized for being indiscriminate and killing civilians in places like hospitals, funerals and homes. Several thousand civilians have been killed since 2015, when the Saudis got into the war. On Tuesday, the day the prince met Trump, the U.S. Senate defeated a resolution 55-44 that would have limited what the U.S. can do to support the Saudi war effort.

A Yemeni army checkpoint (top) overlooks the road to the rebel-held capital, Sanaa. Yemeni government soldiers (bottom left) set up on a road leading toward Sanaa. A Saudi Arabian military aircraft lands just outside the city of Marib. (Top and bottom left: Steve Inskeep/NPR; Bottom right: Emily Ochsenschlager/NPR)

The issue will likely come up again. While both sides – the Houthi rebels and the Saudi-led coalition — have killed, detained or displaced civilians, much of the international focus has been on how the Saudi-led campaign escalated the violence.

The Saudis, along with a coalition that includes the United Arab Emirates, argue that they are countering a dangerous rebel faction backed by Iran. They note that Houthis have fired missiles – allegedly Iranian-made – into Saudi territory.

Gen. Nasser al-Thebani, a Yemeni commander, told NPR recently: "Our strategy is to liberate all Yemeni territory." (Steve Inskeep/NPR)

In the face of international criticism, the Saudis have cracked open a window on their side of the war. They have begun inviting reporters to view small portions of their battle lines. So in early March, the NPR team boarded a U.S.-built, Saudi-owned C-130 transport plane for a flight into Yemen to assess.

After arriving, the team drove into the mountains and to an observation post more than 8,000 feet above sea level, soldiers from Yemen's army took turns with binoculars peering into the valley. Somewhere over the horizon, the Houthis control Sanaa.

At the observation post, a Yemeni soldier, Lt. Ahkram Messen, told reporters that his parents live on the rebel side of this divided nation. "They are waiting on me to come," he said.

A senior officer, Gen. Nasser al-Thebani, said the Yemeni army strategy was "to liberate all Yemeni territory."

But soldiers at this forward position indicated they had been guarding the same line for two years without much movement. Yemen's army, which collapsed almost without firing a shot when the Houthis took the capital in 2014, remains a lightly trained force of uncertain strength.

Saudis prop up the Yemeni government to an extraordinary degree. Saudis pay the army. Saudi planes provide air cover, fire the artillery and use special forces to work with the lightly armed Yemeni government troops. This month, Saudi Arabia had to drop $2 billion in the Yemeni central bank to stave off a currency collapse. Yemen's president does not even live in Yemen; he lives in Saudi Arabia for safety.


Globalized criticism

Saudi officials recently emphasized their efforts to deliver humanitarian aid. One U.S. diplomat acknowledged these efforts but said they have not been enough. Even in Marib, which has ties to Saudi Arabia, there are long lines for gasoline — and Marib is more prosperous than most cities.

Rebel-held areas have had no electricity for years. Food is available, but inflation makes it nearly impossible to afford.

Yemenis who make the overnight journey to Djibouti by boat often end up at this shore in the small town of Obock, where the United Nations runs a camp for refugees. (Arezou Rezvani/NPR)
Power lines leading toward Sanaa, the Yemeni capital, have been cut. Rebel-held areas have had no electricity for years. Food is available, but inflation makes it nearly impossible to afford. (Steve Inskeep/NPR)

Dr. Najla al-Sonboli, a doctor at a maternal hospital in the capital, described an economic collapse. "Our staff have no salary for 1 1/2 years," she said. "We have a shortage of medicines for our patients." Cholera, which has swept parts of the country, is expected to intensify in the hot summer months.

Much of the chaos can be blamed on Houthi rebels. Refugees who fled the area told us that there is scant governance, merely a multitude of young men with Kalashnikov rifles at checkpoints.

But there are also the airstrikes of the Saudi-led coalition. A military base across the street from Sonboli's hospital has been bombed again and again. "This happens during the day, any part of the day, anytime," she said.

Human rights groups and reporters document other civilian sites that were struck: a different hospital, houses, a market, a funeral. The Saudis have begun to acknowledge some mistaken bombings — 11 so far. Outside groups count far more.

Under pressure, the Saudis have been in contact with the Houthi rebels and are believed to have made quiet efforts to arrange a peace.

But Saudi officials remain profoundly concerned about the spreading influence of Iran — and so does the Trump administration.

On a recent visit to the region, CIA Director Mike Pompeo showed a sharp interest in Yemen. He had a long meeting with U.S. diplomats about the country. Since then, Pompeo has been nominated to a post of even greater influence, secretary of state, where one of the many questions facing him will be what to do about Yemen's war.

Arezou Rezvani and Emily Ochsenschlager with Morning Edition contributed to this report.

Correction: March 22, 2018 12:00 am — A previous version of this story incorrectly referred to Marib as the capital of Yemen. The capital is actually Sanaa.

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