A Silent War
When the first planes appeared in the sky, Fatima* was outside, working in the backyard. As the first bomb fell on her family’s house in Sanaa, she did not run away. Instead, she rushed back, trying to make her way through the flames and the smoke that were slowly engulfing the building, to reach the room where she had left her three-year-old daughter. “I tried to get back inside, I tried to rescue her, but the fire was too high. I did not make it. She died there,” she says, lifting a sleeve of her black abaya and revealing the burn scars that cover her forearm.
In 2017, when Fatima’s house was bombed according to her reconstruction, Yemen witnessed a spike in the number of airstrikes, amounting to several thousands, as recorded by the Protection Cluster in Yemen. Media footages show collapsed buildings, with entire floors reduced to debris, clothes and furniture scattered in pieces on the ground, while pillars and stairs are still standing, looming like skeletons against the grey sky. Several organisations have reported that airstrikes caused deaths among civilians, again and again.
The scars on Fatima’s skin are the visible marks of a war that has been ongoing for six years by now, bringing the Yemeni population on the verge of famine and letting a generation of children grow up malnourished or wounded. According to a recent UNICEF report, at least 98.000 Yemeni children younger than five are at acute risk of starvation, while over 3.000 children have been killed and some 5.500 have been injured since the conflict escalated in March 2015. Numbers that are continuing to rise – with no durable solution in sight.
Several parties have been fighting for power in the country since the Houthis seized the capital Sanaa in 2014: The Houthi rebels, a movement born out of the Zaidi Shia minority, together with security forces loyal to former president Ali Abdullah Saleh, who had ceded power in 2012 after the Arab Spring uprisings; the government of Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi, who was in power when the Houthis advanced, forcing him to flee abroad in 2015; the Southern separatists, who have been striving to establish a separate government in the south; Al-Qaeda, which has tried to exploit the political instability caused by the conflict to gain control of the region. In March 2015, a coalition of several Arab states, led by Saudi-Arabia, began military interventions Yemen, carrying out mainly naval blockades and airstrikes against the Houthis. The coalition is supported by some Western countries, in particular the USA and UK. The Houthis, on the other side, are allegedly backed by Iran – even though the extent of their relationship is disputed.
If we compare the media coverage of the Yemeni war with other conflicts in the region, the humanitarian catastrophe seems to be underrepresented in the West – despite the fact that few months ago, UN investigators reiterated that airstrikes of the Saudi-led coalition, as well as killings on the Houthi side, may constitute war crimes and are fuelled by weapons provided by Western countries and Iran.
After the death of their only child, Fatima and her husband moved to another house, as the first had been destroyed in the airstrike. “Our financial situation was bad”, she recounts. The 33 years old was not working, battling a breast cancer she was struggling to cure in the war-torn country. The situation deteriorated further when the Houthis, she says, arrested her husband one year later. “They wanted to recruit him, but he refused. So they put him in jail,” she recalls. “He was the only person in the family who was working, I was sick, my daughter was dead.”
Fatima speaks in a calm, quite voice, her face covered by a black niqab that leaves only her brown eyes to be seen. In the moment of deepest desperation, she continues, something turned, giving her hope: A man helped her to get her husband out of jail and travel to Jordan on a medical visa. Once in Jordan, she and her family were recognised as refugees. But, after the initial relief, other problems began.
“My husband tried to work, but the Ministry let him choose: Either the work permit or the refugee status,” she says. It was not possible to reach the Jordanian Ministry of Labour for comment, but spokespersons of the UNHCR in Jordan confirmed that Yemeni refugees do not receive work permits. “This is always a source of frustration for them,” says communication officer Lilly Carlisle. It leaves them dependent on the assistance of aid organisations – or on the informal economy. Yemeni refugees share this situation with other non-Syrian refugee groups in Jordan.
Some refugees recount that they turned to informal daily jobs to stay afloat, but working without a permit exposes them to the risk of penalties, exploitation and a lack of financial security, making them vulnerable in crisis such as the present pandemic. Fatima recounts that her husband does not work and the family does not currently get assistance from NGOs, relying on the help of friends to pay for its necessities. “My husband is tired [of this situation]. People around us are helping, but in the last four months we have not been able to pay rent. The situation is really hard.”
Carlisle confirms that the pandemic has exacerbated the situation of many refugees – independently from their nationality. “We have a lot of families calling us and asking why they have not received cash assistance. (…) The simple answer, sadly, is: We know that vulnerability has increased and more refugees are living in poverty, but we do not have the money to help them,” she notes. The UN agency says it has granted additional cash aid to some 52.000 families since March, but it is still not enough to cover all those in need. Eviction among refugees has increased by 30 percent, Carlisle adds.
Yemeni refugees make up approximately two per cent of the refugee population in Jordan. And they arrived in the country after the first big refugee wave from Syria, as a spokesperson of the Danish Refugee Council Jordan points out. According to studies, a lack of international, targeted funding complicates further the lives of these smaller refugee communities, with part of the programmes focusing on the bigger groups.
“Right now, I am feeling sick and hurt, mainly because of the health and financial situation. And I could not provide education for my 17 years old sister,” Fatima says. In Jordan, refugees have free access to basic school education, but when the family arrived two years ago, they had other difficulties. “In Yemen, she had only gone to school until fourth grade. Plus, she had to take care of me. Here, someone wanted to help her go to a private school, but my family in Yemen did not accept it, they are very conservative.” The young woman, she says, has been forcibly engaged to a 55-year-old man. “She does not want to, but she has no choice.”
Not seldom, Yemeni women fight a war on several fronts, in their homeland like abroad. Often, these conflicts are silent, and they do not end when the person flees. For the interview, Fatima has chosen a place away from her house, requesting that the conversation is not recorded, for fear that it might fall in the wrong hands.
Asked if she has tried to get help from women organisations, she shakes her head. It is considered a shame to complain about the own parents. She says that she would like to travel outside Jordan, to be resettled in the USA. “And I want to take my sister with me, so that she can live her life, travel, work,” she adds. “There, they cannot reach us.”
The culture in Yemen is very male-dominated, Fatima explains after the interview is over, while she wears her coat. Women must obey their husbands and male relatives – even if they no longer live in the country. “Men decide everything, life is hard for women,” she adds, on her way out.
*Name has been changed to protect the identity of the interviewee.