As Yemenis Suffer from Strikes, Conflict and Siege, Will Geneva Peace Talks Offer Any Relief?

June 16, 2015


Sharif Abdel Kouddous

Democracy Now! correspondent reporting from Sana’a, Yemen. His latest piece in Foreign Policy is "Saudis Above, Houthis Next Door, and Death All Around."

Joe Lauria

United Nations correspondent at The Wall Street Journal.

Image Credit: Sharif Abdel Kouddous

Al-Qaeda in Yemen has announced its leader, Nasser al-Wuhayshi, has been killed in a U.S. bombing, likely a CIA drone strike. Al-Wuhayshi is a former associate of Osama bin Laden who became head of AQAP in 2009. Meanwhile, a delegation of Houthi rebels has arrived in Geneva for the second day of U.N.-backed peace talks. It has been nearly three months since Saudi Arabia launched its offensive against the Houthis in Yemen. On Monday, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon called for a two-week humanitarian ceasefire to coincide with the start of the holy month of Ramadan. The United Nations recently said 20 million people, 78 percent of the population, need urgent humanitarian aid in Yemen. We are joined by Democracy Now! correspondent Sharif Abdel Kouddous, reporting from the capital Sana’a, and by Joe Lauria, U.N. correspondent for The Wall Street Journal.


This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AARON MATÉ: We begin today’s show in Yemen, where there are two major developments. Al-Qaeda in Yemen has announced its leader, Nasser al-Wuhayshi, has been killed in a U.S. bombing, likely a CIA drone strike. Al-Wuhayshi is a former associate of Osama bin Laden. He became head of AQAP in 2009. Meanwhile, a delegation of Houthi rebels has arrived in Geneva for the second day of U.N.-backed peace talks. It’s been nearly three months since Saudi Arabia launched its offensive against the Houthis in Yemen. On Monday, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon called for a two-week humanitarian ceasefire to coincide with the start of the holy month of Ramadan.

SECRETARY-GENERAL BAN KI-MOON: The fighting has killed more than 2,600 people, half of them civilians. It has destroyed the schools, hospitals and precious cultural heritage. Today, Yemen’s very existence hangs in the balance. While parties bicker, Yemen burns. The parties have a responsibility to end the fighting and begin a real process of peace and reconciliation.

AMY GOODMAN: The United Nations recently said 20 million people, 78 percent of the population, need urgent humanitarian aid in Yemen. That’s an increase of four million from just three months ago.

We’re joined by two guests. On the ground in Sana’a, Yemen, we’re joined by Democracy Now! correspondent Sharif Abdel Kouddous. And here in New York, Joe Lauria is with us, U.N. correspondent for The Wall Street Journal.

We welcome you both to Democracy Now! You know, I think what’s most important, what we fail to understand outside of Yemen right now, is what is happening on the ground. Sharif, you did a very important piece for Foreign Policy describing the scene on the ground. Can you describe it for us? What is it like to be there?

SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: Well, Amy, Yemen is in a dire situation. Yemenis are being strangled by the blockade that’s being imposed by Saudi Arabia, an air, sea and land blockade, that is really causing a very grave humanitarian crisis, and its effects are seen everywhere on the ground. You can’t drive in Sana’a without seeing cars lined up waiting for gas. They’re lined three deep and stretch for miles. They can’t even see the beginning of the gas station. They wait sometimes three days for gas. We were at one of these lines the other day. A man had waited 26 hours just to get 60 liters at the pump. People push their cars forward. They sleep and eat in their cars. And sometimes tempers flare as people wait this long. And people have been—have killed each other over fuel.

The fuel-powered pumps, that pump water for sanitation and cleaning, are mostly inoperable, so water is hard to come by. This is a very parched country to begin with. The poorest, of course, have to wait in line for water. You see them lining up with—they’re allowed five dairy cans per family to collect water, and that’s for cooking, washing, cleaning and drinking, as well.

There’s no—there’s been hardly any electricity in Sana’a for the past three months, so at night the city really goes into blackness. There’s a rise in—when you walk around Sana’a, you can hear the rattle of generators. That’s the only way people really have any electricity. There’s people now selling solar panels on the streets; they’re becoming increasingly popular for those who can afford it.

The trash has not been picked up in weeks, and you see rubbish piling up on the streets and sometimes being burned, and the stench wafts into the air.

Prices have gone up of basic food items and staple items. There’s no economic life. The private sector has almost completely gone down. You find ex-bankers driving taxis, day laborers waiting for hours on end on the corner and getting no work whatsoever. They have to send their families back home to their home villages, where they live off of charity.

Hospitals have been severely affected, especially by the fuel crisis. They rely on fuel to power generators for electricity. The Health Ministry says over 60 health institutions have been attacked. And people are relying very heavily on international aid.

So this is, you know, the humanitarian crisis that it’s facing, and this is without even talking about the daily bombing that happens from the Saudi-led coalition in Sana’a and in other cities, in Aden and Taiz especially, vicious street battles between forces, the Houthis, the rebel group that has taken over large—control of large parts of Yemen, and forces loyal to the ex-president, Ali Abdullah Saleh. So, it really is a very grave situation here in Yemen.

AARON MATÉ: Well, Sharif, on the issue of the Saudi bombing, how intense is it? Are they targeting residential areas? You, in fact, spoke to some victims whose homes were destroyed.

SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: Well, the bombing is almost always worse at night. You hear the jets fly over, the screech of missiles, the booms of the bombs falling down, and very quickly followed by the dull thuds of anti-aircraft fire that the Houthis fire back into the air, very rarely hitting anything, if ever at all.

Just a couple of days ago, at around 2:00 a.m. on Saturday night, four missiles rained down on an area called Beit Meyad, which is in central Sana’a, and hit a street where the al-Amari family was living, and five of them were killed. Two of them were children, four of them siblings. There was fire everywhere. They were trying to run outside of the building, and an explosion blew a gate into four of them and killed them instantly. An aunt of the victims that I spoke to, Boshra, said that they buried pieces of them. And that strike also killed five members of another family, three of them children. So this missile strike killed 10 people, five of them children, and their only crime was that they lived on a street where Ali Abdullah Saleh’s brother and nephews lived.

And we’ve seen this increasing trend. Activists and people on the ground here increasingly speak of a trend where Saudi forces are moving from targeting security installations and weapons depots to targeting the homes of their opponents, so not where there’s any weapons or anything, but they’re bombing the homes of their opponents. And you find people are moving away from these areas. And so, this is causing a very heavy civilian toll, civilian casualty toll. I mean, the bombings before also caused a very, very heavy toll.

And speaking to the aunt of the victims that I was telling you about, she was telling her story, and it really is one of civilians caught in this crossfire. In addition to losing five family members in this bombing, she has an 80-year-old aunt who was killed after—as a result of shelling by forces loyal to the Houthis. She was wounded. She couldn’t get to a hospital for one month because of the street fighting, and she succumbed to her injuries. She has another relative in Aden, in the south, who’s mentally ill. He was walking in the street and was shot by a sniper. And another relative of hers, just last week here in the capital, was kidnapped by the Houthis.

So, she doesn’t know where to take her kids to protect them. She’s tried sending them to villages, but they’ve also come under attack. She’s trying to leave Sana’a in any way that she can. But with the borders closed and very few outbound flights, she feels trapped. And so, this is the kind of situation that Yemenis are facing every day.

AMY GOODMAN: We are showing your photos, and for radio listeners who can’t see them, you can go to Sharif Abdel Kouddous, speaking to us in Sana’a, Yemen, as you describe this and the horror of the families who have lost so many loved ones, picking up their dismembered bodies from bombings and just burying a hand or a foot, what are their feelings about what is going on? Who are they blaming, Sharif?

SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: Well, I think without any difference, almost everyone blames Saudi Arabia for what is happening, for the bombing and, almost equally, for the siege, for the blockade that is happening.

Having said that, there is—there is a lot of anger, as well, against the Houthis, who have taken over Sana’a in September and have moved south, taking over much of the country. They’ve been accused of many violations. Human rights activists and lawyers that I speak with say this is the worst era yet for human rights in Yemen that they have seen. Houthi forces have arrested journalists, doctors, lawyers, activists. In one of the worst cases, they kidnapped two journalists in late May and detained them in a building that they knew would be targeted. And the very next day, the Saudis bombed that building and killed both journalists. They’ve turned houses—the house of the exiled president, Abdu Rabbu Hadi, and Ali Mohsen have both been turned into detention centers. Rights activists and lawyers talk about how there’s no clear structure for the Houthis. It’s mainly—one lawyer told me it’s a bunch of gangs together. So when someone gets arrested, you don’t know who to talk to to get them out. There’s no rule of law whatsoever.

And almost one of the biggest complaints that people have is from the anti-aircraft fire. So hear this daily in Sana’a. If a plane passes overhead, a warplane, or even if it doesn’t, you just hear this dull thud of anti-aircraft fire all over the city. And these munitions have caused heavy, heavy civilian casualties. Amnesty International put out a report last month that said it was the leading cause of casualties in Yemen—in Sana’a, at least. We went to the Goumhouri hospital, which is the second biggest hospital in Yemen. The director there says he gets between three and five patients every day who are wounded by these munitions.

So, again, it’s really a case of being caught trapped between two sides, by these external forces, which are raining bombs down, and forces on the ground, which are causing—committing human rights abuses and causing injuries, as well.

AARON MATÉ: Sharif, we’re also joined here by Joe Lauria, U.N. correspondent at The Wall Street Journal. Joe, you broke some news in The Wall Street Journal in April that did not get very much attention, but it’s very important. Basically, right before the Saudi campaign began in late March, there were talks, like are going on today in Geneva. But back then, there was real progress toward a deal. There was some dispute over power sharing. The Houthis had made some concessions. But the Saudi bombing basically negated all this. Can you talk about this?

JOE LAURIA: Yes, this was Jamal Benomar, who was the previous envoy of the U.N. He had worked for two years to try to bring all the parties together and create a power-sharing deal. That was his job, and he took a neutral position. And he says that they were close to a deal and that the remaining sticking point was the role of the presidency. And at that point, as Sharif said, the Houthis had taken over Sana’a in September, but they had agreed to withdraw—according to Benomar, withdraw from the positions they held in the capital and elsewhere in the country in exchange for Hadi taking a reduced role, either as a strong vice president or as a head of a presidential council. The Saudis never had pressured Hadi to accept this, so he rejected that. And the talks went on until March 23rd, the night that the bombing began from Saudi Arabia, and that was the end of that. Now there’s this attempt in Geneva, for which there’s very little optimism, to revive the talks again.

AARON MATÉ: So the Houthis had accepted a deal under which their foe, Hadi, would remain in some capacity.


AARON MATÉ: And they also called for a more representative government.

JOE LAURIA: Yes. Well, they were going to get about 20 percent of the seats in Parliament and Cabinet. Another point that a diplomat had made to me was that this deal would have seen 30 percent women in the Cabinet and 30 percent in Parliament. And the suggestion is that the Saudis certainly did not want to see some kind of progressive democracy in their backyard. And if you look at the strategy they’ve deployed throughout the entire so-called Arab Spring, it’s been to undermine wherever some popular democracy has broken out, whether that be in Egypt, to overthrow the popularly elected president, or in Bahrain, where they certainly don’t want the majority Shia to take over and oust a Sunni king. And in Syria, they’re not backing democratic extremists who—they don’t really seem to want democracy in Syria. In Iraq, too, they backed extremists who do not want to see a democratically elected Shia government survive.

So this was perhaps—it’s believable that the Saudis have intervened more so for this reason perhaps than for the Iranian angle, which is a whole other story here, because even the United States State Department does not say that Iran has operational influence over the Houthis. This is a country awash in weapons. They don’t really need help from Iran in terms of that. A good part of the army has gone over to the Houthis. And we also have to talk about Saleh, President Saleh, who was ousted in this popular uprising, who never went away, was always in the background. He was always trying to create instability so people would turn to him as a savior. He has now joined up with the Houthis. He was the Saudis’ guy. And this is a terrible mix right now. And as far as Geneva goes, they won’t even—

AMY GOODMAN: The talks that are taking place there.

JOE LAURIA: Yeah, so the talks that are taking place today are not—they’re proximity talks, so they’re not going to be speaking face to face. And the Hadi side, Saudi-backed side, says that they have to implement a Security Council resolution from a month ago which says that the Houthis have to withdraw, and he has to be restored to power, otherwise they won’t even meet with the Houthis, while the U.N. is saying there should be no conditions. So it’s unlikely that they’re going to speak face to face. The best thing that could happen is a ceasefire during Ramadan, but that’s also a long shot.

AMY GOODMAN: And the U.S. role? You say Iran is clearly not operational in Yemen, but the U.S. in its support of Saudi Arabia?

JOE LAURIA: I think it’s very weak. I don’t think they were very excited about this at all. You have to see it in the context also of the nuclear talks with Iran. Maybe the United States let them go ahead and blow off some steam there. There was also the question of, you know, the—Saudi Arabia is very angry at the United States, because they didn’t intervene in Syria when the chemical weapon issue came, and they made a deal with Russia. And they’re very angry about the Iranian talks. We have a new king, a new foreign minister, after so many years, in Saudi Arabia, and they’re taking a more independent stance. And the U.S. is hurting because their interest in—from what we know, in Yemen, is to defeat al-Qaeda, and al-Qaeda is actually gaining from this Saudi intervention. The Houthis are fighting al-Qaeda; they’re the main force fighting al-Qaeda. But here are the Saudis bombing the Houthis, not touching al-Qaeda, which have become a kind of de facto ground force for the Saudis, along with some tribes in the north and those elements of the army still loyal to Hadi.

AMY GOODMAN: I mean, the U.S. is hardly neutral here. The U.S. has made larger weapons sales to Saudi Arabia than any country on Earth.

JOE LAURIA: Oh, well, they have to keep the Saudis happy, don’t they? So, they’re complaining about too many people dying. You remember there was a—they called it off about two moths ago. Everybody’s forgot. That was the end of the bombing, a victory.

AARON MATÉ: For a few days.

JOE LAURIA: And then about—a few hours. The bombing started again. And the story is, the U.S. told them they’ve had to stop because too many people were dying.

AMY GOODMAN: Sharif Abdel Kouddous, on the ground in Sana’a, Yemen, we reported at the top of the show al-Qaeda has confirmed the death of its second most powerful leader in a U.S. drone strike in Yemen, Nasser al-Wuhayshi, leader of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, the group’s Yemeni affiliate, and a former personal secretary of Osama bin Laden. Can you talk overall about where AQAP is on the ground?

SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: Well, Amy, since the war began, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula has seized more territory and has been emboldened and strengthened by this conflict. The Houthis are amongst the biggest enemies of AQAP, and we’ve seen them take over cities like Mukalla and take over weapons depots, get more arms and really be strengthened by this conflict. I think many analysts were pointing out that this was a very strong possibility if this war was to begin, and we’ve seen it happen on the ground. And so, it’s really having the opposite effect of what—you know, of what many are intending.

I just want to add one more thing, Amy, about being here. It’s been very, very difficult, including, you know, the Saudis have really blocked a lot of journalists from accessing Yemen, so including having—using this blockade to block media access. We have to remember this is almost three months now that this war has gone on, and there’s been hardly any international correspondents no the ground. And that is not for a lack of trying. They have tried to get in on aid boats. They’ve tried to come in on the U.N. And they’ve tried to come in on regular commercial flights that happen once a day. And they’ve been blocked, and they’ve been blocked. The Saudis control the access. And so, there’s been some very brave journalists, like Iona Craig, who’s been in Aden, which is probably the worst-hit place in Yemen, really a catastrophe, and people are—there are reports of people dying of starvation there, and there’s hardly any media coverage. So I think, you know, that we were allowed on this one Yemenia flight—that’s the Yemen airlines—in, but there really has to be more pressure to allow journalists in.

And just to give you a sense of how much control the Saudis have over the airspace, Yemenis who are flying into Yemen from the outside, the planes—where before there was a direct flight from Cairo to Sana’a, it now stops in Saudi Arabia. And so, the plane stops there. All the bags are taken off; they’re checked. Saudi Arabian security officials come onto the plane. They check the passports. And when I was there, one Yemeni with me was humiliated that this was happening, that he had to go through Saudi Arabia to get to his country. So they really are controlling access to the country, both for Yemenis, for the media and for—more importantly, for all the humanitarian aid and the fuel. And the siege really must be lifted, is what many Yemenis are calling for.

AMY GOODMAN: And, Sharif, finally, the response of the people you interview, the hospital personnel and directors, the survivors of loved ones who are dying in drone strikes—the response to having an international reporter there?

SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: Well, I think most of them are surprised to see someone coming, you know, to interview them who’s not Yemeni. I mean, there’s been very intrepid and brave Yemeni journalists who have done amazing work over these past three months, but to see foreigners, I think, has been rare. And they’ve been very welcoming, very open to tell their stories. And, you know, the first day I arrived here was the bombing of the Old City, which is a very picturesque cultural—protected cultural heritage site. And a bomb fell there at around 2:00 in the morning, killing five people. And one of the—the doctor, his name’s Dr. Salah Abdelgadir [phon.]. He was under the ground, and he—under the rubble, called his mother, told them where they were. By the time they dug him out, he was already dead. And the people around were telling their stories, saying, "Why is Egypt [inaudible] U.S. participating in this? This is a crime that’s happening." So, they’re very willing to tell their stories, and so we need to listen to them.

AMY GOODMAN: Sharif, I want to thank you for being with us, on the ground in Sana’a, Yemen. Please be safe. We will link to your piece at Foreign Policy headlined "Saudis Above, Houthis Next Door, and Death All Around." Also want to thank Joe Lauria, U.N. correspondent for The Wall Street Journal.

This is Democracy Now! When we come back, we’re heading west to Seattle, Washington, to learn about U.S. military exercises in the Arctic. As well, what are the "kayaktivists" doing in Seattle, trying to stop Shell from drilling in the Arctic? Stay with us.

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