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“From Bad to Worse”: Hundreds Dead & 100,000 Displaced as Saudi-Led Strikes Push Yemen to the Brink

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The death toll in Yemen continues to rise amid a Saudi-led military campaign and clashes between Houthi rebels and forces loyal to ousted President Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi. The most intense violence is in the southern city of Aden, with more than 140 people reportedly killed in a 24-hour period. The United Nations says hundreds have been killed and more than 100,000 have been displaced since Saudi Arabia launched a military campaign two weeks ago. The Saudi regime has asked Pakistan to provide soldiers, heightening the possibility of a ground invasion. The International Committee of the Red Cross has warned of a dire humanitarian situation and demanded access to besieged areas. We are joined by the journalist Safa Al Ahmad, whose latest documentary, “The Fight for Yemen,” premieres tonight on Frontline on PBS stations nationwide. She was granted extremely rare reporting access to the Houthis as they advanced in Yemen.

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AARON MATÉ: We begin in Yemen, where intense fighting between Houthi rebels and forces loyal to ousted President Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi continues to rage. The U.N. says hundreds have been killed and more than 100,000 displaced since Saudi Arabia launched a military campaign two weeks ago. Speaking today in Geneva, U.N. officials said at least 74 children have died since the Saudi strikes began.

CHRISTIAN LINDMEIER: The estimations from 6 April, as of yesterday, are 540 people have been killed and some 1,700 wounded by the violence in Yemen since 19 March.

CHRISTOPHE BOULIERAC: Seventy-four children are known to have been killed and 44 children maimed so far since the fighting began on 26 March. But we say we are aware that these are conservative figures, and we believe that the total number of children killed is much higher.

AMY GOODMAN: The Red Cross has warned of a dire humanitarian situation and demanded access to besieged areas. The most intense violence is in the southern city of Aden with more than 140 people reportedly killed in a 24-hour period. Saudi Arabia, meanwhile, has asked Pakistan to provide soldiers, heightening the possibility of a ground invasion.

For more, we’re joined by journalist Safa Al Ahmad. Her latest documentary, The Fight for Yemen, premieres tonight on Frontline on PBS stations across the United States. In the film, Safa was granted extremely rare access to the Houthis as they advanced in Yemen.

Welcome to Democracy Now!, Safa Al Ahmad. Can you talk about the fight for Yemen and this access you had, who the Houthis are, how you followed them in Yemen?

SAFA AL AHMAD: I’ve been very curious about the Houthis for years now, especially—I’ve been going to Yemen for a few years, and I’ve always wanted to get that access to the Houthis. So, finally, when I heard last September that they’ve surrounded the capital Sana’a, I thought that things would escalate if they actually took over the city. And they’re very interesting, because they’re a very young group, and they keep morphing their understanding of who they are and what they want as they progress. And so it’s very hard to pin it down to one thing. But if I must describe the Houthis in one line, it would be the revivalist Zaydis with strong anti-imperialist agenda. And so, they have these really big words to describe who they are and what they want, but in reality they want control in Yemen. And this is what they’ve done. They didn’t have enough by just controlling Sana’a, but they’ve come across most of North Yemen, and now they’ve reached Aden.

AARON MATÉ: And, Safa, the conventional line that we hear is that they receive heavy backing from Iran. What’s your assessment of that?

SAFA AL AHMAD: Yeah, I think that that’s vastly overblown. There is very little good journalism that’s been done to prove the extent of the relationship between the Houthis and Iran. I don’t doubt that there is a relationship between the Houthis and Iran, but how extensive is that? For people to blatantly call them Iranian-backed Shia militia, I think that’s very, very problematic. The Houthis have local agenda. They have local grievances and local power. And the rise of the Houthis themselves had nothing to do with the Iranians. Whether they—I think there is a relationship between the Iranians and the Houthis at the moment, but not to the extent that the world claims there is for Iran. Saudi Arabia has deeper connections with Yemen. They have a large border with Yemen. And the Saudis have funded, sent money directly, and arms, to different groups inside Yemen. So, I would argue, between the two, Saudi Arabia has the much bigger influence and the upper hand in Yemen.

AMY GOODMAN: And talk about the role right now of Saudi Arabia, what exactly is happening in Yemen on the ground, the conditions of people there. In a moment, we’re going to be speaking with an arms control expert who will talk about the Obama administration pouring more money into making more weapons sales than any administration since World War II. The largest recipient of those—of that military aid and weaponry is, of course, to Saudi Arabia.

SAFA AL AHMAD: Yes, I mean, record-breaking number of contracts, I think, have been sold to the Saudis in the past few years. I don’t know who they’re using them against. I mean, Yemen is a very—I mean, Yemen is the poorest Arab country. And so, to have this huge alliance against Yemen for allegedly trying to break the back of the Houthis, I think, belies it, because now the Houthis have come to Aden, which is what the airstrikes were allegedly trying to stop from happening. So the Houthis have large alliances on the ground. They didn’t—they’re not an occupying power coming from nowhere. They’ve been working on spreading that alliance throughout the areas that they controlled. And so, the war, the Saudi war on Yemen, Saudi-led airstrikes on Yemen, will have very limited impact on the power of the Houthis on the ground, unless there are ground troops. And even then, what is the solution? I don’t know what’s the endgame with this. I mean, the Saudis claim that it is to bring back the legitimate president, Abdu Mansour Hadi, back to Yemen. But I think, for a lot of Yemenis, he has lost his credibility. He has lost his legitimacy. He’s called for a war on his own people. And now he’s sitting at Riyadh. I think, for a lot of people, that’s extremely problematic. The humanitarian crisis is astounding, to begin with, even before this, and now with the whole air and sea embargo on Yemen, there is very little fuel, there is a food shortage. I mean, it’s frightening what’s happening now in Yemen, and heartbreaking. I mean, the numbers that the U.N. is saying are most likely much lower than what’s actually on the ground.

AARON MATÉ: Safa, so what do you see as the solution? Because some would say that the Houthis are also allied with a former president who also has lost credibility, Saleh. So what is the answer here?

SAFA AL AHMAD: Yeah, Ali Saleh, yeah, yeah. I mean, a lot of people blame Ali Saleh for all of this. He’s the one who has waged six wars against the Houthis, because of his fear of their advancement. And now they’re allied together. But in the end, I think the problem is you can’t just look at what’s happening now, as in today or this week in Yemen. This problem has been going on for a long time. The Americans—if we’re going to specify, the Americans, in their involvement in Yemen, have supported a dictator, which is Ali Saleh, and even when the revolution happened to oust him in 2011, they continued to support corrupt political parties that have only their own personal interest. And the U.N. has played a detrimental part in what is happening in Yemen, as well. And so, all the peaceful civil society that had helped bring this revolution on were put to the side, and only the political parties that—and Americans and the U.N. and the GCC, including Saudi Arabia, we’re dealing with. And so, I mean, they can’t just look at the situation now in Yemen and say, “Oh, look what’s happening.” Well, you had a role to play in where Yemen is right now. I mean the Americans. There was an article the other day. When the special forces left Al Anad military base, they left $500 million worth of arms in the base. Who do they think has control of that now? They don’t know, probably. Yes? And this is part of the really problematic American foreign policy when it comes to Yemen, this tunnel vision about antiterrorism. So, whoever is the dictator in control, he is our only ally against al-Qaeda, like that’s the only problem. And the drone strikes now have completely and utterly failed. Instead of crushing al-Qaeda, now we hear alliances to ISIS. So, I mean, the situation keeps getting from bad to worse.

AMY GOODMAN: Safa, before your film tonight that will be airing around the United States, The Fight for Yemen, you made the film Saudi’s Secret Uprising in Saudi Arabia. Can you briefly tell us about that and how it illuminates the Saudi regime?

SAFA AL AHMAD: I mean, I’ve been following the protests that have been happening in the eastern province of Saudi Arabia for a while, and I finally got commissioned by the BBC to do a documentary about it. And so, this is unprecedented, historic event in Saudi Arabia, where there are protests consistently for over three years now. And nobody has been covering it, and nobody is talking about it, although it was happening within the context of all the other revolutions that were happening in the Arab world. Of course, it wasn’t a revolution; it was an uprising and protest. Yet it goes into the whole idea of the stereotypical image of Saudi Arabia. Nobody really wants to talk about the issues that are domestically happening inside the country.

The protests started with—like a lot of the others, like, for example, in Libya, for freeing prisoners, political prisoners. And instead of freeing the political prisoners, the government had increased its own detentions of the people who went out on the street to protest. And so, the escalation of demands from the protesters kept getting higher as the government continued to oppress the protests. And we can put it within the context of what’s happening in the whole Middle East, where the people are trying to renegotiate their relationship with their governments. And unfortunately, in the Arab world, most of them are dictatorships, and they do not tolerate another voice. And then they treat them with violence. And then they are surprised when the protesters turn violent, as well. And so, they’ve created the enemy they need. They don’t want peaceful protests. They don’t want civil society. They don’t want a peaceful form of reform in the country. They just want to continue the status quo.

AARON MATÉ: And, Safa—

SAFA AL AHMAD: And that goes back to Yemen, as well.

AARON MATÉ: And, Safa, in terms of that status quo, how decisive is the U.S., in your view?

SAFA AL AHMAD: How decisive? What do you mean?

AARON MATÉ: How decisive is the role of the U.S. in supporting these autocratic regimes that you describe? How critical is that to maintaining their power and their repression?

SAFA AL AHMAD: I mean, there are two things. There is an internal issue, where if the people themselves have decided, like with Hosni Mubarak in Egypt, that there’s no longer any possibility for this rule to continue, then that will happen despite American intervention. But that does not relieve the American foreign policy from the responsibilities they have. If they’re going to pay lip service to human rights violations and them respecting democracy and them wanting these kind of things in the Middle East, then they need to stop arming dictatorships to the teeth, and then surprised when they’re used against their own people. And I think it’s a really hypocritical line that the Americans are using towards the Middle East. You can’t have it both ways. You can’t claim you want democracy, and then you’re the number one seller of arms to those dictatorships. It’s quite problematic. And I think, like this whole—the news in the past couple weeks about Sweden stopping selling weapons to Saudi Arabia because of women’s rights. I’m like, “Come on, did you just know? Did you just find out that women didn’t have rights, that people don’t have human rights in Saudi Arabia, that they are an oppressive regime?” So, I think it’s quite opportunistic, as well, in that perspective. We need to have more complex, more in-depth stories and coverage of countries like Saudi Arabia, because they play a huge role in the region. So, continuing to talk about it in this really simplistic way is really detrimental to be understanding of what’s actually happening on the ground.

AMY GOODMAN: Finally, Safa Al Ahmad, as you covered the Houthi in Yemen, how did they respond to you as a Saudi journalist and filmmaker?

SAFA AL AHMAD: It took a lot of talking. I mean, it helped because I knew a lot of those people from before they came into power. So, I’ve been coming to Yemen for years, and they knew me. They knew that I’ve tried to go to Sa’dah several times. And so I didn’t have a sudden interest in what was going on now. But even then, they were very worried about media, to begin with. And it took a lot of talking, a lot of convincing. And every step of the way, I needed to talk more and try to get more access. So, it was never at some point—like I never had carte blanche access to them. It never worked out that way. They’re very, very secretive about their decision-making process, the filming of people who are involved as members. So it was a constant negotiation. I was never just given access just like that. That’s why it took so long to get that access that I did in the end.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Safa Al Ahmad, I want to thank you for being with us, Saudi journalist and filmmaker. Her latest documentary, The Fight for Yemen, premieres tonight on Frontline on PBS around the United States. Safa just won a 2015 Freedom of Expression Award from the Index on Censorship for her film, Saudi’s Secret Uprising.

This is Democracy Now! When we come back, we look at the weapon sales of the Obama administration, and then “Cowspiracy.” What does consumption of meat have to do with the drought in California? Stay with us.

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