What Happened Wasn’t Fate at All

Yemen's forgotten civil war

Miriam Cahn, handelschiff. 1982, chalk and charcoal on paper. 138 × 213". Photo by Markus Muehlheim. Courtesy of the artist and Galerie Jocelyn Wolff, Paris.

The thirty-three-year rule of the Yemeni dictator Ali Abdullah Saleh ended in February 2012 following a national uprising. After his resignation, Saleh was replaced by his own vice president, Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi. The Houthi movement, a Zaydi Shiite minority, had long opposed Saleh for his corruption and the Saudi-assisted military campaigns he had waged against them in northern Yemen, but their opposition to Hadi proved even stronger. On September 21, 2014, in a historic about-face, Houthi forces conspired with Saleh and troops still loyal to him to rebel against Hadi and the new Yemeni authorities. The rebels occupied government buildings in the capital, Sanaa, at which point they advanced into other cities, some of which they were able to capture. The civil war in Yemen has now lasted nearly eight years, its death toll estimated to have exceeded 377,000 by the end of 2021. Editors

I reached Aden, the temporary capital of Yemen, in the second week of March 2015. Missiles shook the city from all sides. Houthi militias bombed the presidential palace, to where President Hadi had fled. Army tanks trundled down the main streets. On March 23, the decision to go to war was made; diplomats and international employees left Sanaa, while foreign embassies closed their doors and evacuated their personnel. Leaders of political parties departed the country with their families. I bid farewell to some of them in good faith. I didn’t think thathaving sensed the war was comingthey had decided to flee and leave us to our fate.

At that time, I was convinced the so-called civilized world wouldn’t leave us to the foolishness of politicians and generals, that it wouldn’t stand idly by and watch the impending wreckage. I thought someone would inevitably intervenethe following day, or maybe the day after, stopping us from wandering off a cliff like an unknowing flock of sheep. Hadi fled the country on March 25. That same day, a military coalition organized by Saudi Arabia in support of Hadi and against the Houthi and Saleh uprising began air strikes. (The coalition also included the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Kuwait, Jordan, Pakistan, Egypt, Senegal, Sudan, Qatar, and Morocco.) At 2 AM on Thursday, March 26, Arab Coalition fighter planes suddenly cut through the Sanaa sky and war became a reality. What’s engraved in my mind from that morning isn’t the roar of the explosions, or the horrifying thunder of planes piercing the sound barrier, or my anxiety over the trajectory of missiles hitting targets farther than I could see, or the sounds of war that I had grown accustomed to. Rather, it is the shock of how war was conjured, how life collapsed in one fell swoopcivil infighting, the humiliation of hunger, the indignity of it all, our generation’s lost dreams.

We have returned to pre-civilization. All cities are without electricity; we live by candlelight and the gas lanterns our ancestors used. When the gas runs out at home, families resort to cutting down trees to burn in woodstoves. There’s no clean water to drink; every day children and the elderly line up with empty pots at tankers donated by some doer of good. You see poverty wherever you turn: citizens have lost their jobs and livelihoods, impoverished to the point where they don’t even question the meaning of war. Women and children fight over scraps from rubbish piles. Families sleep outside. People are relocated to miserable camps on the outskirts of cities and left there, abandoned by the world, forgotten.

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