Saleh al-Obeidi / AFP

Seeds of destruction: Yemen civil war ripping society apart

Southern port city of Aden is ravaged by months of fighting, with residents fleeing and infrastructure crumbling

ADEN, Yemen — The crows and their haunting screams are pervasive. They scavenge through mountains of rubbish lining the streets and tear at rotting bodies lying in the no man's land separating the two warring sides in a conflict that has decimated this once bustling seaport.

Yemen’s southern port city of Aden was, until recently, a popular if slightly dilapidated holiday retreat for throngs of Yemenis. Amid rising tension on March 19, Houthi militiamen, along with renegade military units loyal to the country’s former president Ali Abdullah Saleh, launched an assault in the city that quickly escalated into civil war.

The widespread destruction caused by months of relentless fighting has torn the heart out of Aden, including the historic old town known as Crater that nestles in the dramatic backdrop of a dormant volcano.

The most densely populated area of Aden is now ghostly quiet, save for the crows and the distant pounding of artillery indicating the latest location of the shifting front line. Burnt out tanks and armored personnel carriers stand amid the concrete skeletons of apartment blocks, hollowed out by weeks of shelling and gun battles.

Most residents have fled as street-to-street fighting or air strikes have seen electricity lines cut and water pipes damaged. Thousands now live in hotels, schools and previously empty apartments in the northern and western suburbs, just behind the front lines. Others have escaped the city entirely, going east to the province of Hadhramaut or taking the treacherous journey by boat to the Horn of Africa.

All of Aden’s 140 schools are now closed. In a western suburb, Safa School is now home to 100 children and their families who live in 17 rooms. With no cooking gas available, the women prepare meals over a wood fire.

Moaar Ali Mohammed is one of thousands of the displaced now scattered across the city and relying entirely on food aid.

“Older people can adapt but the children can’t,” she said, sitting in the shade of a tree in the school’s grounds. “Without the food donations, we have nothing. No flour, no rice. There’s nothing otherwise.”

The tit-for-tat shelling, along with bombs being dropped by fighter jets of the Saudi-led coalition in their attempt to push back the Houthi-Saleh forces, are not the only tools in this war. Food is also being used as weapon.

The latest United Nations figures say half Yemen’s population is now food insecure in the wake of a naval blockade imposed by the U.S.-backed, Saudi-led coalition in a country that usually imports 90 percent of its food. But in Aden, residents are facing a double siege. The Houthis and military units aligned to former president Saleh are blocking food and medical supplies from entering the city by road.

Now the flour needed for bakeries across the city has run out, and the city’s vegetable markets are bare. The health care system is also on the verge of collapse, with hospitals struggling to cope with dwindling drug supplies and as a dengue fever outbreak takes hold.

A few in the conflict-affected areas have defiantly refused to leave their homes, despite being cut off from the outside world. Phone networks have been shut down and families have been living for weeks in the sweltering heat without electricity. Surviving on a diet of rice and biscuits while collecting water from dripping pipes, 70-year-old Abdul Rahman al-Shuqri and his wife Amera decided to stay behind with one of their daughters, Safa, in their once luxurious home. Now they live in a hall way in the center of the house, away from the windows that have all long since been blown out by the shock waves from air strikes.

“It’s terrifying,” said Amera, breaking into tears. “Maybe I will die here. I am afraid I will never see my children and grandchildren again.”

The drastic reduction in goods has been matched by a similar decline in services as the state collapses. Employees of government institutions have not been paid since the war began, leaving rubbish to pile up in the streets, as cleaners no longer operate. In an unrelenting heat, the stench fills the city, and the risk of disease rises.

The local water authority is also struggling. Down to 150 workers from 2,000, Najeeb Mohammed Ahmed, general director of the Aden water authority, says he no longer has the fuel to drive the truck needed to take diesel to the center of the city — where water needs to be pumped — after pipelines were destroyed in the fighting.

“This war is a curse,” says Ahmed. “The situation is very dangerous. Now I am afraid of drought, even in the non-fighting areas.”

‘Older people can adapt but the children can’t. Without the food donations, we have nothing. No flour, no rice. There’s nothing otherwise.’

Moaar Ali Mohammed

displaced Aden resident

Fuel queues snake for miles behind the front lines. Seventy-year-old taxi driver Abdul Hashem has slept on the roof of his car waiting for fuel for eight days and nights in temperatures of 100 degrees. His income as a taxi driver usually feeds 13 people in his family, but he cannot afford the black market fuel prices that would in turn force him to charge exorbitant prices for a taxi ride.

Aden’s largest public hospital was closed at the end of April, passing the burden of treating trauma patients to just four hospitals in the city. The initial outbreak of war saw international staff being evacuated, leaving hospitals desperately short of doctors, surgeons and nurses. After the fighting spread and the siege took hold, hospital staff started living at their workplaces. Many of the doctors are now working unpaid as volunteers in a desperate attempt the keep the healthcare system functioning. 

Mohammed Ali, 23, is waiting for his second operation after a sniper shot him on his way home from dawn prayers. He describes how his 21-year-old friend, who was walking from the mosque with him, was shot in the chest and died upon arrival at the hospital.

As the holy month of Ramadan begins, Aden’s residents are desperate for a respite in the fighting and a lifting of the punishing siege of the city.

“The safety net, fragile before the war, has now gone,” said Bertrand Lamon, head of the International Committee for the Red Cross sub-delegation in Aden, who were also forced out of their offices amid the fighting. “The situation now exceeds our capacity.”

With the Government Health Office in Aden already reporting an uptick in dengue fever cases, the number of people dying from disease and malnutrition is likely to soon exceed those being killed by the conflict. In all of Yemen, more than 1,400 civilians have been killed since the beginning of the conflict, with over 3,400 injured, according to the United Nations.

“We can’t cope,” said Dr. AbdulHakim al-Tamimi, a surgeon at Al-Waly hospital, as he stood over two patients in the intensive care unit suffering from cerebral malaria. “Please tell the world we need their help. We are begging for help,” he added, as a man with a gunshot wound to the face was rushed through the door.

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