“We did not know if we could die from bullets or hunger”

Yemeni boy sat among Sana’a’s ruins Yemeni boy sat among Sana’a’s ruins © Mohamed al-Sayaghi/Reuters

This article is a brief presentation of the new report on civilian harm in Yemen published by CIVIC for the period between July 2018 and June 2019.

In January 2020, the Center for Civilians in Conflict (CIVIC) published the new report entitled “We did not know if we could die from bullets or hunger”. CIVIC’s mission is to prevent and respond to civilian harm, and to protect civilians in conflict. The new report has examined the patterns of civilian harm and documented abuses suffered by different parties to the conflict. The aim of the report was not to document specific incidents; instead, interviews follow a “qualitative approach” in order to understand the main patterns of civilian harm and civilian’s perspectives on the conflict.

The report is based on 62 interviews with eyewitnesses and victims. They include 21 women and 41 men. The research also engaged over 40 community and civil society leaders. CIVIC says that the reporters faced many difficulties in conducting the interviews due the reluctance of civilians to talk to the international non-governmental organizations. Hence, for their security and privacy, CIVIC has anonymised their personal details.

Yemen is currently in the state of a violent war that began in 2014 when the Houthis took control of the capital Sana’a with the help of the forces of the former President Ali Abdullah Saleh. Consequently, the violence escalated and the unrest spread across the rest of the country. The involvement of the United Arab Emirates in reinstating the internationally recognized President Abdrabuh Mansoor Hadi complicated the situation even further. However, although in December 2018 the Hadi government and Houthis signed the Stockholm Agreement, the progress with regard to its implementation has been unsatisfactory. In fact, according to CIVIC, in 2019 all parties to the conflict have used explosive weapons with wide-area effects and “in contravention of international humanitarian law (IHL), have used civilian property including homes, hospitals, and schools for military purposes, putting civilians at greater risk”. Civilians in Hodeidah, Baydha and Taiz governorates reported that the Houthis have been responsible for forced disappearances and ill treatment of civilians.  Despite the United Nations efforts to negotiate another agreement between the Houthis and the Hadi government, further clashes occurred in August 2019. On November 2019, after months of mediation to end violence across the country, the Riyadh Agreement was signed. The deal involves the disarmament, the demilitarization of the Aden city and a reinstatement of the Yemeni government in Aden.

The conflict has turned Yemen into one of the worst humanitarian crises in the world. According to the report, after five years of war, nearly 24 million people are in need of assistance and protection and, as of November 2019, 3.3 million people remain displaced. A UN report predicted that if the conflict persists, 1.5 million people will die by 2030. Attacks on food systems, infrastructure and blockades of humanitarian aid have left millions of people in acute need. Therefore, the so-called indirect deaths (caused by the lack of access to health care, food etc.) are estimated to be greater than deaths directly linked to the war. In addition, the report found that the Houthis planted 500,000 landmines in areas they formerly controlled and used improvised explosive devices (IEDs) which caused numerous civilian deaths and prevented the supply of humanitarian aid to the i territories in need. 

The report aimed to summarize the patterns of civilian harm such as shelling, airstrikes and sniper attacks, which caused deaths, injuries, forced displacement and destruction of property. CIVIC found that the parties involved in the conflict in Yemen have failed to take precautionary measures to minimize civilian harm. Separately, many civilians reported to have witnessed airstrikes. The Yemeni Data Project, a website that collects data of civilian casualties caused by airstrikes, stated that in March 2019, 44 civilians were killed, including 19 children, describing it as the deadliest month of the year. Interviewed people reported that they were trapped inside their homes for days because of clashes between the Houthis and the government forces:  "No civilians were able to leave their homes. We were bombed [by security forces] from Al-Qahira Castle [on a hill], where they could see the entire city. Bullets never stopped, day or night. We kept our children under the staircase to protect them. We ate dry bread […]”. In addition, the Houthis used to destroy homes and properties of opponents with explosives to subjugate them. Also, the Yemeni government put civilian lives under risk by using many public facilities (hospitals and schools) for military purposes. Furthermore, several people reported that snipers came to their house “asking” to use them. The UN Expert Group found that, in 2015, the Houthis snipers were responsible for hundreds of deaths and injuries. The Group has also investigated several cases of sniper attacks in 2019. Interviewed people testified that snipers shot at civilians to intimidate them, even when they were in their homes. Additionally, CIVIC estimated that the Houthi planted landmines as they retreated from areas they formerly controlled. Landmines were used as a tactic to prevent the access of humanitarian aid and to harm civilians trying to return home. It was documented that landmines were the third largest cause of civilian casualties in 2018. Fortunately, thanks to the cooperation of the Yemeni government, 310,000 landmines have been cleared.

Reporters have also collected several interviews conducted with activists or local journalists who have been detained by both local forces allied with the Yemeni government and the Houthis because they were suspected of being affiliated with their opponents. The interviewees reported to have been victims of ill treatment and tortures, such as exposition to extreme heat and beatings.

To complete this study, reporters have analysed how the war in Yemen impacted women and children. Displacement, which became a direct consequence of the situation of terror and instability in the country, “has made women and girls vulnerable to harm, especially due to lack of privacy that threatens their safety”. For example, the International Rescue Committee has estimated that more than 4.7 million children struggled with access to education since the war began. Dozens of schools have been damaged by shelling or occupied by armed groups. As a consequence of this, many families became reluctant to send their children to school and, consecutively, thousands of children dropped out. Interviewees said that in Taiz, children were unable to attend school for weeks due to renewed fighting.

The spread of violence across the country has gravely affected women, who have been victims of abuses and rapes by the Houthis and the government affiliated forces alike. The women interviewed by CIVIC described the lives full of fear and panic. In 2018 and 2019, the UN estimated that assaults and abuses against women increased by 63% since the conflict began. The report has also documented how difficult it was for women to feed their children or seek help. A lot of them have lost their husbands and the ongoing fighting has made it more difficult for them to collect food or tend to livestock. Hence, their severe situation exposed them and their children to abuse and exploitation. Psychological trauma has become common among women and children due to the prolonged periods of suffering and conflict. A woman in Taiz said: “We women and children suffered most. Children became orphans. They are scared, hungry, sick, and displaced. I saw the fear drilling deep into my children’s souls. It is hard to ask children to hold on, to become strong. How can I explain to my children that it is not their right to play outside freely? Going outside to play can bring death. How can I tell them their schools were closed and became military depots?”.

The findings of the report show the failure of the parties to the conflict to take adequate measures to protect people and limit civilian harm. They also failed to investigate unlawful actions performed by their forces. The above mentioned situation has forced  civilians to seek help and protection in tribal mechanisms. The tribes have negotiated evacuation of civilians from occupied territories and facilitated prisoner exchanges. Namely, community mechanisms have become a solution in some areas of Yemen. However, in urban areas, where these mechanisms do not exist, people remain exposed to hostilities and continuing violations of IHL. Reporters concluded that these approaches have demonstrated how important it is to involve local actors in peace talks. Donors should recognize this discovery and should encourage civil society groups and tribal mechanisms to support programmes in order to mitigate civilian harm.

Ultimately, the report contains several recommendations for the parties to the conflict and international actors. The first is to ensure adherence to IHL and respect to the 2018 Stockholm Agreement and the 2019 Riyadh agreement. CIVIC advocates for the end to the attacks against civilians and for no further use of explosive weapons in populated areas. Additionally, the authors of the study recommend respecting the neutrality of the tribes which are important in reduction of civilian harm.  They recommend to the Yemeni government to investigate unlawful actions by security forces and to guarantee human conditions to the detainees facilitating their access to food, water and family communications. They expect that the Yemeni government will prioritise post-harm assistance with a particular attention paid to the needs of women and girls affected by the conflict. On the other hand, the Houthis are recommended to cease the use of landmines and improvised explosive devices (IEDs); to end the practice of torture and ill treatment of detainees; to allow access of humanitarian aids in areas under their control; and to de-escalate the conflict.


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Author: Silvia Luminati; Editor: Aleksandra Krol

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