Many of you will have noticed Yemens prominence in the news cycle over the past few days.  What we have been presented with is the threat emanating from the country in the form of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and the US/western response to this threat.  I have heard or read little or no detail on the country itself, how this violent  and foreign interference is affecting the people living there or the broader political, historical and humanitarian context.

The Little Man now presents to you, dear reader, a much-needed insight in to Yemen from Christopher McAleer.  Christopher is a fellow graduate from The Humanitarian and Conflict Response Institute at the University of Manchester who has recently returned from working with an international non governmental organisation (INGO) in Yemen.

Where and with whom are you working? (What is your NGO actually doing?)

I spent three months working for an international health organisation, splitting my time between the capital Sana’a and Hodeidah where our projects were based. The organisation runs projects to alleviate malnutrition in children under five and pregnant women, we also had a small Water, Sanitations & Hygeine (WASH) component and in the most remote areas we were based in we provided primary health care. The organisation is one of the biggest providers of malnutrition treatment in Yemen at this time.

What is Yemen?

The Republic of Yemen, not ‘the Yemen’ is a country on the Arabian Peninsula which borders Saudi Arabia and Oman. It is sadly famous for Al-Qaeda, child marriages and salmon fishing (there is no salmon fishing). However Yemen as history as far back as you can think, with it being the first point which humans reached after leaving Africa. Sana’a the capital is possibly the third oldest city in the world after Damascus and Aleppo, and the centre is a UNESCO world heritage site. Most guidebooks and travel writers describe Yemen as ‘a different world’ or ‘like stepping back in time’ this is bullshit. Though Yemen is the poorest country on the Arabian Peninsula, this does not mean it is a backwards country (people I spoke to back home were surprised when I told them you can buy Oreos and Pringles there, obviously the new indicators of human development). Maybe their description of Yemen in these terms is because they had read too much distorted information before arriving, thus being shocked that they were not immediately kidnapped and made to live in a mud hut upon arrival. There is far more to the country than international narratives would allow you to think, the culture is one of the richest in the world and it’s people one of the most friendly.

Can you describe the political situation in Yemen at this time?

Politically, Yemen is a mess. In 2011 as part of the Arab ‘spring’ the president Ali Abdullah Saleh was deposed in a revolution. Adding together his time ruling the Yemen Arab Republic (what was North Yemen) and his tenure as president of the Republic of Yemen he had been in power for 33 years. There was brief fighting in selected suburbs of Sana’a during the revolution, but nothing on the scale of things that were witnessed in Libya for example.

Ali Saleh used the tactic of divide and rule for most of his time in power, playing one tribe off against each other in order for him to remain in power. Thus with this in mind there has been no cohesive inclusion of dialogue in Yemeni politics for some 33 years. However now the country is in the process of a National Dialogue Conference, this is where representatives from many different parts of Yemen’s political, social and cultural landscape come to discuss the future of the country.

Within this process, given the way Yemeni politics has moved forward up to this point; every group is wanting to ensure that their interests are part of the new country set up. In Sana’a there are two rival groups, the former president’s family which come under his political party the General People’s Congress, and the Al Ahmar family which controls the Al-Islah (Reform) Party. Both sides have tribes aligned to them which they can call upon for support when necessary. In the south, which used to be an independent state up until 1990 (People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen) the Al-Hirak movement are calling for the south to become independent again, citing poor treatment by the government in Sana’a (the same reason for the civil war in 1994).

In the North of the country, generally focussed around Sa’dah there is the Al-Houthi movement (or Ash-Shabab al-Mu’min to give them their proper title) who have been waging a Shia insurgency against the government since 2004. They have controlled around 3-4 governorates in the north intermittently from 2004 to present, and have also been alleged to have sent fighters to bolster Hezbollah and the Syrian government. Thus all these groups (and many smaller ones) are in the process of deciding the future of Yemen through the NDC at the current time.

Why is there a humanitarian crisis in the country? What is the international response like?

After the revolution and the beginning of the transition process away from the regime of Ali Abdullah Saleh, insecurity has gripped the country. The army, which kept order before the revolution, has been reorganised in an attempt to break up the old allegiances that it held (for instance, the Republican Guard who were seen as Ali Saleh’s personal army has been dissolved). This, alongside different players wanting to posture and stamp their control on the country, has created a power vacuum with the government looking increasingly weak.

Economically this has led to increases in food and other commodity prices, with farmers who previously grew crops now not being able to afford fuel for their tractors and other supplies. Additionally, food crops are not as valuable as Qat thus to get as much money as they can, farmers often grow Qat to get more money. This as a trend is meaning less food in Yemen. To compound this problem families will often spend what money they do have on Qat instead of food, this alongside a lack of knowledge about good nutrition creates many problems.

The face of these issues manifests itself in very high rates of severe acute malnutrition (SAM) and mild acute malnutrition (MAM) in children under five (SAM 9.9% and MAM 21.8% in children under five). So when you visit project sites the cases presented are young children with arms the thickness of a hot dog. Unlike the crises in Syria and Mali recently, the crisis in Yemen is a very quiet one. When you visit the children at mobile clinics, they don’t scream, they just stare. Sometimes it is not the crises that scream that need the most attention.

Given that Yemen isn’t seen as a ‘cool’ emergency, the international response to the crisis has been lacking. The nutrition cluster, which is the highest priority cluster in country, was only allocated 30% of funds requested in a recent CAP appeal. I know there is a global economic crisis at the moment, however if that isn’t an illustration of how low a priority Yemen’s humanitarian crisis is for the international community, I don’t know what is.

What have been your dealings with Yemenis? Are they hopeful for their future under this unity government? 

During my time there I dealt with Yemenis at all levels, from government officials, national staff within the organisation to beneficiaries receiving our support at project level. Yemenis are some of the friendliest people I have ever met, within the first week of being in country I had been invited to a Qat chew (a tropical evergreen plant whose leaves are used as a stimulant). It is at a Qat chew where you can really get an idea of what people think of the on-going political process and the future of the country. Many people long for the old days under President Ali Saleh, where they state there was better security. However, concerning the national dialogue conference (NDC) most of the country follows developments quite closely, with everyone having an opinion on the various issues that are being discussed (such as the future of the north, the south etc).

Having to live in such a politically sensitive and diverse country has a clear affect on the Yemeni population (from my experience anyway), they are very politically savvy. I had many hours worth of discussions chewing Qat about the strength of the Houthis, what a recent speech by the ex-president means, what the government should do about tribes in Marib (who have been blowing up power and oil pipelines in order to get concessions from the government) and the ‘Southern Issue’. But with this comes the main fault of Yemen which I could see, though the population may be politically savvy, this does not translate into action as  most people would rather sit and chew Qat and talk rather than go out and take action.

From my perception, most people are not hopeful about the future of the NDC. Many people’s analysis will state that when the NDC finishes then more problems will start. My own interpretation is that given the politics prior to the NDC and the plethora of issues which it seeks to solve, it will fail. If we take the two other examples of NDC’s in Iraq and Afghanistan, the precedent has been set for the fall. Additionally it is clear to see that different factions are attempting to boost their power for when this does happen (almost monthly you have reports of arms being smuggled in from Turkey and Iran). It is only a matter of time till there is a conflict in Yemen, the NDC will not be able to resolve both the North and Southern issues and as soon as parties have exhausted negotiations, they will resort to more forceful measures.

What are the peoples and officials feelings about US drone attacks and US Special forces operating in the country to counteract AQAP?

From the conversations I had with ordinary Yemenis, they are fed up of the US, AQAP, the Houthis, Al-Hirak and all the other armed groups operating inside Yemen. They hate them all and just want to get on with their normal lives, without the kidnappings, gunfights, drone strikes and protests disrupting their daily lives.

One thing that does not get covered well in the international media are the issues surrounding kidnapping, where a criminal group will kidnap someone (or a group) and sell them to AQAP so that they can then be ransomed off. Firstly, around 99% of kidnaps end in the hostage(s) being released unharmed (usually for a hefty ransom paid by one of the Gulf States). There are often protests in Yemen calling for the release of foreign hostages, though these never reach the foreign media. Additionally one of the best prevention measures against kidnap are the Yemeni people themselves, there have been a number of cases where kidnappings have been foiled due to the kidnappers being surrounded by ordinary Yemenis asking them what is going on and stopping the kidnap so the kidnappers run off. 

What British legacy/influence have you seen in the country?

None, not even a British cuppa. Though I was based in Sana’a rather than Aden which used to be a British colony.

How did you cope with the different societal environment in Yemen?

Yemen is very different culturally to my previous experience in France and the UK. There is no alcohol, males and females are largely segregated and women wear veils in public, also the UN has said that Yemen is the worst place to be a women in the world. It is strange at first but then you get used to it.

The first thing you have to accept is that you are not there to change the culture or society. It is not your job, so even if you disagree with something you have to accept there is little or nothing you can do about it. This is for two reasons, being an aid organisation that gives healthcare, means you go and provide healthcare. To attempt to undertake any societal change is outside your mandate. Additionally Yemenis are fiercely proud of their culture and society, so to try to change this would put you and your organisation at odds with the population and would likely create problems for your work. I personally disagree with women wearing veils, as I like to see if what I’m saying to someone is making them happy or sad etc. However it is just a fact of life there, there were times I got people mixed up because I found it hard to differentiate between different women when they were wearing veils, but then there was nothing I could do about it so I learnt to differentiate by voice etc.

Would you go back?

Yes, without a doubt. It was clear to see that to put it very simply the people what we provided care to really needed us. Once I was doing a field visit conducting interviews with beneficiaries and communities trying to find out if they had any problems with what we were doing. One woman said to me “We have many problems here in Yemen, and if you have the time I can sit down and explain them all to you, but you and the work you do here is not one of these problems”. There is a clear need for humanitarian aid there, and with things looking to get worse I would go back in an instant.

This interview was conducted through an e-mail exchange. If you have any questions for Christopher about his time in Yemen or any other comments please use the comments box below.

Interview conducted by Jonathan Woodrow Martin


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