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This is what a civil war looks like

Many people think of the civil war in Yemen in broad terms - Shia versus Sunni, Saudi Arabia versus Iran. But what does the constant fighting mean to those in the country? Jane Ferguson examines how the ongoing struggle is affecting everyday Yemenis, providing an on-the-ground perspective on the war.

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  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Today in Geneva, Switzerland, talks ended between Yemen's exiled government and Houthi Shiite rebels, who control that country's capital. The negotiations failed to reach even a temporary cease-fire.

    Tonight, we take a close at the personal cost of the conflict, but first a bit of background. The latest turmoil can be traced back four years to the Arab spring, when an uprising ultimately led to the ousting of then President Ali Abdullah Saleh. Earlier this year, Houthi rebels, with the help of soldiers still loyal to the former leader, forced Yemen's current president, Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi, into exile. That sparked an international military response led by Saudi Arabia.

    The subsequent fighting has killed more than 1,000 civilians and displaced more than one million.

    "NewsHour" special correspondent Jane Ferguson traveled to Yemen to see firsthand what life is like in rebel-controlled territory.

  • JANE FERGUSON:

    These rebels have ruled much of Yemen for almost a year, marching through the streets of their greatest prize, the capital, Sanaa, in a show strength and defiance.

    Houthi gunmen control the streets and their politicians control the government. The U.S. and Saudi Arabia accuse Iran of backing the Houthis. And this was Saudi Arabia's answer to that close relationship. Intensive airstrikes have pounded the country for three months.

    My God. So, this is where the rocket fell.

    We were among the first Western journalists to enter Sanaa since that bombardment began in March. We found neighborhoods destroyed and people terrified.

    Hi there. Are there Saudi planes here? They say, yes, all the time. All the planes are Saudi. It is dangerous here?

  • MAN:

    Yes.

  • JANE FERGUSON:

    OK. Well, then let's — let's move on then.

    Survival is now the priority. In addition to airstrikes, Saudi Arabia has imposed a blockade on the country and supplies are running desperately short. Clean water is rationed by the government to families, but there isn't enough. This water station was paid for by a local businessman as charity.

    Piles of garbage, which haven't been collected in months, are burnt in the streets. Lines for gas stations go on for miles, with many people sleeping in their cars for days, waiting to get fuel. Ahmed has given up trying. As a cab driver, that means no income for his family.

    When was the last time you had fuel?

  • MAN:

    I went to the gas station. I stayed for two days.

  • JANE FERGUSON:

    Oh, my goodness. OK. And so when was the last — how often do you get to work nowadays?

  • MAN:

    I don't have — I just stay here.

  • JANE FERGUSON:

    Since when?

  • MAN:

    Since three months.

  • JANE FERGUSON:

    Yemen's rich history has not been spared from the violence. The capital's Old City, thousands of years old and a UNESCO World Heritage Site, has been damaged.

    These ancient brick buildings were brought down during bombardment, causing an international outcry.

  • MAN:

    This is the problem.

  • JANE FERGUSON:

    After years of working to safeguard the Old City, Dr. Naji Thawabteh says the site is under threat.

  • DR. NAJI THAWABTEH:

    It's very, very sensitive. Any movement will damage the houses. So, it's very difficult because it's old.

    It's not made by metal or concrete. This is by this material — old bricks, ancient bricks, yes, yes. Before this crisis, the city was alive more from the tourism, and the income of the owner of the houses come to be higher. And that means they will spend money for their houses to protect.

    But now, with this, they are suffering for the food, and they don't care about something for the houses — to pay something for the houses.

  • JANE FERGUSON:

    As destitution grows, so does anger. But the officials are blaming Saudi Arabia and its number one ally for civilian deaths.

    Can you tell us why you say these attacks are done by both Saudi Arabia and the United States?

  • TUMAM AL-SHAMY, Health Ministry Spokesman (through translator):

    Saudi Arabia cannot do anything in the Middle East without a green light from the United States. The Saudis and the Americans have both admitted that they support them militarily, logistically and politically.

  • JANE FERGUSON:

    The White House said at the beginning of the bombardment that they were helping the Saudis. Most Yemenis in the street are aware of this. These shopkeepers say there is growing anger at America.

  • MAN:

    Our people, they are angry from the United States.

  • JANE FERGUSON:

    They're angry at the United States because?

  • MAN:

    Yes, because they are not doing anything for our people.

  • JANE FERGUSON:

    OK.

    (CROSSTALK)

  • JANE FERGUSON:

    So, they think that the United States could tell Saudi Arabia to stop it?

  • MAN:

    Yes. They are supporting. They are supporting with the guns, by money.

  • JANE FERGUSON:

    Right.

    Not everyone supports the Houthis. Those who hope the exiled President Hadi will return are either too frightened to speak or have left the city. The Houthis are accused of arresting and jailing people opposed to them.

    Hostility between the Houthis and the Saudis is not new. The Houthis are Zaidi, followers of a Shia sect of Islam. Saudi Arabia, a majority Sunni country, has accused the Houthis for years of being puppets of Shiite Iran on their doorstep.

    But senior Houthi leader Mohammed Ali Al-Houthi denies any relationship with Iran.

    "We don't have any links whatsoever with Iran and Iran doesn't have any influence on us," he says. "We are completely independent and separate."

    While the rest of the world may view the conflict here in Yemen from the perspective of Shia vs. Sunni power, Saudi Arabia vs. Iran, most Yemenis don't really relate to those sectarian terms.

    There isn't really a history of sectarianism in Yemen. And most people here say they are more loyal to their tribe than specific religious sects. The worry, however, is that sectarianism could be brought into Yemen as a result of the region-wide struggle.

    You want to sit next to me here?

    In Sanaa's Old City, we met Ahmed al-Dhaia, religious teacher at the Grand Mosque.

    "Country leaders create these problems to stay in power," he says. "Those people who make these problems, they're not supporting Sunni or Shia. They just want power. They have a lot of money and they want to control all the country."

    While the Houthis are strongly anti-American, they're even more anti-al-Qaida. Yemen is home to al-Qaida's most dangerous offshoot, al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula.

    And the U.S. has been conducting a drone strike campaign against them for years.

    Yemeni journalist Nasser Arrabyee says many here are confused by the U.S.' foreign policy.

  • NASSER ARRABYEE, Yemeni Journalist:

    United States are supporting the enemy. They are supporting al-Qaida. They're supporting their enemy. Saudi Arabia is the factory of terrorists. Saudi Arabia is the factory of al-Qaida. And the United States, unfortunately, is supporting Saudi Arabia. So, they are supporting their enemy.

  • JANE FERGUSON:

    This kind of chaos has Yemenis worried about their country disintegrating. It's increasingly the chosen battleground between America and Saudi Arabia on one side and Iran on the other. It's a fight that is bringing Yemen to its knees and threatens to destroys everything in its path.

    For "PBS NewsHour," this is Jane Ferguson, Sanaa, Yemen.

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