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Critical Yemeni port city clings to fragile truce

Houthi rebels control the critical Yemeni port of Hodeidah, but they are now encircled by fighters loyal to the country’s internationally recognized government. In the ravaged city, fighting between the two sides continued up until a UN-brokered cease-fire took effect Tuesday. Special correspondent Jane Ferguson obtained rare access to Hodeidah and reports on the fragile situation there.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Now we bring you two reports from Yemen amid years of war there. And a warning: Images and accounts in both stories may upset some viewers.

    First, a fragile cease-fire seemed to hold today in Hodeidah. That is a vital port city on Yemen's Red Sea Coast. It's been controlled for years by Houthi rebels aligned with Iran. A relentless bombing and ground campaign, led by Saudi Arabia, sought to retake the city and its port, through which most of Yemen's food and aid is distributed.

    Special correspondent Jane Ferguson is the only journalist reporting for American television who got into the city just before the truce took hold.

  • Jane Ferguson:

    Both sides fighting in Hodeidah battled one another right up until the Tuesday deadline for a cease-fire. Houthi rebels still control the city, but they are being encircled.

    Yemeni fighters loyal to the internationally recognized government, supported by Saudi-led coalition warplanes and heavy weaponry, are fighting to take it over.

    We were given rare access to the city through the one road in and out not yet cut off by the fighting and watched closely by the Houthis, piles of earth and metal containers dragged across the road, the first sign that this is a war zone.

    When troops loyal to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates pushed inside the city in November, the battle reached into ordinary people's homes and neighborhoods.

    Yemeni troops backed by the coalition are just about 500 yards in that direction. And this neighborhood, which has been hit by airstrikes, is a residential one, filled with civilians.

    This apartment building took a direct hit two weeks ago, people told us. The house next door was also hit. Thirteen-year-old Mohammed Qudaish showed us the cuts on his body he received while running for his life.

    Were you afraid?

  • Mohammed Qudaish:

    Yes, I was afraid. My sister died. I ran away when the strike came, but the shrapnel followed me. Then we went to the neighbors, and I was running and bleeding.

  • Jane Ferguson:

    His grandma needed surgery to remove shrapnel from her body. Little Mohammed collected parts of the missile that hit his house and killed his sister.

    The U.S. sells the Saudi-led coalition the majority of the weapons it's using in this war. And take a look at this: throughout Hodeidah, murals like these condemning the United States for its part in the war in Yemen.

    Mohammed is one of a growing number of children injured in this war. Across town in the Al-Salakhana Hospital, battle-scarred youngsters fill the rooms. Too young to understand the war, all they know is, their playgrounds have become death traps, those like 10-year-old Aisha Mohim.

    She was playing inside her house when a stray bullet hit her and ended up lodged in her foot. In a bed nearby lays 8-year-old Qaddifa Baria. Still traumatized, Qaddifa doesn't speak. She was injured when an airstrike hit the street she was playing in. Her father struggles to bear the pain.

  • Man:

    I go out every day to look for work as a laborer at sunrise. And when I was out that day,a missile hit nearby my house, and her brother died instantly. My daughter's leg was broken, and she had shrapnel all over her back.

  • Jane Ferguson:

    The shrapnel passed right through Qaddifa's torso, so now she needs to have a colostomy bag attached at all times.

  • Man:

    I feel insane. I am poor and have nothing. I am a laborer, and I don't have anything, nothing, nothing at all.

  • Jane Ferguson:

    This hospital is supported by Doctors Without Borders, or MSF, according to their French acronym, one of only a few charities inside Yemen still willing to keep international staff in Hodeidah.

    According to Frederic Bertrand, MSF's head of mission here, hospitals desperately need their support.

  • Frederic Bertrand:

    Many civilians that have been caught between fire, people that have been victims of gunshot, shrapnel, explosion, airstrikes.

    We are supporting one of the hospitals inside the city. The front line that got closer to our hospital make difficult the access for the patient and also our capacities to increase the care according to the needs.

  • Jane Ferguson:

    Across town, Hodeidah's main hospital, Al-Thura, is packed with people hoping to find help. With the fighting just yards away, it can barely cope, overwhelmed with people desperate for all kinds of medical care.

    This hospital is very close to the front line here in Hodeidah, and it is absolutely packed. It treats people for everything from malnutrition to war wounds.

    Ofah Hadi, a nursing student, lost six extended family members when an airstrike hit her apartment building. She also lost her left leg.

  • Ofah Hadi:

    When I woke up after the operation, I found myself in the ICU. I tried to move my legs. My right leg moved, but the left didn't.

    I knew the moment I tried to move my leg. And when the doctor told me to try to move my toes, I tried to hold myself together. Later, my father came to check on me, and he told me, "I am your father standing next to you, and I will be your leg."

  • Jane Ferguson:

    The fighting here doesn't just risk the lives of those inside the city. Hodeidah's port is a lifeline for millions across Yemen. Most of the food imported into rebel-held Yemen comes through this port, and if fighting were to reach here and shut it down, the U.N. says it could bring with it the biggest famine of a generation, with millions of lives at risk.

    In Sweden, the talks resulted in a handshake agreement by both sides to eventually pull their troops out of Hodeidah. But it's a fragile agreement, yet to be honored.

    Back in Sanaa, I asked the political leader of the Houthis, President Mohammed Ali Al-Houthi, if he will really withdraw troops.

  • Mohammed Ali Al-Houthi:

    This is one of the conditions, yes, that the military forces withdrawal and keep only the police, according to what was planned.

    Nothing has been declared yet, but within 10 to 12 days of ceasing fire, these steps will start. The first step is to cease-fire, and then gradually there will be more steps towards this.

  • Jane Ferguson:

    At the end of the first day, the cease-fire is still holding in Hodeidah, for the most part.

    Turning this moment of peace into a lasting chance for Yemen's people to put their lives back together again is the next difficult step.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Jane Ferguson in Hodeidah, Yemen.

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