Yemen Under Siege

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Safa Al Ahmad

NARRATOR: Journalist Safa al Ahmed has been reporting on Yemen for the past six years, from the rise of Al Qaeda to the outbreak of civil war, to the military intervention by a coalition led by Saudi Arabia. Once a key American ally in the war on terror, Yemen has been torn apart.

With Yemen’s future uncertain, Safa is heading into the country to see the human toll of the war. The journey takes a day-and-a-half on a merchant ship from Djibouti.

She arrives at the southern port of Aden, where she had been a year earlier, before the war had reached the city.

SAFA AL AHMAD: The human cost of this war on Yemen is frightening. It was heartbreaking to see such a beautiful city, that was already suffering and hardly keeping itself together, be completely decimated by the war, especially the old streets that we used to walk in and the ports and all that. To see it so destroyed, the reality of the war starts to sink in.

NARRATOR: Yemen began unraveling two years ago, when rebel group called the Houthis pushed south from their northern stronghold, trying to gain control of the country.

The Houthis soon seized the capital, Sana’a, and deposed the president. They posted their motto in the streets, “God is great. Death to America. Death to Israel. God curse the Jews. Victory to Islam.”

The Houthis and many defecting army units then continued south, taking over most of Yemen. By 2015, the group reached Aden, igniting months of intense fighting.

ABU MISHAAL, Fighter: [subtitles] Eighty-six days in the line of fire.

NARRATOR: Abu Mishaal and his fellow fighters tried to defend the city against the Houthis.

ABU MISHAAL: [subtitles] This was the death zone. We lost a lot of people here because that building was full of snipers. Elite snipers were in there. Six of us came here. I was one of them. We laid down here. We quickly crossed the road to this spot.

We had fierce clashes with the snipers. If you filmed it, it would have been the most impressive battle scene in all of Yemen.

You can see in this video my cousin, who died as a martyr. That’s him.

NARRATOR: With the city under attack, Saudi Arabia joined in, concerned about the Houthis’ ties to their archrival Iran. They led a coalition of neighboring countries, with support from the U.S.

By last summer, the Houthis were driven out of Aden, and the ruined city became Yemen’s temporary capital.

SAFA AL AHMAD: When I came back, people in Aden were just starting to recover. A lot of people reopened their shops. Business was as usual. People went back to fishing and to opening their restaurants. But also, what you could feel was very palpable in the city is the fear of the unknown, of what could go wrong now.

NARRATOR: Since forcing the Houthis out of Aden, the Saudi coalition has tried to push the rebels back north and reinstate the government in Sana’a. But the advance has been slow, and the two sides remain deadlocked at the strategic city of Taiz.

SAFA AL AHMAD: Taiz is strategically important because whoever controls the city will have an easier time moving in and controlling and maintaining Sana’a.

NARRATOR: The fighting has effectively cut off Taiz, Yemen’s third-largest city, from the rest of the world.

SAFA AL AHMAD: I really wanted to go and see for myself because so little information that is reliable comes out from Yemen. And this is one of the major challenges. The different factions involved in the war don’t necessarily want journalists there.

NARRATOR: A group of Yemeni fighters working with the Saudi coalition agrees to take Safa to the front line near Taiz. Abdul Barri is the commander.

SAFA AL AHMAD: [subtitles] I hear live fire now. What is—

ABDUL BARRI: [subtitles] Yes, there is fighting now using heavy weapons. We hit them and they hit back. This is Central Mountain. This is a mortar attack, a good shot.

NARRATOR: Abdul Barri’s men have spent months trying to break the Houthi’s siege of Taiz.

ABDUL BARRI: [subtitles] The area is empty. Tell Anees to let the group go ahead. Send men to the location and tell them to advance. Did the first group advance? Go ahead and send someone to them’

NARRATOR: With heavy cover fire, Abdul Barri sends a small team of men up to the Houthi position, but the team is pinned down.

ABDUL BARRI: [subtitles] Stay bunkered in. We’ll send two vehicles now.

NARRATOR: He calls for help from the coalition forces.

ABDUL BARRI: [subtitles] Hello, Abu Khalid. Call Fadhil and ask, “Where are the two vehicles that were going to join us?” The shooting is very heavy. Our boys can’t lift their heads.

SAFA AL AHMAD: I was filming on the front line I think for over— for over an hour or so. And then suddenly, this APC just drives right in to where I am sitting. And the— the UAE soldiers come out of it, and I just freeze because when I arrived, one of the first things I did is to go visit the UAE forces and ask them officially for permission to film with them.

They never gave such permission, and so I just try to, you know, like, blend in so that nobody would notice me and I zoom in on them and I start filming.

UAE SOLDIER: [subtitles] They should not rush to Central Mountain. They should take it slow.

SAFA AL AHMAD: Since the war started, and especially when the siege on Taiz started, there were a lot of promises from the coalition of breaking the siege, but it was months and months. And by the time I got there, I think it’s a fair critique to say that the war was going extremely slowly for the liking of a lot of Yemenis.


UAE SOLDIERS: We don’t want to rush.

Yes, you’re right.

Rushing never helps. It’s better if you take it slow.

NARRATOR: Elsewhere along the front line, a different group of fighters spots Safa and starts shouting.


SAFA AL AHMAD: What’s wrong?

MAN: She’s a journalist, and we must respect her.

FIGHTER: We said for her to step back. We didn’t say hit her. Tell her to step back.

SAFA AL AHMAD: Who are they? They don’t want me to be here?

MAN: Those are Ansar al Sharia [al Qaeda]. They don’t want you to be here.

SAFA AL AHMAD: And he just says quite casually these are Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. And he referred to them by their local name, which is Ansar al Sharia. He revealed what is considered an open secret in the front lines, that they had been fighting with all the different factions, the Yemeni factions and the coalition against the Houthis.


FIGHTERS: This is forbidden.

We don’t accept them. We don’t accept you.

On religious grounds, we do not accept you.

SAFA AL AHMAD: What did he say, “On religious grounds, we don’t accept you”?

1st MAN: They are ISIS.

2nd MAN: No, they’re not. They’re worse than ISIS. We can’t coexist with them.

NARRATOR: Al Qaeda has long been a dominant force in Yemen. Safa reported on their presence here years before the civil war.

SAFA AL AHMAD: I first embedded with Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula in 2012, when they had actually controlled huge parts of South Yemen and declared it an Islamic state before there was such a thing as an Islamic State.

NARRATOR: The group was labeled by the U.S. as one of the most dangerous branches of al Qaeda and had been a target of repeated strikes by American drones and the Yemeni air force.

FOUAD: [February 2012] [subtitles] —but they failed to reach Ansar al Sharia. We are at war with America and its allies. Just like Bush once said, if you’re not with us, you’re against us.

NARRATOR: But now, even as the drone strikes have continued, al Qaeda has joined the fight against the Houthis, on the same side as the United States.

SAFA AL AHMAD: This is why it’s so difficult to explain the war on Yemen, because there are so many enemies that find themselves on the same front lines fighting the other enemy. A lot of people who wanted to fight the Houthis, that didn’t necessarily agree with al Qaeda, did join them because that was a ready front for them to go out and fight. And that grew with the ranks of al Qaeda. And so the situation only got worse from 2012 until now.

FIGHTER: [subtitles] Islam does not allow for people to be overly strict. We must be moderate. But we have a group here who are strict.

SAFA AL AHMAD: [subtitles] But you fight together at the front line?

FIGHTER: [subtitles] For sure. At the front, we are together.

SAFA AL AHMAD: And frankly, this is the fragile alliances that had been built. The only common denominator between them has been fighting the Houthis. I think a lot of people worry about what will happen after there’s no more Houthi to fight, as in how those different factions are going to deal with each other after the war is over.

NARRATOR: After weeks of trying, Safa finally reaches the outskirts of Taiz. The only way into the city itself is a treacherous mountain path used by smugglers. Convoys of donkeys and camels are the city’s only lifeline, carrying food, oil, wood, medicine and weapons.

SAFA AL AHMAD: After you’ve survived and gone up the mountain, then you have to have a car meet you at the top of the mountain, and then you cross another very dangerous area. The mortars can get at any time. The snipers can get you at any time, as well, so you have to be very careful about those things.

NARRATOR: She enters the city at night. Houthi fighters are all around Taiz, and anything moving in the dark is a target.

SAFA AL AHMAD: I’ve been in Taiz many times over the years. It is a beautiful city, extremely vibrant. It is considered the cultural heart of Yemen. And when I arrived in Taiz after being smuggled up the mountain, I saw a different city. It was empty and haunted and broken in a way I was hoping I wouldn’t see.

NARRATOR: An estimated 400,000 residents have fled Taiz, half the city’s population. Those who remain are at the mercy of whoever controls the hilltops surrounding the city. For months, the Houthis’ grip has been unbreakable.

Mohammad is one of many young residents who have joined the fight against the Houthis.

MUHAMMAD: [subtitles] We call that hill Ameen’s Peak.

SAFA AL AHMAD: [subtitles] Is it under the Houthis’ control?

MUHAMMAD: [subtitles] No, the resistance. We were forced into this war. I’m a pharmacist, but I came out to fight because this doesn’t please God or His Prophet.

NARRATOR: From his bunker, Mohammad overlooks one of the city’s main entrances, where residents have to go through checkpoints maintained by the two sides.

MUHAMMAD: [subtitles] We only see the civilians, but the Houthis have a checkpoint behind the hill. If we saw them, of course, we would shoot them. Everything is banned. You can only walk through. Everything is banned. You can only walk through. Sugar, rice, flour, even Khat is banned.

SAFA AL AHMAD: Taiz has two main entrances into the city, from the East and from the West. And the Houthis have controlled those two main entrances and have encircled the city. So they dictated what food got in, if you were able to get gas in or petrol or medicine. And so it’s a daily struggle, basically.

[just past the checkpoint]

1st MAN: [subtitles] We waited an hour to get a kilo of tomatoes.

2nd MAN: [subtitles] They took my tomatoes, but they let me bring in onions and potatoes.

WOMAN: [subtitles] They were searching us as if we were at the Rafah [Gaza] crossing. They searched us as if we were in Palestine, not in Yemen.

SAFA AL AHMAD: There’s a lot of anger inside the city that fellow Yemenis are besieging us. I think that has been really hard on a lot of people to understand, when something like that happens.

While I was filming the checkpoint from the local resistance side, there was a tiny little house on the right. And I saw the little girl frying the bread, and so I asked permission to start filming them. And this is how I was introduced to Hammed and his mother.


HAMMED: [to elderly woman] Come back and sit here.

She wants to run away by any means. Now she wants to go to her family in the village.

SAFA AL AHMAD: You can’t reach the village?

HAMMED: No, we can’t. The situation has become very difficult. I used to work in a factory, but it closed in April. All of a sudden, we’re inundated with problems. We have no gas or anything. We use wood to cook and make our tea. You see how we live. What else can we say? We say, “Thank God.” He cursed us and He is the only one who can save us.

NARRATOR: Little remains functional in Taiz. The city’s water supply has become increasingly sporadic. Every day, dozens of children line up to bring water home to their families. But it’s a dangerous job. The day Safa arrived, a Houthi mortar struck one of the water tanks.

SAFA AL AHMAD: Twenty-three kids were injured in this mortar attack, and five of the children were killed. One of the survivors was a little girl, and she was brought to the hospital that I had happened to be filming in that day.

NARRATOR: Six-year old Asmaa suffered severe shrapnel wounds to the head. She survived, but is in critical condition.


Dr. AHMAD: This is Asmaa. We operated on her yesterday. Her vitals are good. She needs to stay on the respirator, maybe for a long time. This will take a lot of oxygen.

SAFA AL AHMAD: She survived yesterday.

Dr. AHMAD: She survived yesterday. God willing, she’ll survive tomorrow.

NARRATOR: Since the siege of Taiz began in August 2015, doctors here at the Al Thawra Hospital say it has lost over 70 percent of its staff and is barely getting by.


Dr. AHMAD: We’re in a state of austerity, austerity in everything.

SAFA AL AHMAD: And you are in a war.

Dr. AHMAD: And we are in a war. The hospital budget has been reduced by 50 percent. Despite that, we have to buy everything on the black market, medicine, diesel, other medical equipment. That is, if we can find them.

SAFA AL AHMAD: [to patient] Are you in pain?

MUKHTAR: Extreme pain.

PHYSICIAN: He was shot in the leg, causing huge loss of tissue. He has been in the hospital for over three weeks.

SAFA AL AHMAD: Three weeks?

PHYSICIAN: Yes, because of the lack of oxygen. The wound should have been closed sooner.

NARRATOR: Even necessities like oxygen, which is needed for putting patients under general anesthesia, are in short supply. The trauma unit has to ration what little there is. Mukhtar was not one of the lucky ones.

PHYSICIAN: [subtitles] As you can see, the patient is in pain. We, the surgeons, feel the pain, too. We are done, Mukhtar. Please forgive me.

MUKHTAR: [subtitles] May God forgive you and reward you.

NARRATOR: There used to be 20 hospitals in Taiz. Now only a handful are partially functioning.

PHYSICIAN: [subtitles] There is no oxygen.

NARRATOR: The head of Al Thawra’s trauma unit is Dr. Abu Dhar. When he can, he also performs surgeries on non-trauma patients. For people who are critically ill, the unit is their last resort. On this day, he is performing an operation on man with kidney failure. Under ordinary circumstances, Dr. Abu Dhar says he would have transferred the man to another hospital.

Dr. ABU DHAR: [subtitles] I am afraid. I told him to go to Sana’a or Ibb. He said he has no money. And he can’t get out of the city. On Thursday, he cried a lot. What can I do?

[subtitles] Are you trying to say something?

PATIENT: [subtitles] I want to have the transplant.

Dr. ABU DHAR: [subtitles] OK, go and register, and when the war is over and the country’s fixed, God willing, if the coalition keeps their word instead of continuing to bomb us.

NARRATOR: This is the man who many in Taiz are depending on to save the city, Hamoud al Mikhlafi, the leader of the anti-Houthi resistance here.

HAMOUD AL MIKHLAFI: [subtitles] The fighting is on the streets, in the neighborhoods. It’s not in the open. And our advancement of four or five houses is considered an achievement. We’re surrounded, as you can see. We can’t even get medicine in.

SAFA AL AHMAD: [subtitles] Are there snipers here?

MAN: [subtitles] Yes, from over there.

NARRATOR: The American-backed Saudi coalition is supporting his fighters, but Mikhlafi says it’s not enough.

HAMOUD AL MIKHLAFI: [subtitles] This is our problem. Weapons and ammunition is not enough. If you are giving us canons, six for example, the enemy has 300 of them. This is the comparison.

NARRATOR: With the fighting at a stalemate, there have been ongoing attempts at peace talks, but neither the Houthis nor the coalition have stood down for long.

HAMOUD AL MIKHLAFI: [subtitles] The resistance does not want a political solution. I think power is the solution because the time has come to rid Yemen of corruption and oppression. And God willing, that will start here in Taiz.

SAFA AL AHMAD: He expressed the feelings of many within the local resistance against the Houthis. They’ve lost faith in any peace process or negotiations, and they have no trust for the Houthis keeping their word, basically.

NARRATOR: With so much fighting and so many people having fled, schools in Taiz have been closed for months.

SAFA AL AHMAD: [subtitles] How much school have you missed?

YOUNG MAN: [subtitles] Two or three months. Education is extinct in Yemen.

NARRATOR: Though his house is in the line of fire between the local fighters and the Houthis, Abdullah and his family have refused to leave.


ABDULLAH: There is fear. We worry. You hear the mortars? They fall near us.

SAFA AL AHMAD: You live here alone?

ABDULLAH: I live with my entire family.

SAFA AL AHMAD: And how are you living?

ABDULLAH: Come in and see.

SAFA AL AHMAD: With no water or anything?

ABDULLAH: There’s no water, no electricity. There is nothing. But we thank God.

NARRATOR: The house is barely standing and in danger from the near constant shelling.

SAFA AL AHMAD: [indicating little boy] He got used to it?

ABDULLAH: Yes, he got used to it.

SAFA AL AHMAD: What is that? A plane?

BOY: Shooting.

SAFA AL AHMAD: Are you afraid of the shooting?

Did you ever expect this to happen you?

UM ISLAM, Abdullah’s Sister-in-Law: We saw what happened in Palestine and Syria. They became refugees. Now we’ve become like them.

NARRATOR: Abdullah’s sister-in-law says that for those who have stayed behind, life has become unbearable.

UM ISLAM: [subtitles] One day, my friend came to say goodbye. I asked, “Why?” She said she may die. Later, a mortar hit her, her daughters and their neighbors. Seven people died. I didn’t get to see them. They just buried them. No one visits their neighbors anymore.

SAFA AL AHMAD: I went to one of the newest cemeteries in Taiz that had started after the war, and a lot of the tombstones I saw were for children. And so many of them die in mortar attacks. There’s a mother that I met at the cemetery, and her child had been killed by a mortar.

WOMAN: [subtitles] She was hit by a mortar. She is the only one from my family who died. But my neighbors lost many. May they all rest in peace.

SAFA AL AHMAD: Even the cemetery itself wasn’t even spared the mortar attacks. So there was an attack I think about a month before we arrived, where it killed several of the children that happened to be in the cemetery. And you can see the shrapnel in the graveyard itself and then all the way up the mango tree of where it was hit.

NARRATOR: Back at Al Thawra hospital, the young girl, Asmaa, remains in critical condition. The doctors say they are running out of options.


Dr. ABU DHAR: Where is the oxygen?

DOCTOR: There is no oxygen.

Dr. ABU DHAR: This is not good. No oxygen left?

There should be a canister of 100 percent pure oxygen here. Here they’re pumping air into her, and air contains only 21 percent oxygen. The brain needs good oxygen, 100 percent pure.

Look, you do a successful operation, and this is a crime. What a shame. Poor little girl.

The decision to go to war is extremely wrong. That decision, on a society that’s underdeveloped and poor, will exhaust it and set them back years because wars do not recognize humanity.

We’re now between a rock and a hard place. We’re either with the Houthis or the other side, the extremists. This worries me. I hope that people here don’t end up supporting the extremists. I don’t think they will because people here don’t think that way. But the future—

SAFA AL AHMAD: Dr. Abu Dhar was quite worried about what he was seeing happening to his city, but not only just his city, his country. He’s seen the impact of the wars in the past year and the real ramifications on the younger generations right now.

While I was there, all of a sudden, he sees a 15-year-old kid who he knew his mother very well, and he had joined a jihadi group as a 15-year-old. And you could see how distraught he was.


Dr. ABU DHAR: He used to live in our neighborhood! How are you? Where do you work?

JIHADI BOY: Here and there.

Dr. ABU DHAR: But you’re young. How old are you now?

JIHADI BOY: Fifteen years old.

Dr. ABU DHAR: I’m upset for you now because he was from my neighborhood and he is young. Take care of yourselves.

This is why I hate war. This is the result.

NARRATOR: Outside the hospital, another injured fighter arrives, shot in the chest by a sniper.

Dr. ABU DHAR: [subtitles] He’s lost too much blood. It’s all over the floor. Quickly. Guys, I need silence!

Suction, suction. Yes, suction is here. Give me the knife.

The heart has stopped. The heart is beating again. Hurry up. Gauze, please!

Done. He’s had his chance. May God help us.

In the name of God the most Gracious, the most Merciful. Praise be to God, Lord of all the worlds. The Compassionate, the Merciful. Ruler on the Day of Reckoning. You alone do we worship, and You alone do we ask for help.

Guide us on the straight path, the path of those who have received Your grace not of those who have brought down wrath nor of those who have gone astray.

NARRATOR: Soon after Safa left Taiz, the critically injured girl, Asmaa, was smuggled down the mountain in an attempt to save her life. She died just after arriving in Aden.

SAFA AL AHMAD: The ramifications of Yemen falling apart on the region are massive. You’re dealing with a country that has failed. We’re not talking about failing, or on the brink any more, the way we used to describe Yemen, we are talking about it being completely decimated right now. And where do you go from there?

So we’re looking at another Somalia, another Syria, another Iraq, another Libya.

[Last month, U.N.-brokered peace talks began. But the siege of Taiz continues.]

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