'Hudaida will cost so many civilian lives but we have no choice'

  • Nasser al-Sakkaf
  • 13 Jun 2018

As the Saudi-led coalition prepares to attack the port of Hudaida, Saudi-backed forces on the ground say they cannot guarantee what would happen to the trapped civilians.

Aid agencies warned that the crucial battle in the three-year-old conflict could push the Arab world's poorest country into further chaos. ( AP )

TAIZ, Yemen— Residents of Hudaida are worried about the coming days, as the battle has moved from the border of the city to inside the province, with pro-Hadi forces now only about 25 kilometres away.

Allaa Taha, 35, a resident of Hudaida who works in a clothing shop, stated that he’s lost the joys that come with celebrating Eid. The Saudi-led coalition's assault is likely to get more intense in the coming days, even ruining the Eid holiday.

"During this past month, the battles have moved towards Hudaida and the pro-Hadi forces could advance more than 70 km towards Hudaida city," Taha said, speaking to TRT World.

"We feel the forces can arrive in the city in the coming days. Instead of preparing for the Eid, residents of Hudaida are preparing themselves to flee the city as soon as the battle arrives."

These are the circumstances a majority of the residents of Hudaida find themselves in. 

Some international organisations have warned that the renewed round of fighting would have catastrophic consequences, but the Saudi-led coalition paid no heed and threatened to recapture Hudaida in the coming days if they do not reach a deal with the Houthi rebels. 

The United Arab Emirates has given the UN on Monday less than 48 hours to try to negotiate a Houthi ceasefire at the strategic Red Sea port of Hudaida, before it mounts an attack on the vital port through which the bulk of Yemen's food, medicine and gas arrives.

The threat from the UAE aggravated the fears among the residents, with many anxious of the result. "The Houthis have not agreed to a ceasefire yet, and that means the pro-Hadi forces will storm the city anytime," Taha added.

Yemenis have gotten used to walking past rubble as deadly air strikes have destroyed several neighbourhoods across the country. One of the most recent air strikes happened in early May, when the Saudi-led coalition attacked the presidential compound in Sana.(AP)

Early on Wednesday, the Saudi-owned Al Arabiya TV announced the beginning of the attack on Hudaida, citing military sources, however ground forces are yet to make any serious manoeuvre towards the city. 

The Saudi-backed Hadi government said in a statement reported early on Wednesday that all political and peaceful means to drive the Houthis out of Hudaida have been exhausted. 

Taha wants to flee the city, but he is still waiting for the battles to arrive. Some residents have already fled the city.

The Yemeni Ministry of Defense said on Monday that the army attacked the Houthi sites in Durahmi and Quba, located 8 km from the airport, but the fierce battles between the Houthi rebels and the pro-Hadi forces moved from the Khawkha district to the Duraihimi district, some 25 km from Hudaida city, and battles are ongoing in the district and some surrounding areas.

Khalid al Duraih, 46, a resident of Hudaida, who is originally from Taiz, does not prefer to put himself and his family at risk, so when he heard that some international organisations are pulling out from Hudaida, he also left for Taiz, along with his family of five.

"Taiz is not completely safe, but it won't be as dangerous as Hudaida is going to get," Duraih said.

Duraih is a teacher and plans to stay in Taiz until there's a longterm ceasefire or the city is completely liberated from the Houthi stranglehold. 

"When the battle broke out in Taiz city in 2015, my brother fled Taiz and came to Hudaida. He lived in my house, and now the opposite is happening."

The United Nations has begun evacuating its staff from the city.

The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) lost one of its employees, who was killed in a shooting in the Yemeni city of Taiz in April. Aid agencies warned that the attacks in Hudaida could push the Arab world's poorest country into further chaos.(AP)

Peaceful solution have failed

The UN is engaged in an "intense" shuttle diplomacy between the Houthis in Yemen, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia in a bid to save Hudaida from bloodshed, the agency chief Antonio Guterres said on Monday.

The UN Humanitarian Coordinator Lise Grande said, "as many as 250,000 people may lose everything — even their lives," if there is a military attack on Hudaida.

The UN Security Council met behind closed doors on Monday, at the request of Britain, to be briefed on the situation after heavy fighting erupted near Hudaida on Friday and Saturday. 

"We are, at the present moment, in intense consultation," Guterres told reporters on Monday. "I hope that it will be possible to avoid a battle for Hudaida." 

When asked about the three-day deadline to aid organisations, the Saudi-led coalition spokesman Turki al Malki said in Riyadh, "We are working through open and continuous channels with the UN envoy to give a chance for a political solution."

The US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo called on all parties "to honour their commitments to work with the UN."

Ali al Sharafi, a field commander of the pro-Hadi forces in Hudaida confirmed to TRT World  that military reinforcements have arrived to Hudaida, coming from Mocha and southern provinces. He added that the forces are waiting on directions from their leadership before they attack the city.

"We believe that the attack on Hudaida will cost so many civilian lives but we have no choice. The Houthis have not approached a political solution and usually they do not prefer peaceful solutions," Sharafi said.

"The forces are willing with their modern weapons to attack Hudaida and are only waiting on directions from our leadership."

Sharafi stated that the attack may begin in the coming days or even hours as miitary leadership have already prepared the plan of attack, but have wanted to give the Houthis one last chance to work out a peace solution.

"The liberation may take time because of the Houthi landmines, but finally we will liberate it, and I believe that we have already given the Houthis many chances for peace solutions," he said.

The Houthi leader and political analyst Mohammed al Dailami believes that the pro-Hadi forces cannot advance any further towards Hudaida, describing the recent development to be a kind of "media frenzy."

"During the last few weeks, the forces of aggression [Saudi-led coalition] advanced in some areas in Hudaida but then AnsarAllah [the Houthis] recaptured those areas last week," Dailami told TRT World.

"Moreover, there are Emirati forces under siege in Hudaida, and there is mediation to lift the siege over them."

Dailami said the Houthis can launch a counterattack, targeting the battleships of the Saudi-led coalition if they attacked Hudaida.

Over 10,000 people have been killed in Yemen's civil war, which has displaced two million more and helped spawn a cholera epidemic.(AP)

Humanitarian effect

On Monday, aid agencies in Yemen released a joint statement, warning the escalation of violence will further impact the civilians in the country. 

"Large parts of the Yemeni population will be at risk of displacement, disease and worsening food insecurity, including possible famine," the statement said.

"Food imports have already reached the lowest levels since the conflict started and the price of basic commodities has risen by a third. Seventeen million people in Yemen are already food insecure, and Hudaida’s administration is already in crisis. People’s coping mechanisms are exhausted."

Hudaida's residents are the poorest in Yemen, and the city has the highest number of hungry people among Yemeni provinces, so activists believe these difficulties will be exacerbated if there is an attack on Hudaida.

Sameer Sultan, a humanitarian activist in Hudaida, stated that the recent battles have already affected residents of Hudaida and surrounding provinces like Hajja.

"Most of Hudaida's residents depend on organisations to get food, medicines and other kinds of aid, but aid organisations are pulling out, so they will soon run out of supplies," Sultan said.

Sultan has worked during the last three years with local organisations in Hudaida.

He believes the escalating violence will largely affect the residents of the Houthi-controlled areas, as the city has just one seaport.

"Both aid organisations and local traders import basic commodities via Hudaida's seaport, so any attack will hinder the supplies," he said.

The residents of Hudaida have been pleading to both the warring sides to avoid fighting and rely on peace talks. "Warring sides have to learn from what has happened in Taiz and avoid fighting in Hudaida city," said Taha, the resident of Hudaida.