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Why Yemen's Nearly 3-Year-Old Civil War Remains Mostly Out Of Headlines


Saudi Arabia's crown prince is beginning a visit to the United States today. Mohammed bin Salman is the new face of an oil-rich nation. He's 32 years old, less than half the age of the president who meets him tomorrow in Washington. The crown prince ordered economic development and new freedoms for women, and yet he faces criticism over a signature move - intervening in Yemen's civil war. Steve Inskeep traveled to Yemen to examine this largely hidden conflict, and he is joining us now from Djibouti.

Hi, Steve.


GREENE: So the U.N. calls this the worst humanitarian crisis in the world, which, I mean, says a lot, given the world we live in today. Why is Yemen mostly not in the headlines?

INSKEEP: Partly that it's so remote, on the end of the Arabian Peninsula - desert on one side, water on the other. It's really dangerous to visit, and the combatants limit access to journalists. Now, there is powerful reporting out of Yemen. Don't get me wrong. But it gets lost in other news. And it's worth a deeper look because of what the U.N. says. Most of the country - maybe 17 million people, David - face food shortages or disease or economic devastation as well as war.

GREENE: I mean, that's just a - that's an extraordinary statistics and numbers. OK, so you have Saudi Arabia. They have this coalition supporting them on one side of a civil war. And the U.S. is one of the Saudi allies, right?

INSKEEP: That's right. The U.S. provides intelligence, and refuels Saudi warplanes in the air and also sells the Saudis billions of dollars' worth of military hardware. Human rights groups and some in Congress now want to end that U.S. involvement. And it's under that pressure that the Saudis have offered a bit of openness. They're now flying reporters into Yemen to see a small part of the war, so we took up that invitation.

(Speaking Arabic).

ABDULAZIZ: Have a safe flight.

INSKEEP: Thank you. (Speaking Arabic).

So we're in a military base in Riyadh surrounded by the city here. There's kind of a billboard inside with a picture of Mohammed bin Salman, the defense minister and crown prince who's been seen as the driving force behind this war. We're about to board a Saudi-owned C-130 propeller aircraft for a flight into Yemen.

Our trip took three tries. The first two flights were turned aside for security concerns.


INSKEEP: But we finally bounced on a runway of desert sand, and we drove into the mountains.

My ears just popped as we're gaining altitude going up this mountain now.

We crossed a bombed-out bridge, maneuvering past a giant gap like a bite taken by a monster, and we turned up a mountain road.

ALI AL-SAKANI: The significance of this mountain - it overlooks many areas, OK?

INSKEEP: Mmm hmm.

Ali al-Sakani (ph) of the local governor's office came along to an observation post. Soldiers from Yemen's army took turns with binoculars, peering into the valley below. Somewhere out there, rebels known as Houthis control the capital city, Sanaa. A Yemeni soldier, Lieutenant Ahkram Messen, is among those guarding this post overlooking a divided country.

Where is your family today?


AL-SAKANI: In Sanaa.

INSKEEP: Your family's - Sanaa's this way, right?


INSKEEP: Your family's over there in Sanaa?

MESSEN: (Speaking Arabic).

AL-SAKANI: There are 30 kilo between me and my family.

INSKEEP: Do you ever call up and say, hi, mom?

MESSEN: (Speaking Arabic).

INSKEEP: "Yes," he says. "They say they're waiting on me to come." A senior officer met us here. General Nasser al-Thebani wore a camouflage cap and chatted on a walkie-talkie.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Speaking Arabic).

AL-SAKANI: Commander of the 7th military zone, Major General Nasser al-Thebani.

INSKEEP: Just heard an explosion in the distance. What do you suppose that was, General?

NASSER AL-THEBANI: (Speaking Arabic).

AL-SAKANI: There was...

INSKEEP: He said, there's some fighting going on, though from what we saw, it wasn't much. Soldiers say they've held this same position for two years, sitting in the desert sun amid hundreds of spent anti-aircraft shells and empty water bottles. What's your strategy now?

AL-THEBANI: (Speaking Arabic).

INSKEEP: "Our strategy," the general said, "is to liberate all Yemeni territory." It's not clear how long that might take. Yemen's government lost the capital to the rebels in 2014. By 2015, the government seemed on the verge of losing the biggest seaport. That's when the Saudi military intervened under the supervision of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. The Saudi military spokesman is Colonel Turki al-Malki.

TURKI AL-MALKI: We being forced to it. We did not plan the hour to start it. We planned for 36 hour to protect the Yemeni people, to protect our national security and also the collective security in the Gulf.

INSKEEP: Thirty-six hours from the decision being taken to when you began acting.

AL-MALKI: Launching the war.

INSKEEP: That swift decision led to a drawn-out conflict. U.S. diplomats compare the Saudis in Yemen to Americans in Afghanistan. They're investing billions of dollars to prop up a weak government. Yemen's government doesn't even control its capital. And this month, the Saudis had to deposit $2 billion in Yemen's Central Bank to keep the currency from collapsing.

How concerned are you that Saudi Arabia has found itself engaged in what seems to be a very long-running civil war?

AL-MALKI: Well, I don't think it's a civil war. Civil war, when it happen, it will happen between the people of the country.

INSKEEP: The Saudis view the Houthis as religious extremists armed by the Saudi's great regional rival, Iran. Western nations accuse Iran of supplying missiles to the Houthis. The Houthis deny getting that help, but they do have missiles that they lob over the border into Saudi Arabia.

AL-MALKI: The Iranian regime, they have their own agenda in the region and taking the Houthi as a tool.

INSKEEP: To fight the rebels, the Saudis rely on Yemen's army, which, from what we saw, is lightly trained and lightly equipped. The Saudis pay that army, and provide intelligence, and fire the artillery we heard in the distance and have special forces on the ground. U.S.-made jets from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates fly overhead. Their presence has intensified the destruction in Yemen's war, including in the capital, Sanaa. We placed a call to the rebel side of the battle lines and on a faint phone connection, heard the voice of Dr. Najla al-Sonboli.

Where have we found you?

NAJLA AL-SONBOLI: Yeah, now I'm in Sanaa. I've just come back from the hospital - at my home at the moment.

INSKEEP: And I'm told that you've been working in a hospital that's had quite a lot of business, if that's the word, in the last couple of years. Is that right?

AL-SONBOLI: Yeah, that's right. Yeah.

INSKEEP: It's a maternal hospital. Mothers give birth directly across from a rebel-controlled military base, which the Saudi-led coalition repeatedly bombs.

AL-SONBOLI: This happens - you know, happens during the day, so anytime. Just suddenly, we hear the explosion - boom, boom. (Imitating explosion). No one can expect. But only we hear the plane first, the sound of the planes flying over, so we are expecting something will come up.

INSKEEP: So you hear a plane, you think something might be coming, and then there's an explosion, and it may be very near you.

AL-SONBOLI: Yeah. Yeah, yeah. So only our expectation by the voice of the planes - when we hear it, we know that they will bomb.

INSKEEP: Now, Saudi bombs have not struck Dr. Sonboli's hospital, but reporters and human rights groups document other civilian sites that were struck - a different hospital, houses, a market, a funeral and more.

AL-SONBOLI: But we have another problem. It's economic problem. Our staff have no salary for 1 1/2 year. We have shortage of medicines for our patients, epidemics of diseases. Every day, you know, in Yemen, the biggest cholera epidemic in the world, according to the WHO - what's happened in Yemen. And still, we are expecting, you know, during the summer because now we are at the end of the winter - when the summer come, we are expecting it to be - come again.

INSKEEP: Have you not been paid in a year and a half?

AL-SONBOLI: For me - you know, I am - because I am a doctor and I have a private clinic, so my private clinic helped me in some way, a little bit. You know, in every war, there are few people who have - get a lot of benefits from this war and the majority, who are - have not any benefits and are losers in it.

INSKEEP: Under pressure for human suffering, the Saudis have been promoting their efforts to deliver humanitarian aid. They have also acknowledged some mistaken bombings - 11 so far. Outside groups count far more. Saudis and Iranians may be paying the bills for this war, but Yemenis are in the line of fire.


INSKEEP: The Saudis who brought us to Yemen showed off a clinic where people are fitted for artificial limbs. Barakat Mohammed Hassan (ph) was a Yemeni soldier who stepped on a land mine. He spoke with us while standing on his artificial leg.

So could you be in the same country as the man who set that land mine that took your leg?


INSKEEP: He says, "God willing. Some people are destroying the country, but the rest of us are brothers."

GREENE: Well, Steve Inskeep, I mean, you've seen this war now in Yemen. And is anyone talking about peace?

INSKEEP: Well, there are some quiet talks going on, but they would have to resolve a war that involves a lot of nations, clashing interests. The Saudis, for example, are very focused on Iran, as are the Americans. The CIA director, Mike Pompeo, is really focused on Iran. And we're told that recently, he had a long talk with U.S. diplomats about Yemen. Since then, of course, he's been nominated to serve as secretary of state, where he could have influence on Yemen's war.

GREENE: All right, Steve Inskeep in Djibouti. Thanks, Steve.

INSKEEP: Thank you, David.

GREENE: And he'll have the voices of civilians affected by the war as we hear his reporting this week. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.