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The forgotten war, from Aden to Sana'a: An interview from the Yemen war with Gabriel Chaim

Updated: Sep 11, 2018

Fighters hold a dead body of a fighter killed during clashes around Hudaydah sea port front line. Yemen north - June, 2018 (Gabriel Chaim)

Yemen’s forgotten war: An interview with Gabriel Chaim

By Seth J. Frantzman

Photojournalist Gabriel Chaim travelled to Yemen in the summer of 2018 and received unique access to Houthi areas of the country. Some of his drone footage has been posted by CNN in early August. His previous work in Iraq for CNN has been nominated for an Emmy Award. I met Chaim in Bashiqa in 2016 in the lead-up to the Mosul offensive and we spoke in August about his work in Yemen. The interview took place a day after reports emerged that more than two dozen children had been killed in an airstrike in the country.

Tell me about your trip, where you went and initial reactions? I got there three months ago and was there for two months in 2018. Yemen is really a different situation than other places I have been. Even in a place called a “war zone” you can find everything in stores in Aden. Supermarkets are full of food. French biscuits, Diet Coke, for instance. But a few kilometers away there is no food for the civilians living in refugee camps.

This was the most difficult thing. When I was in Aden, a lot of beggars were asking for money in the street; but in the supermarkets you could see food and everything. This was the most important thing that caught my attention, how it’s really a big difference between life of civilians fleeing war and the civilians living in the city.

No one there has money. This is the biggest problem in the humanitarian situation in the south.

But in the north in the Houthi area. It’s very different. The use of Qat has become a big problem in society. This drug has become a big problem throughout Yemen. The men become addicted to this drug. Every day, afternoon and night, they are using the drug and losing their lives.

What’s the political situation like?

Yemen is super-divided. Behind the power struggle are a lot of countries, including Iran with the Houthis and Saudi Arabia and UAE with the pro-Governmental forces. So they are making the country become more divided and they are shooting civilians. There are Saudi air strikes everywhere; they don’t care about shooting civilians. Yesterday for instance was a massacre on a bus and more than 30 children were killed.

You started your trip in Aden?

I got there for the first time in Aden because it’s the place you’re allowed to land. I haven’t been in a lot of the country. In the south is the largest refugee camp in Lahj governorate. So everyone that flees the war from Hodeidah or other areas they go to Lahj.

It’s close to Aden but a kind of neutral zone and a lot of NGOs send supplies there. All the NGOs are there, like MSF and the UN. All of them. But when you go to the refugee camps, a lot of them are improvised. This is another problem. You don’t have a huge refugee camp supported by the UN but rather many small camps. When you go to those camps and you ask the displaced people ‘so did an NGO come,’, they will say ‘yeah sometimes they come but they don’t have food for everyone and they supply just half and then they never come back anymore.’ This is another problem there. A lot of NGOs get money but actually don’t help people.

I was in many camps and in all of them the children are dying from sickness and diseases.

Did you feel safe?

I didn’t feel safe as a foreigner. It’s difficult to feel safe in the war zone. I trusted the fixers and trusted them totally. Our life is in their hands.

Sana'a, Yemen (Gabriel Chaim)

Where did you go in the Houthi-held areas?

I went to the north, Sana’a, and Sa’dah and Hajjah, for two weeks. It was difficult as a foreigner. I wasn’t free to work and they wanted to show me what they want. But what they wanted to show me was what I wanted to do. I wanted to see the cluster bombs because there is a Brazilian factory selling cluster bombs to the Saudis and this was behind killing of women and children and I was there to film the evidence of these bombs, so the Houthis helped me because it’s in their interest.

It’s difficult to see what’s going on in the north. In the South of Yemen I was free to movie. If I wanted a taxi for instance. But in the north I couldn’t even leave my hotel alone.

What was your sense among the civilians and their support for the Houthis?

If you talk to the civilians they will never tell you exactly, but I spoke to many and they are against the Houthis. They don’t like the government but they cannot say anything. But it’s like a dictatorship. If they say something bad then maybe they will die.

A street damaged by fighting (Gabriel Chaim)

Did you witness air strikes or hear a lot of air activity?

When I was there I felt and heard the sounds of the jets two times. Once in Sana’a, there were jets flying above. Another time it was more scary in Hajah, the jets were very close. Because I was close to the border and the jets and drones fly 24 hours and they are shooting also. That is a lot.

How do the Houthis operate when their enemies have such air power?

It’s like Syria, for instance, how many years did the rebels live under air strikes. It doesn’t stop the war, the air strikescan kill some soldiers but can’t stop the war. The humans learned how to adapt to this problem, even the air strikes. The problem with fighting the Houthis, you cannot say who is Houthi [fighters] and who is not. Your view from above is impossible to tell. All the places in north Yemen are crowded with women and children, so how can they know who will be the next target, so that is why there are a lot of civilian casualties because they are mixed with them.

They don’t wear uniforms?

They don’t wear uniforms. They use normal dress, the Yemen traditional dress is what they wear.

How did you travel there to the Houthi areas?

That was the difficulty to get into the Houthi area. You don’t see foreigners there, just a few of us. I had help from someone from there. I got official position from the Houthis to get there. I was there to film about the cluster bombs and they wanted that since I’m Brazilian. So they helped me a lot. They took me to places no one has been to document. I got exclusive access. I made a ten-minute report and right now we are editing a longer documentary.

You also did drone footage for CNN?

Footage for CNN for my first weeks of my trip in Taizz. It is controlled by the government. But two years ago it was under siege. The Houithis laid siege to it and inside Taizz there was another local militia trying to break the siege. If you see the map there is just one way in and all around in Houthis. When I was there in the downtown in the old city, the historical part, there are many places where Houthis frontlines nearby. The distance of the frontline is just 100 meters from the pro-government militia to the Houthis. It was close.

Was there a lot of fighting, or quiet?

It was pretty quiet. Not much fighting, a lot of mortars. But the frontlines are very close, not like in Bashiqa [in Iraq] where we had 1 km. Actually they fight when there is some operation or offensive but when there is no offensive operation it is quiet but a lot of mortars.

Did you see foreign presence, such as Saudi Arabia, UAE, Iranian?

I didn’t. Actually from cars you can see all this stuff that the pro-government use is from the US, a lot of MRAPs and Hummers and Badgers, all American. They use M-16s because they get supplied from the UAE. In the south of Yemen they are divided. Half get support from UAE and half from Emirates. The guys who get supported from UAE, they are the separitists who want to separate Aden from the rest of Yemen. So they get Emirati support and the others get support from the Saudis, even though they are together in the coalition but not together on the ground.

Jihadists, extremists?

The Saudis and UAE may be using jihadists in some frontlines but I didn’t see any evidence about them, it’s unclear who is what. All of them are Salafists, it’s impossible to see if they are jihadists, they have big beards and pray five times a day. It’s difficult to tel. What people said is that the Saudis pay some Al Qaeda to be on the front line in Hodeidah and Mokka and fight for them. This is what they say. Everyone knows.

How would you compare the complexity there to Syria where there are a range of fighters from moderates to extremists?

What I saw there is that in Yemen there are no moderates, all of them are extremists, very religious. Especially at the frontlines, they are really religious, if you compare to Ahrar al-Sham, like Syria, it’s the same.

And with the Houthis? Any images of Khamanei or Iranian influence like that?

Nothing that makes any connection to Iran, I didn’t see it. I tried to find flags and pictures of the Ayatollahs. I didn’t see it in their hands. The Houthis say that to be a Houthi, you have to be able to say some kind of sentence that everyone says, this writing that is everywhere grafittid on walls: “death of America, death of Israel” and they have this everywhere. But when you see some of them they are using American weapons they stole from Saudis at the frontline, it’s funny. “Kill the Americans but bring the dollars,” really.

The Houthis are Zaydis. So this kind of imagery, they see themselves not as someone getting support from Iran but someone who is having a revolution and not allowing the pro-western states and US to takeover their country. I never saw anything related to Iran. They don’t have that imager. They are very nationalist. They carry the Yemeni flag and the Houthi flag.

What’s your sense of the future for Yemen?

I don’t know, this is a big war between countries; Iran and Saudi Arabia and the Emirates and US. There are a lot of interests in Yemen and everyone wants the ports in Yemen. So who will be in charge of the ports in the future will be the one that won the war. In the end it is this, it’s about the ports. The war is totally uncertain, even the people there don’t know what’s going to happen. No one knows, it’s unclear, I don’t know. The future of Yemen is dark. No one cares. You can see that everyday there are a lot of kids dying. And no one talks about this. You might see some news in CNN but if this happened somewhere else there would be more attention. The problem is no one cares and the war will go on. So they can keep doing this mess for a long time.

How do you compare it to other regional conflicts you witnessed, such as Iraq and Syria?

If you compare the situation in Yemen to Iraq, all of the world is interested in Iraq. If something bad happens there is international pressure. But in Yemen since 2015 nothing has changed and it’s not like it’s so difficult to change it. They just need some agreement. The Houthis are in charge of north Yemen for 300 years. So if you think about war, you must see both sides. Now Saudis and the Emirates are trying to get into the Houthi area by force and civilians are dying. Most civilians who left, those who were living in government areas fled to refugee camps and I asked them why they fled. They said they were afraid of air strikes, not Houthis. A lot of civilians are suffering and no one is talking about it. So for this reason I could say the situation in Yemen is more devastating. Children are dying of hunger. In Syria we just saw that in places under siege, like in Yarmouk but not in general. During the war people had food and help. But in Yemen it’s totally forgotten. It’s a forgotten war.

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