Interview. We spoke with Radhya Almutawakel, leader of the Mwatana activist group in Yemen, who was recognized as one of TIME’s 100 most influential people of 2019. ‘Yemenis are not “going through a famine”—rather, a famine has been imposed on them.’
Radhya Almutawakel is the chairwomen and driving force behind Mwatana, a Yemeni human rights organization which has been collecting data, information and evidence on the violations committed by all sides in the war and the impact of the fighting on the civilian population and infrastructure ever since the beginning of the conflict. It has been a work of extraordinary difficulty, given the dramatic conditions in which the activists are forced to work, and this led to Ms. Almutawakel being included among TIME magazine’s 100 most influential people of 2019 (with a profile written by the US senator and presidential candidate Bernie Sanders).
What is the situation in Yemen today from a humanitarian point of view?
The situation is very bad, and it keeps getting worse. Our job is to document the human rights violations that have arisen as a consequence of the war, and we do so in all of Yemen’s governorates. We can show that the distribution of violations has been more or less the same for years, but their impact is getting worse. Today, Yemenis are not “going through a famine”—rather, a famine has been imposed on them. The violations have been committed by all the actors involved: the Saudi-UAE-led military coalition, the Houthi armed groups, the armed groups loyal to the coalition, and, in a number of ways, the previous “legitimate” government as well. However, only the civilian population is suffering as a result, the vast majority of whom still have no involvement in the conflict more than four years after the beginning of hostilities. This is an element that still gives us hope for a possible peace.
How many victims have there been so far?
Unfortunately, it’s not possible to give a precise count, because the conflict has destroyed—most crucially—the essential public infrastructure (aqueducts, health centers, etc.) and has blocked the country’s internal connections. We at Mwatana have recorded at least 500 Saudi coalition air strikes, which claimed thousands of lives, mainly women and children. In very many cases, these were conducted against targets that had nothing “military” about them. Then, Yemenis are not only dying because of bombs, but also due to their direct consequences: the lack of water, medical treatment, food.
Is the armed conflict at a standstill? Is there any hope for peace?
The Houthi currently control 20% of the territory, but this is the territory in which 80% of the population lives (including the capital Sana’a). There are no public institutions or state structure here, but there hasn’t been any reconstruction of the public administration in the 80% of the territory which is in the hands of the government supported by the Saudis and the UAE. They decided to strengthen the armed militias instead, and this is complicating the situation even more, because some groups have begun to fight amongst themselves for more power. It’s a kind of civil war happening within a civil war. A secret underground dialogue between Saudi Arabia and the Houthi is now underway, but with slow and insignificant progress because of the lack of international pressure.
After the assassination of former President Ali Abdullah Saleh, the United States and the UK exerted high-level pressure for the first time, and they managed to get the Stockholm negotiations off the ground in just two months. In conclusion, the international community could play a very positive role in protecting civilians and stopping the war—and yet we still have a military stalemate. We at Mwatana, we had always thought that it would be enough to tell the truth about the violations in order to stop the war, but we discovered that it was not a question of truth at all, because Yemen has not been forgotten—it is simply being ignored. Among the reasons for this, we find the tangled web of major economic and financial interests, particularly those arising from the arms trade.
Sanaa, Yemen, August 23, 2017: the effects of an air raid by the Saudi-led coalition that caused at least 35 deaths. Photo AFP