The Festering Wounds of Yemen’s Taiz

A return to Yemen’s third-largest city sheds light on a country still reeling from war and a people struggling to heal

The Festering Wounds of Yemen’s Taiz
A section of the Ashrafiya Mosque is pictured on July, 14, 2020 in Yemen’s third city of Taiz / Ahmad Al-Basha / AFP via Getty Images

Taiz, Yemen’s third-largest city, has been transformed from the country’s industrial hub into the hotspot of its ongoing war. Though not as ancient as pre-Islamic cities like Sanaa or Marib, by the 14th century, Taiz — then the capital of the Rasulid dynasty — was prominent enough to merit a visit by Ibn Battuta, who praised the city’s beauty even as he slammed its inhabitants as largely insolent. It retained its beauty, while its natives have developed a reputation for what the famed medieval traveler may have interpreted among their ancestors as a headstrong nature. Taizis played a key role in Yemen’s 1962 revolution overthrowing the imamate, in addition to making up much of the vanguard of the nation’s leftist movements; the founding father of Yemen’s Socialist Party, Abdulfatteh Ismail, for example, was a Taizi. Outside of politics, Taizis have played a key role in Yemen’s private sector, in addition to making up a disproportionate percentage of the country’s government bureaucrats.

To the surprise of few Taizis, the city emerged as a revolutionary hotbed once again during the Arab Spring in 2011. The fallout from its aftermath, the cause of frequent concern at the time, seems almost pedestrian in contrast to the present. Amid continued crackdowns on protesters by loyalists of Yemen’s then-president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, a number of key local leaders opted to take up arms, prompting a nearly unprecedented militarization of the city, located in an area of the country where — in contrast to the far north — carrying weapons had been a rare sight. The inking of a power transfer deal in 2011 that saw Saleh cede the presidency the following year to Abdo Rabbu Mansour Hadi, his longtime deputy, ostensibly paved the way to a return to normalcy, but the tensions lingered on. During visits to the city when I was based in Sanaa prior to the outbreak of the war, they were remarkably visible. Friends lamented the presence of weapons in the streets; more disturbingly, a friend’s wedding procession was scarred by an apparent assassination attempt targeting his father, a Sanaa-based doctor, albeit one hailing from a prominent Taizi family. The efforts of technocratic governor Shawki Hail Said, a scion of the city’s most prominent business family, to prioritize governance and development gave many a reason for optimism, but a sense of foreboding was still hard to shake.

In the immediate aftermath of the takeover of Sanaa by the al-Houthi fighters in September 2014, Taiz managed to escape relatively unharmed. An agreement to keep the city out of the conflict was brokered; there were even some tentative plans for the city to host a round of political talks. The calm soon proved short-lived. The agreement was broken, the governor resigned and battles between the growing number of al-Houthi fighters and anti-Houthi resistance forces had begun. By the end of March 2015, the areas of the city not under control by the former were under siege.

In March, as I made my way to the city from the southern port of Aden, the manifestations of the siege were evident before my arrival: With the main route between the two cities cut off by the conflict, we were forced to take a far longer — and windier — route via the rugged district of Maqatara and the hills of Hujaria. It was remarkably scenic, but even more unpleasant. Much of the road, traditionally used locally, was unpaved; a whole section was in a sa’ila, or dry riverbed, that frequently floods during Yemen’s rainy season. Dry or not, the frequent passing of tractor-trailers transporting goods in either direction on the mountainous roads underlined our driver’s minimal margin for error.

It was a deceptively placid scene: a manifestation of the ever-present nature of the conflict and a sign of how life goes on despite it all.

The final hour of the journey set what would turn out to be an appropriately surreal tone. Under the shadow of bombed-out buildings, in farmland wrested from the al-Houthi fighters over the past few years, shepherdesses tended to their flocks under the unobstructed view of fighters who watched from the front lines on hilltops. It was a deceptively placid scene: a manifestation of the ever-present nature of the conflict and a sign of how life goes on despite it all.

The city swarmed with traffic. Initially, I assumed it was happening despite the siege but soon learned it was because of it: Blockages at key entries to the city had effectively prevented normal transport patterns, forcing buses, for example, to run in circular rather than linear patterns.

It was a rather mundane example of how the siege has come to reshape nearly every aspect of life in the city. Longer transport routes mean higher prices for food and other basic goods. Electricity and water infrastructure falling on the opposite side of conflict lines mean blackouts and shortages. Proximity to conflict lines and the threat of shelling mean mass displacement and even relocation of government institutions. The governorate’s headquarters has been forced to operate discordantly from the former office of the city’s branch of Yemen’s state-run oil company.

I’d come at a time of relative calm in the city: Those I spoke to frequently referenced the worst days of the war, a few years ago, when the siege was tighter, the front lines were closer, security was far more haphazard and even food was hard to find. Regardless, the fallout from the conflict was inescapable. People with obvious wounds from shelling were a common sight in the street; sitting with a group of journalists, I quickly learned that each of them had been injured while covering the war. The sight of wrecked buildings quickly became routine, even as they scarred the streetscapes that once filled my Taizi friends with pride; taking in the view from the city’s iconic Jabal Sabr transformed into an opportunity to get a sense of the front lines.

Even more lingered out of sight. Despite the calm, one local official told me, the humanitarian situation was in many ways worse than it was during the worst days of the war: As peoples’ savings have dried up, the informal social solidarity networks that kept many out of poverty have dried up with them. Even the fundamental change in the geography of the city had a psychological impact. For my colleague, who spent most of his formative years in Taiz and, roughly two decades later, returned to cover the first few years of the war, the juxtaposition was striking. Recollections of trips from the village to the cinema and stories of university days mixed with memories of dodging sniper fire and reporting on the shelling of civilians. Memories of the past were irrevocably mashed with the horrors of the present; I assume the same goes for the other million or so Taizis, save the younger generation, which has grown up knowing nothing but the war.

It was hard not to escape some sense of guilt. It’s not that I’d never covered Taiz; indeed, I’d written an extensive paper (which now, I was able to confirm in person, is rather out of date) on the political and military dynamics in the city. From the ground, however, dry analysis cataloguing who is aligned with whom seemed almost offensive, eliding the city’s inhabitants, if not robbing them of their humanity.

Taiz has been largely ignored, even as the Yemen conflict has garnered increasing coverage and diplomatic focus. It’s symptomatic, perhaps, of the wider oversimplification and polarization of the Yemen conflict. Binary narratives of the war seem to fall apart here.

The city may be an inconvenient square to circle for some activists and advocacy groups aiming to draw attention to the fallout of the conflict, and an uncertain question in the wider level diplomacy. It has been largely sidelined in the formal peace process, which has focused on brokering an upper-level deal to solve the country’s increasingly regionalized conflict. While undoubtedly important, such efforts tend to feel remarkably distant from the ground. Wars end when people either get some semblance of what they want or, alternatively, assess that they have no option except to give up. I can’t imagine either happening any time soon in Taiz.

At the same time, one can scarcely blame people in the city for having little trust in peace efforts that, as of yet, have provided little tangible relief to their suffering. Absent some dramatic shift — whether internally or internationally — the status quo seems set to continue, dooming a city filled with potential to indefinite strangulation. At the risk of sounding clichéd, proponents of peace in Yemen and on the global stage may exercise more empathy and let Yemenis speak for themselves — though with Yemeni voices as divided by the conflict as the country itself, the conversation itself will doubtlessly be complex.

My final day in the city, I succeeded in carving out enough time to fulfill a long-delayed aim of visiting Taiz’s Ashrafieh Mosque; my prewar visits to Taiz, in my recollection, were all framed around weddings or funerals in which I was pulled into the marathon of socializing that typifies how Yemeni families mark such events. The old city of Taiz has been hit by the one-two punch of uncontrolled building and neglect — ultimately, a far more widespread threat to Yemen’s heritage than direct war damage — but the famed 14th century mosque still gleamed, its interior resplendent with centuries-old floral and geometric frescoes. Walking within its walls and courtyards, taking in the scene, the juxtaposition between the city’s current state and the calming splendor of this relic of its glorious past almost seemed to transport me to a different state. For a few moments, the war seemed to melt away. For a few moments, it felt like everything was at peace.

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