In a city positioning itself as a bastion of stability and safety in the midst of war, Yemen’s humanitarian crisis (which the UN calls the largest in the world) is still palpable. You just have to peer through the cracks to see it.
Sometime in the far-gone past, several legends go, the Queen of Sheba (Bilquis in Arabic) ruled over a wealthy kingdom from what is now the middle of Yemen.
What she did, or if she even existed, differs based on religious text and archaeological record, but her past is very much present in today’s Yemen.
Politicians, academics, and tribal leaders invoke the ruler as an example of a time when the country prospered. So perhaps it’s no coincidence the ruins of her supposed throne were one of the first places a group of Western journalists and researchers (myself included) were shown earlier this month in Marib, a city that is booming both because of and in spite of Yemen’s long war.
The temple is the sort of place you could get lost in, with its towering stone columns and carvings in an ancient script, were it not for the armed men surrounding the site (for our benefit) and their hurried instructions to move out.
As we did so, the jarring reality hovered in my head that today’s Yemen is not only at war but also in the throes of a humanitarian catastrophe that is the antithesis of the famed riches of Bilquis.
A Saudi Arabian-led coalition and forces allied with the internationally recognised (but deposed) President Abd Rabu Mansour Hadi have been battling Houthi rebels and fighters loyal to former president Ali Abdullah Saleh for more than two and a half years.
The war is in something of a stalemate now, but more than 5,350 civilians (likely a massive undercount) are dead (the majority by Saudi airstrikes), millions can’t afford enough food, and a cholera epidemic has swept through the country, killing thousands more.
Foreign journalists are rarely able to access the country (with a few notable exceptions), and so when the Sana’a Center for Strategic Studies managed to secure visas and organise a trip – even to one of the less hard-hit parts of Yemen – I was in.
That meant heading to Marib, which presents itself as an island of calm in the midst of a country in collapse. Thanks to oil, a charismatic governor with ties to a modern-day royal family in Saudi Arabia, a major military headquarters, plus tribal politics, it is growing and considered relatively safe, at least for those with sympathies on one side of the war.
But it’s not yet secure enough for a gaggle of journalists to roam the streets, or so deemed Marib’s provincial governor Sultan al-Arada and his diligent security team. So when they said to move, I did (perhaps not as swiftly as they would have liked). I listened to talk of expansion and of the war’s progression, and I went where I could.
I did not see the malnourished children that are the face of a country that could be about to plunge into famine if aid does not get in soon, and perhaps they weren’t there. But I did catch glimpses of the crisis.
As the Sana’a Center’s co-founder and chairman Farea al-Muslimi put it to me after the trip: “It’s a… Yemeni habit to hide your pain and exaggerate your good… Just because you didn’t see [the full extent of the crisis], doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist.”
Water, water, everywhere and not a drop to drink
It’s said that the collapse of the Marib dam, around 575 CE, apocryphally attributed to a mouse, set off one of the world’s first refugee crises – the flood of tens of thousands of people out into the Arabian Peninsula.
Today’s dam is functioning just fine – it’s full enough for a few people to have a swim and float on black inner tubes.
The water from the dam, experts told us, goes to irrigation. And in Marib city, at least in our heavily guarded hotel, water ran through the taps. There’s even a bottled-water factory.
But the fact that water is so prized, something to show off, simply highlighted the extent of the shortages in the rest of the country.
Even before the war, around half of Yemen’s population of 27.4 million did not have regular access to safe drinking water. Years of conflict have devastated pipes and sewage systems in a country that already suffered from shortages – many Yemenis now rely on trucked water to drink and there have long been warnings the capital of Sana’a could simply run out.
Recently, cholera has coursed through Yemen’s taps, killing 2,202 people since April and infecting a suspected 920,000. But not in Marib, where in the province as a whole there have been 6,436 suspected cases and just seven deaths.
Sheets in a school window
Governor al-Arada, who wears a belted ceremonial dagger, white thobe, blazer, and partially rimless glasses with a scarf tied on top his head, said newcomers are welcomed into his city and province. It has become a haven for those opposed to the Houthi/Saleh alliance, and also draws many with ties to the military.
Marib Province had a population of 300,000 before the war, the city around 17,000. An estimate of today’s numbers is hard to come by, but many people I spoke with at the local university and hospital had come from elsewhere. Al-Arada said the city’s population had doubled.
Across Yemen, the war has driven more than two million people from their homes, many into camps or dwellings where disease is rife and food and medical aid sparse. The governor stated that it’s different for Marib’s displaced, of which the UN counts 73,000, that they are not housed in camps.
“When people come from other areas [of Yemen], they are not considered strangers… they are mixed in with Maribis… doors have been opened for them to live side by side,” he said.
And it’s true that plenty of people are renting space or staying with friends and family in Marib, even if their accommodations are not what they used to be. Like 19-year-old Afnan Yassin, who I met in her computer science class at Marib's university.
She said her family fled their home in Ibb Province “because of the war, because of the [threat of] kidnapping, and because of harassment from the Houthis.”
But her family – five sisters, two brothers, two parents, all in two rooms – is lucky to be able to rent a flat. On a quick drive in a convoy through the city, surrounded by soldiers, we paused for a minute – due to traffic – beside a community college under construction.
It wasn’t finished yet, and in the windows of the tall new buildings, I could see sheets and tarps. “Yes, there are displaced people there,” our guide said when asked. It wasn’t the only building in Marib with telltale fabric in the windows.
In the province as a whole, the UN counts 112 “spontaneous settlements” – likely tented camps or makeshift shelters – as well as 64 “collective centres” where displaced people live in unfinished buildings, schools, and the like.
Al-Arada did say aid agencies have sent food, sometimes clothing, and medicine, and while he boasted of the city’s growth (it’s said to have had only three roads before the war) even he admitted there have been challenges: “Many people are barely surviving. They are on the edge.”
Also visible from the car’s smudged window: a small row of shacks fashioned from roughly hewn stone, blankets, and wooden crates.
These are home to a group of muhamasheen (marginalised ones), Yemen’s black underclass who traditionally clean streets and likely had little to call their own before the war.
Studying war and class
At Marib's local university, where Yassin was working towards her degree, the classrooms were full – physics and biology notably mostly women.
Officials said 5,000 students had been enrolled this academic year, as opposed to 1,200 last. There are new buildings elsewhere under construction intended for the university, not to mention the aforementioned community college.
But the war has seeped into classrooms too. English and Drama Professor Mohammed Hamoud Sabri, moved to a temporary aluminium classroom because of a space shortage, doesn’t just teach his students texts, he teaches them how to grasp a war that has killed thousands of innocent civilians and torn apart their society.
His favourite novel to teach is George Orwell’s “Animal Farm”. “[My students] understand universal themes about how revolutions take place, and the results,” he explained.
Yemen’s own recent revolution, which for a while seemed like it would be a success story of the “Arab Spring”, looks very different five years later, with many who took to the streets together calling for democracy now enemies on the battlefield.
Charles Dickens’ “Hard Times” is another read he finds apt. “It’s about how materialism influences our mentality – [students] form real comparisons between [the book] and the actions of rich men in this governorate.”
A bullet-ridden war hospital
And then there’s Marib’s General Hospital, where many young men not lucky enough to study seem to end up, and not in good shape.
It’s said to be the best hospital near to two front lines, and it reeks of bleach. There’s a rehab room with some equipment, including an exercise bike, and a workshop to produce prosthetics on site. Doctors said 12-year-old Naif Abdullah, who told me he stepped on a mine in his home, was in for a new artificial limb for his left leg, rounded smooth just above where his ankle should be. His right foot had no toes.
The hospital’s director, Doctor Mohammed al-Qubati, boasted that his bullet-ridden facility (this was a conflict zone until fairly recently) offers treatment free of charge.
But Yemen’s healthcare system is in collapse: Elsewhere in the country health workers have gone unpaid for a year, and many facilities have been hit by airstrikes or shelling.
Sure enough, when asked if his hospital needs anything, al-Qubati rattled off an exhaustive list: “oxygen, antibiotics, intravenous fluids, medical instruments”.
And if medical care on the house seems too good to be true, that’s because it was, at least for some civilians.
Outside the building, one would-be fighter, 22-year-old Abdul Rahman al-Subari, never made it into uniform. Sitting in a wheelchair outside the hospital with a jagged scar on one foot, he said he came from Sana’a to fight. But he was in a motorcycle accident before he could join up, and ended up needing surgery. He will have to pay.
Back inside, men who have travelled hours from the front line are six to a room. They’re almost all soldiers: Men are missing limbs, flies hover over bandages, and in one room a Houthi fighter is receiving treatment, under heavy guard.
What you can and can’t see
On our first night in Marib, a drone strike was reported to kill two people on the edge of the province – US Centcom later said it had carried out three drone strikes targeting al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula that day and two the following day, but in the next province over.
Something else I didn’t see – and barely had enough internet to read about – the Houthi missile that was intercepted near the Saudi capital of Riyadh. And I certainly did not witness the airstrikes that followed and have continued in Sana’a.
I felt, obliquely, the impact of the Saudi coalition’s announcement that it was closing airports, borders, and seaports in response to the rocket aimed at Riyadh – but for me it just meant a new route out. Yemeni civilians are now feeling the real impact as the main port for commerce and aid remains closed, petrol prices soar, and aid agencies warn that the worst famine in decades is around the corner.
Even before the latest closures, aid access in much of Yemen has long been difficult and food in extremely short supply. So the feast of camel meat we were treated to, accompanied by live music and dance, felt unjustly delicious given how many Yemenis are hungry. But for Yemenis – even those in the worst of circumstances – anything but the most generous of welcomes for guests is considered shameful.
Playing the stringed qanbus, a performer sang to foreigners who had somewhere to return to: “Whoever loses his gold can find it in a jewellery shop. Whoever loses his homeland can’t find it anywhere.”
One part of the war I did see is a monument that is newer, and even more humbling, than the Queen of Sheba’s towering temple.
On the edge of the town, in a field reclaimed by the desert, lies a war cemetery, for both civilian and military victims. The markers are low to the ground, hundreds of them, packed closely together.
Some graves have plants on them, others pictures of the dead, and all of them – except for those freshly dug – have names.
“There is a crack, a crack, in everything. That’s how the light gets in.” – Leonard Cohen, Anthem