As the attack on Hodeidah, a major port in western Yemen on the Red Sea, moves into its second week, led by the coalition of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, the rest of the world seems to be sitting and watching the destruction. The Norwegian Refugee Council, an independent nongovernmental organization, has been one of the few humanitarian-aid agencies to remain in the city, which is held by the Houthis, the rebel group that seized the north and other parts of Yemen in a war that began in 2014 against the government of President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi. After the Houthis’ coup, Hadi has been living in exile in Saudi Arabia.
The Gulf coalition has been determined to seize the port of Hodeidah to cut off what it contends is arms smuggling by Iran to the rebels, although a United Nations expert panel does not agree with this contention.
Meanwhile, a new UN envoy, Martin Griffiths, first tried to prevent the attack on Hodeidah and is now trying to broker a cease-fire with few results so far. For more than a week, in several closed meetings, Griffiths has been keeping the UN Security Council informed of his diplomacy, with little information released publicly.
Griffiths released a statement on June 21, saying, in part: “My priority now is to avoid a military confrontation in Hudaydah and to swiftly return to political negotiations. I am encouraged by the constructive engagement of the Ansar Allah [Houthis] leadership in Sana’a and I look forward to my upcoming meetings with President Hadi and the Government of Yemen. I am confident that we can reach an agreement to avert any escalation of violence in Hudaydah.”
The Norwegian Refugee Council, which is based in Oslo, has an office in Washington, D.C., as well, where Joel Charny is the executive director. He answered questions by email about the conditions in Hodeidah as of June 19. Besides war, the city is grappling with cholera and other major crises. Indeed, the attacks by the coalition, as Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein, the UN high commissioner for human rights, said on June 18, could have a “disastrous impact on lifesaving humanitarian aid” to millions of Yemenis that comes through Hodeidah. — DULCIE LEIMBACH
This interview was condensed and edited for clarity.
Q: What is the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC) doing in Hodeidah under the current fighting conditions?
CHARNY: The NRC has an area office in Hodeidah from which we deliver programs across three districts in Hodeidah governorate and five in Hajjah governorate. Our programs are predominantly about food and cash distribution, the provision of safe water and sanitation (cholera prevention), and basic shelter support, with smaller activities in education and ICLA [information, counseling and legal assistance]. Hodeidah represents a large component of the NRC’s total Yemen portfolio. This year, we are operating with funding from DFID [Britain’s Department for International Development], ECHO [European Commission Humanitarian Organization], OCHA [UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs] and WFP [World Food Program]. We have six staff in Hodeidah city, two staff elsewhere in Hodeidah governorate and 19 staff in Hajjah — an area that has also been adversely affected by recent airstrikes.
Q: How persistent has the fighting been in Hodeidah against the Houthis by the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, in concert with the Yemen army? Has the fighting moved into the center of the city? Where is it confined to?
CHARNY: Clashes continued just south of Hodeidah city during the Eid al-Fitr festival, one of the most important religious holidays for Muslims. Many people in Hodeidah left their homes on June 17 to go to mosque or visit friends and family, but many are frightened to move far from their homes.
Fighting is ongoing in several locations near the city’s southern outskirts, where Ansar Allah troops [Houthis] are holding a line close to Hodeidah airport. Front lines elsewhere have shifted inland in response to heavy coalition airstrikes. Fighting continues around the airport, and it’s not clear who actually controls the facility. There seems to be continued aerial bombardment, including of the residential neighborhoods around the airport. We predict there will be pushing back and forth for a while. The coastal roads from the airport to Hodeidah city were reported closed. Approximately 1,000 people have been displaced from villages near the airport into districts of Hodeidah city that are considered to be cholera prone. The road from Hodeidah to Sana [de facto capital of Yemen] was reported closed. The road through Hajjah remains open, but there are fears that this may be disrupted or blocked, leaving people stranded in Hodeidah and few options for bringing in humanitarian supplies.
Q: Are you seeing any casualties on either side of the fighting? Any civilian deaths?
CHARNY: No confirmed reports from our end.
Q: How have civilians in Hodeidah been reacting to the fighting so far?
CHARNY: As a result of preparations to resist a military assault, some of the densely populated parts of Hodeidah are reported to be without water. People are relying on water from mosque wells, which is expected to run out quickly. This is of extreme concern in view of the congested conditions, increasing displacement, and the presence of cholera.
Q: What has the US State Department told you about its stance on the assault by the Saudi-UAE coalition? Did it warn you that it will get worse, to leave Hodeidah? Do you think the US government has any control over the coalition?
CHARNY: The Norwegian Refugee Council received no special messages from the U.S. State Department, or any other part of the U.S. government, on the Hodeidah situation. Our view is that the public statement by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo just prior to the launch of the Coalition military operation was tantamount to a green light to proceed with the attack, leading as it did with understanding of the security concerns of the Emiratis.
Privately we have had a few messages since the attack started, maintaining that the U.S. is insisting to their Coalition allies that care be taken not to kills civilians or damage civilian infrastructure in the assault. Whether this is true or not, we are not in a position to say. We stress that between Secretary Pompeo’s public statement and the fact that Ambassador Nikki Haley [US envoy to the UN] did not even attend the first UN Security Council debate on the Hodeidah assault [on June 11], the U.S. is sending a message of full support for the Coalition attack. No public red line was ever drawn and none of the available reporting on the run-up to the operation suggests that strong unequivocal messages not to attack were sent privately.
Q: What is the food situation in Hodeidah? Are people without basic foods?
CHARNY: Humanitarian agencies have had to pause almost all operations in Hodeidah city, where clashes along the border between the Ad Durayhimi and Al Hawak districts approach highly populated residential areas. The NRC is delivering cholera prevention and response activities in Al Hawak district but movements to the area have stopped pending a break in the fighting.Though humanitarian agencies are pre-positioning bulk supplies across nine service points across Hodeidah, unpredictable front lines and a lack of safe access passages currently puts Yemeni people at risk when trying to move to access them. As fewer goods reach the port and movement inland is slowed or stopped altogether, there will be less food available in markets across the country.
The NRC and other humanitarian organizations have teams working in various locations to urgently procure supplies and drastically upscale their provision of emergency food, shelter, water and hygiene items across all areas that will be affected by the reduction in imports. Nearly 15 percent of all suspected cholera cases since the initial outbreak in April 2017 have occurred in Hodeidah governorate, foretelling very high risk of a second outbreak if water supplies are disrupted or cut off completely; 7 million individuals in Hodeidah are in need of humanitarian assistance.
Q: Have people been fleeing Hodeidah?
CHARNY: 104,292 individuals are displaced in Hodeidah; 70,000 individuals have been displaced from Hodeidah since 1 December, 2017. Many residents of Hodeidah with family elsewhere in the country and/or have the resources to leave have done so for the Eid break and are very unlikely to return while the situation remains fragile.
While there haven’t been big numbers yet, it is highly likely that micro-displacement will continue to occur, which is why the biggest issue in terms of delivering assistance will be access into and around Hodeidah. The displacement currently taking place is from two villages trapped between the airport and the front line to the south, and those people are moving into Hodeidah city.
Q: How do you feel about the near silence of the UN Secretary-General António Guterres on this battle in Hodeidah? And the UN Security Council’s inability in the week since this attack began to publicly condemn the fight on the port and airport, putting so many Yemenis at risk?
CHARNY: The global system to ensure peace and security, of which the UN is such a critical component, is barely functioning at the moment. We sympathize with the position of the secretary-general. Faced with a divided Security Council, on the Middle East above all, his leverage is minimal. He and others who want a peaceful resolution to the Yemen conflict are banking on the efforts of the recently appointed Special Representative Martin Griffiths. We understand that Griffiths is going all-out trying to get the parties to agree to an arrangement for the management of the port of Hodeidah that will allow for the conflict to cease in the immediate area and for commercial and humanitarian goods to flow more normally through the port. Whether the Coalition attack will end up constituting a complete disruption of his vital mission will be seen in the coming days.
[This article was updated on June 21 to add the comment from Martin Griffiths.]
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Dulcie Leimbach is a co-founder, with Barbara Crossette, of PassBlue. For PassBlue and other publications, Leimbach has reported from New York and overseas from West Africa (Burkina Faso and Mali) and from Europe (Scotland, Sicily, Vienna, Budapest, Kyiv, Armenia, Iceland and The Hague). She has provided commentary on the UN for BBC World Radio, ARD German TV and Radio, NHK’s English channel, Background Briefing with Ian Masters/KPFK Radio in Los Angeles and the Foreign Press Association.
Previously, she was an editor for the Coalition for the UN Convention Against Corruption; from 2008 to 2011, she was the publications director of the United Nations Association of the USA. Before UNA, Leimbach was an editor at The New York Times for more than 20 years, editing and writing for most sections of the paper, including the Magazine, Book Review and Op-Ed. She began her reporting career in small-town papers in San Diego, Calif., and Boulder, Colo., graduating to the Rocky Mountain News in Denver and then working at The Times. Leimbach has been a fellow at the CUNY Graduate Center’s Ralph Bunche Institute for International Studies as well as at Yaddo, the artists’ colony in Saratoga Springs, N.Y.; taught news reporting at Hofstra University; and guest-lectured at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and the CUNY Journalism School. She graduated from the University of Colorado and has an M.F.A. in writing from Warren Wilson College in North Carolina. She lives in Brooklyn, N.Y.