AWorking as a freelance photographer in Damascus, Syria about 15 years ago, I had the privilege of learning about Yemen before the civil war that started in late 2014. I’ve been there a few times from north to south at my own pace and fell in love with this little known country.
When the war started, the few reports there were mostly about the conflict, so I decided to go back a few times and tell a story that was very important to me, from a personal point of view and angle. My goal is to try to bring dignity to this country. It is impossible to talk about Yemen now without talking about destruction, bombings, and terrorism, but I also want to emphasize its extreme richness: its breathtaking landscapes, unique architectural and cultural heritage, the power of its people, especially women, and Several UNESCO sites in Yemen are now at risk.
I wanted to bring Yemen closer to people from the outside world, so that they could learn about not only a distant war-torn country, but a country full of history, mystery and beauty.
However, it’s also important to provide some context about what happened there. In the late summer of 2014, the Houthis staged a coup in the Yemeni capital Sanaa.
who are they? In the early 2000s, Yemen formed a small group of militias practicing Zaydism, a variant of Shia Islam. They followed Hussein Badreddine al-Houthi, an activist who has accused a government he accused of supporting the United States and Israel of betraying his people.
The then government, which ruled for 30 years under the dictator Ali Abdullah Saleh, tried to suppress the rebels with violent repression. The Houthis were killed by the army in 2004, but his supporters have immortalized him in his name.
Two years later, in the middle of the 2011 Arab Spring, pro-democracy protests weakened the government. The Houthi rebels took part in the demonstration, which some say hijacked it.
Against this chaotic backdrop, the Houthi rebels seized towns in the north of the country in late 2014, and the rebels violently took control of the north they held.
A coalition of Saudi Arabia and other Muslim countries came together in March 2015 to restore Yemen’s government and drive out the rebels. But after nearly a decade of war, coalition forces have failed to root out the insurgency, and hundreds of civilians have been killed.
The anti-Houthi rebels under the protection of the Yemeni government are slowly splintering into different factions of warlords funded by the UAE and Saudi Arabia. Abu Dhabi backs another southern separatist movement, which in August 2019 decided to attack its government in Aden to claim southern independence. All these conflicts have displaced more than 4 million people.
Life continues in Aden. Young people offer their families the opportunity to ride horses on the beach during the holidays. In order to attract local tourists, they try to perform with horses.
Further north, in Marib province, the last northern stronghold controlled by the government, two million displaced people from across Yemen have made the provincial capital one of the most populous cities in the country.
Malibu is hosting 12,000 displaced families due to the Houthi offensive in 2021, said Saïf Nasser Muthana, who is in charge of displaced populations in Malibu. “We now have 189 camps in the city and Wadi (valley),” he said. “We provide the bare minimum for these people because more than half of our budget goes to war. Our challenge is to power these camps and build schools so children can eventually get an education.”
Humanitarian aid is cut by 75% by 2022, Muthana said. “Despite all the difficulties we faced, the tribe accepted Yemenis from all over without discrimination. The skills and knowledge these displaced people brought allowed the city to grow.”
While the north of the country is mired in a violent theocracy under the leadership of Houthi rebels and the south is controlled by UAE-backed separatists and slipping towards an authoritarian government, Marib has political ambitions of its own.
Governor Sultan Ali al-Arada, who has run the city since 2012, is trying to create a model for a new Yemen.
In September 2014, he united all the local tribes to form a common front against the rebels. The Bani Shaddad tribe is an example. Its own land became the main front in 2015 in the desert north of the city of Malibu in an area known as Raghwan. Its vast territory is difficult to defend, with front lines stretching all the way to the desert.
While resentment remains among the Malibu tribes, the city remains the only area where the state military is fully cooperating with tribal forces.
In 2015, Arada restored justice by recruiting new judges and closing weapons shops in the city. Then the crime rate dropped by 70%. A women’s police force was also formed. He negotiated 20% of oil and gas revenues with the central government. Thanks to these revenues, he pursued a policy of developing infrastructure and public services, including road networks, schools, public lighting, and even a large football stadium.
“We want the political model we create here to spread across the country. There can be no stability in government without freedom. So we have to allow people to express their opinions,” Arada said.
Construction of a civilian airport is also underway. Civil servants also receive a monthly salary, which has been extremely rare in Yemen since the war began.