x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Dead bodies litter streets of what was once a bustling suburb in Sana'a

A thriving area of Yemen's capital has been devastated by two weeks of bloodshed, leaving behind uncollected bodies and blasted buildings, and a nearly deserted neighbourhood.

A tribesman stands at the courtyard of the house of Sheikh al Ahmar, which has been the main target of the shelling in the Sana'a district of Al Hasaba. Mohammed al Qadhi / The National
A tribesman stands at the courtyard of the house of Sheikh al Ahmar, which has been the main target of the shelling in the Sana'a district of Al Hasaba. Mohammed al Qadhi / The National

SANA'A // Factional fighting in the Yemeni capital has transformed the city's once-bustling Al Hasaba neighbourhood into an urban battleground littered with rotting corpses, bullet-riddled buildings and broken lives.

Electricity was cut off weeks ago, bodies have been left to decompose in the streets for days, and now food and water supplies are running desperately low.

The few locals forced to remain must guard their homes against looters and make do amid debris, unexploded ordnance and a crippling black-market economy.

Hasaba resident Salehal Dhaifi, cradling an AK47 in front of his nearly demolished home, said: "The situation here is miserable. My house and car were destroyed and I had to send my family away

"I am the only one left and I must stay to protect what we have left."

The Hasaba neighbourhood, a roughly 15-kilometre-square swath of north Sana'a, is home to a diverse population of about 200,000.

As central Sana'a, the world's fastest-growing capital, became crowded, Hasaba became a popular site for Yemenis to move homes and businesses.

The booming neighbourhood, mostly constructed in the 1970s, also attracted powerful leaders from Yemen's tribal hinterlands. Chief among these newcomers was the father of Sheikh Sadeq al Ahmar, head of the Hased tribal confederation, who built his family a palatial multiblock compound in Hasaba. Over the years, the area has become known as a stronghold for the current Sheikh Ahmar and his inner circle.

When street fighting broke out on May 23 between the forces of the president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, and Sheikh Ahmar's militia, the Hasaba district was rocked by the violence. Intermittently, for two weeks, it was consumed by gun battles, RPG fire, artillery shelling and block-to-block warfare that left at least 140 combatants and civilians dead. In a statement released yesterday, the office of Sheikh Ahmar claimed 100 tribesmen were killed and 325 wounded in the Hasaba battles.

Some of those killed were left where they fell. The National Organisation for Defending Rights and Freedom, a non-governmental organisation in Sana'a, appealed to international humanitarian groups on June 7 "to quickly remove the dead bodies that are lying on the side of the roads in Hasaba area in the capital, Sana'a, that [have begun] to disintegrate".

A statement on the rights group's website reads: "What is happening is a serious affront to human dignity, especially with the frequency of eye witnesses reports … received on the existence of dead bodies lying on the pavement of the road, and others in the abandoned buildings that families have left or that have died inside of them as a result of the heavy shelling which hit the region."

Yemen Rights Monitor, another Sana'a-based NGO, confirmed what it termed an "appalling humanitarian situation". Two activists who were able to access the site said dozens of bodies were "on the streets, swollen and to some extent rotten."

According to a joint statement released this week by the International Committee of the Red Cross and Yemen Red Crescent, medical teams working in north Sana'a have retrieved 27 dead bodies since June 4.

Homes, cars, government buildings and businesses were engulfed by the fighting. Government artillery and mortars lobbed explosives for days into the neighbourhood, causing indiscriminate devastation. Naif Abdulaziz, a Hashed fighter who took part in the street war against government troops, said: "The clashes were so fierce and all sorts of weapons were used.

"Many of our men were killed in the shelling. However we stood our ground at the house of Sheikh Ahmar."

Side streets remain clogged with burnt-out vehicles and makeshift bunkers.

The Ministry of Industry and Trade was torched by tribesmen who stormed the building and other state offices during the carnage. The headquarters of the government mouthpiece, the Saba news agency, was shot up and shelled and is still shuttered and silent. Across Hasaba, broken glass and bullet holes are everywhere.

Majed al Kabodi, from the army corps of engineers, said: "We have found about 20 rocket-propelled grenade and mortar shells that did not go off. We have defused them. We are doing our best to clean the area of explosives."

Residents claim neither the government nor tribal leaders have visited the nearly deserted neighbourhood, or promised help, medical assistance or compensation. A request for comment made to the government about the situation in Hasaba was refused. So far, estimates at the cost of property loss have come only from individuals.

Dr Abdullah al Amari, a longtime Hasaba business owner, said four fifths of his six-storey building was destroyed, along with his dentist practice on the ground floor.

He puts his total damage at $870,000 (Dh3.1mn) and, like many others, he wants answers. "Both the government and Ahmar are to be blamed. I don't know who is going to compensate us," he said. Dr Amari estimates that more than 90 per cent of the population of Hasaba has fled the area, leaving homes abandoned and businesses locked up.

What remains is a ghost town peopled by uneasy, heavily armed residents and roaming bands of gunmen, some aligned to the sheikh and others loyal to the government.

Rashad Sinan, another gun-toting resident who was also left to guard his family's home, said: "We can see a few vehicles driving and people walking in the streets but this does not mean everything is OK. There are no services here and no one feels secure." By Mr Sinan's account, looters and profiteers are taking advantage of the circumstances. The price for 20 litres of petrol has been raised from $6 to $21. A cylinder of cooking gas, usually sold for $4, is now going for $15.

The price of a 500-litre tank of water has increased from $7 to $30. Because all the stores and fuel are destroyed or deserted, all these items must be purchased on the black market, Mr Sinan said.

Dr Amari said the residents who evacuated there are far too wary to return soon. He hopes that when they do, someone will be held accountable for the enormous loss of life and livelihood.

But others are doubtful any sort of payout or apology will ever come to the those who suffered through the battles in Hasaba.

A government investigator was sifting through the rubble, trying to gauge the scale of the damage. When asked who would pay the victims of the devastation his reply was grim.

"God will have to compensate them," he said.