Yemenis in rural areas are wondering where the “Yemen in Transition” is, which the international community keeps referring to.
Yemen is not so much in transition as in endless crisis
As a dust storm swirls, a five-year-old boy walks barefoot, his arms thinner than carrots. The boy’s father, Saleh, is next to him, bending down occasionally to remove his son’s mucus with his hands. Saleh’s resignation mixes with frustration when he later holds forth on his plight, blaming Yemen’s current government for failing to aid him and the 100,000 other internally displaced people (IDP) living in the Al Mazrak camps in the far northern Haradh district.
More than three years ago, Saleh fled his home in Sadah province as the war between the Yemeni government and the Houthi rebel group escalated.
Saleh has long hoped that matters would calm down in Sadah, that the government would rebuild damaged infrastructure and that he’d finally be able to return home. The anti-government uprisings of 2011 fuelled a fleeting sense of optimism, but instead brought a worsening of the country’s humanitarian crisis. Saleh says he can’t go back to Sadah. Damages from the fighting have rendered his home uninhabitable. Having refused to fight with either side during the wars, he worries returning would put him and his family in danger.
“The hope was the sand of a storm, rather than the storm of change,” he reflects.
Unlike Saleh, the frustrations of Amjad, another IDP, are directed at Yemen’s post-Arab Spring transition, rather than the 2011 uprising itself. It may be celebrated by Sanaa-based politicians and diplomats, but for Amjad, Yemen’s ongoing National Dialogue Conference only hardens lingering anger. The conference has brought 556 delegates from across the political spectrum to a luxury hotel in the capital to discuss the country’s most critical issues.
In Amjad’s mind, the conference is nothing but a “carnival for the ones who lead to his displacements and problems” rather than one that will come up with solutions to the real issues he suffers from every day. Many others in the camp echo his sentiments. The words “national dialogue” tend to provoke a flurry of complaints, as IDPs note the lack of food, health, blankets and tents in their camps.
The frustration here isn’t new.
The arrival of the IDPs doubled Haradh’s population, heightening competition for the few available jobs and worsening the longstanding problem of the trafficking of women and children across the border into Saudi Arabia.
These escalating problems are not on the agendas of Yemen’s National Dialogue Conference. Its by-laws, mandates and tasks are clearly not those of the government. However, the hopes sold by the conference organisers, government officials and the international community painted the conference as the answer to all Yemen’s problems – even those that it could never have been expected to solve.
The conference’s proponents have exaggerated its achievements and intensified their discussions.
And while they believe in the importance of the dialogue’s proceedings, they tend to seem irrelevant to people outside the capital. In other words, these extensive efforts take place out of the view of ordinary Yemenis.
Those left out of the transition in Yemen aren’t just the new groups in the squares, but also those who were motivated to protest in 2011 due to hunger, unemployment and day-to-day concerns.
“We protested to increase the quality of life, not to increase prices and power blackouts”, says Assem, another IDP from Sadah, who says he participated in the 2011 uprisings.
The voice of the powerless wasn’t just left out of the National Dialogue Conference. The government’s determination to tackle the issues facing regular Yemenis remains deficient. The power struggle in the capital leaves the president focused on managing crises and attempting to satisfying different armed groups without any real attention to the deeper problems of development and poverty.
The central unity government is split among many opposing parties that are wrestling arms rather than working together. The Eid holidays saw more than half of the cabinet’s ministers leave the country.
The government didn’t consider how such absences hurt its cause: as the country remained mired in crisis, political factions appeared to treat ministerial positions nearly as “spoils of wars”.
Any tentative progress the country makes is severely undermined by the lack of attention paid to the humanitarian crisis faced by millions of Yemenis. The efforts of the international community to support the transition are questioned by people across Yemen, whose basic needs and right to live in dignity were neglected and ignored in the praise for political moves that only empower the old elites.
More than 13 million Yemenis still urgently need humanitarian assistance. The UN humanitarian plan still has less than half the money it needs from donors in order to respond to humanitarian crises that have faced Yemen since 2011 and before.
The distance between the delegates in five-star hotel in the capital and the rest of Yemen only continues to grow.
As the dialogue’s sessions continue, Yemenis in rural areas outside the capital’s compounds are wondering where the “Yemen in Transition” the international community keeps referring to is.
Farea Al Muslimi is a Yemeni activist and writer
On Twitter: @Almuslimi