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Yemen’s warring parties agree to extend ceasefire by a further two months

The UN has announced that the warring sides in Yemen have agreed to extend the current ceasefire for a further two months.

Late on Tuesday the government and the Houthi rebels committed to intensify efforts on negotiations, said Hans Grundberg, special envoy for the country.

The news will bring some relief for citizens who had been bracing for war to return after what has already been an uneasy four-month truce.

The UN-sponsored break in fighting and the extension agreed this week has been the longest respite Yemen has seen in the seven-year conflict, which pitted the internationally recognised government, backed by a Saudi-led military coalition, against Iran-aligned Houthi rebels, who control most of Yemen’s north.

But the Arab region’s poorest country remains broken by a bitter war, with some regions facing famine in what the UN has called the world’s worst humanitarian crisis.

More than 24 million people, almost 80% of the country’s population, need humanitarian aid, including 13 million children. Unicef has claimed that the war has seen the numbers of women dying in childbirth rise to an average of 12 a day, and that six newborns die every two hours in the country’s devastated health system.

“We are battling a war on many fronts,” said Yemeni aid worker Ali al Jafri. “Where it is not poverty and starvation, it is extremism or government corruption. We are under immense pressure,” said Jafri, from the Emirates Red Crescent (ERC).

Since 2010, the beginning of Yemen’s instability, the price of flour has risen by about 3,000%, while earlier this year, faced with funding shortfalls, the World Food Programme cut support to 5 million of the country’s poorest people.

Yemenis gather at a camp for internally displaced persons near Sana’a, 30 July 2022. By March 2022, an estimated 4.3 million Yemenis had been displaced by fighting.
Yemenis gather at a camp for internally displaced persons near Sana’a, 30 July 2022. By March 2022, an estimated 4.3 million Yemenis had been displaced by fighting. Photograph: Yahya Arhab/EPA

The UN predicts famine this year. “Ordinary Yemenis are choosing between the vital costs of living such as rent or food,” Jafri said, in a country where many of the population live on less than £1.60 a day.

The cost of bread has risen sixfold, prices manipulated by the government which raises costs when the aid is in short supply and reduces when there have been deliveries from charities. The ERC recently worked with the country’s Office of Trade and Commerce on a trial with 15 bakeries to see the impact of aid on price reduction.

“When we donate to the bakeries, the price of bread goes down, so this is why these donations are critical in countering inflation and the problems of the currency collapse, especially as the country is now looking for alternative sources of grain in the wake of the Ukraine war,” Jafri said.

During the trial in April, the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, the charity donated free flour to 15 bakeries for one month and managed to get retailers to reduce the price from 70 Yemeni riyals (23p) to 30 (10p) for a loaf, but the bakers refused to keep prices low, suffering as they were from inflation and rent hikes.

Suhair Saeed Omer, a family medicine specialist at the Al Mahwar clinic in Mukallah, one of multiple hospitals built or renovated by Emirates Red Crescent, said Yemen cannot manage without international support. “Without foreign aid, this clinic couldn’t do the important work it is doing,” she said. “We simply cannot cope without it. We are lucky to have this support, but many other Yemenis are not.”

More than 3 million people have been displaced from their homes since 2015; 150,000 people, fighters and civilians, have been killed.

The war has also forced a generation of boys into a life of violence. At 16, Basem* became the de facto head of his family after his father was killed in a roadside ambush, shot by an al-Qaida gunman near the family home in Shahar, Hadramut province.

Basem had to leave school and now earns £85 a month as a painter, to support his mother and five younger siblings. “It has been very tough,” he said. “Nobody told me what to do, so I just had to work things out as I went along.” His father left behind debts which made matters worse. “The debt collectors kept coming just days after my father’s death. There are no words to explain how frightened I was.”

Shahar, liberated from al-Qaida by UAE forces which, backed by the government, now temporarily control the area, is vastly changed, he said. “Back then we couldn’t even leave home but even at home, we didn’t feel safe. We couldn’t even leave things outside as they’d be stolen. Today, thank God, life is very different.”

Children chant slogans blaming the US and Israel for the war during a ceremony marking the conclusion of summer religious and training camps, Sana’a, 27 June 2022.
Children chant slogans blaming the US and Israel for the war during a ceremony marking the conclusion of summer religious and training camps, Sana’a, 27 June 2022. Photograph: Yahya Arhab/EPA

Houthi rebels are using the ceasefire to increase enforced recruitment of child soldiers, according to local rights investigators. The Houthis control vast areas and as that expands, so does its army. In Hodeida province, where Houthis control 24 of 26 towns, there are a record 19,500 children enrolled in its summer camp – out of a school-age population of 56,000 – up from 8,500 last year; of whom 3,000 never left.

Abuse is rife, with more than 60 cases of rape reported since Hodeida camps started in April while at least 10 people have died, either during training or in accidents with weapons.

“Intimidation tactics have increased as has the area of land being controlled by the Houthis,” the source, who requested anonymity for security reasons, said. “It is impossible for families to say no when their child is called.” Houthi “cultural envoys” are in schools, managing enrolment through the year, but summer is the peak time. With poor parents in the country looking for ways to feed their children, the camps offer a way out and Al Qaeda uses bribes of food and cash.

Unicef said more than 10,200 children have been killed or maimed in the conflict and thousands more have been recruited into the fighting. An estimated 2 million children are displaced and 2 millionout of school, leaving them even more vulnerable.

“Instead of peace, this ceasefire is the time the Houthis are bolstering their weaponry and on a heavy recruitment drive,” said the investigating team lead: “There are increasing numbers of weapons shipments coming in from Iran to Hodeidah port. The world can’t look away now just because there is a ceasefire.”

Thomas Juneau, assistant professor at the University of Ottawa and fellow at the Sana’a Centre for Strategic Studies in Yemen, said the deep divisions between tribal factions and extremist groups weakens any ability to find unity amid the growing influence of the Houthis, who remain dominant militarily and politically.

With a new presidential council in power after the resignation of President Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi, finding common ground remains a concern. “The marginalisation of former president Hadi and the creation of the new presidential council are positive steps to try to create a stronger front to counter them [the Houthis], but it is far from sufficient,” Juneau said. The council needing to unite the many rival factions opposed to the Houthis.

“There is no doubt in my mind that the Houthis have been using, and will continue to use, the ceasefire to regroup. That’s what they did in the past, and there is every reason to believe that they will continue.”

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