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Peace Talks Fail To Stop Destruction In Yemen


Peace talks aimed at ending the fighting in Yemen are underway. But the talks, taking place in Geneva, Switzerland, have not been promising.


After days of trading accusations over who's to blame for the bloodshed, the warring factions are still exchanging fire in Yemen. There, Houthi rebels, who now control the capital, are fighting an Arab coalition which supports the previous government.

MONTAGNE: We reached Sharif Abdel Kouddous on the ground in the capital, Sana'a. He's an independent journalist who often files for the program Democracy Now. Welcome to the program.

SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: Thank you for having me.

MONTAGNE: Now, these peace talks that are trying to get started in earnest in Geneva - not very successfully, by the way, because the two sides can barely agree to sit down - reflect in some way, I gather, what the situation is there in Yemen on the ground. What are you actually seeing?

KOUDDOUS: Well, here in the capital, Sana'a, it's under bombardment every night by Saudi warplanes and the coalition of Arab countries which launched an air campaign against the Houthis, which have seized large controls of the country. Every night, you hear bombardment. You hear anti-aircraft fire being fired back. And this has caused a heavy civilian casualty toll. We're seeing a new trend now. Whereas in the beginning, the coalition was largely targeting security instillations and weapons depots, we're now seeing Saudi warplanes targeting the homes of their enemies.

MONTAGNE: But beyond these - the very sad situation of civilian casualties, there were reports a few days ago of a world heritage site that would be the old town, the old section of the capital, Sana'a, being demolished. People did die there. You know, the Saudis were accused of doing this. They denied it, so it suggests that there's some confusion about who's - you know, who's attacking where.

KOUDDOUS: Right, the Saudis did deny that strike. I'm speaking to you from the old city right now that has been continuously inhabited for 2,500 years. It's a protected cultural heritage site. And it was bombed on Friday. We went to the site of the bombing. They were pulling out bodies from the rubble. Five civilians were killed in the strike, and residents blame Saudi Arabia for the attack. It's very hard to understand who else would've launched a strike on that area. There have been a lot of accusations of civilian casualties, by anti-aircraft fire, fired by the Houthi rebels. So whenever you hear a warplane pass overhead, whenever there's a missile strike on the capital, you hear the dull thuds of anti-aircraft munitions being fired for minutes afterwards. And they fire randomly, and they barely ever hit anything. But they do hit civilians. Amnesty International put out a report last month that said these anti-aircraft munitions were the leading cause of casualties of wounds in the capital. So it's really a story of civilians being caught in the crossfire between these two warring sides.

MONTAGNE: And beyond that, I gather there is a blockade in place to stop arms from coming in. But it is also stopping food from getting in as well.

KOUDDOUS: Absolutely. Yemen is an incredibly impoverished country that relies very, very heavily on imports for all of its basic items. And with this de facto blockade controlling the air, land and sea into Yemen, it's really exacerbating the crisis to a catastrophic degree. You cannot drive in Sana'a without seeing long lines of cars blocking streets going for miles. And they're in line for gas. People wait at least 24 to 26 hours. They sleep and eat in their cars. Inevitably, tempers flare. People have killed each other over gas. The gas-powered pumps that provide water for drinking and sanitation now lay mostly inoperable. So the poorest have to scrounge for water. They wait in line to collect water for cleaning and cooking, washing and drinking. There's been close to no electricity in the capital for months. When you walk around Sana'a, you can hear the rattle of generators. Trash hasn't been collected for weeks. There's rubbish strewn in the roads, and their stench lingers in the air. There's really no economic life. You find ex-bank employees driving taxis, day laborers waiting on corners for work that never comes. So it really is a difficult situation. Yemenis are being strangled to death slowly by this blockade.

MONTAGNE: What is the sense there in Yemen of what's going to happen next?

KOUDDOUS: Most Yemenis that I've spoken to have very little hope in the peace talks in Geneva. They see this as politicians in suits. And at the same time, we're seeing bombings every night. There is a report that the Houthis blew up the house of one of the delegate members of the opposition. So with these kind of things happening on the ground, there's little hope for the talks achieving anything, the talks achieving a lifting of the blockade, of getting a cease-fire for the holy month of Ramadan. And I think most Yemenis believe that their lives are going to get more difficult in the coming months.

MONTAGNE: Thank you very much for taking the time to talk to us. Sharif Abdel Kouddous is an independent correspondent and a fellow at The Nation Institute. Take care.

KOUDDOUS: All right, thanks. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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