The ruins carpeted the city market, rippling outwards in waves of destruction. Broken beams, collapsed roofs, exploded metal shutters and fossilised merchandise crumbled underfoot.
In one of the burnt-out shells of the shops where raisins, nuts, fabrics, incense and stone pots were traded for hundreds of years, all that was to be found was a box of coke bottles, a sofa and a child nailing wooden sticks together.
This is Sa’ada, ground zero of the 20-month Saudi campaign in Yemen, a largely forgotten conflict that has killed more than 10,000, uprooted 3 million and left perhaps 14 million – more than half the country – short of food, many on the brink of starvation.
When the UK foreign secretary, Boris Johnson, spoke recently – and controversially – about Saudi Arabia and its proxy wars in the Middle East, this is the sort of thing he was talking about. The glib way to understand this is as a remote-controlled war between the Saudis, supporting the ousted government, and the ever restless Houthi movement, which has tacit Iranian support.
But nothing in Yemen is ever that straightforward. There are separatists and tribesmen and army units. There are US drones targeting jihadis. And, standing beside the Saudis at the air campaign HQ, are UK military advisers. Johnson didn’t mention them.
“Why would the Saudis bomb old houses and the market that sold raisins?” asked Sheikh Ahmad, a member of Sa’ada city council. “They hit us with such hatred.”
Ahmad was standing on the edge of a crater inspecting the panorama of rubble, a scarecrow of a man in a threadbare coat and white dishdasha. On mounds stood the ruins of the 400-year-old houses of Sa’ada, known for their stunning, unique architectural style: high tapered mud walls decorated in gingerbread and white with arched windows. Ahmad’s job was to preserve them.
“We used to go after people who tried to use new material on their houses,” he said. “Each one was a unique historical masterpiece. They were our history, our fathers’ and grandfathers’ history, our tradition. If you lose your history your present becomes meaningless.”
He walked off to join a group of men sitting in front of their burnt-out shops, sharing a bar of chocolate someone had found among the ruined goods.
On the other side of the market Abdullah al-Ebi was crouched on a divan at the entrance to his family barber shop. He used to live with his four brothers and their wives and children in his father’s three-storey house. A large family of 31 people.
When three rockets hit the house last year, 27 of them were killed. Ebi, his father and two brothers were the only survivors. The decimation was so bad that the family acquired a macabre celebrity.
“I really can’t remember – thoughts attack me all the time. I wake in the night and look for them, then I remember and weep,” Ebi said, staring out of his shop while his younger brother, who still had shrapnel in his head, cut a young boy’s hair.
“We had just finished dinner when the first rocket hit the corner of the house. There was darkness and screaming. We gathered the family in one corner – you didn’t know who was who – we pushed them all to a corner, when the second rocket hit and then the third.”
He flipped through the pictures of children on his phone: a boy in a red sweater and a girl lying dead next to each other, their mouths stuffed with cotton. “Everything is over now. No one came to us. No one offered to help us. Our families were killed and we were left alone, four of us in a small room. We hardly talk to each other.”
Early the next day, a cold and crisp Friday, a solemn group of men with faces washed orange by the rising sun stood at the entrance to a cemetery on the edge of the old city.
In an open coffin in front of them lay a young man who had been killed on the frontlines east of the city.
After a short prayer, the men raised their fists and, in unison, shouted the Houthis’ war cry: “Allahu Akbar, death to America, death to Israel, curse the Jews and glory to Islam.”
The coffin was taken inside and the shrouded body was laid to rest, the latest “martyr” of the war.
The mountainous frontlines that separate the Houthi forces from Saudi-backed tribesmen have changed little in almost two years of fighting, but the same cannot be said of the cemetery, one of many scattered all over the city.
The number of graves, adorned with photographs and plastic flowers, has quadrupled, filling up with fighters and civilian victims of the conflict.
The war started in 2015 when an alliance of Houthi forces and northern tribesmen marched south on the capital, Sana’a, taking power and sending the president, Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi, fleeing into exile, first to Aden and then to Saudi Arabia.
The Saudis intervened to support the forces of the internationally recognised government, but it quickly became a sectarian proxy war against what they perceived as an Iranian attempt to dominate Yemen.
The war then split off into multiple conflicts: regional between north and secessionist south, jihadis v tribesmen, and a brutal siege of the city of Taiz by the Houthis.
With each of these sub-conflicts, local powers aligned themselves according to their shifting interests and grievances.
“No one knows how to stop this war,” said a local journalist who frequently meets the Houthi leadership. “Hadi’s government is morally bankrupt and their dreams of coming back to Sana’a are unachievable.
“The Saudi coalition have no endgame and are just bombing without achieving much on the ground, and the Houthis, who exaggerated their power, see themselves as unrivalled revolutionaries unmatched by any other power, but they also realise that the state is collapsing and they might lose all of Yemen.”
After burying the “martyr”, the men shuffled back to their houses, a few paces from the cemetery, an oasis of green gardens and palm trees in the middle of a lunar landscape.
Framed by the distant mountains, the houses still stood tall and slender, but now sheared in half, with their entrails spilling on to piles of earth and heaps of smashed furniture, revealing the long-concealed lives of their inhabitants. A half-hanging arch, timber rafters, wooden frames, a TV set, a Yemeni ceremonial dagger. A child’s seashell necklace.
A short man in his mid-50s, in a crumpled blue blazer and white dishdasha, pointed at one of these houses, cracked and half falling apart, only two rooms boarded up with cardboard and metal sheets. “A rocket fell here.”
He pointed at a large crater. “We fled and were displaced for a year, but then we decided to go back and die in our home, because we could not find food or afford to pay rent any more.
“The hunger is harder on us than the bombing. I go in the morning and I come back with 300 riyals [$1]. We live eight in these two rooms but I thank God, at least I have a shelter. Those who lost their houses, where do they go?”
One afternoon in Sana’a, a group of friends gathered in a smoke-filled room, discussing the political situation in the country. As the chatter picked up, a window rattled and a column of thick black smoke rose in the distance. No one even blinked.
If it were not a murderous war it would almost seem absurd. The frontlines barely move; the bombing raids are almost banal.
But if the physical war is stagnating, the economic war is devastating. Yemen was already the poorest country in the Arab world. War is hastening the collapse of state institutions.
The Yemeni central bank, one of the very few institutions that survived the divisions of war, was “relocated” to Aden on Hadi’s orders, in effect leaving Yemen without any institutions capable of stabilising the economy, and no access to foreign currency in the north.
Some 1.2 million government employees have not received their salaries for three months, leaving about 8 million people without income.
The Houthi-controlled government was forced to make all purchases of fuel and gas in cash, siphoning the remaining deposits in the north.
“The war is hard but it’s the economy that is destroying the Houthis, and making them willing to end this war in any way,” said one observer in the capital. “Their military strength is still solid and they are not losing but they think the economy will cost them ruling this country.
“The governor of Marib demands cash payment to send gas … at this rate cash will be depleted in few months.”
The economic siege conditions provide the perfect opportunity for a black market and entrepreneurial types work the frontline assiduously. Warlords and businessmen flourish, while millions go hungry. On the coastal plains in Tuhama, the number of children suffering from malnutrition has tripled since the start of the war.
“Those children have two prospects: either die or survive but with stunted growth to become a burden on their communities,” said a UN staffer. “We are losing a whole generation because of the war.
“The biggest danger facing Yemen now is the prospect of the collapse of the healthcare system. It is only existing now because it’s being propped up by international agencies who supplement salaries and try to bring medicine, but if that collapses it will be a disaster.”
Choking on his tears, he went on: “I am paid a salary, but I am surrounded by friends and family and neighbours who depend on this salary. This is how society hasn’t collapsed yet, because of the social cohesion, but people are tired, fatigued and all the alternatives we have are bad. The country is collapsing and the different parties of the war each blame the other.”
The Sabeen maternity unit in Sana’a is one of the few functioning hospitals left in Yemen.
In one room a mother in black crouched on a bed, feeding a five-year-old child with severe malnutrition. He stared at her with large sunken eyes, patches of black hair stuck on his skull, his two pencil-thin arms folded back at the elbow.The father stood in the doorway, shouting at a visiting doctor. “We have to buy everything. We have to buy him the milk, medicine, everything, and I don’t have anything. I have sold the dagger, the gun and the land. There is nothing left. I will go and burn myself in the yard – it is easier than this torture.”
Downstairs, the emergency clinic is a small, dark and stuffy room. Unicef informational posters hang on the green, stained walls along with calendars and religious verses.
Behind a metal desk stood a young doctor in a clean white apron and blue hijab, two sharp eyes peering from above a surgical mask. In front of her, a throng of women in long black veils carried children in different stages of emaciation.
One after the other, the mothers lay their children on the desk among piles of papers and a scale and the young doctor calmly examined them.
A woman and a man carrying a large bundle approached the doctor, a tiny hand protruding from the colourful blanket.
She started unwrapping the covers and rags to reveal a yellowish body with loose skin hanging off it like a boiled old chicken. “He hasn’t eaten for four days,” said the mother.
Noticing his colour, the doctor scribbled a note quickly: “Go to the emergency room quickly. He is in a very critical condition.”
But in the emergency room they were told that if they wanted treatment, they would have to run off and buy supplies – intravenous fluid and a needle for starters. Later they watched as the expensive liquid dripped into the veins of the child’s motionless body.
“The main problem of this war is the poverty hitting us all,” said the young emergency ward doctor, called Eyman. She explained that she was still a student, and because there were no salaries many of the doctors had stopped showing up for work, leaving her and other students in charge of the emergency room. On a slow day she saw 100 patients.
“We are all in a state of depression,” Eyman said. “You see the children and you can’t do anything to save them. You have to just pretend to keep things going.”