“From Bad to Worse”: Hundreds Dead and 100,000 Displaced as Saudi-Led Strikes Push Yemen to the Brink

The death toll in Yemen continues to rise amid a Saudi-led military campaign and clashes between Houthi rebels and forces loyal to ousted President Abed-Rabbo Mansour Hadi. The most intense violence is in the southern city of Aden, with more than 140 people reportedly killed in a 24-hour period. The United Nations says hundreds have been killed and more than 100,000 have been displaced since Saudi Arabia launched a military campaign two weeks ago. The Saudi regime has asked Pakistan to provide soldiers, heightening the possibility of a ground invasion. The International Committee of the Red Cross has warned of a dire humanitarian situation and demanded access to besieged areas. We are joined by the journalist Safa Al Ahmad, whose latest documentary, The Fight for Yemen, premieres tonight on Frontline on PBS stations nationwide. She was granted extremely rare reporting access to the Houthis as they advanced in Yemen.


This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AARON MATÉ: We begin in Yemen where intense fighting to Houthi rebels and forces loyal to ousted President Abd Rabbuh Manṣūr Hādī continues to rage. The U.N. says hundreds of been killed and more than 100,000 displaced. Since Saudi Arabia launched military campaign two weeks ago. Speaking today in Geneva, U.N. officials said nearly at least 74 children have died since the Saudi strikes began.

CHRISTIAN LINDMEIR: Estimations from six April, as of yesterday are, 540 people have been killed and some 1700 wounded by the violence in Yemen since 19 March. Seventy-four children are known to have been known to be killed and 44 children maimed so far since the fighting began on 26 March. But we say we are aware these are conservative figures, and we believe that the total number of children killed is much higher.

AMY GOODMAN: The Red Cross has warned of a dire humanitarian situation and demanded access to the the sieged areas. The most intense violence is in the southern city of Aden with more than 140 people reportedly killed in a 24 hour period. Saudi Arabia, meanwhile, has asked Pakistan to provide soldiers heightening the possibility of a ground invasion. For more, we’re joined by journalist Safa al Ahmad. Her latest documentary, The Fight for Yemen, premiers tonight on “Frontline” on PBS stations across the United States. In the film, Safa was granted extremely rare access to the Houthis as they advanced in Yemen. Welcome to Democracy Now!, Safa al Ahmad. Can you talk about the fight for Yemen and this access you had, who the Houthis are, how you followed them in Yemen?

SAFA AL AHMAD: I have been very curious about the Houthis for years now, especially — I’ve been going to Yemen for a few years and I’ve always wanted to get that access to the Houthis. So finally, when I heard last September that they surrounded the capital Sanaa, I thought that things would escalate if they actually took over the city. They’re very interesting because they are a very young group. And they keep morphing their understanding of who they are and what they want as they progress. And so it’s very hard to pin it down to one thing. But if I must describe the Houthis in one line, it would be the revivalist Zaydis with strong anti-imperialist agenda. And so they have these really big words to describe who they are and what they want, but in reality, they want control in Yemen. And this is what they’ve done. They didn’t have enough by just controlling Sanaa, but they’ve come across most of North Yemen and reached they’ve reached Aden

AARON MATÉ: And Safa, the conventional line that we hear is that they receive heavy backing from Iran. What’s your assessment of that?

SAFA AL AHMAD: I think that’s vastly overblown. There is very little good journalism that has been done to prove the extent of the relationship between the Houthis in Iran. I don’t doubt that there is a relationship between the Houthis and Iran, but how extensive is that? For people to blatantly call them Iranian-backed Shia militia, I think that is very, very problematic. The Houthis have local agenda, they have local grievances, and local power. The rise of the Houthis themselves had nothing to do with the Iranians. Whether they — I think there is a relationship with the Iranians and the Houthis at the moment, but not to the extent that the world claims there is for Iran. Saudi Arabia has deeper connections with Yemen. They have a large border with Yemen, and the Saudis have funded — sent money directly and arms to different groups inside Yemen. So I would argue between the two, Saudi Arabia has the much bigger influence and the upper hand in Yemen.

AMY GOODMAN: And talk about the role right now Saudi Arabia, what exactly is happening in Yemen on the ground, the conditions of people there? In a moment, we’re going to be speaking with an arms control expert who will talk about the Obama administration pouring more money into making more weapon sales than any administration since World War II. The largest recipient of those — of that military aid and weaponry is, of course, to Saudi Arabia.

SAFA AL AHMAD: Yes, I mean, record-breaking number of contracts, I think, have been told to the Saudis in the past few years. I don’t know who they’re using them against. Yemen is a very — Yemen is the poorest Arab country. And so to have this huge alliance against Yemen for allegedly trying to break the back of the Houthis, I think it belies it, because now that the Houthis have come to Aden, which is what the airstrikes were allegedly trying to stop from happening. So the Houthis have large alliances on the ground. They didn’t — they’re not an occupying power coming from nowhere. They have been working on spreading that alliance throughout the areas that they controlled. And so the Saudi war on Yemen — Saudi-led airstrikes on Yemen — will have very limited impact on the power of the Houthis on the ground, unless there are ground troops. And even then, what is the solution? I don’t know what’s the endgame with this. I mean, the Saudis claim that it is to bring back the legitimate President Abdel Rabbo Mansour Hadi back to Yemen. But I think for a lot of Yemenis, he has lost his credibility. He has lost his legitimacy. He’s called for a war on his own people. And now he’s sitting at Riyadh. I think for a lot of people, that’s extremely problematic. The humanitarian crisis is astounding to begin with, even before this, and now with the whole air and sea embargo on Yemen, there is very little fuel, there is a food shortages. It is frightening what is happening now in Yemen and heartbreaking. The numbers that the U.N. is saying are most likely much lower than what is actually on the ground.

AARON MATÉ: Safa, so what do you see as the solution? Because some would say that the Houthis are also allied with a former president who also has lost credibility, Saleh. So what is the answer here?

SAFA AL AHMAD: Yeah, Ali Saleh, yeah. I mean, a lot of people blame Ali Saleh for all of this. He’s the one who has waged six wars against the Houthis because of his fear of their advancement. And now they’re allied together. But in the ned, I think the problem is you can’t just look at what is happening now as in today or this week in Yemen. This problem has been going on for a long time. The Americans — if we’re going to specify, the Americans and their involvement in Yemen — have supported a dictator, which is Ali Saleh and even when the revolution happened to oust him in 2011, they continued to support corrupt political parties that have only their own the personal interest. And the U.N. has played a detrimental part in what is happening in Yemen as well. And so all the peaceful the civil society that had helped bring this revolution on were put to the side and only the political parties and the Americans and the U.N. and the GCC, including Saudi Arabia we’re dealing with. And so they can’t just look at the situation now in Yemen and say, oh, look what’s happening. You had a role to play in where Yemen is right now. I mean, the Americans — there was an article the other day when the special forces left an Al-Anad military base, they left $500 million worth of arms in the base. Who do they think has control of that now? They don’t know, probably. Yes? This is part of the really problematic American foreign policy when it comes to Yemen; this tunnel vision about antiterrorism. So whoever is the dictator in control, he is our only ally against Al Qaeda. Like that is the only problem. And the drone strikes have completely and utterly failed. Instead of crushing Al Qaeda, and now we hear alliances to Isis. So, I mean, the situation keeps getting from bad to worse.