Yemen civilians caught in the crossfire

Civilians continue to pay a heavy price in the conflict in Yemen.

No group has claimed responsibility for the attack on the academy, but many point the finger at AQAP [Al Jazeera]

Sanaa, Yemen – Marwan Ali Monaseer was given number 116 at 3am to queue in the registration line.

The 35-year-old was one of 350 other eager men who lined up to to register for a course at the police academy when a bomb, attached to a small bus, exploded outside the academy’s complex in Sanaa on January 7.

Number 117, Monaseer’s friend, was killed in the blast. “We were worried something might happen, but we went anyway,” said Monaseer, a police veteran of 14 years.

He had reason to worry. Bombings have become commonplace in Yemen’s capital and other areas of north Yemen since September 2014, when Houthi fighters took over Sanaa and imposed a new security and political order in the capital.

A number of incidents which targeted civilians have been documented including attacks on hospitals and universities.

RELATED: Blast hits Houthi rebel base in Yemen capital

The Houthis’ rise sparked a violent backlash from al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP).  

AQAP has also attached its name to dozens of bombings targeting the Houthis that have had heavy civilian casualties. 

The cadre, with whom Monaseer had been waiting in line, were after coveted positions in a year-long training course that would bring them higher pay and rank, catapulting them from soldier to officer within the police force. 

A bomb exploded near the police academy, killing 40, injuring 84 and robbing Monaseer of sight in his right eye [Reuters]

They dutifully arrived to submit their applications three days prior to the attack. On the first day, an unexpected number of men overwhelmed the registrar office and they were sent home.

The following day an improvised explosive device (IED) exploded across town at a residence of a prominent Houthi member, injuring four.

The aspiring academy attendees were again sent home, this time as a security precaution.

On the third day, they were told the process was delayed, but the promise of being enrolled in the academy lured them back despite growing feelings of unease.

It was on the fourth day that a bomb exploded, killing 40, injuring 84, and robbing Monaseer of sight in his right eye.

It was the same day that two gunmen, Said and Cherif Kouachi, who have alleged ties to AQAP, began their rampage in Paris.

While much of the world focused its attention on France, Yemenis were experiencing their own post-traumatic stress and unable to find answers. 

“You cannot forgive [and forget] if no one is held accountable,” Monaseer said from his hospital bed in a state-run facility in Sanaa.

Unrelenting bombings and assassinations in the nation are chipping away at people’s resilience. Victims struggle to cope, perpetrators operate with impunity and the central government’s ability to offer a promise of justice is disintegrating.

No group has claimed responsibility for the attack on the academy but many have pointed the finger at AQAP.

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A few doors down from Monaseer, another man lay in recovery from a separate bombing incident in the central province of Ibb, a reminder that civilians all over the nation are paying a price for these attacks. 

Yunis al-Mutawakel has been in intensive care unit since the beginning of January. His abdomen was severely injured in a suicide bombing during a Houthi gathering to celebrate the Prophet Muhammad’s birthday on December 31. Over 40 people were killed in the blast. No one has claimed responsibility. 

Outside the physical healing process, al-Mutawakel says he cannot rest when accountability for such crimes remains elusive. “This is of course a result of a lack of security and stability,” he said. 

In other incidents, Yemeni politicians, who advocated for a peaceful settlement of the ongoing conflict, were also targeted. Mohammed Abdul-Malik al-Mutawakel, who was known for his unwavering advocacy of building the nation around consensus, was shot dead in the streets of Sanaa in November.   

More than three months after his death, the Mutawakel family is no closer to any clues surrounding his murder.  They say the investigation highlights the politics and insidious power struggles behind the scene among those who are supposedly protecting the nation.


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Saleh, another belongs to Ansar Allah.”]

“It’s impossible to get results. The main problem is everyone’s work is separate,” said Raidan al-Mutawakel, the late politician’s son. Five different institutions are running investigations without coordination, he explained.   

Although Raidan believes there is a genuine intention to work on his father’s case, Yemen’s current environment – rife with political and economic self-interest on the part of both state and non-state actors – will overshadow progress, he said.   

“Every agency belongs to someone. One belongs to [former President Ali Abdullah] Saleh, another belongs to Ansar Allah [the Houthis],” he said. 

Mutawakel’s daughter, Radiya, says the absence of what her father was working towards – a strong central state – is what allows a cycle of violence to flourish.

“There were many assassinations before him and there will be many after him…There will be as long as political parties use these incidents in their favour,” she said.    

Many see this happening with the police academy investigations.

“Everyone is blaming everyone else,” said a spokesperson for a locally based security firm that tracks information on such incidents. The company was briefed on technical aspects of the bombing like the number of gas canisters used to cause the explosion, “but that’s where they leave you”, the spokesperson said. “There is never any information about the whys or the where of the investigation.”

The incident’s file is currently in the hands of Abdul Razzaq al-Muayad, the head of security in Sanaa, and a man known to be close to the Houthis. 

It has been reported that several persons linked to AQAP have been arrested in connection to the attack, but analysts say the claims are little more than a publicity stunt that lack transparency and veracity.

“After every incident, there is a campaign to claim to big victories of arrests,” but it never amounts to anything, the security firm spokesman said.  Al-Muayad declined to comment to Al Jazeera on the arrests. 

RELATED: Yemen: Who controls the state?

A source at the presidential office reiterated Raidan’s concerns that there is no coordination between different security bodies to either prevent or react properly in the aftermath of Yemen’s growing insecurity.

He cites an example of an attack on a military hospital in December 2013 in Sanaa where 52 were killed, for which AQAP later claimed responsibility.

According to the source, intelligence was available suggesting a strike 24 hours before it happened, but the intelligence “was not complete”, because of a lack of information-sharing mechanism between security entities. 

He added that things have only worsened since the Houthis began inserting themselves in key ministries and other security bodies, confiscating documents and operating without oversight from central authorities.

Of particular concern is the National Security Bureau, the agency that was created with US’ support to streamline intelligence sharing between Yemen and western nations.

Until last week, the government was able to keep the Houthis out of the bureau’s offices.

According to the presidential source, “high-level” negotiations led to a prisoner exchange to keep Houthi militias from entering the agency. A Houthi source, however, denied a prisoner exchange took place.

But, during clashes between Houthi militias and presidential forces on Monday, the Houthis were able to gain control of National Security offices for the first time, according to both the Houthis and other sources with ties to the National Security office.

The fallout of this is yet to be determined, but could have major consequences both internally and externally. Yet, as these battles play out in the political arena, Monaseer and other victims feel left in limbo.

“We have no trust in these official agencies, but we may be able to apply some public pressure with our stories.”