Fear and anxiety for civilians as Yemen truce set to expire

The conflict-ravaged country awaits two scenarios: a new cycle of war or an extended cessation of hostilities.

Boys stand in line as they wait to receive meals
Millions of Yemeni civilians are fearful that a new cycle of war and violence is eminent [File: Khaled Abdullah/Reuters]

Fear, anxiety, confusion – these are the most common sentiments expressed by civilians in war-ravaged Yemen as a four-month truce is slated to expire on Tuesday.

“The ceasefire expiry is a rebirth of multiple ordeals,” said Saleh Ahmed, a 50-year-old resident in the capital, Sanaa, who, like others, fears a descent into a new cycle of war.

“Fighting will erupt, roads will be blocked, fuel will be expensive, the price of basic goods will jump, and civilian deaths will mount,” he said. “These troubles make life bitter and unbearable.”

The United Nations-sponsored truce has been the longest respite Yemen has seen in seven years of war, which have pitted the internationally recognised government, backed by a Saudi-led military coalition, against the Iran-aligned Houthi rebels, who control most of Yemen’s north.

The truce has held, despite reported violations from both sides.

As the expiration date approached, the UN’s envoy for Yemen, Hans Grundberg, as well as the United States envoy, Tim Lenderking, intensified diplomatic efforts to extend it.

Last week, Grundberg visited the southern port city of Aden, the seat of Yemen’s internationally recognised government, as well as the Saudi and Omani capitals of Riyadh and Muscat, respectively. For his part, Lenderking flew to Riyadh and Jordan’s capital, Amman, which, along with Muscat, have hosted negotiators from Yemen’s warring sides.

Ahmed, a minibus driver, described the truce as the “good days”.

“Before the ceasefire, I used to spend hours and hours waiting at the gas stations to fill up my vehicle with petrol. Today, I can fill it anywhere at any time I want. I can work and make money to provide for my family. With the truce, my situation has been better.”

According to the UN, the truce has resulted in improved humanitarian conditions and led to a significant decrease in civilian casualties. It also reduced queues at petrol stations and allowed Yemenis to travel more easily across the country.

Fatima Amri, a 24-year-old university student in the Houthi-held Sanaa, said a failure to extend the truce would be a disappointing setback to diplomacy and an assault on human rights in Yemen.

“If war resumes, we will instantly lose many rights, including the freedom of movement. The conflict made the country like a jail. The truce helped partially open that jail. It will be shut again once the ceasefire breaks down,” Amri told Al Jazeera.

While Yemenis recognise the truce’s tangible benefits, many are doubtful the current break from war can lead to lasting peace and put an end to the country’s predicament.

“There are no indicators that the warring sides are ready to stop the fighting soon,” Mohammed al-Samei, a Yemeni journalist in Taiz, said. “The recurring violations committed since the start of the truce demonstrate the war-prone attitude of the Yemeni rivals, particularly the Houthi group.”

And while the truce has brought immense relief to civilians, it has not helped build robust rapprochement between the rival sides. “The level of trust between the Yemeni government and the Houthi group has not improved throughout the ceasefire. Therefore, instability will continue to grip Yemen as both sides have almost equal military power,” al-Samei said.

A return to full-blown war cannot entirely be ruled out, considering the complexity of the conflict.

Amr al-Bidh, a member of the Southern Transitional Council, a nominal ally of the government which, however, has been pushing for self-rule in southern Yemen, told reporters during a visit to London last week that the truce may be extended.

“But at the same time, the war is coming. The preparation for war is happening,” he said. “I think it would be naive not to prepare for war with the Houthis.”

For their part, the Houthis have repeatedly expressed their dissatisfaction with the way the truce has been implemented, accusing the Saudi-led coalition and the internationally recognised government of not fulfilling their obligations.

On Thursday, just days before the expiration of the truce, Yemen’s Presidential Leadership Council, the UN-recognised authority in Yemen, replaced the country’s defence minister, a decision that some observers say could signal a shift in strategy.

Political analysts also hailed the truce as a diplomatic success but cautioned that the roots of the conflict have not been fully addressed.

“Without disarming all militias in Yemen and restoring the legitimate authority, any truce extension or agreement will not serve the national interest of the country in the long-term,” Adel Dashela, a Yemeni political researcher and author, told Al Jazeera.

The truce, according to Dashela, could be counterproductive if it were to perpetuate the status quo of a de facto divided Yemen: the Houthis in the north and the government and its local allies in the south.

“Yemeni civilians have been glad that the truce reduced violence. But a ceasefire minus a definite peace plan is an incomplete solution, and the roots of war will keep alive.”

Source: Al Jazeera