(Beirut) – Houthi forces have for months restricted food and medical supplies for civilians in Taizz, Yemen’s third-largest city. Confiscating goods necessary for the survival of the civilian population and blocking humanitarian aid are serious violations of international humanitarian law.
Seven Taizz residents described to Human Rights Watch 16 incidents between December 13, 2015 and January 9, 2016, in which Houthi guards at checkpoints prevented civilians from bringing items into the city, including fruit, vegetables, cooking gas, vaccination doses, dialysis treatment packets, and oxygen cylinders, and confiscated some of these items. The Houthis, also known as Ansar Allah, should immediately end the unlawful confiscation of goods intended for the civilian population and permit full access by aid agencies, Human Rights Watch said.
“The Houthis are denying necessities to residents of Taizz because they happen to be living in areas that opposition forces control,” said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East director. “Seizing property from civilians is already unlawful, but taking their food and medical supplies is simply cruel.”
Taizz is located between the capital, Sanaa, controlled by the Houthis since late 2014, and the port city of Aden, recaptured by pro-government forces in July. Taizz had a pre-war population of about 600,000, but heavy ground fighting in the armed conflict that began in March 2015 has caused two-thirds of the population to flee, with between 175,000 to 200,000 civilians remaining, according to the United Nations.
Houthi forces effectively surround Taizz and maintain checkpoints at the two main entry points to city. Forces opposed to the Houthis mainly control the city center. These forces include Islah, a Sunni Islamist political party, youth activists, and salafis and other militant Islamists, local residents said. The Houthis have alleged that the militant extremist Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and the Islamic State, also known as ISIS, are also deployed against them in Taizz.
Since at least September, Houthi guards at checkpoints have confiscated water, food, and cooking gas that Taizz residents tried to bring into the neighborhoods controlled by the forces opposed to the Houthis. Those who complained directly to Houthi commanders were told to “Ask the ‘resistance’ to feed you,” they told Human Rights Watch.
International agencies and humanitarian organizations have also had difficulty bringing in food and medicine for the civilian population. In October 2015, Houthi forces confiscated drugs intended for hospitals in central Taizz from three trucks sent by the World Health Organization. The Houthis did not give the Health Ministry offices in Sanaa and Taizz the authorization to provide hospitals and clinics in non-Houthi-controlled areas with additional medical support.
On October 22, 2015, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) stated that nearly half of the hospitals in Taizz had ceased operations because of a lack of supplies or fuel or because the facilities were damaged from the fighting. It called on the parties in control to authorize the delivery of urgent medicines, which had been blocked for five weeks, to the al-Thawra Hospital.
On October 24, 2015, the UN humanitarian coordinator said that few, if any, commercial goods or goods from aid groups had entered the city center. The next day, the humanitarian organization Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders, MSF) said that despite weeks of intense negotiations with Houthi officials, stocks of essential medical supplies could not be delivered to two hospitals in Taizz and that MSF trucks were being stopped at Houthi checkpoints and denied access to the area.
Providers of oxygen cylinders used by medical facilities told Human Rights Watch that Houthi guards seized their shipments at checkpoints and made them promise not to bring in any more oxygen. Health officials told Human Rights Watch that some hospitals have run out of oxygen cylinders and that their price had shot up. The head of the neonatal unit at al-Jumhouri Hospital said that since December, six premature infants had died because the hospital did not have the oxygen or the fuel to run the generator to power the incubators. Limited access to Taizz, because of the security situation, has made it difficult to determine the full impact of the Houthi confiscations of food and medical supplies on the civilian population, Human Rights Watch said. The UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights said in a statement on January 5, 2016, that strict control of all entry points into the city had resulted in limited access to food and other essential items and made conditions extremely difficult for the population. The health situation in the governorate had deteriorated, with al-Rawdha Hospital, one of the largest hospitals still in operation, being forced to turn away patients because of shortages. On January 24, the UN humanitarian coordinator, Jamie McGoldrick, said that in Taizz, “Food and other basic goods needed to survive are in short supply. Basic services are scarce, including access to water and fuel.”
MSF reported that it was able to deliver medical aid into Taizz on January 17 for the first time in months, and the UN World Food Programme reported that it delivered 3,000 family food rations to the city on January 21. The UN should monitor and publicly report on the situation to ensure that further aid is allowed into the city without unnecessary delay, Human Rights Watch said.
While international humanitarian law does not prevent sieges against enemy forces, civilians may not be deprived of food and medical supplies necessary for their survival. All parties to the conflict are obligated to facilitate the provision of impartial humanitarian aid to the civilian population. Confiscating civilian goods without compensation is prohibited. Starving civilians as a method of warfare is also unlawful and is a war crime.
“Harm to civilians in armed conflicts may be inevitable, but there is no excuse for increasing suffering and deaths by preventing food and life-saving goods from getting to hospitals and besieged neighborhoods,” Stork said.
Unlawful Houthi Confiscations in Taizz
Houthi Confiscation of Civilian Goods
Heba Ahmad Saed, 23, passed through the al-Dahi checkpoint into the Houthi-controlled part of Taizz on December 13, 2015, with her mother and two younger brothers. She told Human Rights Watch that they reached the checkpoint by foot because the Houthis do not allow buses to cross.
We walked for about 10 minutes to the checkpoint, which was manned by at least 11 gunmen wearing plain clothes, some wearing army jackets. They had Ansar Allah stickers on their guns. Five of them were at least 25 years old, but the rest were all clearly under 18. One of the very young ones pushed a woman waiting at the checkpoint, carrying an empty cooking gas cylinder that she was hoping to fill up and return with. He pointed his gun at her. “If you come back with that cylinder I will shoot at it,” he said.
She saw another guard, who was about 25, grab a bag of clothing away from an old man who was on the other side of the checkpoint crossing into the city, who begged him for mercy. He pointed his gun at the man and shouted, “You are not allowed to take that bag with you, and if you try to come back tomorrow we will not let you through. Now move back or I swear to God I will shoot you.”
Saed said she tried to pass through the Houthi controlled al-Qasr checkpoint into non-Houthi controlled territory four days later, at about 10 a.m. She said a guard confiscated two plastic bags filled with fruits and vegetables belonging to a woman standing next to her. The guard accused the woman of being a supporter of ISIS and of wearing an explosive vest. Saed said she saw the guard carry the bags to a truck and hand them over to other guards wearing a mix of civilian and military dress uniforms. While she and about 100 others waited to cross, Saed said, the guards at least four times sprinkled water over the women and the old men in an insulting manner and poked at the crowd with a thin stick in a manner that reminded her of sheep herders.
Ahmad al-Shuga’a, 32, an accountant at a government healthcare facility in Taizz, told Human Rights Watch that on December 24, 2015, he was passing through al-Dahi checkpoint at 10:30 a.m. with about 150 other people. Ten armed Houthis were manning the checkpoint. He saw one guard approach a woman and rip two plastic bags full of vegetables from her arms onto the ground. He then shoved her in the shoulder and said, “We told you these are forbidden.” Al-Shuga’a said the woman picked up the items and left the line. He said that on December 31 he saw guards do the same to a 10-year-old boy, who burst into tears.
“I always pass through the checkpoints empty-handed in order to avoid problems and maintain my dignity from insult,” al Shuga’a said. “But people keep trying to bring in food because the prices inside the city are three – or sometimes five – time higher.”
A woman, who wished not to be identified, said that on January 9, 2016, at about 10:30 a.m., she saw three guards at al-Dahi checkpoint confiscate a cooking gas cylinder from an elderly man.
Houthi Confiscation of Civilian Medical Supplies
Elan Abd al-Haq, the director of the Yemeni Ministry of Health’s office in al-Mudhafer district of Taizz, told Human Rights Watch that in mid-December 2015, two staff members tried to bring into the city 600 doses of polio and measles vaccinations for children. One of the Houthi guards at the al-Dahi checkpoint found them when he searched her colleagues’ bags. When they explained what the vials contained, he threw them to the ground, prohibiting the staff members from picking them up and ordering them to leave.
Al-Haq said that many children and adults were suffering from malnutrition. Patients requiring dialysis and diabetic patients requiring insulin shots were perhaps affected the most severely, she said, especially during periods where the Houthis closed the entry points to the city for up to four days. She also said that the government normally distributes insulin to healthcare facilities nationally, and in Taizz governorate the monthly need is 4,800 vials. She said that as of January 23, 2016, no insulin had been delivered to the main distribution center in Taizz, al-Muthafer Hospital, since December 2015.
Nadeem al-Hakimi, the field coordinator of the Qatari Red Crescent, which has a presence in Taizz, said that in September 2015, the Yemeni Health Ministry arranged for the delivery of 1,500 dialysis treatment packets to Taizz. Houthi checkpoint guards in al-Hawban stopped the truck for inspection. Al-Hakimi said he spent over 12 hours negotiating with various commanders for its release. After three days, the Houthis allowed in only 500 packets. One commander told al-Hakimi that the rest of the packets were sent to Saada and Dhamar, areas in northern Yemen under Houthi control. Al-Hakimi said that a doctor he knew in Dhamar confirmed that he received some of the packets in his healthcare facility.
Nashwan al-Husami, deputy director of the surgical department at al-Thawra Hospital in Taizz, told Human Rights Watch that the last time the hospital received oxygen cylinders was the first week of November. He said that under normal conditions the hospital used about 40 oxygen cylinders per day. He said that Houthi guards at the al-Qasr roundabout had harassed the hospital’s oxygen delivery driver and confiscated 40 cylinders from him in mid-December. They made him promise not to bring any more shipments in.
One man who wished not to be identified said that in mid-December, Houthi guards at a checkpoint in Taizz prevented him from bringing in a shipment of 40 oxygen cylinders intended for al-Thawra Hospital. After a day, they agreed to release the shipment but made the man promise not to bring in any more.
Another man who delivers oxygen cylinders to various healthcare facilities in Taizz said that in mid-June, he was transporting a large number of cylinders into the city when Houthi guards stopped him near Taizz military hospital. They took him and a colleague and their truck to al-Jahmliya police station on charges that they were bringing this oxygen to ISIS and other opposition forces in Taizz. The guards detained both for four days and forced them to promise not to bring any more oxygen into the city.
The man said that a month later he brought in another shipment of cylinders and was detained at a checkpoint, then released with the cylinders the next day. A month after that, guards caught him in the city with another shipment of cylinders and held him and his cargo for several hours. During negotiations, the Houthis in charge finally agreed to let him bring in oxygen but said he could not bring in food, as that would benefit ISIS.
In recent months, the man said, he has no longer been able to bring oxygen through any checkpoints and instead needs to use smuggler routes through the mountains. Houthi guards caught him along a smuggler route in November and detained him for half a day, then released him with his cylinders.
Dr. Fares Abd al-Ghani al-Absy, the head of Supreme Medical Committee in Taizz, a body formed with the backing of the Yemeni government by the forces opposing the Houthis in the city, said that before the war, hospitals in the Taizz normally consumed 200 to 250 oxygen cylinders per day. The hospitals used to pay US$7 to $9, but because of the scarcity and the difficulties of the smuggling routes, the price has risen to $60.
Ishraq Maqtari, a local human rights activist, said that to avoid Houthi confiscation of food and medical supplies, smugglers and others would bring supplies in through the mountain route. She said that she and 10 others took a 10-hour trip to Aden on January 4, 2016, including three hours on foot through mountains as high as 2,000 meters to bring back food and oxygen cylinders.
A man working at a pharmaceutical company that supplies pharmacies and hospitals in Taizz said that since May 2015, Houthi guards at checkpoints had prevented his company’s trucks from bringing in any new supplies. Since then his drivers have had to change routes every few months. Currently, he said, the route takes 10 to 12 hours from Aden, including a portion where they need to carry the supplies on foot through the mountains.
Deaths Linked to Oxygen Shortage
Dr. Samah Muhammad Ahmad, head of the neonatal unit at al-Jumhouri Hospital, told Human Rights Watch that in December and January, six premature infants died because the hospital did not have the oxygen or the fuel to run the generator needed to power the incubators. She said that the hospital had no choice but to ask the parents to provide the fuel and oxygen needed. Human Rights Watch obtained the death certificates of four of the infants, the families of the other two had not requested a death certificate to be issued at the time of drafting.
Essam al-Bathra, a 33-year-old resident of Taizz, said that on December 19, his best friend, Abd al-Karim Muhammad, 23, was wounded in al-Rawda neighborhood by a mortar shell fragment that penetrated his chest and damaged his lung. He died 30 minutes after getting to the hospital because, the hospital staff told al-Bathra, they did not have any oxygen.