Khokha (Yemen) (AFP) – Trenches, military tanks and civilians fleeing by the busload: Yemen’s Hodeida, once a bustling port city, is now bracing for battles in its streets.
Ahmed is one of 600,000 Yemenis who now fear war at their very doorsteps, as a fight for control of the Red Sea region rages between government forces, backed by regional titan Saudi Arabia, and Yemen’s Huthi rebels.
For days, Ahmed has been holed up in his living room, certain every night that the fighting would stop by morning.
But after the UN’s top envoy for Yemen flew out of the capital Tuesday without announcing a breakthrough in mediation, hope is dwindling for Ahmed.
He, too, says he now plans to flee the only home he has ever known.
“The sounds of the violence have literally not stopped,” Ahmed told AFP by phone from his home near Hodeida’s international airport.
“There are families who have been trying to escape, but they just can’t.”
More than 32,000 people have been driven out of their homes across Hodeida province this month, according to the UN, as fears mount of an even worse humanitarian crisis in a country already hit by war, hunger and disease.
The Saudi-led coalition launched an offensive last Wednesday, dubbed Operation Golden Victory, to push Yemen’s Iran-backed rebels out of Hodeida, which the insurgents have controlled since 2014.
The Hodeida airport was the site of intense battles Tuesday between the rebels and the army backed by the United Arab Emirates, which has US-trained troops fighting alongside the Yemeni military.
The UAE on Tuesday announced the government coalition had entered the airport in Hodeida — a Red Sea port city that is a key aid hub and the entry point for three-quarters of Yemen’s imports.
Ahmed, meanwhile, said Tuesday marked “the most violent” day of his life.
– ‘Paralysed city’ –
Rebel-held Hodeida is the latest battlefront in a three-year war that has seen Yemen, long the most impoverished Arab country, pushed to the brink of famine.
In 2014, the Huthi rebels seized control of the capital, Sanaa, along with much of northern Yemen and ports along the country’s western coast.
Saudi Arabia and its allies intervened in the Yemeni government’s war with the Huthis the following year. Nearly 10,000 people have since been killed.
That war is now hovering over Hodeida, home to 600,000 civilians.
Many of them, like Ahmed, had been banking on UN efforts to take control of the port, through which nearly three quarters of Yemen’s imports — including much-needed aid — flow.
But those efforts failed this week, with both the coalition and rebels refusing to stand down as air raids continue to target key locations around the area.
One resident, who asked not to be identified for fear of arrest, said civilians had been “banned from using their phones to take pictures and are questioned about their movements if they’re seen in the streets”.
“The rebels have also begun to dig trenches in the streets,” he said.
“The city is nearly paralysed.”
Mohammed, a student who lives in central Hodeida, said a stream of buses and vans had been carrying panicked families from their homes to areas of relative safety over the past few days.
“It’s been non-stop fleeing,” he told AFP.
Readying to board a bus headed for Sanaa, one family placed a propane gas cannister, basic food items and a small suitcase for the driver to load into the vehicle.
The United Nations has warned that an attack on the port itself could cripple shipments of desperately needed aid to the 8.4 million Yemenis facing imminent starvation.
The International Committee of the Red Cross has said thousands of residents will continue to flee Hodeida in the coming days.
The ICRC, along with other aid groups, has been forced to suspend many of its operations in western Yemen, leaving civilians across the country at risk.