A week in Yemen: interview with Geneva Call’s Director of Operations Hichem Khadhraoui
23 February 2021
Why did you choose Yemen as your first field visit of 2021?
Hichem Khadhraoui: I chose Yemen because it is one of Geneva Call’s priority contexts in terms of material needs and in terms of complexity of the conflict landscape. It is a country where I haven’t been personally since we’ve started the program a year and a half ago and it was a priority for me to be visiting the team there, to see the challenges and the opportunities for Geneva Call.
You visited Taiz and Aden, two war-torn cities in Southern Yemen. Can you describe the humanitarian access landscape in the two cities? Are humanitarian organizations able to provide assistance and protection to people in need?
We had the opportunity to travel around the Southern part of Yemen. Aden is a town where we definitely saw the aftermath of the violent conflict that took place over the recent years as well as the consequences of the various conflicts occurring in the city and around it. We saw destruction of buildings, a lot of armed actors on the ground and moving around, and a sense of growing insecurity. At the same time, we see life starting again, with markets and people trying to live their lives. Clearly, the needs are still huge, especially in terms of protection of civilian populations and the fact that armed actors and the members of armed groups don’t have IHL training – they just took weapons a few years ago without proper training or any knowledge about IHL. This is a top priority for us to ensure that they behave properly and respect civilians. Aden is in a particular situation. A frontline is dividing the town. The road to get there is extremely difficult. The main road is blocked because of the conflict and we had to take roads through the mountains (six hours rides) and it was hard for us, so it is definitely for civilians, for people injured, for people with diseases, I can only imagine the great difficulties that they would have to go to the town or leave the town. So it’s a very difficult situation.
During your visit, the Taiz Axis Force, in charge of the military in Taiz, signed a Unilateral Declaration on the protection of healthcare during Covid. Can you tell me a bit more about this declaration and in particular the role played by Geneva Call?
Yes, it was a great achievement for us. We met with the leadership of the Taiz Axis Force and we were the only NGO that was able to arrive to the town, to speak with members of the Taiz Axis Force and to convince them to commit to the declaration. Basically, it is a tool that Geneva Call uses worldwide, a model declaration on healthcare and its protection, and on the protection of medical personnel, to facilitate the access of medical organizations to people in need and to push armed groups to commit publicly to respect healthcare during conflicts. Our role is to provide these documents, to convince them, to negotiate with them on the importance of committing to it, and when they sign it to accompany them on questions such as how to concretely implement it, facilitate access to medical organizations and allow relief to be provided to medical structures. Our role concerns not only the signature but also the support to the implementation of this declaration.
Now that Covid vaccines are available, what will be the challenges in countries such as Yemen where whole portions of territories are controlled by armed groups?
This is a big challenge that we see in Yemen, but also in other countries where armed groups are controlling territories or are having a strong influence on populations and areas. At Geneva Call, we always want to advocate that we should not forget areas that are not under the control of the government and where vaccines are definitely needed. That is the role of Geneva Call, we want to make sure that we play a role in facilitating the access for these vaccines, trying to convince groups to allow and facilitate the vaccines to be deployed and then used for the population. We have already talked about that with a couple of armed groups in Yemen as well as in other countries and it is definitely something that we would like to pursue this year to make sure that this pandemic is not hitting harder people that are not in areas controlled by the government.
Apart from the Covid situation and vaccines in particular, what do you think will be the most pressing challenges in Yemen in 2021?
There are many challenges; first of all, on the political side there are the peace efforts that are extremely important. We need to have a sustainable peace; we are all looking for that and we hope that the parties to the conflict see it as well and try to find durable solutions. Meanwhile, we need to address current issues. One of the biggest for me is the protection of children; the fact that they should not be recruited by armed groups and that they should be far away from the battlefields. It is something on which we have already engaged the STC, the major armed actor in the South of Yemen. Another issue is the protection of healthcare and the facilitation of better access. It is very important that organizations have facilitated access to provide the needed relief. Another angle that we have identified is the question of psychosocial support, especially for members of armed groups, the very young ones, that fought for many years and are left without any psychosocial form of support when they go back to their families, to their villages or to their towns, which creates problems and violence. To stop this spiral of violence, we need to address the issue of psychosocial support for young members that joined armed groups during the recent years of conflict.
What do you think will be the trends of conflicts in Yemen in 2021, how do you think it will evolve?
What we currently see in Yemen, unfortunately, is the fragmentation of the various actors of the conflict, which is characterized by a variety of armed actors sometimes allying and other times fighting against each other. This fragmentation is a trend that we don’t only see in Yemen but also in other parts of the world. The conflicts are mutating, they are much more complex and it’s something that we have to analyze carefully before we engage with armed actors as they may be completely different one year after the other. We need constant analysis of the conflict settings and of how to adapt our engagement technique and our methodology with the various groups.