Hind Aleryani is an award-winning Yemeni journalist and women’s rights activist.
Anyone would expect that people who are fighting on opposing sides in a war would not be laughing and shaking hands during official consultations. But when it comes to Yemeni peace talks — well, our way is different. You could see people from the warring parties at last week’s talks in Rimbo, Sweden, laughing with one another, shaking hands and smiling. You wouldn’t think that anything was wrong between them.
The ambassador of a country that plays a major role in the Yemen war once told me, “I’m constantly amazed by the sight of a Yemeni national who is shaking the hands of a person who blew his house up. It’s extremely difficult for me to imagine myself forgiving the people who have killed my country’s soldiers.”
Yes, it’s quite a baffling thing, but I’ll explain.
This round of negotiations started off much more positively compared with past attempts. Before previous negotiations, media campaigns on both sides fueled the idea of war and the need for it to continue. This time, the anti-peace media campaign wasn’t as strong, and there were concessions made by the parties loyal to the legitimate government of Yemen recognized by the United Nations.
For example, previously, the Houthis demanded that their soldiers be allowed to leave the country to receive treatment in Oman, a request that was completely out of the question in the last round of negotiations. This time, Houthis were allowed to send their injured soldiers abroad. These concessions indicate the presence of a great deal of pressure from the United States and the international community on Saudi Arabia — pressure that increased following the death of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. After a long period of neglect, the world is now talking about the famine in Yemen and the disastrous humanitarian situation, and some countries have decided to suspend arms sales to Saudi Arabia. The U.S. Senate has also signaled it wants to end U.S. support for the war.
The outcome of the negotiations was a cease-fire in Hodeida, which is a positive sign, even though the two sides have not signed the agreement yet. There was an agreement to conduct further negotiations next month, another promising sign.
We saw representatives of the two sides shaking hands in front of our very own eyes in Rimbo, and it was a touching moment for many in attendance in the halls, including me. Yet I realize it’s not proof that the war and bloodshed will stop. Yemenis shake hands, then fight.
There’s chatter about the necessity of dialogue between the two foreign powers responsible for the war in Yemen — Iran and Saudi Arabia. As Saudi Arabia keeps repeating that Iran supports the Houthis who were responsible for the coup, and, in turn, the war, there should there be direct talks between Iran and Saudi Arabia. Why should children in a school bus or people celebrating a wedding suffer as a result of these two countries refusing to meet?
Many activists and journalists who may disagree with my reasoning fear that achieving peace right now stands to expand the influence of the Houthis and strengthen their grip on Yemen. They claim that a group with a religious background and ambitions will control the situation in Yemen, which will mean no democracy or personal freedoms. They say that Houthis are currently carrying out many violations that go against the principles of justice, freedom, equality and everything we’re calling and wishing for in Yemen.
I agree that the Houthis do not represent the civil state I dream about, but does the solution lie in the perpetuation of war? Will war truly weaken the Houthis or other warring factions in Yemen? Will there be a winner? The answer to both is no. The way I see it, the longer the war, the more powerful the ideological groups become and the more complicated the situation becomes in Yemen. The collapse of institutions might need decades to restore; think of education and beautiful societal values that wither away every day due to war.
Saudi Arabia has the power to stop the war in Yemen. On the Houthis' end, they must prove they desire peace and participation with others, as one of their leaders said in a Post essay. They must also prove their good intentions by beginning to apply what has been agreed upon in Sweden.
Major countries that are exercising their influence in Yemen using money, weapons and authority must have genuine intentions to stop this tragedy unfolding before us, for history will not be merciful to them. The true tragedy befalling the powerless Yemeni people is that they are made to fight their enemies in the war by day and, then at night, their neighbors for the scraps they need to survive because they are destitute. They blow up their nemesis’ houses, before meeting them and shaking their hands.
Stop the war, because Yemen can’t wait.