RIYADH, Saudi Arabia — As Yemen’s warring factions struggle to negotiate, a quieter desperation plays out in the Saudi capital, where wounded fighters beg for handouts and seek the attention of Yemen’s ousted leaders hosted in five-star exile.
In the context of Yemen’s meltdown, there are far greater hardships than those faced by the scores of former Yemeni soldiers and militiamen who have managed to reach Riyadh. But it offers a small window into a misery that will continue when the Yemen conflict eventually ebbs: the broken lives from the battlefield that are the legacy of all warfare.
“Somehow, there is money to pay for all of this,” said 36-year-old Mohammad Farhan, an injured Yemeni fighter, gesturing toward the marble lobby of the luxury Mövenpick Hotel in Riyadh — where the brain trust of Yemen’s ousted government hashes out plans and considers options amid the latest bid at peace talks.
“But there is none for us?” he asked. “We feel worse than betrayed. We feel abandoned without a voice.”
Moments earlier, Farhan and three other wounded veterans of Yemen’s war had shuffled into the lobby, passing under chandeliers as big as the ambulances that brought them to the Saudi border. Farhan leaned on a cane. Another man bobbed ahead on a walker.
They paused to take it all in. It was their first time in the Swiss-run hotel. In a far corner, Yemeni envoys huddled to discuss the attempts at U.N.-mediated efforts to end a conflict deeply complicated by regional rivalries.
Saudi Arabia and its Arab allies in the Persian Gulf view their military campaign in Yemen as a critical stand against rebels they say are backed by Iran. Tehran denies providing direct aid to the rebels, known as Houthis, but has sharply criticized the Saudi-led airstrikes and ground deployments.
Yemen also is home to one of al-Qaeda’s most active branches and to pockets of militants linked to the Islamic State.
Meanwhile, the wounded men — and other fighters injured in Yemen’s war — live far across Riyadh in a no-frills apartment building as they try to find medical help, rely on free meals and sink deeper into anger because they feel cast aside.
More than 100 injured Yemeni soldiers and militiamen have managed to reach Riyadh for what can be lifesaving hospital care. Once they are discharged, however, help is hard to come by, they say.
A Saudi charity pays the rent for their apartments, but the kingdom’s aid goes only so far. The men look for castoff clothes from Saudi Arabia’s huge community of Yemeni workers and get free meals from Yemeni restaurants.
And the former fighters appeal to Yemen to put them back on the military payroll because of their injuries.
“No one is listening,” Farhan said.
Nonetheless, they keep trying to get the attention of the exiled associates of Yemen’s Saudi-backed president, Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, who fled the country in March as rebel forces swept over Aden, his last refuge. He returned to Aden in September, but his precise whereabouts remain a secret.
Farhan’s stomach and legs were torn open by grenade shrapnel in May while he was fighting with pro-Hadi militias in the southern city of Taiz. Near death, he was taken to the Saudi border by ambulance in hopes that he would be able to receive better medical care. He ended up in surgery at a Riyadh hospital.
“After I was released, I was taken to the apartment building where the other wounded Yemenis live,” he said, fingering his cane. “Since then, I’ve been on my own. It’s the same for the others.”
And they told their stories.
Murad Sinan, 23, was felled by automatic-weapons fire at a Yemeni army checkpoint. One bullet clipped his spine, leaving him partially paralyzed on his right side and requiring him to use a walker.
“The bullets are still inside me,” he said. “I’m scared one day that something will happen and I won’t be able to walk at all.”
Ahmad al-Rashadi, 26, an architect who fought with the militias, was hit in the stomach by shrapnel and lives in constant pain.
Sayed Taher al-Hadar, 38, was left with nerve damage after being caught in what he believes was a mortar barrage.
The wounded men say they have been denied follow-up care in Saudi Arabia, such as surgeries to remove embedded fragments or physical therapy. They estimated that there are hundreds of similar cases — Yemeni fighters brought to Saudi Arabia for emergency care and then left with no follow-up.
“We fought with dignity,” Hadar said. “We just want to live with dignity now and get the help we deserve. I don’t think that is too much to ask.”
Saudi officials did not respond to requests for comment. But a member of the Yemeni political entourage in Riyadh, Mervat Mojali, insisted that the Yemeni exiles in Riyadh don’t have the influence to demand extensive Saudi-funded care for Yemen’s fighters.
“This is a Saudi issue,” she said. “They are the ones to help. These men fought on the Saudi side. They should be treated just like Saudi soldiers.”
The United Nations estimates that more than 3,500 civilians have been killed in Yemen since Saudi-led airstrikes began in late March. Other sources put the toll higher.
There are no clear casualty totals for fighters on either side. Many of the other pro-Hadi forces have been taken to Jordan for treatment.
Peace talks mediated by a U.N. envoy in Switzerland ended Sunday without a breakthrough, but the warring parties agreed to meet again. A peace bid in June quickly collapsed, and ongoing fighting in Yemen also threatened the latest effort.
Any peace accord, however, must address the fate of Hadi and his government, whose restoration to power is a key demand of the Saudis. On the other side, however, the Houthis, who still hold critical sites such as the capital, Sanaa, are unlikely to make major concessions.
In Riyadh, the wounded Yemenis watch from the sidelines.
“Our fighting is over. The war for us is done on the battlefield,” Farhan said. “But it isn’t really finished for us, is it? We will deal with these injuries for the rest of our lives.”
Ali al-Mujahed in Sanaa, Yemen, contributed to this report.