A soldier at the Marib dam in Yemen. During the civil war, cities in Yemen have been heavily damaged or destroyed by Saudi airstrikes or in Houthi shelling, but a building boom is underway in Marib city, a provincial capital. (Kareem Fahim/The Washington Post)

The camp did not feel like a refuge, in a parched patch of nowhere by a bare, black hill. There was nothing in the way of distractions for the displaced people sheltering in tents here, like a playground, a store, a cafe; nothing to prevent thoughts drifting to the war and the dead.

Three years had passed since his father was killed by Yemeni rebels known as the Houthis, but Azzam Shalif seethed at a memory still fresh. They had snatched his father, a teacher, from in front of his house. There had been long and tortured negotiations to reclaim the body. Then there was disbelief when his father, disfigured beyond recognition, was finally brought home.

Now Shalif, who fled and ended up in the camp in a government-controlled area, referred to the parts of Yemen dominated by the Houthis as “enemy” — a classification that included his home town and even his own relatives who had joined the rebels. “The enemy doesn’t understand the word dialogue,” he said when asked how the war might end.

“We have an enemy that doesn’t want any solution,” he said. 

Such resentments have pooled in Marib, a pocket of relative, if uneasy, stability that has received tens of thousands of people fleeing battlefields across Yemen during more than three years of civil conflict. 

The war has been defined by the terrible violence that the combatants have inflicted on civilians and by a humanitarian crisis called the most severe in the world. It has dark shades of a proxy struggle between Saudi Arabia and Iran, and has caused rising consternation in foreign capitals, including Washington, where a group of lawmakers last week condemned the Trump administration’s involvement in a ruinous conflict by providing military and intelligence assistance to the Saudi-led coalition fighting the Houthis.

The strains on Yemeni society have been less apparent — the divisions and antipathies that will make it difficult for people to live together again even if the armies stop.   

A trip to Marib for journalists this month was organized by the Saudi military, which hoped to showcase what the Saudi government says are its effort to provide aid and financial assistance to Yemen. The trip was also intended to blunt a resilient criticism: that the Saudi-led military coalition backing Yemen’s government bears much of the responsibility for the humanitarian disaster because of its imposition of an air, sea and land blockade.

Yemen’s cities have been scarred or destroyed by Saudi airstrikes or Houthi shelling. But a building boom is underway in Marib city, the capital of Marib province, and there is regular electricity and plenty of fuel. Restaurants have opened and classes are full at the local university. A well-stocked hospital is one of the few able to operate normally in the entire country. 

Abd-Rabbo Moftah, the deputy governor, said Marib had “benefited” as Yemenis, including business executives, had flocked to the city and invested there. Others who were displaced found jobs in construction. Together, “they feel they are part of the city,” he said.

But the calm could be deceptive.

Rockets still fall on the city, fired from static front lines a few dozen miles away. A rebel ambush recently destroyed a truck traveling on the highway on the city’s outskirts. The pressures weighing on Marib’s new arrivals were unmistakable: the wrenching separation from families and homes and the hardening animus toward fellow Yemenis who happened to be on the other side of the conflict. 


Soldiers stand guard near the Marib dam. The central province of Marib, rich in oil, is largely under the control of government forces and defended by their main military backers, a Saudi-led coalition that has several bases here. (Kareem Fahim/The Washington Post)

Omran Ammar, a soldier at a front-line position overlooking rebel-held territory, said he had been at the same post for about two years, since he was 18 years old. (Kareem Fahim/The Washington Post)

A view of the Marib dam. Marib province has taken in tens of thousands of displaced Yemenis, who have brought it new prosperity but also a wealth of resentments. (Kareem Fahim/The Washington Post)

Omran Ammar, a baby-faced soldier guarding a front-line position on a mountaintop overlooking rebel-held territory, said he had been at the same post for about two years, since he was 18 years old. A few times since the war began, he had managed to travel home, across the front lines into rebel territory. But he was happiest at the front, he said, while offering to show reporters decaying corpses of rebel fighters. 

He had come from a family of farmers, but now all fought on the government’s side. His duty, as Ammar saw it, was “defending my religion, my honor,” from the rebels. To that end, “I would kill anyone,” he said. “Even my own brother.” 

Badr Sharif, 30, stood nearby as the soldier spoke. “We feel sorry. We don’t want to be in this situation. But what can you do?” he said. Sharif, who was studying oil and gas management overseas before the war, now accompanied his brother, a Yemeni official, on his regular visits to the front line. 

In the distance was Sanaa, the capital, controlled by the Houthis — a military objective for these soldiers that raised the specter of another sacked Yemeni city. “We don’t want to crush Sanaa,” Sharif said. “Many people are suffering.” 

In Marib, there were frequent expressions of gratitude to the Saudi government, which has long been a financial benefactor to the province and its tribes. “They are the only people that helped us,” said Ahmed al-
Dhibaa, a member of an Islamist party that was fiercely opposed to the Houthis, who sat in a bare tent in a Saudi-financed camp. 

There were appeals for unity, too, but they were more fleeting. “We are all Yemenis,” people were fond of saying, before insisting that the rebels were “animals” who regarded their enemies as terrorists.  


Lt. Gen. Mohammed al-Miqdashi, right, the acting defense minister for Yemen’s exiled government, speaks to reporters with Saudi military officers present. Yemen’s military, which is backed by air power from a Saudi-led coalition, has not been able to dislodge the Houthis from areas they control, including Sanaa, the capital. (Kareem Fahim/The Washington Post)

Many have concluded that a division of Yemen, perhaps into federal states, is inevitable, even preferable, to resolve its competing grievances. In southern Yemen, there are renewed calls for secession from northern rulers accused of decades of repression and neglect. North and South Yemen were separate states until 1990, and four years later, they fought a brief civil war.

But even formal division requires some sort of national agreement. And over the past three years, a lengthening tally of perceived wrongs had made such agreement more elusive than
ever before.

The greatest fear is that religious sectarianism between Sunni and Shiite Muslims — the kind of acrimony that has ravaged Iraq — could take hold in Yemen, where such divisions are largely unfamiliar, and that the sectarian nature of the conflict between Saudi Arabia and Iran could rub off. The Sunni leaders of Saudi Arabia have backed Yemen’s Sunni government forces, while the Shiite government of Iran has backed the Houthis, a Zaydi Shiite group.

The worries accumulate with each assassination, airstrike, car-bomb explosion or kidnapping. Near the front line on the road to Sanaa, someone had painted “No to sectarianism” on the side of a mountain, in what seemed like a warning to soldiers consumed by the most vicious of fights.

“When this fighting takes on religious aspects, it cannot be solved,” said Mohamed el-Sabry, a professor of English at the local university who is originally from Taiz in western Yemen. 

Lately, he had encouraged his students to talk about the conflict. “They are worried about their relatives. . . . They are worried about home,” he said. He also taught George Orwell’s “Animal Farm,” which seemed to resonate among pupils fed up with the failures of Yemen’s politicians, many of whom reside comfortably in villas overseas. “This party says they are fighting for us, then that party says they are fighting for us,” he said. 

Some of his despairing students have given up hope. “They replaced our dreams, and everything is destroyed,” said Mohammed Mohsin, 24.

“Nothing is as it was,” he said. “There was no advantage to this war.”