The latest flashpoint in Yemen's long civil war is the port city of Hodeidah. Aid groups have sent up warnings, trying to prevent a humanitarian disaster.
The war, now in its third year, has forced people in the Arab world’s poorest country to go without food, fuel and medical supplies. Conditions could get much worse for them if warring sides make good on threats of an all-out battle for Yemen’s main port in Hodeidah.
”Any attack on the city of Hodeidah would have major consequences on the flow of imports," says Rasha Mohamed of Amnesty International. Yemenis must import 90 percent of their food, and nearly all of it enters through the Red Sea city's big cargo handling port. The problem is, not enough food is actually reaching Yemenis, according to United Nations sources.
Bombed-out roads and bridges slow aid trucks, and government tinkering with the banking system has made it difficult for Yemeni importers to borrow money to keep food on store shelves.
”They are talking about only three months of food left,” says Mohamed, who is the Yemen researcher for Amnesty's Middle East and North Africa program.
In recent weeks aid groups such as Doctors Without Borders and Oxfam have gone public with their concerns about disruption at the port. “We are being pre-emptive and we're warning: We've seen a pattern. We don't like what we've seen," says Mohamed.
Rebel forces led by Abdulmalek al-Houthi and longtime Yemeni dictator Ali Abdullah Saleh seized Hodeidah in October 2014 after they took control of the Yemeni capital, Sanaa. Since then, it has been the entry point for most commercial shipments of food and fuel, plus humanitarian aid, serving the northern half of the country.
The exiled president of Yemen, Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi, has pledged to "liberate" the port from rebel control. Ground troops loyal to Hadi began assembling north and south of the city in early April. The rebel government responded by recruiting fighters from outside the region to assist in defense of Hodeidah, also known as Al Hudaydah.
Potential for US involvement in the fight was revealed in March, when US officials leaked a plan by the United Arab Emirates to drive the Houthi rebels from Hodeidah with US help.
Amnesty International investigated coalition air strikes in the northern Yemeni region of Saada in 2015 where civilians were given scant warning of an air assault that battered not only military sites, but residential homes, markets and hospitals. Civilians casualties, says Amnesty's Mohamed, could have been prevented with proper notification to give time for residents to flee.
"We were there when it happened on the ground [in Saada]," she says, "so the idea is if you're thinking about doing this to Hodeidah, please keep in mind there's a half a million people living there, and people should have effective warning, civilians in specific, so they can have safe passage to get out.
In recent days, Yemenis have posted pictures on Twitter of flyers warning of the invasion in Hodeidah.
The flyer invites residents to "Join our legitimate forces for the stability of Yemen and its people.”
The mere threat of war at the port has been enough to drive shipping companies to steer clear of Hodeidah.
“We haven't been able to use the port of Hodeidah basically since early February, and that's linked to insecurity around the port,” says Trevor Keck of the International Committee for the Red Cross, which has recently doubled its committment to bring needed food and medical assistance to Yemenis. “There's this looming concern about a new offensive. And so the [shipping] company that we worked with simply stopped going."
Keck, who is deputy head of communications for the ICRC in Washington, DC, says many international companies have stopped using Hodeidah altogether, causing a major problem for international aid agencies that use that port. "Many of the stocks are running critically low,” he confirms.
Keck says the ICRC has rerouted its aid shipments to Aden, the major port in Yemen's south. But Aden is much farther from the Yemeni capital, which slows deliveries. “There could be as many as a hundred checkpoints from the various armed actors in Yemen. It involves crossing multiple front lines.”
In April hundreds of activists marched from the rebel-held capital, Sanaa, to Hodeidah, tracing the aid supply route that has already been disrupted at the port.
Widespread alarm over the potential for fighting at Hodeidah may have caused at least one of the warring parties to take a step back from confrontation. Former US Ambassador to Yemen Gerald Feierstein told Al-Monitor that Saudi Arabia is considering a political solution, a diplomatic turn that most aid groups would welcome.
There is, however, no guarantee that the Houthi forces would retreat from Hodeidah without a battle.