Yemen’s wounded soldiers reduced to begging
They wonder why they are being denied followup care while their exiled leaders live in opulence
As Yemen’s warring factions struggle over possible peace talks, a quieter desperation plays out in the Saudi capital: wounded fighters left to 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 is the legacy of all warfare.
“Somehow there is money to pay for all of this,” said 36-yearold Mohammad Farhan, an injured Yemeni fighter, waving his hands across the marble lobby of the luxury Mövenpick hotel in Riyadh — where the brain trust of Yemen’s ousted government hashes over plans 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 bobbed ahead on a walker.
They paused to take it all in. It was their first time in the Swissrun hotel. In a far corner, Yemeni envoys huddled to discuss the attempts at UN-mediated efforts to end a conflict deeply complicated by regional rivalries.
Saudi Arabia and its Gulf Arab allies view Yemen as a critical stand against rebels who they claim are backed by Iran. Tehran denies that it is providing direct aid to the rebel factions, known as Houthis, but has sharply criticized the Saudi-led airstrikes and ground deployments in Yemen.
Yemen is also home to one of al-Qaida’s most active branches as well as 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 over feeling cast aside.
More than 100 injured Yemeni soldiers and militiamen were able to reach Riyadh for sometimes life-saving hospital care. Once they are discharged, however, help is thin and hard to come by, they say.
A Saudi charity pays the rent for their apartments, but the kingdom’s aid only goes so far. The former fighters now look for castoff clothes from the huge community of Yemeni workers in Saudi Arabia. Free meals come from Yemeni restaurants.
They appeal for Yemen to return them to the military payroll in respect for their injuries.
They keep trying to get the attention of the exile cadres of Yemen’s Saudi-backed president, Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, who fled the country in March as rebel forces swept over his last refuge in Aden. He returned to Aden in September, but his precise whereabouts is kept secret.
Farhan’s stomach and legs were torn open by grenade shrapnel in May while fighting with proHadi militias in the southern city of Taiz. Near death, he was taken to the Saudi border by ambulance in hopes of reaching 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: Felled by automatic fire at a Yemeni army checkpoint. One bullet clipped his spine, leaving him partly paralyzed on his right side and needing to use a walker.
“The bullets are still inside me,” he said. “I’m scared one day that something will happen and won’t be able to walk at all.”
Ahmad al- Rashadi, 26: An architect who joined the militias, hit in the stomach by shrapnel and now in constant pain.
Sayed Taher al-Hadar, 38: Left with nerve damage after being caught in what he believes was a mortar barrage.
The wounded men claimed that they have been denied followup care in Saudi Arabia, such as surgeries to remove embedded fragments or physical therapy. They estimated that there are hundreds of similar cases of Yemeni fighters brought to Saudi Arabia for emergency care and then left without followup.
“We fought with dignity,” said Hadar. “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 the Yemeni exiles in Riyadh don’t have the influence to demand Saudifunded care for its 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.
Last week, the Hadi government and rebels agreed to start peace talks mediated by a UN envoy in Switzerland. A peace bid in June quickly collapsed, and ongoing fighting in Yemen also threatened the latest effort.
Any peace accord, however, must sort out of 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 are unlikely to make major concessions and still hold the Yemeni capital, Sanaa.
The wounded Yemeni men in Riyadh watch it all from the sidelines.
“Our fighting is over. The war for us is done on the battlefield,” said Farhan. “But it isn’t really finished for us, is it? We will deal with these injuries for the rest of our lives.”