The war in Yemen has become the biggest humanitarian crisis on the planet. According to UN figures, 23.4 million Yemenis - around 75% of the total population - are in need of emergency assistance. Last year alone, the conflict that began in 2014 left more than 2,500 civilians dead or injured and forced 300,000 citizens to leave their homes to flee the horror of war. In total, since 2015, the number of displaced people has risen to 4.3 million.
Despite efforts by the UN and other international agencies to bring peace to the country and end years of violence, Yemen's war has become entrenched and there is no end in sight to the hostilities.
However, within the current dramatic situation throughout Yemen, there are certain parts of the country where the war is having a greater impact. One of these cities is Taiz, the country's third largest urban centre. The town, located in the southwest of the country, has been resisting a heavy siege by Houthi rebels since 2015.
The citizens of Taiz have been suffering from constant cuts in supplies such as electricity and water for almost seven years. Due to roadblocks, there is a lack of medicine and food, leading civilians to leave the city on foot or on animals such as donkeys to purchase goods elsewhere. But this is no easy task. The citizens of Taiz must carry whatever materials they need on their backs as they make their way through the mountains surrounding the city. The few roads that are still open are in very poor condition and are often the scene of fatal road accidents.
The people of Taiz need international help to put an end to this inhumane siege, which is exacerbating Yemen's humanitarian crisis. To raise awareness and give a voice to journalists and activists in the city, the Yemeni Ministry of Foreign Affairs has organised a virtual conference on the siege, inviting international media to report on one of the greatest humanitarian catastrophes of our time.
Before giving way to the speakers, Italian-Lebanese journalist Talal Khrais showed several current photos of the city showing civilians - including children - but also armed men targeting citizens. "The situation is tragic. The pictures give us an idea of the suffering," says Kharis.
The first to speak was Yemeni photojournalist Ahmed Basha, who recounts the odyssey of leaving the city. "Before the siege, it took only five minutes to leave Taiz, but now it takes more than six hours, the same as it takes to move from one neighbourhood to another," he explains. For this reason, some families have been living apart for seven years, even within the city.
But for Basha and the citizens of Taiz, the biggest concern is the landmines. "The city is full of thousands of landmines," says the Yemeni photojournalist. These easily camouflaged weapons are even found near houses. For this reason, most of those killed by landmines in the country are citizens of Taiz.
The Houthis laid them when they began besieging the city in 2015. But why is Taiz so important to the Iranian-backed rebel group? According to Aeda Hameed, a participant at the conference, the Houthis want to "punish" Taiz because it is a city that is home to different cultures and political views. "The Houthis are very afraid of diversity," she said.
Basha referred to the plurality of Taiz, recalling that the city's resistance was created "because it is ethnically and religiously diverse". "The siege wanted to put pressure on the city and the resistance".
On the other hand, Ahmed Al-Sharabi, another participant, highlighted the political motives of the Houthis behind the siege of Taiz. "The Houthis believe that if people can enter and leave the city freely, they will lose control. In other words, the reopening of the roads means the end of the Houthis' control," says al-Sharabi.
The rebel group began by closing the main roads and disconnecting Taiz from its neighbouring cities. First the east and west were blocked, then the north. In 2016 they allowed citizens to leave, but only on foot or with animals. Today, this is the only way to get basic goods. In the same year, water stopped reaching the city, which, in Basha's words, represents "a crime against Taiz".
Dr Mansoor Alwaziy has described the critical health situation in the city. Hospitals, including cancer centres, have been bombed. After the Houthis fled Taiz, some have been rebuilt, but Alwaziy insists that there is still a lack of medicines and treatment. The doctor also recounted the critical situation during the COVID-19 pandemic, which exacerbated the health situation in Taiz.
The conference was also attended by activists from the city, including lawyer Eshraq Almaqtari, who is also a spokesperson for the Yemeni National Commission for the Investigation of Human Rights Violations (NCIAVHR). Almaqtari has highlighted the plight of the city's hospitals, many of which have been destroyed. She also highlighted the indiscriminate shelling of residential neighbourhoods. She also recalled that Taiz is the point in Yemen with the most landmines, weapons that are even found in agricultural areas, which has led to great economic losses.
Abeer Abdullah, an activist and also a journalist, denounces that they have become a target of the Houthis, along with rescue teams.
Journalist Mohammed Alhoribe has taken it upon himself to narrate the economic picture of the city. According to Alhoribe, the damage is estimated at billions of dollars. The journalist has also remarked that internal fighting ended in 2018, so the current situation is "very stable". "Yemeni government military forces are fully committed to the ceasefire agreement," he stresses.
In early June, the parties to the conflict agreed to a two-month extension of the UN-brokered truce announced in April. As part of this agreement, the Yemeni government has insisted on an end to the blockade of Taiz.
"Opening roads, ensuring freedom of movement for citizens and lifting the siege on cities, especially the city of Taiz, are among the basic issues that the government puts at the forefront of its priorities," said Yemen's Foreign Ministry. However, according to the Yemeni government, the Houthis have not taken this request seriously and continue their brutal siege of the city.
Taiz-based journalist Mohammed Al-Rumim also took part in the symposium and later spoke to Atalayar about the situation in the city.
What are the Taiz authorities doing - or trying to do - to deal with this brutal siege?
A military unit was formed in 2017. The city currently has 7 military brigades registered with the Ministry of Defence and the Yemeni Army. They are defending Taiz but are under-armed.
How did the Houthis manage to isolate the city all these years, and why can't Yemeni forces liberate the city?
The Houthis are not inside the city, but around it. In 2015 they entered, but were driven out after battles with resistance forces and the Yemeni army. Once out of the city, they blocked the main roads connecting the city to Sana'a or Hodeidah, in addition to planting landmines. The Yemeni army is trying to unblock the roads, but they are mined.
Why is this city so important for the Houthis?
Taiz is very important because the 2011 revolution started here, then spread to other regions. Taiz is a cultural city, which supports education, two things the Houthis are against. The Houthis do not believe in democracy, plurality of opinion or human rights.
Do you think the UN or other international organisations will be able to put enough pressure on the Houthis to stop the blockade?
The UN, as well as other institutions, should be supported by Western countries, especially the US, who should increase pressure on the Houthis.
Taiz is one of Yemen's largest cities. The majority of the population has basic education, the citizens are politically engaged, they would like to create a civil country, a civil society, far from weapons, corruption and injustice.