In the first active line of Yemen’s long civil war, the months-long battle for the city of Marib has become a dragging mill with a steady stream of dead and wounded on both sides.
Houthi rebels have been trying since February to take the city, but have been defended from strong airstrikes by Saudi Arabia. Yemeni government troops defending Marib say they need more and better weapons to change the tide.
Amid another round of peace talks, this time led by Oman, officials and observers believe the final winners in Marib will dictate terms for peace.
Marib – 115km (70 miles) east of the capital Sanaa on the shores of Yemen’s great desert – is a strategic gateway from the central highlands to the southern and eastern provinces.
It is also home to oil and gas fields where international companies – including Exxon Mobil Corp and Total SA – have interests. Its natural gas bottling plant produces cooking gas for the nation of 29 million people. Its plant once supplied 40 percent of Yemen’s electricity.
Its relative stability in recent years has made it a paradise for those fleeing other fronts of the war. The area, which had a pre-war population of 400,000, now hosts about 2.2 million displaced, many of them crowded into camps.
The streets of the city are animated during the day with taxis and 4 × 4 vehicles belonging to the security forces. At night, men frequent restaurants and cafes or gather in houses, chewing qat leaves for a stimulating effect. There is little attention paid to the fighting just outside his city.
“Martyrs in war”
But the posters of fallen commanders and troops lining the roads serve as a reminder. The city’s cemetery has been enlarged to absorb the growth of victims.
“We bury between 10 and 15 people every day, especially martyrs at war,” said Mohammed Saeed Nasser, guard of the cemetery.
Marib’s main hospital has been overwhelmed by dozens of wounded fighters for days on end, said its director, Dr Mohamed Abdo al-Qubati.
In an intensive care unit, there were 10 patients. In one of the beds, Ali Saad, 22, was partially paralyzed. On June 18 he was shot by a Houthi gunman in the front line.
“I suffered a lot in captivity, I was tortured physically and mentally,” he said. “This gave us a vision of what the Houthis really were. We came out with a stronger and indescribable will to fight them.”