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Three-year Saudi blockade leaves Yemeni fishermen stranded

Fishermen have become increasingly desperate as severe restrictions on sailing cut them off from their livelihoods
Fishermen in al-Hodeidah are struggling to make ends meet under the Saudi blockade (MEE)

HODEIDAH, Yemen ‒ In the port of this coastal city in western Yemen, hundreds of fishing boats, painted in bright blues and intricate patterns, are anchored – many of them docked since 2015.

The paralysed port is yet another reminder of how the Saudi-led offensive in Yemen, which recently marked its three-year anniversary, has taken its toll on the country and its citizens.

When war broke out in March 2015, the Saudi-led coalition imposed a siege on all ports controlled by Houthi rebels.

The coalition has notably targeted fishing boats who stray too far from the coast in Houthi-controlled areas, claiming that fishermen are smuggling weapons to the Houthis.

If a Saudi air strike targets me, the Saudis bear full responsibility for my blood

‒ Hussein, Yemeni fisherman in Hodeidah

The crackdown has had a devastating impact on the livelihoods of thousands of Yemeni fishermen, who are faced with an impossible choice between overwhelming poverty, imprisonment, or even death.

Ali was one of the many fishermen who lost their jobs in 2015 in Hodeidah. The man, in his 40s, had to rely on aid to feed his family of eight, Hussein, Ali's brother, told Middle East Eye.

A Yemeni fisherman sells his catch of the day in al-Hodeidah (MEE)

In May 2017, Ali decided to sail far off Hodeidah's coast, as he used to do before the war, because the waters close to the coast had been nearly depleted of fish.

Ali knew very well that he risked being targeted by Saudi-led air strikes and warships for sailing so far out, but proceeded anyway after having spent two years failing to find another line of work, Hussein said.

"Saudi sailors arrested him with some other fishermen, and took them to a prison in Najran in Saudi Arabia," Hussein said, requesting that his full name not be used to avoid reprisals from either warring party.

Ali's brother stated that he had been lucky to have been detained instead of targeted by an air strike.

"It's true that my brother is in prison, but we are not so sad, because air strikes have killed dozens of our colleagues at sea," Hussein, who is also a fisherman, said.

Dozens killed in strikes

According to the head of the Yemeni Union of Fishermen of the Western Coast, Abdullah Bahaidar, the Saudi-led coalition has arrested more than 80 fishermen from Yemeni territorial waters and targeted more than 20 fishing boats in air strikes, killing dozens since March 2015.

Saudi newspaper Okaz reported in January 2017 that Houthis were forcing Yemeni fishermen in Hodeidah to smuggle weapons. While other newspapers and officials have spoken about fishermen smuggling weapons, the fishermen interviewed by MEE denied these accusations, emphasising that they did not wish to be embroiled in such issues.

"Fishermen are the breadwinners for their families. All of them oppose the war and hate the politics that deprive people of their work," Hussein said. "I hope for any kind of supervision of fishermen that does not prevent them from fishing."

The three-year conflict has left 70 percent of Yemeni fishermen impoverished (MEE)

For Hussein, the risks will not deter fishermen in Houthi-controlled areas from practising their trade.

"Fishermen do not have other work, so they will continue to sail amid air strikes, and there will definitely be more victims among fishermen," he cautioned.

"I cannot bear to see my family suffer while the sea is full of fish," Hussein added. "If a Saudi air strike targets me, the Saudis bear full responsibility for my blood."

Fishermen in Houthi-held areas haven't been the only ones to suffer from stringent Saudi policies.

Fuel is expensive and we have also to pay more taxes than before. Meanwhile, people cannot afford expensive fish, and this is the main reason why fishing has decreased

- Fisherman in Taiz province

In al-Mocha, a southwestern coastal city under control of the Saudi-led forces, fishermen ‒ many of whom were displaced from areas of the Taiz province which became pro-government military zones ‒ were prevented from sailing as the city hosts a military base of the Saudi-led coalition.

Meanwhile, the costs of fishing in Hadhramout and other pro-government areas have doubled due to increased fuel prices, while the Saudi-led coalition has forbidden fishing in some areas, a fisherman from the Hadhramout district told MEE.

"Fuel is expensive and we have also to pay more taxes than before. Meanwhile, people cannot afford expensive fish, and this is the main reason why fishing has decreased," the fisherman said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

'My children go to sleep hungry'

The majority of Yemen's estimated 150,000 fishermen have been forced to cease or decrease their work, the Yemeni Union of Fishermen of the Western Coast stated, plunging 70 percent of them into poverty.

Hussein, the fisherman in Hodeidah, said some fishermen were willing to risk their lives fishing when faced with the alternative: starving to death.

"My brother decided to sail far from the coast because he could not provide his children with food. The suffering forced him to risk his life," he said. "This is not only my brother – most fishermen are suffering, they are destitute people who depend on organisations and philanthropists to help them."

The head of the fisherman's union, Abdullah Bahaider, said that thousands of fishermen had left Hodeidah altogether to move to rural areas, as they could no longer afford to live in the city.

The Saudi coalition prevents us from fishing, forces us to starve to death, and they do not care about our suffering

‒ Akram Husni, Yemeni fisherman

"Most fishermen depend on aid from international and local organisations, including the World Food Programme," Bahaider told MEE.

Mohammed al-Zubairi, the minister of fisheries for the Sanaa-based Houthi government, accused the Saudi-led coalition in a press conference in mid-March of having directly targeted fishermen, their boats, and seaports in the past three years.

Zubairi said the coalition had caused vast financial losses in the fishing sector, adding that the coalition had destroyed 11 fish landing centres in the Red Sea in 2017 alone.

Many fishermen have ceased their trade, leaving their boats docked on Hodeidah's coast, but many struggle to find new lines of work amid the country's economic crisis.

Akram Husni, a fisherman in his 40s, lives in a small house on the outskirts of Hodeidah with his family, including seven children, depending on associations for food donations for survival.

Husni said that he had looked for alternative work, but was struggling to find any, as one of many jobseekers in Hodeida.

"Sometimes I don't have money to buy bread, and my children go to sleep hungry," the fisherman said. "I tried to sell my boat, but no one wants to buy one, in fact, hundreds of fishermen want to sell their boats."

"The Saudi coalition prevents us from fishing, forces us to starve to death, and they do not care about our suffering," Husni, told MEE. "This is no humanitarian behaviour at all... It is a crime when they see us starving to death and do not help."

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