SANA’A, YEMEN / CAIRO - Among the poorest of the poor in Yemen are Yemeni blacks, set aside from society in what lingers of an ancient, now-defunct caste system.
After more than six months of bombings, aid workers say Yemeni blacks — who number roughly 20,000 people in the capital alone — have become invisible victims of a war in which they have no side.
“They are streets cleaners, simple people,” said Sheik Majid al-Jamal, 35, a local community leader in the Sawan district in Sana’a. “The ground is their mattress and the sky is their blanket. They work either as street cleaners or collect used plastic bottles, [the] women beg for money.”
Recent airstrikes that have killed Yemeni blacks have not been near military installations or against them for political reasons, he added.
“They never affiliate with political parties," he said. "Their jobs as cleaners are their only political loyalties.”
Traditionally known as the "Akhdam" which translates as "the servants," Yemen's black demographic has been rechristened the “Muhamasheen” — or the “marginalized ones” — by humanitarian groups in recent years. And their community, according to the United Nations children’s agency, is among those hardest hit by Saudi airstrikes in the ongoing civil war.
“UNICEF believes that Muhamasheen communities have been severely impacted by the conflict due to their very poor living conditions and lack of tribal and social support mechanisms,” said Buthaina al-Iryani, the agency’s social policy chief in Yemen, by email.
Many families across Yemen are gathering in traditional villages, trying to avoid the airstrikes and battles in the cities. Muhamasheen families often live in a kind of permanent state of semi-homelessness, however, settling on government lands in makeshift homes made of found material, like blankets and tires.
When an airstrike hits them, they have nowhere to run, and no way to recover.
Al-Jamal lost seven relatives in a July airstrike that killed more than 30 people. Fifty others were wounded and more than 100 families displaced.
“We were hit by a rocket during Ramadan,” said al-Jamal. “I lost my son, my grandmother, my brother, and my cousins.”
“My 10-year-old daughter Kefayah was killed in the last attack, and my house was completely destroyed,” said Abdullah Mohammed, a 29-year-old street cleaner who now lives with six other adults and at least 10 children, sharing three tiny rooms with no running water or electricity.
“I am homeless,” he added.
Al-Jamal and Mohammed's tragedy comes amid a humanitarian crisis in Yemen so overwhelming that aid organizations have called it “catastrophic.”
“Some 4,500 civilians have reportedly been killed or injured by explosive weapons in Yemen during the first seven months of this year,” said U.N. Undersecretary General for Humanitarian Affairs, Stephen O’Brien, in a statement on Thursday. “That is more than in any other country or crisis in the world during the same period.”
Among Yemen’s poorest, the death toll is often higher after an attack because of dangerous living conditions, including lack of sanitation and protection from bad weather. Lack of access to what’s left of Yemen’s decimated health care system also makes recovery more difficult.
Who is to blame
Last week, Amnesty International called for an investigation into potential war crimes in Yemen. They also called on countries to stop transferring weapons to positions where they could be used to target Yemeni civilians.
“The world’s indifference to the suffering of Yemeni civilians in this conflict is shocking,” said Donatella Rovera, an Amnesty International crisis response adviser who led the organization’s fact-finding mission to Yemen.
For families of the Muhamasheen, international indifference is only a small part of the problem. Yemeni blacks complain of a long history of discrimination, blaming Yemen’s old caste system, socio-economic differences and plain racism.
The problem is compounded, says al-Jamal, by social isolation: Yemeni tribal families often reject the idea of arranging marriages with black families.
“They say, ‘this is one of the Akhdam,’” he said. “And our daughter is with the tribe."
Trying to survive
Yemenis have long suffered water or power shortages, but since the war began, Yemeni blacks say they have not had regular access to either. Making only about $100 a month to support large families, street cleaners say a $1 candle to light the home at night is now considered a great luxury.
“We sometimes use the money we have for food to buy a candle,” said Talal Sa’ad, 31, holding back tears. “What can we do? God knows our situation.”
While he says water is now available via a local charity, women and children have to walk roughly a half-kilometer to ferry it back in buckets and jerry cans.
Sa’ad also lost several family members, including his brother, in recent attacks that left survivors homeless.
“This is our house, but it is destroyed,” he said referring to a nearby pile of rubble. “Now we are scattered everywhere."
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