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On the ground in Yemen, a look at how the 9-year war there could be winding down

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

We're going to take a rare look inside Yemen, where there are signs that a nine-year war could be winding down. The country, though, has been through a lot. The U.N. says nearly 6 million people have been displaced and over 200,000 have died from malnutrition or lack of health care, conditions that continue very much today. To remind you of where it all started, in late 2014, militants backed by Iran rose up and eventually ousted the government. Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates sent planes and troops with equipment and intel from the U.S. that greatly intensified the fighting and suffering. NPR's Fatma Tanis is there now and joins us from Taiz. Hi, Fatma.

FATMA TANIS, BYLINE: Hi, Ailsa.

CHANG: So let's just start there where you are, in Taiz. Can you tell us a little bit about the city and how it reflects so much of what's happened in this war?

TANIS: Right. So Taiz is a frontline city. It's divided in half. Most of it is controlled by the Houthis, the militant group that took over the capital of Yemen and other key cities several years ago. A physical wall separates the Houthi-controlled part from the areas that are controlled by the Saudi-backed, internationally recognized Yemeni government. So entire neighborhoods and families have been living divided for years here.

And this city has seen some of the worst of the war. You can see it as you go around - reminders of those dark days. Saudi airstrikes destroyed some of the historical heritage here and killed many civilians. And the Houthis put mines in a lot of places that, even recently, are hurting people, especially children. But in the last month or so, the fighting has quieted down pretty much as the peace talks are ongoing. But it's not set in stone yet. So people are still on the edge as they think it could flare up again any time.

CHANG: You mentioned that families have been living divided there for years. What is life like in a divided city? I mean, what have you heard from people?

TANIS: Right. So I spoke with one young woman, 20-year-old college student Sahar Rageh. She summed it up, saying that life in Taiz is pretty bad right now.

SAHAR RAGEH: (Non-English language spoken).

TANIS: She says the division has created all kinds of problems, like the economy, water and electricity services are bad, the security is bad here. The education level, she says, has gone down for schools and universities. And even 15-minute distances now take at least six hours by car because of the road blockades and checkpoints. That has really slowed life down a lot and made basic needs much more expensive. Now, for Sahar, the war has also defined her life and her goals. Here she is again.

RAGEH: (Non-English language spoken).

TANIS: She's studying biomedical engineering in college because she wants to help the many children who lost limbs here in Taiz due to the mines. She spoke passionately about her country and its potential and really wants to be part of the healing.

CHANG: Wow. Well, I understand that you've also met some of the youngest victims of the war there. You went to a hospital in the southern city of Aden. What did you see there?

TANIS: Well, the lack of access to food and extreme poverty definitely reflects itself in the hospitals here. I visited a malnutrition center where doctors are still seeing high levels of emaciated babies and children. I spoke to one mother who lives in a camp for displaced people in Aden. She said that even though her husband works, they struggle to feed their children more than one meal a day and often have to distract them from their hunger by putting them to sleep. She was at the hospital after her 1, 1/2-year-old daughter nearly died from malnutrition. The baby had been receiving treatments for 10 days and was doing much better, but still had a long way to go. You know, she was unable to react as her mother tried to engage her with toys. And unfortunately, many families in Yemen continue to struggle to find food.

CHANG: Well, if we can step back, if you can just remind us, like, who are the people fighting in this war, and where exactly does this war stand at this point?

TANIS: Well, it's basically a stalemate now between two sides. The Iran-backed Houthis overthrew the Saudi-backed Yemeni government nearly a decade ago. The U.S. supported the Saudis for a while with weapons and intelligence but took a step back because of the high civilian deaths caused by Saudi airstrikes. Now, in the past year, there's been a period of ceasefire and peace talks, so there's been generally a lull in the fighting. I'll also note that there's still al-Qaeda here in Yemen, and that's something the U.S. watches closely.

CHANG: So then how much hope is there that there will be an actual end to this war?

TANIS: Well, there are signs of progress. You know, Iran and Saudi Arabia mended their ties, and Saudi delegations have been in the Houthi-controlled capital, Sanaa. Both parties have said that they are serious about the talks. But what I'm hearing from Yemenis is that they don't trust that it will last. And for those who dreamt of democracy in Yemen, it feels further away than ever. One of those people is Basmal Ali. He manages a seaside cafe in Aden. He lived in Louisiana for a while before moving back to Yemen to take care of his parents. And here's what he said.

BASMAL ALI: Yemen is important to the U.S.A. I'm afraid that it will lose its situation in Yemen because it's not given Yemen any attention.

TANIS: He's saying that he's especially concerned about what he sees as lack of American interest in Yemen. And he says that if that continues, things could get worse, even if the war ends.

CHANG: That is NPR's Fatma Tanis in Yemen. Thank you so much, Fatma.

TANIS: Thank you, Ailsa. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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