Disappointment can wait

The world outside had collapsed into a spontaneous street party. Cars were hooting, people were yell

It was Pennsylvania when things started to get crazy.

We were in a bar somewhere on Capitol Hill, where a crowd of young Washingtonites were huddled round a television. And whenever the networks called a state for Obama, they started cheering, even when it was such a solidly blue state as Massachussets or Vermont. (Logic dictates there must be plenty of Republicans in this town somewhere, but I didn't seem many of them last night.)

But it was when they called Pennsylvania that things really took off. This was the state McCain had bet everything on, this was one he couldn't afford to lose - and within mere minutes of the polls closing, there it was, standing safely behind Barack Obama.

But still people didn't allow themselves to believe. By 9pm I was telling anyone who was foolish enough to come within three feet of me that this thing was over, that Obama would win and win big, but my American friend was having none of it. "He might just scrape past 270," he shrugged. But that was it.

When we got in a cab across town, the first words spoken by the Pakistani driver - I'm pretty sure he hadn't even asked us where we were going - were, "Is he winning?" He switched on the radio, where we heard that Fox were calling Ohio for Obama. "Ah, that is good," he said. "But he still needs Florida, I think."

By the time we found another television, somewhere on U Street, Obama had 204 in the electoral college, and the polls had yet to close on the west coast. That, best I could tell, made President Obama an inevitability.

But no-one was saying it. There were painful memories of 2004, and no-one wanted to jinx a possible victory.

So when, at 11pm, the magic words appeared on the screen, the place exploded. People were screaming, hugging, high fiving strangers. One of two girls at the back of the bar who looked like they hadn't noticed it was election day asked the room what had just happened, and received a unanimous cry of, "He won!". They looked bored. Maybe they were the ones who voted for McCain.

Meanwhile the world outside had collapsed into a spontaneous street party. Cars were hooting, people were yelling, and the crowd was spilling into the road. At the corner of 14th and U hundreds were dancing alongside four guys with steel drums. About a dozen had climbed onto a bus shelter that, contrary to popular expectations, didn't collapse. One guy was sitting on a traffic light. Another was in a tree.

And the police let it all happen. I'm pretty sure some of them even joined in the hooting.

In the middle of the dancing there was one guy in a suit, looking staid and calm and, frankly, lost. My American friend suggested we stick a McCain badge on his back, just to see what happened. But no-one wanted that on their conscience.

It was after the victory speech that everyone decided to march on the White House. Its staff had cleverly arranged to have some building work going on, so we could only get so close, but that didn't stop thousands of people from showing up with the express intention of making as much noise as they possibly could. "Let's wake the old guy up!" someone was yelling.

Two guys with a cardboard cut out of the President Elect found themselves besieged by people wanting to pose with it for a photograph. Another guy - and I make no claim to understand this - was running around in his underwear, looking for all the world like he'd just forgotten to get dressed for his midnight jog.

"You Brits do realise this isn't going to change US foreign policy even one little bit?" said my American friend, never to one to accept victory without declaring a defeat.

But it didn't matter. The inevitable disappointment could wait. America had voted for President Obama, and that was all we needed to know.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric. He is on Twitter, far too much, as @JonnElledge.

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The conflict in Yemen is a civil war by numbers

Amid the battles, a generation starves.

Ten thousand dead – a conservative estimate at best. Three million internally displaced. Twenty million in need of aid. Two hundred thousand besieged for over a year. Thirty-four ballistic missiles fired into Saudi Arabia. More than 140 mourners killed in a double-tap strike on a funeral. These are just some of the numerical subscripts of the war in Yemen.

The British government would probably prefer to draw attention to the money being spent on aid in Yemen – £37m extra, according to figures released by the Department for International Development in September – rather than the £3.3bn worth of arms that the UK licensed for sale to Saudi Arabia in the first year of the kingdom’s bombing campaign against one of the poorest nations in the Middle East.

Yet, on the ground, the numbers are meaningless. What they do not show is how the conflict is tearing Yemeni society apart. Nor do they account for the deaths from disease and starvation caused by the hindering of food imports and medical supplies – siege tactics used by both sides – and for the appropriation of aid for financial gain.

Since the war began in March 2015 I have travelled more than 2,500 miles across Yemen, criss-crossing the front lines in and out of territories controlled by Houthi rebels, or by their opponents, the Saudi-backed resistance forces, or through vast stretches of land held by al-Qaeda. On those journeys, what struck me most was the deepening resentment expressed by so many people towards their fellow Yemenis.

The object of that loathing can change in the space of a few hundred metres. The soundtrack to this hatred emanates from smartphones resting on rusting oil drums, protruding from the breast pockets of military fatigues, or lying on chairs under makeshift awnings where flags denote the beginning of the dead ground of no-man’s-land. The rabble-rousing propaganda songs preach to the watchful gunmen about a feeble and irreligious enemy backed by foreign powers. Down the road, an almost identical scene awaits, only the flag is different and the song, though echoing the same sentiment, chants of an opponent altogether different from the one decried barely out of earshot in the dust behind you.

“We hate them. They hate us. We kill each other. Who wins?” mused a fellow passenger on one of my trips as he pressed green leaves of the mildly narcotic khat plant into his mouth.

Mohammed was a friend of a friend who helped to smuggle me – dressed in the all-black, face-covering garb of a Yemeni woman – across front lines into the besieged enclave of Taiz. “We lose everything,” he said. “They win. They always win.” He gesticulated as he spoke of these invisible yet omnipresent powers: Yemen’s political elite and the foreign states entangled in his country’s conflict.

This promotion of hatred, creating what are likely to be irreversible divisions, is necessary for the war’s belligerents in order to incite tens of thousands to fight. It is essential to perpetuate the cycle of revenge unleashed by the territorial advances in 2014 and 2015 by Houthi rebels and the forces of their patron, the former president Ali Abdullah Saleh. This demand for retribution is matched by those who are now seeking vengeance for the lives lost in a UK-supported, Saudi-led aerial bombing campaign.

More than 25 years after the two states of North and South Yemen united, the gulf between them has never been wider. The political south, now controlled by forces aligned with the Saudi-led coalition, is logistically as well as politically severed from the north-western territories under the command of the Houthi rebels and Saleh loyalists. Caught in the middle is the city of Taiz, which is steadily being reduced to rubble after a year-long siege imposed by the Houthi-Saleh forces.

Revenge nourishes the violence, but it cannot feed those who are dying from malnutrition. Blowing in the sandy wind on roadsides up and down the country are tattered tents that hundreds of thousands of displaced families now call home. Others have fled from the cities and towns affected by the conflict to remote but safer village areas. There, food and medical care are scarce.

The acute child malnutrition reported in urban hospitals remains largely hidden in these isolated villages, far from tarmac roads, beyond the reach of international aid agencies. On my road trips across Yemen, a journey that would normally take 45 minutes on asphalt could take five hours on tracks across scrubland and rock, climbing mountainsides and descending into valleys where bridges stand useless, snapped in half by air strikes.

Among the other statistics are the missing millions needed by the state – the country’s largest employer. Workers haven’t been paid in months, amid fears of an economic collapse. This is apparently a deliberate tactic of fiscal strangulation by the Saudi-backed Yemeni government-in-exile. The recent relocation of the central bank from the Houthi-controlled capital, Sana’a, to the southern city of Aden is so far proving symbolic, given that the institution remains devoid of funds. The workforce on both sides of the conflict has taken to the streets to protest against salaries being overdue.

Following the deaths of more than 140 people in Saudi-led air strikes on a funeral hall on 8 October, Saleh and the Houthi leader, Abdulmalik al-Houthi, called for yet more revenge. Within hours, ballistic missiles were fired from within Houthi territory, reaching up to 350 miles into Saudi Arabia.

Meanwhile, in the Red Sea, Houthi missile attacks on US warships resulted in retaliation, sucking the US further into the mire. Hours later, Iran announced its intention to deploy naval vessels in the area.

Vengeance continues to drive the violence in Yemen, which is being drawn ever closer to proxy conflicts being fought elsewhere in the Middle East. Yet the impact on Yemeni society and the consequences for the population’s health for generations to come are unlikely to appear to the outside world, not even as annotated numbers in the brief glimpses we get of this war. 

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood