TAIZ, 10 June 2015 (IRIN) – Nawar al-Kaboudi is one of the few civilians who dares to hang about for long on the streets of Taiz nowadays. Standing under the scorching midday sun, the 42-year-old sells ice to people so hot and desperate they often end up drinking it.
In late March, pro-Iranian Houthi rebels seized large parts of Taiz, Yemen’s third city, which lies 250 kilometres south of the capital Sana’a, en route to the strategically located southern port of Aden.
Forces loyal to deposed president Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi put up fierce resistance and months of street battles began. Saudi Arabian-led airstrikes began pounding Houthi positions mid-April while ongoing battles rage on the ground between the rebels and pro-Hadi forces.
As the fighting spread throughout the city, tens of thousands of residents fled to the nearby countryside, some of the more than one million Yemenis displaced across the country.
Taiz has witnessed some of the most intense fighting in Yemen’s three-month conflict and still sees regular clashes and civilian fatalities. It had a pre-war population of more than 600,000, but no one knows how many remain.
Where is everyone?
Gaining rare access, IRIN found a ghost town. Schools and the city’s university remained shut. Those who did venture from their homes only did so to stock up on essential goods.
The streets were largely deserted. Deserted that is, except for men like Kaboudi.
Before the war, he ran a successful shop – making nearly $20 a day, a decent salary in Yemen. But that shop is located in al-Masbah, an area of Taiz that is now a major battle zone.
Kaboudi only makes half his old wage selling ice, but, as he points out, “this is better than nothing.”
“I have no experience selling ice, but I have a wife and four daughters [so I have to] eke out an existence. I couldn’t get any work, so finally I decided to sell ice, as people have become in critical need of it in the hot weather,” he told IRIN.
Lack of basic services
Keeping cool in Taiz in sweltering conditions is a challenge. The temperature has risen to 37 degrees in recent days and much of the city has no electricity.
There is also a chronic shortage of fuel – caused in large part by a Saudi-Arabian-led naval blockade. This, in turn, has led to desperate water shortages as the diesel-fuelled pumps lie idle.
Cases of dengue, diarrhoea and other water-related diseases have spiked, while across the country, malnutrition cases have increased by 150 percent as prices of wheat and other staples have doubled.
Every morning, Kaboudi leaves his house with his ice container and walks to al-Tahrir street in the centre of Taiz. There, he stands in a queue waiting for men with trucks selling large slabs of ice.
Using a knife, he breaks the ice down into smaller chunks, which he can sell on to customers on the street for a small profit. Kaboudi charges YR100 ($0.5) for one piece or YR300 ($1.5) for a small bag.
“[Some of] this ice is used to keep the fish fresh, but the demand for cold water and ice in the city is forcing people to use it as drinking water,” Kaboudi admitted.
This is far from ideal from a health and hygiene perspective as the ice is passed between dirty hands as it is sold without a container.
The conflict does not afford residents the luxury of worrying too much about hygiene.
“Even if this water isn’t very clean… they will drink it as long as they don’t think it will harm them,” Naif Noradeen, a social worker based in Taiz, told IRIN.
City resident Ashraf al-Zuraiqi, said he buys the ice every day, but tries not to drink it as others do.
“I put clean water inside a bottle in a small container and I put the ice pieces around it,” he told IRIN. “This way I can get cold and clean water, but I do not drink the melted ice and I do not allow my children to drink it.”
Several of the ice-sellers IRIN spoke to had other jobs before the crisis. Local journalist Fareed al-Homaid explained that a “war economy” had taken hold of the city.
“The civil war in Taiz killed dozens of occupations, but it also created new occupations, such as selling ice, selling solar energy plates and charging phones,” Homaid told IRIN.
He gave the example of an accountant friend of his who had been forced to shut down his business but had bought a generator and was now charging people’s mobile phones for a half-dollar fee.
The generator cost $205, but his friend makes about $14 a day running the service out to dozens of users, meaning he’s probably bringing in a tidy profit by now.