April 20, 2016 / 5:10 PM / 3 years ago

Yemen must tackle widening sectarian rift, says local peacemaker

NEW YORK (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - As Yemen war foes re-assess the prospects for high-level peace talks planned in Kuwait this week, a different kind of peace plan is in the making among non-governmental peacemakers.

Peace efforts have so far ignored the growing sectarian face of the conflict, which has intensified the divisions and made it harder to reach peace, the Yemen head of Search for Common Ground, an international non-profit, said in a recent interview.

Long-awaited talks to end a civil war that has killed about 6,200 people in Yemen - half of them civilians - and created a humanitarian crisis failed to start on Monday as planned, but negotiators were under United Nations pressure to meet.

Meanwhile, aid agencies have focused their efforts on alleviating the suffering by distributing essential supplies in Yemen, the poorest country in the Arabian Peninsula.

Search for Common Ground’s Shoqi A. Maktary said that while both approaches were essential, the need to tackle new drivers of violence was being ignored.

Sectarian divisions, mainly between followers of Shafi’i Sunni theology and the Zaydi branch of Shi’ite Islam, were increasingly visible in Yemen a year into the conflict, said Maktary, a Yemeni conflict resolution specialist.

Across much of the Middle East, regional rivalry between Sunni power Saudi Arabia and Shi’ite Iran has intensified mutual suspicion between followers of the two branches of Islam, he said.

The involvement of the arch-rivals in Yemen where they have been fighting a proxy war, “has intensified everything that is bad in Yemen,” he said.

“It’s intensified divides, created new ones, brought new players in,” he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation while in New York to meet government and United Nations officials.

The degree to which sectarian tensions have flared up “was a new phenomenon,” that was visible in daily life, Maktary said.

In the capital Sanaa, from which Houthi rebels forced out the government in 2014, Maktary said he had witnessed the looting of a house whose owner was politically aligned with the Houthis after a military defeat they had suffered.

In the same city, Muslim worshippers had begun avoiding mosques run by other branches of Islam, a precaution unheard of before the war, Maktary said.

In Taiz, Yemen’s third largest city, extremists’ control over the city is growing and they have carried out executions, he said.

Unless such sectarianism is rooted out, violence in Yemen may persist even if a peace treaty is reached, and could be “even worse than in Iraq,” he added.

In Iraq, bloodshed instigated by religious intolerance and radicalism along sectarian lines tore the country apart after the U.S.-led invasion in 2003.

To fend off a similar situation in Yemen, Maktary and his staff have been bringing residents together through initiatives such as community projects and youth employment programs, he said.

But further funds dedicated to building national peace are urgently needed to scale up the efforts, he added.

“We cannot wait until the political agreement is there,” Maktary said. “By the time you have this political agreement, people will not talk (to each other).”

“WE ARE HERE TO STAY”

Several humanitarian groups have suspended their operations in Yemen because of concern about security.

For Search for Common Ground staff, which is U.S.-based but currently employs only Yemeni staff in Yemen, maintaining its programs has brought its share of challenges, Maktary said.

“Everybody in our office has had their family impacted - destroyed houses, lost jobs. Everyone knows someone who has been killed,” he said.

In one recent incident, a large tent the group set up to host local residents for an awareness-raising event was nearly blown to pieces after a bomb was dropped nearby, Maktary said. The group has now stopped using tents for gatherings, fearing they may be mistaken for military targets.

But the stakes are too high to give up, he added.

The United Nations says the Yemen war has displaced millions of people and nearly half of Yemen’s 22 provinces are on the verge of famine.

Al Qaeda and Islamic State have exploited the war to spread their influence and gain more supporters.

“We don’t have the privilege to stop fighting for peace. This is our country and we are here to stay. We need to hand it over to our children,” Maktary said.

Reporting by Sebastien Malo, editing by Tim Pearce. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, property rights and climate change. Visit news.trust.org

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