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Aid Will Move Slowly From Yemen Port Cease-Fire — If It Lasts


Yemen's brutal civil war has been going on for four years now. At least 10,000 people have been killed, and it's left at least 14 million on the verge of famine. This past week, a brief ray of hope - following days of peace talks in Rimbo, Sweden, Yemen's warring sides on Thursday agreed to a cease-fire in the port city of Hodeidah. International monitors are on the way to oversee this truce, but there have already been reports of skirmishes. Joining us now is journalist Jane Ferguson from "PBS NewsHour." She's currently in Hodeidah. Welcome to the program.

JANE FERGUSON: Thanks for having me.


GARCIA-NAVARRO: What does the situation look like there right now? What are people saying?

FERGUSON: At the moment, when you're in the city center, it does have a certain degree of normalcy to it. I can see ordinary food markets going on. Yesterday, I saw some children leaving a school - same this morning. So, you know, there are cars out. People are out and about. There's a strange kind of normalcy to life here at the moment.

But in the evening, at nighttime, after dark, that's whenever - you start to hear the fighting in the distance. It's not so much the battles and the exchange of fire at the moment. But last night, there were numerous thuds that sounded like airstrikes in the distance from the city center. And at one stage, those were as frequent as one every six to eight seconds. That went on for several hours. So people really are not too optimistic for the long-term future. But right now they're trying to take advantage of something of a lull.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Remind us who is fighting in this city. And where are the front lines? And how is that playing out on the ground?

FERGUSON: Across Yemen, there are many different groups fighting. It's a multilayered war here in Hodeidah. You've got the Houthis, who have occupied this city, or held this city, for almost four years now. And then we've had, of course, forces in the south moving north from the south, pushing up and pushing Houthis out from those positions. And so that's really where the stalemate started. Since that offensive started in June, it has stopped and started and stopped started. And right now the front line is effectively running through parts of the city itself.


GARCIA-NAVARRO: You mentioned something very important, which is the humanitarian situation. According to this agreement, armed forces from both parties will withdraw from three ports, including Hodeidah. And that will presumably allow goods to flow through these ports to a population that's under extreme stress.

FERGUSON: Absolutely. This city port is the most important in the entire country. This is where at least 80 percent of the foodstuffs come in to the north of Yemen. It's a port - imports food that people need. But it's become inefficient. Effectively, it's already been damaged by the fighting over the years. The roads are damaged on the way back up to Sana'a and other areas of the north.

So when food even makes it in on trucks, it is slow - very slow at getting up there. I came down through those roads to get here, and you'll see bridges destroyed. You'll see holes in the road where there have been airstrikes. It's very slow progress. I came here many years ago. Whenever - that journey used to take much less time.

So it makes bringing food in very difficult already. If this port here in Hudaydah, in particular, were to close, people here would see the knock-on effects in food price rises very, very quickly. And they simply would have to eat even less than they're already able to afford to eat.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I want to turn to the big picture, which includes Saudi Arabia and the United States. As you know, the U.S. Senate this week, with support from both parties, voted to end its critical military support for the Saudi-led war in Yemen. Did that play a role in this week's cease-fire, or might it going forward? And what is the view of that there on the ground?

FERGUSON: If it did play a role, it would have been very much so in the background. Let's not forget those talks in Sweden weren't between the Saudis and Iran. Those were between the two sides on the ground in Yemen fighting. Of course, it's much more fractured and much more complex than that. But largely, that truce, which was just a handshake - it wasn't a detailed agreement signed on this yet - but it's likely in the background. But the context of that pressure is certainly putting pressure on the Saudis themselves.

It would change the dynamic here if the external factors, the countries that are involved, like UAE and Saudi Arabia, if they - if there was pressure on them to leave or start wrapping up here, that would change the dynamic on the ground. But in Sweden, that agreement was just between the two Yemeni sides themselves. So it's not clear yet realistically how much that pressure translated into the handshake that we saw in Sweden.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Jane Ferguson speaking to us from Hodeidah in Yemen. Thank you so much, and stay safe.

FERGUSON: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.