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Witness: A Yemeni artist paints murals that narrate the tragedies of war in Aden


A Yemeni visual artist who has spent years painting murals telling stories of death and tragedy on bombed-out buildings in Aden stresses that efforts to revive peace talks should not distract attention from the horrors of the war years in his country.

Alaa Rubel, 30, started making these drawings when he was a teenager, but his hobby gained more momentum after the outbreak of fierce fighting in his southern city of Aden in 2015 between Houthi rebels and forces supporting the government.

For months, artillery shells rained down on the coastal city in southern Yemen, and the Houthis fired rockets and mortars at densely populated areas, killing dozens of civilians, according to the international human rights organization “Human Rights Watch” at the time.

When the fighting finally subsided, Rubell began to work more, trying to shine a spotlight on those directly affected.

“I saw that the government did not pay attention to the people who were displaced. So I wanted to convey my message to the world. I paint the suffering of people who have lost their homes and families,” Rubel told AFP.

Dark tribute

Today, the rubble-strewn streets of Aden are a semi-permanent exhibition of Rubel’s work, a testament to the horrors of war he and his neighbours lived through.

On a store wall in a heavily damaged area, he drew a large outline of a man’s face, but obscured the eyes, nose and mouth with a hand holding three sticks of dynamite.

Across the street, on the inner wall of a bombed-out apartment building, he painted a piece he calls Silent Suffering that depicts a skeleton playing a violin while peace signs float around its skull.

Another artwork depicts a girl in a red dress sitting on the ground with her left hand on her cheek, next to a black crow perched on a rocket. Behind her, her dead relatives, painted in black and white, looked out an open window.

Rubel says the mural is based on the true story of a girl who lived in the area and lost her entire family in the bitter fighting. He adds that the girl who survived under the rubble “thinks that war is a game. She thinks her family will return, so she is waiting for them.”

Amr Abu Bakr Saeed, 42, who lives nearby, told AFP the paintings were a grim but necessary tribute to the dead.

And he asserts, “Whenever we pass through this place, we feel tiredness and pain, with the people who were here and lived with them.”

He added, “These drawings express the tragedies of the people whose homes were destroyed and displaced, and prove that there is indeed a war in Yemen.”

“No one cares”

It has been eight years since Saudi Arabia formed a military coalition to halt the advance of the Iran-backed Houthi rebels, who entered the Yemeni capital, Sanaa, in 2014.

The war has claimed hundreds of thousands of lives directly and indirectly and left two-thirds of the population of Yemen, the poorest country in the Arabian Peninsula, subsisting on aid.

A truce was reached in April 2022. Although its term expired last October, a significant decline in fighting was recorded, which revived hopes for peace.

And last month, a high-ranking Saudi delegation visited Sana’a to meet with Houthi leaders to push for peace.

The Saudi ambassador to Yemen, Mohammed Al Jaber, told AFP he believed all parties to the war were “serious” about wanting peace.

As he walks with his brush and paint can, Rubel also says he’s trying to be optimistic.

He affirms that he would like to “turn this place from destruction into a center of peace,” explaining that he believes that art can help rebuild the city.

But he acknowledges that many Aden residents are still waiting to see the benefits of calm.

Yasmine Anwar Abdel Shakur, 53, on her way home from her work in a government health office, expresses the frustration that hangs over the city’s residents.

“For me, nothing has changed,” she says despondently, describing how most of the badly damaged buildings have yet to be repaired.

She adds, “We are threatened by buildings falling on us at any time.”

Merry C. Vega is a highly respected and accomplished news author. She began her career as a journalist, covering local news for a small-town newspaper. She quickly gained a reputation for her thorough reporting and ability to uncover the truth.

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