In Yemen, a civil war has raged since August. But there has been little news from the battlefield because the Yemeni government is tightly limiting coverage of the conflict. In addition, relief agencies are having a hard time getting aid to thousands of Yemenis who have been displaced by the fighting.
The obstacles that blocked a delivery of supplies from Saudi Arabia on a recent day are an example of the difficulties.
It all seemed simple: Load three trucks with 200 tents, 300 plastic sheets, 700 mattresses and other humanitarian aid, and drive that aid from southern Saudi Arabia to northern Yemen.
Sultan Khilji, with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, said the tents and other supplies were bound for more than 3,000 Yemenis who are among the estimated 150,000 left homeless by fighting between rebels in the country's north and Yemeni government forces.
But when the aid trucks reached the border checkpoint, Saudi officials halted all movement — and told NPR to stop recording. They said the Yemenis should come get the aid. By telephone, Yemeni officials said the Saudis should let the U.N. drive the aid over the border.
In the end, the trucks spent an entire day in a no man's land between the two countries.
A Proxy War?
The delay illustrates the complexity of not only the Yemeni civil war but also Yemen's relationship with its neighbors. The rebels in this war are Zaidis, followers of a branch of Shiite Islam. Zaidis ruled Yemen, which is predominantly Sunni, until 1962, when they were defeated in a bloody war that drew in Yemen's neighbors Saudi Arabia and Egypt.
Saudi Arabia, along with most other Sunni-dominated Arab countries, comes down on the side of the Yemeni government in the current conflict, says Turki al-Faisal, who heads the King Faisal Center for Research and Islamic Studies in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, and was the longtime director of Saudi intelligence.
"We recognize the government of Yemen as the legitimate representative of the Yemeni people and will continue to do so. The Yemenis have complained of outside interference. That should stop," he says.
The outside interference he refers to are claims by the Yemeni government that the Shiite rebels are supported by Iran, which is largely Shiite. Some Arab media reports say the Saudis are secretly sending money and arms to bolster Yemen's government forces. Iran and Saudi Arabia officially deny these claims.
But some Western and Arab analysts are convinced the conflict in Yemen is a proxy war that pits Iran against Saudi Arabia. Faisal says the war is simpler than that.
"It's a conflict in Yemen between Yemenis," he says.
Either way, Saudi Arabia is adamant that the war not spill over into its territory. That concern has escalated as the fighting moves closer to the Saudi border.
Ahmed Hadi Thafer Subhani, who works for a Yemeni relief agency, says some 200 Yemeni families — many of whom are his own relatives — tried to flee to Saudi Arabia but were denied access.
Some people who already had Saudi residency papers were allowed in, he says, but many others were not. They were told they need a special document from the Yemeni government to cross the border.
Anwar Majid Eshki, an analyst at the Middle East Center for Strategic and Legal Studies in Jidda, Saudi Arabia, says too many Yemenis are already entering the country illegally. More, he says, would only make way for criminals or, worse, militants affiliated with al-Qaida, which has regrouped in the impoverished nation in recent months.
"Every time the smugglers come to Saudi Arabia — [bringing in] people and weapons and [explosive] materials — all of them come from Yemen," he says.
Human-rights groups say border guards should distinguish between asylum seekers and smugglers.
Back at the border post, the three aid trucks idled while U.N. workers tried to negotiate passage. The war was raging just a few miles away. Across the border, along the single road that leads to the worst of the fighting, thousands of Yemenis were stranded.
The few Yemenis still allowed to pass through this post said they had come to Saudi Arabia to buy basic items like rice, milk and water. They said they would return to Yemen and sell the goods at a profit.
The next day, approval finally came for the aid trucks to cross into Yemen. Two days after that, U.N. officials said the aid was delivered to the people who need it most.