By Selam Gebrekidan and Jonathan Saul
DJIBOUTI (Reuters) - Late last year, the Kota Nazar, a Singaporean ship with 636 containers of steel, paper, medicine and other goods, set sail to Hodeida, the largest cargo port in war-torn Yemen.
It never got there. Like dozens of other ships carrying food and supplies to Yemen over the past 30 months, the Kota Nazar was stopped by a Saudi Arabian warship blocking Yemen's ports on the Red Sea.
Saudi Arabia and its Arab allies have been stationing naval forces in and around Yemeni waters since 2015. Western governments approved the show of military force as a way to stop arms reaching Houthi fighters trying to overthrow Yemen's internationally recognized government.
The de facto blockade is exacting a dire humanitarian toll. The Saudi-led coalition's ships are preventing essential supplies from entering Yemen, even in cases where vessels are carrying no weapons, according to previously unreported port records, a confidential United Nations report and interviews with humanitarian agencies and shipping lines.
A U.N. system set up in May 2016 to ease delivery of commercial goods through the blockade has failed to ensure the Yemeni people get the supplies they need.
The result is the effective isolation of Yemen, a nation of 28 million people where a quarter of the population is starving, according to the United Nations. The war has claimed 10,000 lives. Half a million children under the age of five are severely malnourished, and at least 2,135 people, most of them children, have died of cholera in the past six months.
Aid agencies have ramped up their deliveries of food to some parts of Yemen this year. But Yemen imports more than 85 percent of its food and medicine, and commercial shipments have plunged. In the first eight months of this year, only 21 container ships sailed to Hodeida, according to port data compiled by the U.N. World Food Programme and Reuters. By comparison, 54 container ships delivered twice the volume of goods in the same period last year. Before the war, 129 container ships reached the port in the first eight months of 2014.
Food and medicine are being choked off. No commercial shipment of pharmaceuticals has made its way to Hodeida since a Saudi-led airstrike destroyed the port's industrial cranes in August 2015, according to the administrator of the port, which is under Houthi control. In at least one case this year, a blocked commercial shipment contained humanitarian aid as well.
Representatives of the Houthi movement could not be reached for comment. Yemeni government officials declined to comment.
Abdallah Al-Mouallimi, the Saudi ambassador to the U.N., denied last week that the coalition was blocking commercial shipments of food, medicine and fuel. Mouallimi said Yemen was receiving humanitarian aid.
"I can assure you that no shipment of humanitarian aid is being prevented from reaching Yemen by the coalition or for that matter by the Yemeni government. We have given clearance to all such requests for docking by any ship that carries humanitarian aid to the people of Yemen.
"We are the largest contributor of aid to the people of Yemen so it doesn't make sense for us to, on the one hand, be providing that aid and, on the other hand, be blocking it somewhere else."
In the cases of the Kota Nazar and 12 other ships examined in detail by Reuters, the Saudi-led blockade turned away or severely delayed vessels carrying aid and commercial goods before they reached Yemeni ports even though the United Nations had cleared the cargo and there were no arms aboard. Seven of those vessels were carrying medicine and food in addition to other supplies.
Aid shipments are caught in the net. One of the seven vessels was carrying antibiotics, surgical equipment and medication for cholera and malaria for 300,000 people. The shipment was held up for three months, during which $20,000 worth of medicine was damaged or expired, according to U.K.-based aid group Save the Children.
In July, four oil tankers carrying 71,000 tonnes of fuel, equivalent to 10 percent of Yemen's monthly fuel needs, were denied entry. Two were allowed in after five weeks, port records show.
In a report published last month, Human Rights Watch said that the Saudi-led coalition "arbitrarily diverted or delayed" seven fuel tankers headed to Houthi-controlled ports between May and September this year. In one case, a vessel was held in a Saudi port for more than five months, the group said.
Early this summer, Yemen's internationally recognized government notified the United Nations that it had closed a rebel-held oil port due to its "illegal status" and "damage to the marine environment."
The government is also diverting all vessels carrying cement and iron to the Yemeni port of Aden, which is under its control, according to the U.N.
As a result of the blockade, there have been no commercial flights to Sanaa, Yemen's capital, since last summer. And two of the world's biggest container shipping lines — Swiss-based MSC and Singapore-based PIL — stopped sailing to Houthi-held ports in early 2017, because of the delays and dangers involved. PIL has not yet resumed services.
In a confidential report submitted to the Security Council in April, U.N. investigators detailed many of the delays ships have faced getting through the blockade. In one case, a shipping company's vessels waited 396 days to dock at Hodeida, incurring $5.5 million in fuel and refrigeration costs. The U.N. report also said that the coalition of Saudi Arabia and its allies takes an average of 10 days to grant vessels permission to dock at Hodeida even when the vessels are not delayed.
The United Nations Office for Project Services (UNOPS), which oversees the U.N.'s clearance system, disputed the World Food Programme's and Reuters' count of container cargo delivered to Hodeida port.
In a statement to Reuters, UNOPS said its system, called the U.N. Verification and Inspection Mechanism for Yemen (UNVIM), has cleared vessels to deliver nearly 10 million tonnes of food, fuel and general cargo to Yemen over the past 16 months. UNOPS did not provide evidence for the figure. It also did not specify how many of the ships it cleared were later stopped, delayed or rerouted by the Saudi-led coalition. UNOPS also said that events that transpire in international waters are beyond its remit.
"UNVIM has contributed to meeting the challenges of the current humanitarian crisis as much as possible by making basic commodities available in the Yemeni market," the U.N. said in a statement.
In at least two private correspondences with U.N. member states and aid agencies this year, UNVIM officials voiced frustration that the Saudi-led coalition stopped or delayed vessels they had cleared. One internal UNVIM report from March said the coalition had delayed six vessels, which were later granted access "after continuous liaison and effort."
The Saudi coalition isn't the sole reason for the plunge in imports to Yemen. Foreign banks have cut credit lines to businesses because of concerns about being repaid and difficulties with processing transactions. The Yemeni central bank's activities have been paralyzed over a tussle between the internationally recognized government and the Houthi fighters.
It is difficult to assess precisely the cumulative commercial and humanitarian effects of the blockade on Yemen. Many parts of the country are inaccessible to relief groups and reporters. Yet the U.N. has warned for more than two years that Yemen is a step away from famine. The World Food Programme estimates that the number of people needing aid has risen to 20 million this year, or more than two-thirds of the population, compared with 17 million in 2016.
Yemen is starving because it is a battleground in a political struggle in the Middle East between Saudi Arabia and Iran. Saudi Arabia and its allies entered the war in Yemen to counter Houthi fighters, a Shi'ite group backed by Iran.
Western nations, at odds with Tehran over its nuclear program, supported the Saudi-led intervention by helping coordinate airstrikes and refueling Saudi warplanes. The U.N. Security Council effectively supported Riyadh by imposing an arms embargo on the Houthi fighters; it said Yemen-bound vessels could be inspected if there were "reasonable grounds" to suspect they were carrying arms.
Riyadh has never formally drawn a line beyond which ships are not allowed to sail. It has not published a list of goods and materials covered by its restrictions. But it says it has the right "to take all appropriate measures to counter the threats" from Iran-backed rebels. A senior official with Iran's foreign ministry denied allegations that his country provides financial and military support for Houthis in Yemen.
"Yemen is a catastrophic case. It is the man-made conflict that is driving hunger and driving the conditions for famine. Simple as that," said David Beasley, executive director of the World Food Programme. "If we end the war, we will end the starvation."
Some in the United States are beginning to criticize the blockade. Republican Senator Todd Young of Indiana, a member of the U.S. Senate's Committee on Foreign Relations, said Saudi Arabia might be violating humanitarian laws because it has impeded the flow of needed goods to Yemen.
"I do not suggest that the Saudis share all of the blame for this," he said, referring to the nine countries in the Saudi-led coalition. "But they share a significant portion of it."
International aid groups grew concerned about the effects of the Saudi blockade in early 2015, shortly after the Saudi-led coalition, which includes the United Arab Emirates, Egypt, Bahrain, Kuwait, Jordan, Morocco, Sudan and Senegal, entered Yemen's civil war. Container shipments to Hodeida in 2015 fell to about 40 percent of their pre-war volume.
That summer, the U.N. issued the first of its many warnings that famine was possible in Yemen. Behind the scenes, the U.N. tried to convince Riyadh and its allies to let it inspect ships.
In early September 2015, the U.N. said it had reached a deal with the Yemeni government and the coalition to set up an inspection system that would facilitate the passage of goods to Yemen. The system, UNVIM, would be headquartered in Djibouti, the U.N. said. It took eight more months to secure the $8 million it needed to start operations.
When UNVIM was started in May 2016, its stated goal was "to restore trust among the shipping community" that there would be no unexpected and costly delays to shipments headed for Yemen.
Since then, all commercial vessels sailing to Yemen's Houthi-held ports have had to submit an application to the U.N., complete with their cargo manifests and lists of their last ports of call. The U.N. reviews the applications and checks if the vessels have called at suspect ports or have turned off their transponders for more than a few hours - a common trick of smugglers seeking to avoid tracking. Occasionally, UNVIM's contractors inspect the vessels.
UNVIM does not verify or inspect aid shipments unless they are mingled with commercial goods. Vessels fully chartered by aid agencies go through a different process: They directly obtain sailing rights from Riyadh. Nonetheless, a significant proportion of aid must make its way to Yemen aboard commercial vessels.
In the last 16 months, UNVIM has processed 685 clearances and granted vessels the right to sail to Houthi-held ports about 80 percent of the time. These vessels delivered nearly 5 million tonnes of food, 2 million tonnes of fuel and 2.5 million tonnes of general cargo, the U.N. told Reuters.
But even after the U.N. grants clearances, all commercial ships have to get approval from a Saudi-managed warship stationed 61 km west of Hodeida port.
This has proven difficult. Because the vessels are anchored in international waters, UNVIM can only coordinate with regional parties, including the coalition, to facilitate vessels' access to the ports, the U.N. said in its statement. The rest of the process is up to local port authorities, it said.
The Kota Nazar, for example, had obtained U.N. clearance to sail to Hodeida in late December. But naval officers from the Saudi warship stopped and boarded it.
The officers suspected that the ship carried concealed Iranian arms destined for the Houthi fighters. They ordered the Kota Nazar back to Djibouti, its previous stop. There, the vessel's crew offloaded 62 containers the coalition deemed suspicious, allowing the ship to set sail again for Hodeida in January.
Then the Saudi-led coalition insisted on another inspection. Three days later, the U.N. ordered the vessel to sail to Jizan, Saudi Arabia. In Jizan, local authorities and two U.N. inspectors offloaded every container aboard the vessel and X-rayed them. They held back 27 containers with cargo they said could be used in the Yemeni military conflict. The contents included bullet-cartridge belts, as well as iron pipes, welding electrodes, motorcycle parts and other manufactured goods.
In Djibouti, U.N. and local officials searched the containers the ship had left behind. They found rolled steel in nearly half of the containers and printing paper in others. Two containers carried refrigerated medicine that came from one of Iran's biggest cargo ports, Bandar Abbas.
The inspectors also found traces of high-grade explosives in one container of printing paper that came from Jakarta, Indonesia, according to U.N. officials in Yemen. However, the search did not turn up any explosives.
Experts say false positives are common during routine inspections for explosives. PIL, the Singapore-based shipping line that owns the Kota Nazar, said it does not discuss commercial operations.
In the end, the Kota Nazar could not obtain clearance to sail to Hodeida. It sailed instead to Aden, a southern port under the government's control. Aid and commercial cargo that land in Aden must cross hundreds of checkpoints on the road north to Houthi-held regions, a dangerous and expensive journey.
After that incident, PIL canceled all future voyages to Hodeida and other Houthi-held ports in the Red Sea.
Other shipments have been blocked, although they contained no arms. Earlier this year, the coalition turned back four cranes the United States donated to the World Food Programme to boost aid operations at Hodeida port. The cranes would have replaced parts of the port's infrastructure destroyed by coalition airstrikes in August 2015.
In January, the WFP sent the cranes on a ship to Hodeida. But the Saudi-led coalition revoked the clearance it had issued earlier that month and blocked the vessel. The ship waited at sea for 10 days before eventually sailing back to Dubai, where the cranes remain.
The WFP says the coalition did not provide a clear reason for turning back the cranes.
In April, a coalition spokesman told the BBC the cranes were blocked "because we don't want to continue to enhance the capabilities of the Houthis to generate money and to smuggle" weapons.
In August, Saudi Arabia's mission to the United Nations said it would install cranes at three ports under the internationally recognized government's control, citing Yemen's "deteriorating humanitarian situation."
Last week, Mouallimi, the Saudi ambassador to the U.N., said Saudi Arabia had offered equipment to increase the capacity of Yemeni ports other than Hodeida, saying that the Houthis used revenue from Hodeida to buy arms rather than fight cholera.
Mouallimi was speaking after the U.N. this month blacklisted the Saudi-led military coalition for killing and injuring 683 children in Yemen and attacking dozens of schools and hospitals in 2016. The blacklist also named the Houthi movement, Yemen government forces, pro-government militia and Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula for violations against children in 2016.
The world's second-biggest container shipping line, Swiss-based MSC, has also faced challenges with its journeys. One of MSC's vessels, the Himanshi, was delayed for two months in summer 2016 when it attempted to sail to Hodeida, according to the WFP and the unpublished U.N. report. The Himanshi was carrying 722 containers of goods, of which 93 held food and other aid cargo.
The coalition held back the vessel in the Red Sea for 13 days until the U.N. directed it to the King Abdullah Port in Saudi Arabia. Inspectors there found fireworks in a few containers, according to the U.N. report. The coalition never clarified the grounds for the inspection, and the vessel didn't reach Hodeida until early September.
"A lot of the cargo we carry in this region has a limited shelf life. For example, foodstuffs and chilled or frozen food," an MSC spokesperson said.
"MSC continues to closely monitor the ease of access to the port of Hodeida, which has been inadequately served in recent months due to lengthy and sometimes unpredictable delays from cargo inspections."
MSC stopped sailing to the Red Sea ports for eight months this year. It said in August that it was resuming services to Hodeida at the request of customers, including U.N. agencies and private importers.
Civilians continue to feel the blockade's chokehold.
Ali Shoui, a 38-year-old father of four, said he fled from a rebel-held northern province when he could not feed his children. The price of a bag of flour doubled after the blockade, he said, and pharmacies ran out of stock. Doctors who worked at the nearby hospital left because they had not been paid for a year. Fuel merchants stopped supplying the area after they were targeted by airstrikes.
"People are no longer able to buy food," Shoui said. "The situation is really terrifying."
(Reporting by Selam Gebrekidan in Djibouti and Jonathan Saul in London. Additional reporting by Parisa Hafezi in Ankara and Michelle Nichols in New York; Editing By Alessandra Galloni and Richard Woods)