Bitterness Abounds in Yemen’s North, a Houthi Stronghold

The latest war has been the cruelest. In the past six months, aerial bombing by an Arab military coalition led by Saudi Arabia has killed hundreds of people throughout the province and sent thousands fleeing their homes. For a generation of Yemenis, the Saudis, once their country’s biggest benefactor, will be remembered for the destruction they left here, residents say.

But the Saudi adversary, the Yemeni rebel group known as the Houthis, also faces harsh scrutiny for its role in the war. With fury and zeal, Houthi fighters turned their heavy guns on cities and imprisoned opponents. The Houthis drew support from what many saw as a cynical wartime alliance with Yemen’s former leader, Ali Abdullah Saleh.

In Saada, the Houthi stronghold where the rebel movement was founded, frustration abounds with all the combatants in the war.

“The people of Saada and others are demanding an end to the arguments,” said Hussein Khowlan, 52, among the small group of residents left in Saada, choosing to endure the bombs rather than join the masses in the shabby encampments for the displaced that line Yemen’s roads.

Talk of a cease-fire has grown louder in the last few weeks since the Houthis publicly endorsed a United Nations peace plan. But many fear that months of combat may have already hardened the tensions that led to war in the first place. The effect may be to postpone, rather than solve, arguments that have made Yemen chronically fragile.

The battles widened the divisions among regions, political parties and tribes. Sunni extremist groups, including a branch of the Islamic State, have emerged in the power vacuum, some fighting alongside the Saudi coalition. While the jihadists have repeatedly attacked the Shiite-led Houthis, the rebels have portrayed all their opponents as extremists, adding a new sectarian dimension to the hostilities.

The Houthis seized Yemen’s capital a year ago, challenging an unpopular government while pledging to improve the country. Now, as they lose more and more territory to the Arab coalition, they face questions about what their military gamble had achieved. The questioners include those who had pinned their hopes on the Houthis, in the neglected north of Yemen.

“There is no stability,” Mr. Khowlan said. “There is no electricity. There is destruction everywhere, and poverty in every single house.”

The war has left more than 5,000 people dead and caused dire shortages of food and medicine. One ward of the local hospital was filled with civilians wounded in airstrikes, another with emaciated infants.

It was impossible to know, Mr. Khowlan said, “whether we gained or not.”

From their beginnings as a student movement called the Believing Youth in the early 1990s, the Houthis were rooted in faith and place, working for a revival of religious identity among Zaydi Shiites, a minority in Yemen. They sought an end to neglect by the central government of the Shiite-dominated north. From 2004 to 2010, the Houthis fought six wars against Mr. Saleh’s government, as well as against hard-line Sunni Islamists supported by the Saudis.

The 2011 uprising in Yemen against Mr. Saleh’s rule raised hopes that marginalized regions of the country would finally have a voice. The young Houthi leader, Abdel-Malik al-Houthi, expressed a willingness to engage in politics, but the movement turned to force as its frustrations grew with the government in Sana, the capital.

The Houthis swept down from northern Yemen and stormed Sana in September 2014. They eventually forced the government of Mr. Saleh’s successor, President Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi, from power, and a political crisis devolved into war.

In Saada, as in the rest of the country, people were forced to take sides. Ahmed Saleh Ahmed, 50, a retired soldier who fought in the wars of the last decade against the Houthis, said that everyone in the province, regardless of affiliation, was fighting alongside the rebels now, “whether we like it or not.”

“The Saudis have left us no choice,” he said, blaming what he called an extremist Saudi religious ideology that had no tolerance for Shiites. “Their aggression has hit all of us.”

The pressures on his family had built up over years. His 15-year-old son, like many children here, was illiterate, he said; wars had repeatedly closed the schools. And Mr. Ahmed had lost relatives, killed by a Saudi-coalition airstrike.

In Saada, hardship had been replaced by “even bigger oppression,” he said.

The suffering has put Houthi leaders on the defensive as they explain their part in the war. A Houthi official who escorted journalists around Saada asserted the movement had no choice but “to exercise power” in response to what he said was foreign meddling in Yemen.

The official, who asked not to be identified because he was not authorized to speak for the entire Houthi movement, said that the conflict started because “society had accepted Ansar Allah, but political parties did not,” using the group’s official name.

“We had to make decisions for the sake of Yemen,” he said.

But even those who have defended the Houthis in the past have been alarmed at their conduct during the conflict, citing their blockade of major Yemeni cities, like Taiz, and their arrests of political opponents.

Abdulrasheed Alfaqih, a human rights advocate in Sana, said that his organization had for years defended Houthis unjustly detained by Mr. Saleh’s government during the wars in Saada. After the 2011 uprising, complaints of abuses started to trickle out of the north, where the Houthis were seeking to consolidate their control.

The rebels started arresting people, displaying a mistrust shaped by years of war and strident religious belief. “The majority of people who were jailed had pornography on their mobile phones,” Mr. Alfaqih said.

More recently, Mr. Alfaqih has been visiting prisons in Sana, trying to find hundreds of people, including political opponents and journalists, arrested by the Houthis. Most of the detainees are members of Islah, an Islamist political party that opposes to Houthis and has publicly supported the Saudi military offensive.

“We had a list of 300, but unfortunately it’s more because of the daily arrests,” he said. “Many of the families receive threats not to talk to the media.”

During a recent visit to a police station in Sana, Mr. Alfaqih said he was beaten by a Houthi fighter whom he recognized: Years ago, he had tried to help the man, who was detained in Mr. Saleh’s national security branch and tortured.

“I told him: Remember when you were in the same situation, and we would stand for hours in the police station? I hope the circle doesn’t continue, and one day, you become a victim again.”

Shuaib Almosawa contributed reporting.

Copyright: New York Times 2015

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