Houthis consider political involvement
“I feel optimistic that within the coming weeks we will see more inclusiveness in national political dialogues, especially now that the presidential elections on February 21 will mark the beginning of constitutional and political discussions which matter to all,” said Benomar, the UN Secretary General’s Special Advisor on Yemen
Benomar’s visit to Sa’ada Governorate was the first of its kind by a high level UN official and was received very positively by politicians and locals alike.
“Sa’ada is peaceful; we want the world to know they can come to us and enjoy our area,” said a shopkeeper in the central market of Sa'ada's old city.
Despite tentative signs of peace in the war-laden governorate, locals remain apprehensive about violence that could potentially disrupt the current calm.
Even on Tuesday, sporadic shooting took place between minority Sunni Salafis and Shiite Houthis, who until three days ago had been surrounding and laying siege to a Salafi medical center in Dammaj.
Assalam Hospital in Sa’ada city has been receiving victims since this particular conflict started over three months ago.
“We don’t distinguish between victims; we just treat them as they come in, without needing to know their political backgrounds or affiliations,” said Dr. Ahmed Abu Hassa, director of the hospital.
Some of the wounded in the hospital could not be transferred to Sana’a for further treatment because they feared for their lives if they left the hospital’s gates.
“Our men will definitely die if they are not transferred to Sana’a but no one can provide us with safe passage out from the hospital,” said a relative of a Salafi patient.
According to locals, the conflict between Salafis and Houthis of the same Wadeea tribe started in October when a 13-year-old Houthi boy carried a sign displaying the group' provocative slogan - “God is great; Death to America; Death to Israel; Damned be the Jews; Victory to Islam” - into a Salafi-controlled health center.
The boy was then physically assaulted by Salafis, triggering an armed conflict, which continued to sporadically halt and recommence despite eleven mediation attempts.
“I have been personally involved in six mediation attempts and I can tell you now that it is a dead end, as external powers support the two sides: Saudi Arabia supports the Salafis and Iran and Hezbollah support the Houthis,” said Mohammed Abdulaziz, an activist from Al-Baidha who accompanied an eight-person delegation from the youth revolution to mediate between the conflicting parties.
Oppressed society traumatized by war
Houthi posters of all sizes featuring their uncompromising slogan are visible all over the underdeveloped governorate. Although 70 percent of the population is neither Houthi nor Salafi, the power is in the hands of the Houthis, who are very well-organized and maintain considerable influence over the governorate. Women are seldom seen in public, and black cloth is heavily draped over their faces when they do venture out.
Structural signs of damage from the sixth war between the state and Houthis in 2008 are particularly visible in several locations. More noticeable, though, are the 2000 men, women and children, handicapped as a result of the war. Bitter sentiments, reserved for all political parties involved in the violence, is also prevalent.
“I had to remove a picture I had as a background on my phone and I cannot listen to music in public,” said Mohammed Abdulaziz, who had been in Sa’ada for over 20 days. “There is not one single music shop here because the Houthis will not allow it. They are in control of everything; they even spotted me the moment I set foot in Sa’ada and questioned me as to why I was here.”
Houthi interest in power over the governorate is reflected in their tight control and in public statements.
“We want autonomic rule here. We have been excluded for so many years already,” said Abdulmalik Al-Fashi, a leader in the Houthi movement. “Either that or we remain as a resistance like Hezbollah in Lebanon.”
However, a majority of the public there desires state control, as opposed to rule by descendants of Houthi founder Hussein Badreddin Al-Houthi, according to Ali Hiraf from Khowlan, who had been relocated to a displaced peoples camp in Sa’ada for the last three years.
There are over 200,000 displaced people from Sa'ada as a result of the six wars between the state and the Houthis between 2004 and 2008, and many homes have been destroyed.
“There is just so much to be done,” said Adel Al-Jailani, director of the Sa’ada Reconstruction Fund. “We have to restore over 17,000 homes and public facilities and have managed to cover only around 2500 since the fund was established in 2008.”
Sa'ada remains relatively autonomous, although salaries and fuel do come from the central government in Sana'a.
The recent Salafi-Houthi armed conflict - which claimed the lives of over 60 men during the past two months, mostly from the Salafi side - is also managed largely outside the sphere of central state control and influence.
However, Naser Abdullah, Brigade Chief of Sa’ada's armed forces, insisted that the situation has stabilized.