These displaced Salafis—conservative Sunni Muslims—began arriving from Dammaj in Sa’ada governorate following their expulsion pursuant to a ceasefire agreement that many say favored their foe, the Houthis, a group of Zaidi Shiites who have controlled Sa’ada since 2011.
Tension between the Houthis and Salafis in Dammaj culminated in armed clashes between the two groups that began in late October and began spilling over to surrounding areas. Following several failed peace agreements, both sides agreed in January to a government-backed agreement that among other items stipulated that the estimated 15,000 non-local Salafis—the majority of those studying at the Dar Al-Hadith seminary—had to leave the area.
The government decision to allow the homeless Salafis to settle in Sawan was extempore and not well thought out, leaving many Sawan residents feeling resentful, said Anas Al-Gherbi, a journalist and Sawan resident.
“If we had been asked whether or not we would accept the settlement of Salafis in Sawan, we would have refused for fear of the [danger it might pose to the neighborhood] because of the [possible] elevation of tensions,” Al-Gherbi said. “Houthi supporters exist in Sawan and throughout Sana'a.”
The residents of Sawan say they were not forewarned of the Salafi relocation. The displaced population was originally meant to relocate to Hodeida, but the Tehama Movement rejected the displaced Salafis, citing fears that violent sectarianism might follow them to Tehama.
“The government was concerned that Sawan locals would react the same way that the Tehamis did…which is why their arrival was sudden and unannounced.” alleges Al-Gherbi.
Although the Sawan district, in the eastern part of Sana’a, is known for its already existing Salafi population, the neighborhood was not prepared for what the new influx would bring.
Residents say their daily lives have been impacted. Some of the newly displaced have already began setting up unofficial checkpoints in alleyways and streets near areas they have taken up residence.
“Since [the Salafis arrived] local residents have stayed in their homes, sending elderly men out to take care of [shopping and other business],” Al-Gherbi said.
Fatima Hussam, 25, a business student at Sana'a University, said that since Sawan district became a permanent or even a temporary refuge for Salafis, she has stopped attending classes at the university.
“The first day of Sawan's [occupation] by Salafis, I hurried out of my house on the way to classes, but I was terrified to see armed men stopping and searching people—even though they were leaving women alone—they looked at me in a creepy way. I decided to turn around and go home.” Hussam said.
“I am not the only one who has decided to stop going to classes. Many other female students were frightened into making the same decision,” she said.
“Unfortunately, our local souk is now overrun with armed men who are allegedly stationed there to ensure the lives of the migrants who have settled in the mosque,” said Nora Al-Dobaie, 55, a homemaker from Sawan. “I find it very uncomfortable, and possibly unsafe, to walk by those armed men.”
A Salafi leader who took part in the final battles waged between the Houthis and the Salafis nearly a month ago, Abu Dujana realizes that he and his fellow displaced persons’ arrivals have upset many Sawan residents, but he says the group had nowhere else to go.
“It has been an ordeal for everyone, but we simply have to wait until the government fulfills its promise in terms of providing us with an appropriate place to live where we will not disturb anyone else,” he said. “We need to live in peace. We have had enough of the ongoing fighting.”
Recently, Sawan residents have filed complaints with the mayor of Sana'a in protest of the influx of Salafis into the area and the subsequent tense security situation.
“The mayor told them that he would find them other housing within 48 hours, but very few of them have been moved.” said Al-Gherbi.
Many are hopeful that the Sawan situation will not be permanent.
“Nearly 100 women have been moved from Al-Ferdoos mosque [in Sawan] to their home villages,” said Hamdan Al-Rahabi, a journalist for a state-run news agency. “In addition, two tents have been dismantled [because the people who had sheltered in them have also gone to live in villages].”
The Shoub district director, Mahdi Arhab, is in charge of local happenings in Sawan. He says his office has received numerous complaints about the influx of displaced persons, and that his office is working to send security committees to remove the Salafi-established checkpoints. He also says the displaced population is dwindling everyday with Salafis moving to governorates where they have relatives.
“[Several] have left because of the complaints they have heard from the locals about the check points and tents associated with their existence," Arhab said.
He said the capital secretariat is taking the issue seriously and meeting about plans to ease the neighborhood’s burden, but he could not provide any concrete plans as to what actions the city would take to cope with the displaced persons.
In the meantime, locals in Sawan are trying to maintain peaceful coexistence in their neighborhood, they say.
Residents filed a complaint with the Ministry of Endowment, which supervises administration of mosques and other property donated for religious use, against a Salafi imam at the Al-Sunna Mosque who has been known to urge supporters not to have anything to do with people outside of their denomination.
According to Al-Gherbi, the Ministry of Endowment sent a committee to the mosque and replaced the imam with a more moderate one. However, shortly thereafter, the removed religious leader arrived with armed men and reinstated himself as the imam.
But locals in Sawan most fear the possibility of sectarian fighting coming to their corner of the city, fearing that fighting could break out at any moment. Sawan’s neighboring districts like Wadi Sawan and Bani Hushaish are the homeland of the Bani Hashem people who claim to be direct descendants of the Prophet Mohamed, and are typically loyal to Ansar Allah, the political wing of the Houthis.
Tamam Afeef, a political analyst, is not optimistic about what could happen if the displaced population in Sawan is not relocated and permanent solutions were not found.
“It is a fight to survive, a battle for their very existence,” he said. “Salafis resent being displaced from their homeland in Sa’ada governorate at the hands of the Houthis. They need [psychologically] to gain some kind of victory in Sana'a even if that is only achieved through confrontations.”
Now entering the third-week of the Salafi influx in Sawan, and with nothing but promises from government officials, the Sawan neighborhood is left wondering how the situation will play out.
Many dismiss the foreboding predictions of violence.
“There is no way confrontation will break out because Salafis believe in peaceful coexistence,” Al-Rahabi said.