Saada, Yemen – People in this war-torn northern region of Yemen, bordering Saudi Arabia, felt hopeful at the start of the 2011 revolution, believing that change would bring life back to their forgotten governorate. After six years of wars that devastated the region amid quasi-indifference from the international community and a media blackout, Saada still bears the scars of conflict.
In 2004, the region’s Zaydi revivalist movement – a Shia school of thought with theological similarities to Sunni Islam – whose members in this region are known both as Ansar Allah, or “Houthis”, after their first leader, Hussein Badr al-Din al-Houthi – denounced their marginalisation at the hands of then-president Ali Abdullah Saleh.
Government forces waged a war against the followers of their movement – the Masirah – accusing them of wanting to restore the rule of Islamic imams in Yemen, as had been the case under the Hashemite monarchy before the 1962 revolution. The Houthis’ spokesperson, however, outright rejected these claims on numerous occasions.
Six rounds of on and off fighting continued, with the involvement of Saudi Arabia in the last war of 2009. During the wars, tens of thousands were killed, including women and children, and more than 340,000 people were displaced, according to the UN and the Internal Displacement Monitoring Center (IDMC).
A ceasefire was finally reached in February 2010 and, to date, it has been more or less respected.
While the official war between the government forces and the movement has ended, the aftermath is still far from over, and renewed violence is always a very real potential. Drones continue to hover over Saada city, and children say their sound reminds them of the past fighting, where wounded civilians filled the cities and homes were destroyed.
While the government’s reconstruction fund has given some compensation to families, whose homes are most visible along this city’s main road, the majority who live inside the old city are still waiting, and have not yet received any funds to rebuild.
Many of the civilians injured also did not receive financial support, and most have to travel six hours to Sanaa for treatment, due to the lack of medical facilities and doctors in the region. Mines and explosive debris continue to wound civilians.
“There is no week that passes without hearing of a new wounded person injured.“
– Hamoud Ghabish, Physically Handicapped Society
“There is no week that passes wihout hearing of a new wounded person injured,” explained Hamoud Ghabish, supervisor for the Physically Handicapped Society in Saada, who himself lost a leg in a mine explosion.
The continued marginalisation and perceived lack of justice for war victims has increased support and sympathy for the Houthi, many of whom believe that the former regime was implementing a foreign agenda against the interests of the country and its people.
Their green and red flag, with its slogan, “Allah is Great, Death to America, Death to Israel, Damn the Jews, Victory for Islam”, has become a recognisable brand. It can be seen everywhere on walls, checkpoints, houses, stickers, clothes, books and pens. Despite the hatred of these words, Saleh Hibra, head of the group’s political office, said the words targeted the policies of the West, not the people.
“Our interactions and numerous exchange of visits with people from around the world are based on respect,” he said. “It proves that we are in harmony with people abroad, we are just against some of their policies.”
During the 2011 uprising, as government security and military forces were busy in the capital, the Houthi took over Saada governorate, as well as some areas in neighbouring Hajjah and Al-Jawf, leading to territorial conflicts with armed tribesmen – which have been mistaken as purely sectarian.
They also appointed their own governor and took charge of security measures in the region – but central authorities are still involved.
Photos of Abd Rabbuh Mansur al-Hadi, Yemen’s president (formerly vice-president under the now-ousted Saleh), decorate government institutions – and most government employees, including police officers, teachers and the governor himself are still paid by the central administration.
The degree of autonomy which this region enjoys has yet to be formalised, but will be considered in the discussion on federalism at Yemen’s post-uprising “National Dialogue”, probably the most important component of the country’s current transitional process.
The Houthis have said that they would participate in this dialogue, which is supposed to include all the various actors and groups involved, such as the traditional political parties, youth groups, women’s groups and the Southern Movement – which calls for recognition of regional rights and hardships.
By addressing deep-held grievances, finding means for compensation and retribution for injustice, officials behind the national dialogue process want to prevent future conflicts in the region – as the UN special envoy to Yemen, Jamal Benomar, told the Security Council in May: “The success or failure of the national dialogue is likely to make or break Yemen’s transition.”