by Tom Finn
February 1, 2012
It was a year ago this week that young men and women first flooded into Yemen's streets en masse to demonstrate against the regime of President Ali Abdullah Saleh. On Jan. 27, 2011, at least 16,000 Yemenis protested in the capital of Sanaa, demanding an end to Saleh's 33-year rule.
It has been a strange, bloody, and maddening journey ever since. After 10 months of mass protests, violence, military defections, soaring food and gas prices, and daily power cuts, Saleh finally relinquished powers to his deputy in exchange for a promise of immunity from prosecution for him and his family. On Jan. 22, he left Yemen to seek medical treatment in the United States, and is reportedly seeking exile in Oman.
But wherever Saleh ends up, the past year's political deadlock has done grievous damage to the country's already fragile social fabric. As the government in Sanaa slides into irrelevance, the country looks to be splintering into a thousand different pieces.
One of the often overlooked hotspots is Saada, a wild, rugged, and impoverished province nestled in Yemen's north, bordering oil giant Saudi Arabia. Once known for its mud houses, crumbling Zaidi mosques, and sprawling orange groves, it has become synonymous with war and despair. Home to nearly 750,000 people, it has been ravaged by fighting since 2004, when the Houthis — a group of Shiite revivalists based in the region — rose up in armed insurrection against the government.
The Yemeni government has banned journalists from visiting the region for years, hampering independent assessment of the military's involvement or the extent of damage to the province. But last month, I and a small group of foreign journalists accompanied U.N. envoy to Yemen Jamal ben Omar on a rare visit to Saada city, the seat of Houthi power. We were granted unique access to a city long closed off to outsiders — a city that still bears the scars of war, and whose fate, like much of Yemen, hangs ominously in the balance.
Even before the uprisings of the past year, Saada had been a center of anti-government unrest in Yemen. The government accused the Houthis of seeking to establish a Shiite theocracy, and sent fighter jets to bomb villages and farms in 2009. The Houthis responded with a string of kidnappings and assassinations of government officials, using their access to a huge weapons market and knowledge of the rugged mountainous terrain to repeatedly stymie the Yemeni army. Civilians were caught in the crossfire, resulting in thousands of casualties.
The Arab uprisings, however, have shifted the dynamics of the struggle. With the regime's firepower focused on dissenters in the major cities, Saada quietly slid out of its control. A mini-state has sprung up, run almost entirely by the Houthis, who have taken on the responsibilities of government. They have appointed their own governor (a notorious arms dealer), police the streets, and rebuilt schools and houses destroyed in the war. Despite their efforts, Saada remains a destitute city, filled with sprawling graveyards, bullet-pocked mud-brick houses and lean-looking children on crutches hobbling frantically alongside lines of moving traffic, begging for food and money.
As Yemen's political transition moves haltingly forward, Saada is just one of the wounds that the new government must attempt to heal. Saleh may be on his way out, but if Yemen's protesters are going to capture the promise of the revolution's heady early days, they still have a long way to go.
Tom Finn is a freelance journalist based in Sanaa, Yemen.