By Iona Craig - USA Today
Wednesday Mar 21, 2012
AL-KHAMISAIN, Yemen — Yaseen Sultan’s dark brown eyes welled up when he recounted the moment before he and his family fled their home.
Bullets were flying through the house, shells exploding in the street as Shiite Muslim rebels battled Sunni tribesmen in Yemen’s remote northern highlands. The 14-year-old boy was so scared, he says, he threw up.
Yemen is beset by three insurgencies, two in the south and one in the north, which borders Saudi Arabia. U.S. counterterrorism efforts have been centered in the south, where al-Qaida’s presence has grown and secessionist groups still launch attacks.
But the United States believes the north may be the latest place where another adversary is seeking to influence events.
“We see Iranian efforts to increase their activities and take advantage of the political upheaval and build up their own presence,” Gerald Feierstein, the U.S. ambassador to Yemen, said in a recent interview.
The Yemeni military has fought several wars in the north in recent years against a rebellion named for its founding commander, Hussein Badr Eddin al-Houthi, who was killed by Yemeni forces in 2004.
The movement’s grievances include the corruption and cronyism of the 33-year dictatorship of President Ali Abdullah Saleh, who recently agreed to leave office. But his family and longtime regime members remain in power in the capital, Sanaa.
The political unrest has created opportunities for Yemen’s rebellions to gain power. They have been met largely by violence from a military controlled by Saleh’s eldest son and other relatives.
In the north, hundreds of thousands are being made homeless. The United Nations said last week that the number of those displaced during the past three months of fighting in Hajjah province is 52,000, adding to the more than 300,000 people from the neighboring province of Sa’ada already left homeless by wars over the past eight years.
Some believe the violence may be hurting chances for a negotiated settlement that meets grievances and ends extremist influence from outside.
“Without adequately addressing the grievances of the Houthis and the Southern movement, Yemen won’t be able to function as a state that controls all of the territory within its borders,” said Gregory Johnsen, a Yemen specialist at Princeton University. “There is no military solution to either the Houthi conflict or the brewing one in the south. Both are political problems that require political solutions.”
Yemen’s northern conflict has remained largely hidden from the outside world. Saleh restricted humanitarian access and journalists were banned from the war zone.
In 2009, Saudi Arabia became involved in the conflict as clashes spread across their border. The Saudi air force joined in airstrikes by Saleh’s air force. Saleh responded to concerns about the conflict by insisting the Houthis were pro-Hezbollah and sponsored by Iran. The Houthi motto is “God is great, death to America, death to Israel.”
The Houthis say their goal is autonomy and protection for their Zaydi Shiite religious practices. Iran is a nation of largely Shiites; Saudi Arabia is largely Sunni Muslim. The Houthis were fighting Yemen troops into 2010, and since have been battling various tribes backed by a Sunni political party. Thus far, the Houthis have gained control over most of the province of Sa’ada and are fighting in adjacent provinces.
The Houthis have not been made part of Yemen’s new period of political transition that began with the inauguration of Vice President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi as the country’s new leader, having boycotted his unopposed election.
Under the terms of the U.N.-sponsored transition deal agreed to by Saleh, a period of national dialogue is to take place to address multiple grievances including those of the Houthis. But the fighting persists and an increasing number of Yemenis are becoming reliant on foreign aid for food, water and shelter.
“The government has no authority in the area,” says Taklu Nagga, head of the Hajjah office for the U.N. High Commission for Refugees. “It’s a battleground for tribesmen, and the situation is deteriorating.”
Two months after they fled their homes, Yaseen and sister Asmar are in their first day of school in al-Khamisain district, where hundreds of families now live in tents pitched under the shade of thorny trees along a dry riverbed. Pupils are packed in a cinder-block classroom of about 40 children, more than half of whom have fled the sectarian clashes in Yemen’s province of Hajjah.
Women and children ride donkeys through the wadi to collect precious water, trucked in by aid agencies. The Houthi have shut the mountain passes, the main access route for water supply trucks.
“I was loading up my car to leave when three bombs hit my house right behind me,” said Yahiya Abdullah, a father of nine.
Abdullah fled, and now his goats and cattle wander through the sand, munching at gorse bushes between the guide ropes of tents supplied by humanitarian organizations.
“We have nothing,” Abdullah says. “Not enough food, not enough tents, not even a mat to sleep on. No person can live like this with children who are going hungry.”