What are we going to do about the Houthis? [Archives:2008/1164/Viewpoint]

June 16 2008

Houthis is the made-in-Yemeni term for those followers and supporters of Abdulmalik Al-Houthi an infamous Yemeni rebel from Sa'ada. In the nineties, his father created a religious group of Shiite of the Ethnashri sect who practiced their religion north of Yemen for several years peacefully until it turned political. Today, a war that started in 2002 is on going on and off, has consumed the lives of hundreds of Yemeni soldiers and Houthis all the same. The war has caused more than sixty thousand Yemenis to leave their homes and become displaced people living in camps. It has disturbed the lives of many more in some way or the other. The affected people are mostly from Sa'ada and neighbouring areas, but it has also reached other governorates around the republic.

Today, there are people who are starving because they live in areas where the Houthi rebels hide. The roads to those troubled areas are blocked and no food, medicine, fuel or anything else can come in, and the citizens cannot cross over in fear of being shot on the way.

The problem is that although widely used, Houthism does not really have a clearly defined meaning. You cannot make out if the person you are talking to is a Houthi unless he or she tells you so, or someone else tells on them. It is something like terrorism. No one really knows what it is, although we have seen or felt its consequences or signs one way or the other.

I met a lady at the doctor's waiting room. She was from Sa'ada, and came to the capital city Sana'a to be treated. This was her second attempt to come here within a week because the first time the roads were blocked by authorities. She and her husband had to turn back and go home mid way. While they were in Sana'a clashes renewed on the road to Sa'ada, which were blocked again. She does not know when she can go back home or if the rest of her family is safe. Phone lines have been disturbed intentionally and it has become very difficult to call someone in that area.

When I was talking to her, she seemed sympathetic with what we call Houthis and what she called students in her area. For her, they are just a few people who wanted to practice their religion and were prevented by the state, the hard way. Was she a Houthi too? And what would that mean or should mean to me as a more neutral citizen talking to her?

We have heard of stories in neighbouring towns like Bani Hushiesh less than an hour from Sana'a where the struggle between the state and the Houthis has reached. Stories of how if being remotely linked to Houthis or having sympathized with Houthism could directly take you to jail for an indefinite time, if not kill you. Families and neighbourhood have split and some people used this accusation to get even with others because of personal grudges. The alarming issue here is that you did not need evidence to accuse someone of being Houthi, all you needed is create doubt and make anyone with some authority believe you.

The more people killed because of this conflict the stronger it becomes and the wider it spreads. They are Yemenis after all, and they can be anywhere. You can never fight faith with force. How much more time would the state spend on this war? Especially that while it is struggling to control a bunch of rebels, others are on the rise. Others who have totally different objectives, they just want to take advantage of a troubled worn out state. One that does not know what it is going to do with the Houthis, and frankly speaking, I don't think anyone has a good answer to this question.