Houthi soldiers defying the odds against them

Houthi soldiers defying the odds against them

In his book “Century of the Wind,” the late Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano tells how in 1927 the U.S. Marines landed in Nicaragua to quell a revolutionary revolt by Augusto Cesar Sandino, who led a ragtag army of Nicaraguan peasants to fight the invasion. Armed primarily with machetes and 19th-century rifles, Sandino’s army fought the marines, undergoing heavy losses in an enormously unequal fight. In November 1927, the marines succeeded in locating El Chipote, Sandino’s mountain headquarters. However, when the marines reached it, they found the place abandoned and guarded by straw dummies.

Despite massive efforts, American forces were never able to capture Sandino, and eventually, due in large part to the 1929 Great Depression, U.S. soldiers were withdrawn from Nicaragua following the 1932 Nicaraguan elections. As Alfonso Alexander, a Colombian journalist fighting in Sandino’s army, said at the time, “The invaders were like the elephant and we the snake. They were immobility, we were mobility.” Chilean poet Gabriela Mistral admiringly called Sandino’s warriors a “crazy little army.”

There is an eerie resemblance between these facts and what is now happening in Yemen, the poorest country in the Middle East, where a small army of Houthi soldiers is fighting the combined forces of Saudi Arabia and its allies (the five Gulf Arab States and Jordan, Egypt, Morocco and Sudan), with the support of the United States. The disproportion of forces between both sides would be laughable, if it weren’t tragic.

Saudi Arabia, one of the most undemocratic governments in the world, repeatedly accused by human rights organizations for its abuses, claims its attacks are aimed at restoring the democratic government of Yemen.

The Houthi rebels belong to a branch of Shiite Islam known as Zaidism, and make up almost a third of the country. They have ruled the north of the country for almost a thousand years, until the 1960s. The rise of al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula — whom they oppose — and their long-held feelings that the central government wasn’t sharing fairly the country’s resources led to their taking up arms against the government.

Considered a threat to the regime’s stability, the Yemeni government waged a brutal war against the Houthis in their stronghold in Saada province, located in the north of Yemen. Although their leader, Hussein al-Houthi, was killed in the first war, he was replaced by his brother and current leader, Abdul Malik al-Houthi.

The Houthis rose to power because most Yemenis want a strong leader, with a clear vision about where the country should go. Both brothers were able to provide that vision, which essentially encompasses the desire for government accountability, an end to corruption, fair fuel prices, job opportunities for ordinary citizens and a more fair distribution of resources.

The Houthis have been shown to be well organized and reliable. Since taking control of Saada, their birthplace, they have made it one of the most peaceful and well-run areas in Yemen. The sun of gunfire has almost ceased now in Sadah, the Saada Governorate capital city. Residents have electricity for most of the day and reliable water supply.

Since declaring control of Yemen on Feb. 6, the Houthis have been advancing steadily south, in spite of heavy losses and constant bombardment by Saudi Arabia and its allies that has provoked a serious humanitarian crisis in the country.

Unrelenting air strikes have killed and injured thousands of people, many of them civilians, and thousands more have been forced to leave their homes and are desperately trying to find food and potable water. On April 18, Oxfam’s warehouse in Saada, containing humanitarian supplies, was hit and destroyed by an air strike, leaving thousands of civilians without help.

A group of Yemeni scholars, residents and nationals of the United Kingdom and the U.S. have issued an statement regarding the situation in Yemen in which they state:

“The military attack by Saudi Arabia, backed by the GCC states (but not Oman), Egypt, Jordan, Sudan, the U.K. and above all the USA, is into its third week of bombing and blockading Yemen. … Rather than contributing to the destruction of the country, the USA and U.K. should support a U.N. Security Council resolution demanding and immediate, unconditional ceasefire and use of their diplomatic influence to strengthen the sovereignty and self-government of Yemen. As specialists we are more than aware of the internal divisions within Yemeni society, but we consider that it is for the Yemenis themselves to be allowed to negotiate a political settlement.”

It is possible that the Houthi army’s actions will force a political settlement of the conflict, which seems to be the most reasonable course of action. Like the valiant Nicaraguan soldiers, Sandino’s “crazy little army,” there is no reason to believe so far that the Yemeni soldiers have other than their country’s peaceful survival in mind.

Cesar Chelala is the winner of an Overseas Press Club of America award and a national award on journalism from Argentina.

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