As the devastating war in Yemen enters its fourth year, journalist Yousef Mawry recalls his eye-opening journey into the heart of Houthi territory.
In 2012 I was assigned to cover three reports in the northern province of Sa’da, the heartland of the Ansarullah (Houthi) movement.
Back then, I was convinced that Ansarullah was a corrupt, misguided group of people who deviated from Islam. I hated them. I used the word “hated” because that’s how I really felt towards them. “Dislike” is not strong enough of a word to express my feelings at that time. My opinion was based on information and propaganda spewed by the media and prominent Yemeni scholars that acculturated me and millions of other Yemenis. To be completely honest, I sometimes questioned whether they were even Muslim.
Yet as a journalist with an assignment to complete, I could only set my personal feelings aside and journey into the uncomfortable territory of Sa’da. The political climate in Yemen at the time was tense as it was preparing to undergo a National Dialogue Conference. The Conference was designed to bring all the Yemeni conflicting parties to the table in an attempt to negotiate solutions to end years of political turmoil. The coalition government was in power and Abdu-Rebo Mansour Hadi was the President. I estimate that about 95 percent of the Yemeni population shared my opposition to the Ansarullah; it was sort of like the popular trend and former president Ali Abdullah Saleh was cracking down on anyone associated with the group nationwide.
All the political factions in Yemen had agreed to take part in the dialogue, although Ansarullah had a few demands before they would agree to participate. On the hand, the Yemeni government called on the group to surrender their weapons as a prerequisite to joining the dialogue. It even set up a committee that would travel to Sa’da to meet with Houthi officials to try and convince them to hand over their weapons.
One of my main assignments in Sa’da was to cover this meeting. Although I didn’t want to go to Sa’da, a little part of me did because I wanted to see first-hand what this movement was all about. Plus, at the end of the day, it just didn’t sit well with me the fact that I hated them without actually ever meeting them or hearing their story face to face.
Arrival in Sa’da
So I traveled to Sa’da with my cameraman, Ali Homran, Ahmed Al-Kibsi (a well-known Yemeni journalist) and a driver. I also had my Russian-made handgun, which I kept concealed. On our way to Sa’da, I remember driving through the province of Amran and passing by numerous checkpoints controlled by armed al-Ahmar tribesmen. They stood over the road on hills arrogantly staring at us as we passed by them as if they knew where we were heading.
As we got closer to Sa’da, we started to see Houthi signs painted on rocks, mountains and local stores. My first encounter with an actual Ansarullah soldier came at the very first checkpoint near the border of Sa’da. While approaching the checkpoint, our driver was playing a popular Nancy Agram song called al-Dunya Hilwa (Life is Good) which could be heard through the speakers as we pulled up. I think our driver (who was in his 50s) was deliberately trying to piss them off as he wasn’t very fond of them either.
Suddenly, a teen who looked to be no more than 16 years old ran to the side of the car with an AK-47 around his shoulder. “Sir what do you think about turning down this “Munkar” (evil) that Allah disapproves of?” he asked the driver. The driver refused to turn the music down, and the boy stood back. We waited nervously as he paused for a moment. I had my hand on my gun in “ready mode” in case the worst was to unfold. Then a big smile appeared on his face as he replied, “My apologies. Welcome to Sa’da, go right ahead.”
While driving past the checkpoint we saw a sign which read: “These security measures are for you not against you.” As we entered Sa’da we were met with a very loud and incessant noise coming from the sky. I didn’t know what that sound was, but it was immediately very annoying. I learned later that the sound was coming from a US drone. That drone had been circling the skies of Sa’da for about a week prior to our arrival. The noise was so constant that Sa’da residents had grown used to it and hardly noticed it anymore.
Not wanting to be there
Our first assignment in Sa’da was to cover the meeting between the National Dialogue Liaison Committee and members of the Ansarullah at the Republican Palace. When we arrived, I noticed that some members of the liaison committee wore facial expressions that clearly showed they did not want to be there. I recognised that look from seeing myself in the mirror. I also did not want to be in Sa’da.
While interviewing one Ansarullah official, I asked him: “Will your movement take part in the national dialogue conference, and if so, what are your demands?” I don’t recall what he said verbatim, but he mentioned that negotiations are what Ansarullah had wanted all along. He insisted that the government must first guarantee there would be no foreign meddling in the dialogue.
The irony of the situation struck me in that moment. As he was making his statement against foreign meddling, a noisy US drone was literally spying right above us. After the interviews, my cameraman, myself, the driver, and the Yemen Today reporter al-Kibsi had lunch. After the meal, we bought Qat from the market and checked into a local hotel.
The day before I traveled to Sa’da, I asked Mershid al-Merhibi, a neighbour of mine, if he wanted to have an adventure and come with me to Sa’da. I figured that as long as I was going to uncharted territory, perhaps it would be a good idea to have someone I know with me. Mershid chose to not travel with us, but he joined us at the hotel later that day.
I didn’t really know much about Mershid, but I did know that he was a friendly person who didn’t have a lot of money. We weren’t really friends, we just knew each other from the neighborhood. But when Mershid arrived at the hotel, he seemed exceptionally happy and optimistic. In fact, he reminded me of a little kid who had just entered Disney Land. I couldn’t make sense of why he seemed so excited when there was nothing to be happy about. One thing I knew for sure was that I didn’t want to be in Sa’da another minute.
The five of us gathered to relax and chew Qat inside the hotel. A couple of hours later Ahmed al-Kibsi had to go back to Sana’a to finish editing his report for that day. He wasn’t planning on staying in Sa’da three days like we were so he left with the driver. After finishing my first report, Ali the cameraman, Mershid, and I had dinner. Soon afterward we began prepping for a night of rest. Since Ali had to stay up all night to edit the report and upload the package to the station on a very slow internet server, he had a room to himself. Mershid and I shared the other room.
A secret Houthi
During my first night in Sa’da I was awakened abruptly around 3am to the sound of someone sobbing and crying. I knew it was Mershid because he was the only other person in the room with me. I peeked over my blanket and saw him sitting up on his bed. He was sobbing while reciting the Quran.
At first, I couldn’t tell that he was reading the Quran because Mershid would read a couple of verses and then begin to cry. This went on for about 15 minutes. He would read a couple of verses, or be in the middle of a verse, then would burst out crying before finishing the verse. I had never heard someone reciting Quran and crying in such a fashion. I’ve heard people cry while reading Quran before, but not like this. I was witnessing something very special.
Mershid was literally pouring his soul into every single word of the recitation as if Allah himself was right there in front of him. He would try to regain control of himself, to stop the sobbing, but as soon as he attempted to continue reciting, the sobbing would return. He would occasionally reach down to use the bottom of his shirt, wiping away the tears that were constantly sliding down his cheek.
As I listened intensively my own eyes began to go a bit teary from listening to his wholehearted and sincere sobbing. I realised he was sobbing because the words of Allah had moved him. He was in a state of pure harmony and tranquility. I was a bit envious because, well, I was never affected to that level from reciting Quran. What was he comprehending from the Quran that I wasn’t comprehending, I thought to myself. He wiped his tears, gently closed the Quran, kissed the cover, and placed it back atop the cabinet where he got it from and fell asleep immediately. I didn’t hear another sound out of him.
Meanwhile, I struggled to sleep as I lay there, contemplating what I just experienced. I finally put two and two together and realised that Mershid was a supporter of Ansarullah. It made more sense after I realized that Mershid had been dishonorably discharged from the Yemeni Army and lost his wages for refusing to take part in the first war against the Houthis in 2004. Mershid had followed his heart to Sa’da.
My defence mechanism goes down
The following morning we went to cover a demonstration in the heart of Sa’da. The theme of the protest demonstration was “No foreign intervention in Yemen”. The noise from the US drone, like the sound of an old lawnmower, was persistent throughout the protest. It felt insulting. Ansarullah speakers condemned “US and Saudi meddling” in Yemen’s internal affairs. They also called on the Yemeni government to disallow Saudi interference in the National Dialogue Conference. I remember thinking to myself, the speaker doesn’t sound like he is asking but demanding.
After the demonstration, a local Ansarullah activist named Kassim al-Khuteeb invited me and the cameraman to share lunch at his home. I respectfully declined the offer, but he and his family refused to accept “no” for an answer. As much as I detested the idea in my heart, we ended up going to his home for lunch.
We were welcomed into their home with smiles and open arms that required me to open my mind, at least a little. I met their family, some of their friends, neighbours and cousins. They were extremely nice, very respectful, and prepared a scrumptious feast that I was not expecting. When the food came, my hunger was matched only by the guilt I felt about eating with people whom I viewed as enemies. It was a surreal and uncomfortable situation for me but very rewarding at the same time. Because of their hospitality and what I experienced the night before, my defense mechanism went down a notch.
We got through lunch and had to head back to the hotel to edit the report. Kassim and his cousin insisted on giving us a ride back to the hotel. During the ride, Kassim’s friend was reading out a poem he wrote about the US. I don’t remember much of what he said, but I do recall him saying something like: “The drone flying over us will burn, just wait and see.” His poem also mentioned “Sa’da will one day be the capital of the world.”
When we got back to the hotel, Mershid wasn’t there. I guessed he was out visiting friends or family. After finishing the report I went to sleep right away. Once again, I woke up in the middle of the night. This time it was to the sound of Quran recitation coming from the mosque nearby. The entire city could hear the recitation playing from the speakers of the mosque. I remember looking out of the window towards the mosque where the beautiful voice was coming from. I asked myself: “How can these people not be Muslim, have I been lied to?”
I have been to every province in Yemen, and I never heard the Quran being recited across the entire city during the night hours. It was wonderful and humbling. I fell asleep that night listening and pondering to the recitation of Quran coming from the mosque. Till this day whenever I hear or read Quran, I spend most of the time contemplating the meaning of the verses as opposed to just reading for the sake of reading. When you dedicate enough sincere time contemplating the Quran you begin to see it for what it really is. It’s not just a book; it’s the Author’s manifesto for all of life’s affairs.
The next day was Friday, and our assignment was to deliver a report about al-Dalh, one of the cities that was severely damaged by Saudi airstrikes and illegal cluster bombs during the Sixth War between Saudi Arabia and the Houthis.
Approaching the area, we saw countless houses and structures that were completely destroyed and left to rubble. I never saw such utter destruction before my own eyes. What appalled me, even more, was knowing that none of this was ever reported or talked about by local or international media. The media had made it seem as if it was the Houthis who were killing civilians. In the heart of al-Dalh was a historic mosque, and people were heading there to pray the Jumah Prayer.
When I entered the mosque, the first thing I noticed was the massive hole in the roof due to a Saudi airstrike. The Friday congregation began, and I sat on the ground with the rest of the worshippers to listen while the cameraman got some footage. The Friday speaker was in his late fifties, but he sounded very young and strong. If you wanted me to tell you what the topic of last week’s Khutbah was about, I couldn’t tell you. But till this day I still remember the Khutbah given that day at that damaged mosque in this city that was almost leveled to the ground by a Saudi airstrike in the Sixth War.
The topic was Islamic unity and the dangers of not following Quran. The speaker said the Muslim world was in its current state because we have misapplied the Quran in our daily affairs. He talked about how most Muslim rulers were agents of the West and how it was an obligation on Muslims to change this status quo, saying that Allah would punish us if we failed to do so.
He also promised that Saudi Arabia and the Yemeni government would pay a heavy price for their war on Sa’da and for being “traitors of Islam.” After Friday prayers, we interviewed ordinary people in the streets of Sa’da. Nearly every person I interviewed basically repeated what the previous person had said. No matter what question I asked, they all seemed to circle back to talking about the bigger issue at hand. They weren’t just concerned with the affairs of Yemen; they were concerned about the affairs of the entire Muslim world and this was coming from people who had very little and had just experienced six wars that nearly destroyed their homeland.
Who really are the Houthis?
The following morning we drove back to Sana’a. During the ride I contemplated everything that I had thought I was so sure about the first time I approached Sa’da. I realised the truth was not being told about what happened in Sa’da or who the Ansarullah really were. I wanted answers so I started to do my own research.
In addition to reading books and doing countless reports, I visited several scholars or people of knowledge who didn’t like the Houthis and asked for their opinions about the group. Most of them said the Houthis curse the Sahabah and curse Aisha (RAA) and that they were agents of Iran. I even had one tell me the Houthis had their own version of the Quran, among many other things. I asked: “Is there any evidence to prove this?” The reply would be: “all this information is in their books.”
To make a long story short, I didn’t find anything of this nature in the books I read. What I did read was more in line with what I saw with my own eyes and heard with my own ears while in Sa’da. What I also came to discover was that Ansarullah hopes to revive the revolution of Imam Hussain (RAA) when he revolted against the tyrant rule of Yazid and was martyred with most of his household. One of their main slogans is “Hayhat meena zillah” which is what Imam Hussain (RAA) said right before he was killed after refusing to give his allegiance to Yazid.
I have never experienced a group of people who love their leader like the Ansarullah movement and their supporters love Sayyid Abdal Malkik al-Houthi. This is a leader unlike any of his kind. He is a simple man with a simple plan who means what he says and says what he means. His words are followed by decisive action on the ground, which has been empirically proven. When he talks, he speaks with eloquence and full conviction. He gives his enemies numerous fair warnings to come to the negotiations table before advancing on them. Every faction, every tribe, every leader who has raised arms against al-Houthi has been defeated including the powerful tribe of Al-Ahmar and most recently the former Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh himself.
His supporters don’t love him just because he is from the household of Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) or because he comes from a line of family scholars. They love him because of what he stands for – which to them is Islamic liberation and the restoration of Islam at a state level. Based on my experience, Sa’da province is the only society in Yemen where the ideas and concepts of the people are in complete harmony with the leader and the army. There is a complete ideological bond between these three elements (the leader, the people, the army) and whenever this happens you will always have a strong society.
Ansarullah are often labeled by the media as a “Shia group which takes orders from Iran.” This is false. They are a Zaidi Muslim group which has a different belief system than Ja’fari or Twelver Islam. This is common sense for anyone who actually reads their literature and who doesn’t believe everything they hear in the media. Do the research.
In conclusion, this is not an ordinary Islamic movement with few political demands. They are much bigger than that. This is a movement that possesses an idea which will not tolerate the current political structure in Yemen, or anywhere in the region. The movement owes its loyalty to its ultimate goal – which according to them is to restore Islam and implement the Quran at a state level.
In order to achieve this, Ansarullah will continue to uproot or eliminate any, and every, political figure or head of state that is an agent of any foreign entity. If, or when, Ansarullah takes full control of Yemen, it will only be a matter of time before they start preparing an army to dethrone the Saudi rulers. This is what their ideology demands because they view the Saudi monarchy as a cancer within the body of the Islamic world which must be dealt with in order to “restore glory to the nation of Quran.” If or when they accomplish this, one can only imagine who Ansarullah’s next target will be.
Once again, ruling Yemen is only a means to achieve their ultimate goal. I’ve said since 2013, that Ansarullah will eventually take over Yemen and this will only be the beginning of their reign. Back then, the movement was few in numbers, weak and was suffering from a strangling blockade imposed by powerful tribes supported by Saudi Arabia. But the group had something no other entity or political faction possessed: an ideological bond and decisive belief in their leader and their cause. The siege was eventually broken and since then, the movement has never looked back.
Ansarullah is currently engaged in a war with Saudi Arabia and ten Arab nations which vowed in 2015 that they would “push the Houthis back to the cave they came from” in a matter of two weeks. Three years later, the Ansarullah movement has grown stronger and has taken control of the majority of provinces in Yemen.
The group also expanded its military operations deep into southern Saudi territories taking over numerous Saudi military sites. They continue to grow in numbers and their military power continues to advance. They are fierce in battles and anyone who has fought against them can testify to this. They are the only movement in history to successfully launch a
missile attack on both Saudi Arabia and UAE. Saudi Arabia will soon be forced to propose a truce to end hostilities which Ansarullah has asked for since the war began. However, by the time Saudi Arabia does this, it may be too late.