Sana'a's Newest Displaced Population

Analysis, posted 01.29.2014, from Yemen, in:

Following three months of violent Salafi-Houthi clashes in the Dammaj area of Sa’ada that left hundreds dead and injured, the Salafis left Dammaj earlier this month based on a ceasefire agreement that was supported by President Abdu Rabu Mansour Hadi. Sa’ada continues to be controlled by Houthi rebels, a group of Zaidi Shiites.

The Salafis, led by the head of Dar Al-Hadeeth Salafi Seminary, Yahia Al-Hajouri, say that the evacuation did not go as planned. According to the agreement, the displaced persons would be resettled in Hodeida governorate. However, local leaders in Hodeida rejected the influx of a new population and the central government failed to intervene. With few other options, seemingly overnight, an estimated 10,000 Salafis, a conservative Sunni sect, found themselves homeless in the capital Sana’a. The majority are living in tents and mosques in the Sawan district. 

Such a large displaced population is placing strain on local communities with no clear answer as to who is responsible to deal with the situation. The Yemen Times spoke to Mohamed Al-Ahmadi, a human rights activist who studies Salafi groups, and Khalid Al-Madhla, the head of the Al-Ihsan Charitable Association (AICA), an organization assisting the displaced, about what can be done now that Sana’a has been forced to absorb such a large population.

Let’s begin with Mr. Al-Ahmadi. Do you have any details of the agreement forcing the Salafis to leave Dammaj?

Al-Ahmadi: The Salafis had only two choices: either to die at the hands of the Houthi militia…or to leave Dammaj and live. It was very difficult for them to continue living in the area following more than three months of shelling and siege. The Salafis aren’t the first to be driven out by the Houthis. About 30,000 residents were forced to leave Sa’ada following the [government’s] six wars in the governorate, and previously, the Al-Salem Jews were also expelled.

Did the Salafis leave of their own accord, based on the proposal presented following the ceasefire?

Al-Ahmadi: No, [the agreement] was not proposed by the Salafis. They authorized President Hadi to make an appropriate decision on their behalf, but he abdicated his responsibility to protect them. They have appealed to the government and to the whole world to help them, but no one has listened. The state is attempting to disavow its responsibility for the crime of evicting the Salafis from Dammaj and [failing to protect the Salafis where they were living], in Dammaj. The third article of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights stipulates that every citizen has the right to live anywhere within his country’s borders.

But some of the state officials and members of the [presidential] mediation committee [that brokered the ceasefire agreement] said that the Dammaj Salafis left the area at Al-Hajouri’s request?

Al-Ahmadi: We are sorry to hear that the president’s consultant, Faris Al-Sakkaf, is attempting to deny the government’s responsibility to protect the residents of Dammaj and the foreign students from the Dar Al-Hadeeth Salafi Seminary, and blame the victims. The Salafis didn’t leave their area to go on a stroll! They left because they were subject to murder, displacement and siege.

So, in your opinion, the Salafis did not leave Dammaj willingly?

Al-Ahmadi: They had to leave because they were afraid of being killed. I believe that this Salafi displacement was premeditated by the Houthis. I remember that in 2011, when the Houthis allowed a team of journalists to visit Dammaj to investigate a siege, a letter was sent from the Houthi’s political office to one of the journalists saying that the Salafis should immediately leave or they would be responsible [for whatever might happen to them if they were to stay] in the area.

Do you think that the Salafis are now in a better situation?

Al-Madhla: The situation is undoubtedly tragic, and in my opinion, the Salafis are now better off than if they had remained in Dammaj. They didn’t prepare for their evacuation because they thought that the state would [stop the fighting] and that they would be able to remain in their area. But the evacuation decision caught them off guard. They were given only four or five days to leave. The situation wasn’t good when they arrived in Sana’a, but the AICA helped receive them in the Hashid area of Amran governorate before they arrived in the capital and provided an ambulance, food and other essentials. There are still more than 700 families in Sana’a in need of [long-term] shelter. The situation here in Sana’a is not good but at least they are safe from bombings and gunfire.

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Interview by Mohammed Al-Hassani

[Excerpt—See accompanying URL for full original text]