Inside Sanaa, a city of fear, hunger and Houthi repression

JEDDAH: People in Sanaa have spoken of a “silent volcano of anger” against Houthi militias who control Yemen’s capital with a rule of terror, suppressing dissent and looting the public treasury.

The Iran-backed militias issue their diktats through “malazem,” propaganda booklets or leaflets containing the beliefs, ideologies and speeches of their leader, Abdul Malek Al-Houthi.

Stricken by fear, hunger and repression, Yemenis whisper to each other on street corners, then fall silent when a stranger passes by. “Sanaa has become a prison with more than three million inmates,” a shop assistant, 37, told the Arabic-language newspaper Asharq Al-Awsat.

He described a city under the absolute control of the Houthis since they murdered former President Ali Abdullah Saleh on Dec. 4. “The malazem, which the Houthis deem as a guide to governance and management through their supervisors, rule here; not the law or the constitution … there is no mercy here.”

The man’s shop was burnt out during the violent confrontations between Saleh’s guards and the Houthis, which ended in his murder. “There is a volcano of anger against this Houthi behavior, their administration and their dispossession,” the shopkeeper says.

Around him there is debris from the smashed walls of houses, shards of broken glass, burnt-out shops, and walls pockmarked by bullets and shells. The ruins of Saleh’s houses and those of his relatives, and the headquarters of his General People’s Congress, are pitiful — but still surrounded by Houthi guards. This is the “hateful Houthi time, says Slim, 40, a civil servant.

A remote corner of Baghdad Street is like a scene from a mafia gang movie. Two people talk tensely. When you pass by, they fall silent and contemplate your features to judge whether you belong to the militia.

Greetings are exchanged, you walk on, and they resume the conversation. One says to the other: “Oh, my brother, what is the matter with you? He does not appear to be a Houthi!”

Mohammed, 25, who works in an electronics shop, deletes all the photos and messages he receives for “any reason that might lead to suspicion.” His Houthi supervisor will ask for his phone to check it for evidence of opposition to the militias or any affiliation to Saleh or the General People’s Congress. Ibrahim, 33, an education worker, prefers not to carry his phone at all when he goes out.

Once, hundreds of cars and vans displayed portraits of Saleh and his eldest son Ahmed, or flags of the General People’s Congress. They have all gone. Instead, bridges and the walls of schools and mosques carry huge billboards with Houthi slogans.

Economists told Asharq Al-Awsat the Houthis spend at least 50 billion Yemeni riyals ($200 million) a year on printing slogans and publications.

Imad lives on Taiz Street. One of his neighbors was a high-ranking former army officer who has not been involved in the conflict, and stayed at home after the invasion of Sanaa by the militias in September 2014.

“These days,” Imad says, “our neighbor no longer goes to pray in the mosque. He is said to have moved to the home of a relative, which is not known to the Houthis. Some of his neighbors are likely to leave Sanaa on the advice of a relative who works with the militias.

“The Houthi hell affects everything. No salaries for employees for the second year in a row. The huge resources they earn from taxes, customs, zakat, telecom revenues and other state institutions, as well as the royalties they impose on traders and businessmen, all go to private accounts of the group, not to the public treasury.”

It is no longer unusual to see a woman or a child searching in garbage bins for food scraps, or asking you to give something of the little you have at road junctions, near bakeries or at the entrances to the markets. Elderly men and women, and thousands of children, are starving.

Many of the cases being heard by the Sanaa courts are brought by landlords against tenants who have no money to pay their rent.

Unless, of course, you are a Houthi. Adnan, 23, says: “My Houthi neighbor has three cars and recently bought a villa in Heddah and land on the airport road. I can hardly find the cost of a water tank or gas cylinder. The Houthis looted us. God avenge them.”
The value of the Yemeni riyal against foreign currencies has collapsed, amid accusations that the Houthis are speculating on the currency and pocketing millions.

“Sanaa is no longer Sanaa,” said Samir, 27, a former soldier in the Republican Guard. Since the militia’s takeover of Sanaa, he has been selling vegetables in a market east of the capital. “The poor citizen has nothing to do,” he said.

Hassan, an employee at the Ministry of Health, says: “As you talk to the people of Sanaa, you feel that despair is oppressing their lives. But with successive field losses for the Houthi militias, most people hope the end is imminent for the darkest and most miserable pages in Yemen’s modern history.”

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