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Yemen: The Little Army That Could

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 César Sandino, who led a ragtag army of Nicaraguan peasants to fight the invasion. The Marines had gone to Nicaragua to protect the lives and properties of United States citizens.

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were never able to capture Sandino, and eventually, due in large part to the 1929 Great Depression, U.S. soldiers were withdrawn from Nicaragua following the 1932 Nicaraguan elections.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 called Sandino’s warriors, admiringly, 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 U.S. The disproportion of forces between both sides would be laughable, if it weren’t tragic.

The Houthi rebels belong to a branch of Shia 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-Qaeda 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 and overtaking the government.

Considered a threat to the regime stability the Yemeni government waged brutal war against the Houthis in their stronghold in Sa’ada province, 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.

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 that 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 Sa’ada, 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 Sa’dah, the Sa’ada Governorate capital city. Residents have electricity for most of the day and reliable water supply.

Since declaring control of Yemen on February 6, the Houthis have been advancing steadily south, in spite of heavy losses and constant bombardment by Saudi Arabia and its allies that have 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. In April 18, 2015, Oxfam’s warehouse in Sa’ada containing humanitarian supplies has been hit and destroyed by an airstrike, leaving thousands of civilians without help.

A group of Yemeni scholars, residents and nationals of the UK and the U.S. have issued a 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 UK and above all the USA, is into its third week of bombing and blockading Yemen…The targets of the campaign include schools, homes, refuge camps, water systems, grain stores, and food industries. This has the potential for appalling harm to ordinary Yemenis as almost no food or medicine can enter…Rather than contributing to the destruction of the country, the USA and UK should support a UN 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, buy we consider that it is for the Yemenis themselves to be allowed to negotiate a political settlement.”

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.

Dr. Cesar Chelala is a winner of an Overseas Press Club of America award and a national award on journalism from Argentina.
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Dr. Cesar Chelala is a co-winner of the 1979 Overseas Press Club of America award for the article “Missing or Disappeared in Argentina: The Desperate Search for Thousands of Abducted Victims.”

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