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Manual The Enough Moment: Fighting to End Africas Worst Human Rights Crimes

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A small boy who had survived the airstrike was brought onstage, where he recited a prepared text in a high, strident voice. The boy on that stage might soon be one of them. In March , Saudi Arabia unleashed a full-scale military campaign against the Houthis, who had captured most of Yemen a few months earlier. The Saudis had assembled a coalition of nine states, and they made clear that they considered the Houthis, who are allied with Iran, a mortal threat on their southern border.

The war has turned much of Yemen into a wasteland and has killed at least 10, civilians, mostly in errant airstrikes. Some 14 million people are facing starvation, in what the United Nations has said could soon become the worst famine seen in the world in years. The Houthis, who are named for their founding family, have lost much of the southern territory they once ruled, but in most ways the war has made them stronger.

Battle has sharpened their skills and hardened their resolve. It appears to have deepened their hold over a population that is weary of revolt and desperate for order of any kind. Just before I arrived, members of a northern tribe not far from Sana, the capital city, packed up several hundred vehicles with grapes, vegetables, sheep, calves, cash and weapons.

The convoy drove some miles, across mountains and deserts — at constant risk of Saudi airstrikes — to support Houthi fighters on the front line near the Red Sea port city of Hudaydah. The Houthis are a result: a band of fearless insurgents who know how to fight but little else. They claim a divine mandate, and they have tortured, killed and imprisoned their critics, rights groups say, just as their predecessors did. They have recruited child soldiers, used starvation as a weapon and have allowed no dissenting views to be aired in the media.

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They have little will or capacity to run a modern state, and at times have seemed unwilling or unable to negotiate for peace. Soon after the first round of bombs began falling in Yemen in late March , a svelte, meek-looking man stepped up to a lectern in Washington. In Yemen, people mentioned it all the time. They saw it as a deliberate signaling of sinister complicity between America and its Saudi client, or even of some larger imperialist design.

The truth was somewhat different. The Obama administration agreed to support what the Saudis called Operation Decisive Storm with considerable reluctance, seeing it as an unwinnable proxy war against Iran.

The Enough Moment

One former administration official told me the decision was partly a measure of tensions with Riyadh over the pending Iran nuclear deal, which the Saudis viewed as a potentially dangerous act of appeasement. Refusing to back the Saudi adventure could have damaged an important relationship, the official said. The risks of supporting it seemed acceptable, at least at first.

But the Houthi forces proved unexpectedly resilient. Within weeks, Pentagon officials began complaining about the clumsiness of the Saudi bombers and the absence of any clear war strategy. For more than two years, the Yemen war was mostly overshadowed by larger horrors taking place in Syria.

But stories about famine, cholera and bombed weddings kept trickling into the American consciousness. In March, 44 senators voted for a resolution to end American support for the war, losing by 11 votes. There were more calls for withdrawal after the school-bus bombing in August. Then, in October, the shocking dismemberment and murder of the Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi — apparently at the behest of bin Salman himself — began to cast the crown prince and his Yemen war in a new light.

Behind those words lurks the melancholy fact that Yemen no longer exists as a nation. Some people would say it never really did. Today Yemen is a shifting mosaic of fiefs, and among the warlords there, President Hadi — who fled to the safety of Riyadh in — is universally scorned as a puppet. Their turf is the only way you can enter the country, whose skies and seas are under a strict military blockade.

Until a few years ago, Aden still had a decayed charm, with ghostly remnants of its colonial past. There were Shiite mosques and Christian churches, the only ones on the Arabian Peninsula. You could still have a beer on the beach, stroll past the house where the French poet Rimbaud lived in his final years or visit the faded English park with its statue of Queen Victoria, spackled in bird droppings. Aden is nominally controlled by Emirati-backed forces, but no one is really in charge. It is a collapsed city littered with bombed-out buildings.

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The hotels are closed. Gangs of self-appointed Muslim puritans — Salafists — roam the streets, and kidnappings and assassinations are common. My Yemeni friends warned me to stay indoors. The Houthis, by contrast, run a police state of sorts. Our visa documents, stamped by the Houthi-run Information Ministry, got us through every checkpoint after we crossed the unmarked border into the north. I breathed more easily there.

The Houthis have eradicated Al Qaeda from their areas, an achievement even their enemies grudgingly acknowledge. Airstrikes inside Sana are rare now. I witnessed only one, about a half-mile away: a trademark thumping sound followed by the whine of a jet and smoke rising in the distance.


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At sunset, much of the city falls into darkness; there is no power grid left, and the electricity comes mostly from gas-fueled generators. In Hadda, the wealthy district in southern Sana, the restaurants that catered to foreigners are gone. So are all the rich Yemenis I knew, the cosmopolitan men who used to welcome Westerners to their salons by pouring a glass of single-malt scotch. Ragged-looking men and boys, some of them barely into their teens, stop cars at checkpoints throughout the city. This theme — resistance to foreign domination — is repeated endlessly in Houthi speeches, banners and songs.

Beyond that, their political program is curiously blank. They are a militia with religious roots that has inherited a country by default. The Houthis have created a new executive body, the member Supreme Political Council, which is said to spend much of its time dealing with military and security matters.

Houthi finances are something of a mystery. I heard plenty of accusations of smuggling and enrichment among the Houthi elite — there are a few new malls and restaurants in Sana — but the volume of their self-dealing is tiny compared with the kleptocracy of the Saleh regime. The Houthis are dependent on Unicef, the World Food Program and other international agencies to keep the country from falling into widespread famine.

He replied without hesitation that they had none. One morning in June , I went to a courthouse in Sana to report on what was labeled a sedition case involving a group of rebels from the far north. At the time, the Houthis were an obscure group, even in Yemen. They were based in the mountains near the Saudi border, where they had been fighting an intermittent David-and-Goliath battle with the Yemeni military for four years. The entire conflict was a mystery. No one could agree on why the Yemeni state considered them such a threat, or how the Houthis had held out for so long; they were said to be only a few hundred fighters strong, a few thousand at most.

The Information Ministry was handing out little pamphlets about terrorism — in glossy black, with lurid red lettering on the cover — which were about Al Qaeda and the Houthis.

Uganda: The Horror

When I asked the American ambassador in Sana about these charges, he said there was no evidence of Iranian military support. In fact, the United States had insisted that none of the weapons it provided Yemen for its fight against Al Qaeda were to be used against the Houthis, who were not considered terrorists. As I stood on a street corner outside the courthouse that morning with a gaggle of Yemeni journalists, an armored vehicle drove up.

Death to America! Death to Israel! Curses on the Jews! Victory to Islam! There was something absurd and faintly comic about the scene.


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The Houthis placed a near-sacred importance on their right to chant it, and the government, instead of dismissing it as harmless propaganda, treated it as a capital offense. Even reporting on the Houthis or their sarkha was treated as a crime. On that same morning, a Yemeni journalist named Abdul Karim al-Khaiwani was arraigned on charges of supporting the Houthis, because he had visited Houthi territory and written sympathetically about them.

I later got to know Khaiwani, and spent an afternoon with him.

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He was the first person I met who had actually spoken to a Houthi. Khaiwani was also one of the first people who explained to me how the Houthi movement was born. The Houthi family are Sayyids, or descendants of the Prophet Muhammad, from a town near the Saudi border called Marran. For more than a thousand years, Zaydi Muslims from Sayyid backgrounds formed a kind of royal caste in northern Yemen. Their most prominent families supplied the kings who ruled for much of that time. After the monarchy, known as the Imamate, was overthrown in a revolution, the Houthis and their fellow Sayyids were cast down from their perch and reviled as a backward, antidemocratic group.

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They were effectively banned from participation in government. Then, in the early s, came a second blow. It included the creation of a Salafist school in the city of Dammaj, where a number of Qaeda figures later got their religious education. The Saudis, in other words, exported a toxic cocktail of sectarianism and corruption to Yemen. The faith they professed was a version of Zaydi Islam marinated in anger against the House of Saud and all its allies, including the United States. The most charismatic of these young Zaydi renegades was Hussein al-Houthi, who dismissed the Sept.

By the time I first heard the sarkha outside that Sana courthouse in , Hussein al-Houthi was gone, killed in a confrontation with Yemeni soldiers four years earlier. But his younger brother Abdul Malik replaced him, and the movement soldiered on.

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