In Sa‘dah

Maggie Michael

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Abdullah al-Ibbi is a barber in the city of Sa‘dah, a Houthi stronghold in northern Yemen. He lost two wives, tensons, 17 daughters and daughters-in-law, and eight grandchildren, including a six-month-old baby, in a Saudi-led airstrike on 5 May. In the qat fields of al-Sabr valley, a few kilometres from Sa‘dah, at least 30 children were among the 53 civilians killed by warplanes on 3 June. ‘They say in the media they targeted a military camp,’ Hammoud Abdullah told me. Seven of his relatives, including four brothers, died in the attack. ‘But what happened is that they have killed our children.’

Since 26 March, a coalition of ten countries led by Saudi Arabia have conducted an extensive air campaign across Yemen, aimed at driving the Houthis from the capital, Sana‘a, and restoring the internationally recognised government. The campaign has so far managed to push the Houthis out of several southern cities, including Aden.

The scale of destruction in northern Yemen has revived decades-old hatred of Saudi Arabia. In 1934, shortly after the foundation of the Kingdom, the Saudis and Yemenis fought over the three oil-rich regions of Najran, Jizan and Asir. The Saudis won, but many Yemenis still don’t recognise the border. The Saudi-led campaign has also hardened support for the Houthis among people who might otherwise have turned against them for their misgovernment, use of unlawful detention, and silencing of the media and opposition voices. In Sa‘dah, the houses of opponents were blown up, and many leading Zaidi scholars fled the city for fear of Houthi reprisals.

Walking along a debris-covered road through the middle of Sa‘dah, I saw markets, schools, banks, petrol stations, administrative buildings and police stations that had been levelled. Inside the old city, encircled by a three-kilometre-long and four-metre-wide ancient wall, mud-brick houses have been turned to mounds of rubble. Residents gave me lists of the names of their neighbours who’d been pulled dead from the ruins. They said they were forced to live in funk holes to hide from the planes. Yahia Hatroom showed me where he, his wife, his mother and ten children take shelter from sunset to sunrise. Pulling back a plastic sheet, he uncovered the entrance to a tiny underground room. ‘We live in rabbit holes now,’ he said.


  • 25 August 2015 at 4:52pm says:
    Horrible, but a bigger challenge is apparent.
    Yemen, one of the poorest countries in the world, and this guy has two wives, ten sons and 17 daughters and daughters-in-law.
    The future is bleak in any such culture, violence or no.

    • 26 August 2015 at 5:50pm
      bud hudnut says: @
      As I read this wrenching account of a war-time massacre, I caught myself wondering momentarily whether a comment would appear below it whose primary emphasis was one of distaste for the familial circumstances of the victims. Almost at once and somewhat guiltily, I dismissed that possibility, because surely no one could be so smug and heartless when considering the terrible calamity which has befallen these people.

  • 25 August 2015 at 5:59pm
    evelyn leopold says:
    Please note Human Rights Watch's analysis of the same area in June. Cheers


  • 25 August 2015 at 10:44pm
    jiro harumi says:
    The photo of the Sa‘dah's city centre reminds of the places hit by the 2011 tsunami in northern part of Japan. Completely flat with nothing but debris. The difference of course is that the Japanese towns were devasted by natural power while the Yemen's town was destroyed by humans. I myself felt absolutely powerless facing the tsunami debris. Powerless because there is nothing you can do to stop tsunami, earthquakes, hurricanes etc. Might there have been nothing you could do to stop what actually happened to Sa‘dah and the barber's family? Should we take human's destructiveness in the same way as we take that of natural power?

  • 26 August 2015 at 4:16am
    akvartany says:
    When a war crime is taking place right under our nose, we must not criticize the victim's culture, race or political affiliations. We must attempt to stop this horrible crime by the Saudi Wahhabi Islamist King.