Dahyan, a town in the far northwest of Yemen, is a farming settlement about two hours’ drive from the Saudi border. On its dusty, unpaved main street, a large crater is still visible near a fruit-and-vegetable stand, marked out by flimsy wooden stakes and red traffic tape. It was here that a laser-guided bomb dropped by a Saudi jet struck a school bus taking students on a field trip on the morning of Aug. 9, killing 44 children and 10 adults. Even for a population that had grown accustomed to tragedy after more than three years of war, the bus bombing was shocking. Shrapnel and tiny limbs were scattered for hundreds of yards around. The bomb that hit the bus, several local people told me, bore markings showing it was made in the United States. The site has now become something of a shrine. On a brick wall a few yards from the crater, large painted letters in both English and Arabic proclaim, “America Kills Yemeni Children.”
Not far away was a fresh graveyard where the victims were buried. At each grave, a color portrait of a victim stood over a coffin-shaped mound of dry, rocky earth. Beyond a low stone wall was the carcass of the bus, a mass of twisted and burned metal. A boy was standing silently by a grave as I arrived, staring down at the headstone. “We were all in school together,” he told me. He was 14. He might easily have been on that bus, he said, but he’d already gone on the school trip. He was on the way to the market to help his father when the bomb struck. His father wasn’t hurt, but he soon found out that most of his friends and teachers were dead. He now goes to the graveyard almost every day to visit them, he told me quietly.
For the Houthi movement, a powerful and enigmatic militia that rules most of Yemen’s people, the bus bombing was something of a turning point. Unlike most of the civilian bombings that have taken place over the years, this one made headlines around the world, prompting angry reactions from political figures, human rights groups and even the actor Jim Carrey. After I saw the site, an official took me to a crowded auditorium nearby, where ushers handed us pamphlets showing gruesome pictures of dead and bleeding children. A few locals gave angry speeches about the evils of what Yemenis call “the aggression.” There was no mention of the ballistic missiles the Houthis have lobbed at Riyadh, or of their own war crimes. A small boy who had survived the airstrike was brought onstage, where he recited a prepared text in a high, strident voice. As I listened to him, I couldn’t help thinking about another tragedy of this war: Many of those fighting it are themselves children. The boy on that stage might soon be one of them.
In March 2015, 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 10,000 civilians, mostly in errant airstrikes. The real number is probably much higher, but verifying casualties in Yemen’s remote areas is extremely difficult. 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 100 years. Disease is rampant, including the world’s worst modern outbreak of cholera.
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. Some families, I was told, keep donation boxes with the words “In the Path of God” printed on them; everyone, young and old, contributes what cash they can to the war effort. 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 170 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.
It is tempting to see a certain poetic justice in the Houthis’ vengeful rage against Saudi Arabia. Their movement was born, three decades ago, largely as a reaction to Riyadh’s reckless promotion of its own intolerant strain of Salafi Islam in the Houthi heartland of northwestern Yemen. Since then, the Saudis — with the help of Yemen’s former ruler, Ali Abdullah Saleh — have done all they could to corrupt or compromise every political force strong enough to pose a threat. 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. They have little will or capacity to run a modern state, and at times have seemed unwilling or unable to negotiate for peace. But this, too, is partly a measure of Saudi Arabia’s fatal arrogance toward its neighbor, a long-term policy of keeping Yemen weak and divided.
That policy may now be bringing the Saudis’ worst fears to life. Houthi officials say they have studied the Viet Cong’s tactics, and routinely refer to the war as the quagmire that will bring down the House of Saud. “We expect this war to be very long,” I was told by the de facto Houthi foreign minister, Hussain al-Ezzi. “It is a war of bone-breaking — they break us or we break them.”
Soon after the first round of bombs began falling in Yemen in late March 2015, a svelte, meek-looking man stepped up to a lectern in Washington. “The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia launched military operations in Yemen,” said Adel al-Jubeir, the Saudi ambassador. For most Americans, the Saudis’ choice of Washington as the place to announce their first major war in decades held little meaning. 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. Jubeir emphasized in his speech that the kingdom had consulted “very closely and very intensely with many of our allies and partners around the world, and in particular the United States,” which was providing intelligence, targeting assistance and logistics.
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. 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. John Kerry, Obama’s secretary of state, tried and failed to negotiate a truce.
For more than two years, the Yemen war was mostly overshadowed by larger horrors taking place in Syria. After Trump was elected, he anointed Mohammed bin Salman, the rising Saudi regent and the war’s architect, as a favorite son. When Jared Kushner negotiated a $110 billion arms deal last year with bin Salman, there were few questions about whether those weapons would be used in Yemen. 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.
Yemen’s nominal president is still Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi, a squat 73-year-old with a boulderlike bald head. He presides over what Saudi and American officials call the “internationally recognized government,” a phrase that suggests a limping aspiration for legitimacy. Behind those words lurks the melancholy fact that Yemen no longer exists as a nation. Some people would say it never really did. There was a brief moment of optimism after the Arab Spring uprisings of 2011, which toppled Yemen’s long-ruling strongman, Ali Abdullah Saleh, but those hopes collapsed into acrimony and civil war. Today Yemen is a shifting mosaic of fiefs, and among the warlords there, President Hadi — who fled to the safety of Riyadh in 2015 — is universally scorned as a puppet. The real powers in the areas he ostensibly controls, in Yemen’s south and east, are a fractious collection of armed groups and jihadists, including Al Qaeda, most of them sponsored by Saudi Arabia or the United Arab Emirates. Their turf is the only way you can enter the country, whose skies and seas are under a strict military blockade.
I flew into Aden, the southern port city that was once Yemen’s most cosmopolitan place, the center of Britain’s former colony. Until a few years ago, Aden still had a decayed charm, with ghostly remnants of its colonial past. There was a good Chinese restaurant run by a man whose father came to Aden in the 1940s, when it was a lively entrepôt full of Indians, Chinese, Africans and Arabs. 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. 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.
I had not been to Sana in four and a half years, and the changes were striking: Shattered buildings appear at regular intervals, especially on the city’s outskirts. 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. 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.
The Houthis’ imprint on the capital is unmistakable. The old pictures of President Saleh are long gone, and in their place is the Houthis’ trademark slogan, known as the sarkha, or scream, painted in red, blue and green on a white background: “God is great, Death to America, Death to Israel, Curses on the Jews, Victory to Islam.” The movement’s official name, Ansar Allah (partisans of God), is also printed everywhere, like a stamp of ownership. Houthi martyrs’ faces stare down from billboards on every highway, and the radio plays zawamil — patriotic battle hymns — day and night. Ragged-looking men and boys, some of them barely into their teens, stop cars at checkpoints throughout the city.
One night in Sana, I watched a troop of tiny Girl Scouts chanting, “Yemen will not submit to guardianship” as they marched in a youth parade. 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. Their paramount leader, Abdul Malik al-Houthi, is treated with a kind of religious awe, and the movement is often referred to as the “Quranic March.” But they do not appear to believe in Iranian-style clerical rule.
The Houthis have created a new executive body, the 10-member Supreme Political Council, which is said to spend much of its time dealing with military and security matters. They have left all the old government bureaucracies in place, though there isn’t much for them to do, and state workers have received little to nothing in salary since President Hadi moved the central bank to Aden in 2016. Houthi finances are something of a mystery. According to one estimate, they receive as much as $30 million a month in customs duties on port and overland trade, most of it going toward the war effort. Yemen’s oil, which once provided most of the government’s revenue, lies outside the Houthis’ area of control. The governor of Sa’ada province told me the provincial government’s annual budget is only $200,000. 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.
I asked Hassan Zaid, who was close to the movement’s founders and is now the youth minister, what the Houthi wanted and if they had a political vision. He replied without hesitation that they had none. “The problem with the Houthis,” he said, “is that they are a reaction to others’ behavior.”
One morning in June 2008, 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. “What do the Houthis want?” was a question I often heard and asked.
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. The pamphlet echoed the government’s claims that the Houthis were Iranian puppets and received weapons from the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps. 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. It had barred windows, and as the uniformed guards got out, we heard the men inside the car chanting the sarkha in unison: “God is Great! Death to America! Death to Israel! Curses on the Jews! Victory to Islam!” The men were led out in chains and brought into the courthouse, still chanting their slogan. There was something absurd and faintly comic about the scene. The one thing we all knew about the Houthis was that this slogan, with its deliberate provocation against Yemen’s post-9/11 alliance with the United States, was itself a central reason for the war. 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. 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 1962 revolution, the Houthis and their fellow Sayyids were cast down from their perch and reviled as a backward, antidemocratic group. They were effectively banned from participation in government.
Then, in the early 1980s, came a second blow. The Saudi leadership, shaken by the Islamic revolution in Iran, began to suspect Yemen’s Zaydis of siding with the enemy, citing Zaydism’s doctrinal affiliation with the Shiite Islam practiced in Iran. The Saudis started a campaign to aggressively promote their own hard-line Sunni religious ideas across the border, in an effort to combat Tehran’s influence. It included the creation of a Salafist school in the city of Dammaj, where a number of Qaeda figures later got their religious education. These gestures came alongside a pre-existing Saudi effort to compromise and control Yemen’s politics via regular payments to a wide range of tribal sheikhs, military officers and other elite figures across Yemen.
The Saudis, in other words, exported a toxic cocktail of sectarianism and corruption to Yemen. Until then, Zaydis — who make up about a third of Yemen’s population — never had serious quarrels with the majority Sunnis. But soon, Zaydi clerics fostered their own religious revival to combat the Saudi onslaught, and in the 1990s they founded a summer program in Sa’ada called the Believing Youth, which produced some of the first Houthi fighters. 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. 11 terrorist attacks as a Western plot and delivered a speech a few months later in which he uttered the Houthi sarkha for the first time. The slogan was designed to infuriate President Saleh, who was desperate to get onto America’s good side, and he quickly declared the Houthis enemies of the state.
By the time I first heard the sarkha outside that Sana courthouse in 2008, 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. It was fueled, in large part, by popular rage at the Yemeni government’s cruel policy of collective punishment. There were mass arrests in Sa’ada, which was treated at times like an enemy province. Roads were blocked and farms destroyed. Food became scarce. This state of siege erupted into open warfare six times between 2004 and 2010, with the government’s tanks and jets waging unequal battle against half-starved Houthi fighters hiding in caves. The fighters worked in small, independent cells, so that the capture of one unit would not endanger any others.
“We used to eat leaves from the trees,” I was told by Daifullah al-Shami, a core member from the earliest days, who is now writing a history of the movement. “There were no medicines for wounds. We used herbal disinfectant, and it often failed. Children died of hunger. I myself entered a house after it received tank fire, and saw women killed in the kitchen, their blood spilled over the oven.”
Shami now directs Saba, Yemen’s state-run news agency, which once issued broadcasts declaring him a Houthi terrorist and offering a bounty for his arrest. I met him at the agency’s offices at 7 a.m., an unheard-of hour for a work meeting in Yemen. The Houthis seem to have a more rigorous work ethic than their predecessors. Before I left, Shami told me with a chuckle that the Saudis had put a new bounty on his head, with a higher dollar figure: $5 million for information leading to his capture.
The six wars were a crucible for the Houthis. Their fighters had plenty of opportunity to hone their skills, but more important, the incompetence of the Yemeni military resulted in hordes of civilian casualties among non-Houthis, spreading sympathy for the movement among Yemeni tribes. The Houthis also accumulated a large store of weapons, looted or even bought from the state’s ill-guarded depots. By 2009, the Houthis were confident enough to engage the Saudi military in a cross-border scuffle. The Saudis were furious, and mobilized to teach the insurgents a lesson, but it backfired badly. The Houthis surprised them, staging nimble cross-border raids and even stealing Saudi weaponry. It was a humiliation the Saudis would not forget.
In 2011, when Arab Spring street protests engulfed Yemen, the Houthis saw an opportunity. Unlike other protesters, they were a movement with a battle-tested militia. As the government tottered and violence spread, some wavering members of the military and the government — frightened of the chaos and looking to ally with a winner — gravitated to the Houthis. President Saleh was forced to step down in 2012, and eventually he, too, joined forces with them. It was a shockingly cynical move for the Houthis, who had suffered so much during Saleh’s wars against them. But he brought with him lots of cash and elite units of the Yemeni military.
Iran took note of the Houthis’ growing strength. There had long been an ideological affinity between the Houthis and their Shiite cousins, and especially with Hezbollah, Iran’s most important external ally. Houthi rallies are closely modeled on those of Hezbollah, and even aspects of Abdul Malik al-Houthi’s personal appearance and mannerisms mimic those of Hassan Nasrallah, the Lebanese group’s leader. By 2013, there was solid evidence that Iran and Hezbollah were providing the Houthis with weapons and military training. These new infusions were nothing compared with the largess Saudi Arabia had been spreading around Yemen for decades. But the Iranian aid most likely included some of the ballistic missiles that the Houthis began firing into Saudi Arabia after the war started in 2015, and probably antitank weapons the Houthis have used to great effect along the northern border.
Citing these ties, the Saudis say the Houthi movement is now effectively an arm of the Iranian government, much like Hezbollah itself. When I asked Daifullah al-Shami about this accusation, he smiled wearily. “Ansar Allah tried to learn from any successful experience,” he said. “The Vietnamese — we learned from them. The Cubans too. How to stand up and confront. And Venezuela. Hezbollah was successful, so we learned from it.”
The Houthis have always been fiercely protective of their independence, he said, and would never tolerate any Iranian effort to dictate policy. Hassan Zaid, the youth minister, told me that Badreddin al-Houthi, the deceased father of Abdul Malik al-Houthi, studied in Iran soon after the shah fell in 1979, but that his experience there was “bitter.” Many years later, when Hussein al-Houthi discovered that Iran had donated money to his political party, known as Al Haq, he forced the party to return it. Zaid also said that some Houthi leaders who traveled to Tehran and Beirut in 2013 and 2014 “returned with very negative impressions. They found that Hezbollah and Iran looked on them as inferiors.”
The Houthis are politically inexperienced, and it is difficult to say whether Iran may be influencing their decisions. One Persian Gulf diplomat, citing intelligence sources, told me that Iran had dictated the Houthis’ decision not to attend the most recent round of United Nations-sponsored peace talks in Geneva in September. (The Houthis said they refused because the Saudis would not guarantee safe transit through Saudi airspace.) Yet there are also some indications that the Houthis have resisted Iranian efforts to shape their policies, sometimes to their own detriment. Ali al-Bukhaiti, a former Houthi political spokesman, told me that leading figures in Iran and Hezbollah had “tried many times to make the Houthis more reasonable.” Iran urged the Houthis not to capture Sana in 2014, he said, and tried to dissuade them from invading Yemen’s south the following year. The Houthis were never welcome in these areas, and they were soon pushed out by the Saudi-led coalition. In late 2017, Bukhaiti told me, Hassan Nasrallah called Abdul Malik al-Houthi and urged him to avoid a break with Saleh. That advice was also ignored, and Houthi forces killed Saleh and many of his loyalists last year, after he bickered with them and signaled that he would shift his loyalties to the coalition.
I spent an afternoon with one midlevel Houthi battlefield commander who doubles as a supervisor in his Sana neighborhood. He was a ruggedly built man of 42 named Bakil Abdullah al-Khowlani. We were sitting on cushions on the floor of a friend’s living room, chewing bundles of green khat leaves, the daily pastime of most Yemeni men. He was dressed in what passes for a uniform in northern Yemen’s volunteer army: tattered blazer, cloth skirt, a tan ammunition belt around the back of the waist and a jambiya, or ceremonial dagger, hanging in front. His Kalashnikov lay on the floor in front of him. When he is at home, Bakil said, he and his men help fill in for an absent state, doling out cooking gas and other essentials and recruiting young men for the military effort. They also propagate the Houthis’ version of piety, a sort of Taliban Lite. “Helping people, going to weddings and funerals, educating people, telling them about the Quran,” he said. “We protect them from cultural infiltration, television, pornography, the internet, any bad or corrupting influences.” Bakil told me he was a minor bureaucrat until a few years ago, an accountant in the government’s construction ministry. He had no prior religious or military training, and he said the same was true of most of his fellow commanders. “They are like me,” he said. “They used to be farmers, businessmen, teachers, anything. Even day laborers. They are simple people.”
Houthi battlefield tactics are a tightly guarded secret, but videos documenting their prowess are widely shared by cellphone in Yemen and have become a point of considerable pride. Some of them show Houthi fighters destroying Saudi tanks and armored vehicles with shoulder-fired missiles; in a few clips Saudi soldiers can be seen leaping from their vehicles and retreating. One famous video shows a small group of Houthi fighters using ladders to scale a steep cliff, then ambushing and killing an unsuspecting Saudi squad. Another video, in which a Houthi soldier can be heard shouting, “Give yourself up, Saudi, you’re surrounded,” became the basis of a pop song, with those words forming the chorus.
Bakil told me he commands six small battle platoons composed of about 13 men each. He has fought on a number of fronts, he said, and he grinned with zeal as he described disabling coalition tanks and armored vehicles, though he would not say anything about the weapons he and his men use. “We are stronger than we were at the start of the war,” he said. “We have the weapons we need.” Like the other Houthi fighters I met, he has suffered serious losses: His brother and his 19-year-old son were killed by snipers just steps away from him. Soon afterward, while the family was still deep in mourning, his wife demanded that their next-oldest son, who was 17, go straight to the front and “take revenge for his brother.” She also insisted on conceiving another soldier. Sure enough, nine months later another son was born and named after his martyred brother.
I asked Bakil how the Houthis had been able to sustain their battle against some of the wealthiest nations on Earth. He answered by telling me a story. Last December, he said, he was on the street in Sana when a battered-looking older man accosted him and begged to be sent to the front lines. The man was 62 and visibly unfit for battle: One arm still bore an old war wound, and he admitted to having heart trouble. Bakil tried to put him off, but the man — his name was Hussein — would not be dissuaded. He kept repeating the same phrase: “Let me end my life in a good way.” Finally, Bakil told me, he relented, and Hussein joined the flood of much younger men heading for the front. On his second deployment, later that winter, Hussein was with Bakil’s young nephew when a Saudi airstrike found its mark. “He was martyred,” Bakil told me in a hoarse whisper. Holding up a wrinkled red plastic bag the size of a grapefruit, he said: “We found only pieces of him as big as this. And the missile was American.”
As he told me this story, Bakil wept silently, the tears rolling from the corners of his dark, somber eyes. To Bakil, the old man’s insistence on dying as a martyr was a sign of divine grace, and a vindication for the Houthi movement’s mission. “Faith,” Bakil said, his eyes glowing with reverence. “Faith in Allah, Muhammad, Ali and the guiding stars, like Sayyid Hussein and Sayyid Abdul Malik” al-Houthi.
Bakil and the other Houthi fighters I spoke with described themselves as righteous defenders against an unprovoked act of aggression. But Houthi propaganda sometimes speaks of a war that will not end until they have captured Riyadh, or even Jerusalem. The Houthis have fired dozens of Scud-type ballistic missiles at targets deep inside Saudi Arabia, including airports in Riyadh, Jidda and other cities. The Saudis’ United States-supplied Patriot defense systems appear to have intercepted a vast majority of the missiles, but at least one exploded in Riyadh in March, killing an Egyptian resident and wounding several other people. The Saudis and Emiratis frequently cite these missile attacks as justification for continuing their campaign. They say the Houthis, left unchecked, could become an ever more powerful force bent on Saudi Arabia’s destruction, perhaps with a network of missile batteries concealed in tunnels like those Hezbollah has built in Lebanon.
But the Saudi case for war has not been paired with any realistic strategy to win it. Like many other Arab countries, Saudi Arabia has never built a substantial land army, in part because its rulers fear that a strong military could be used to overthrow them. For all the bombs being dropped on Yemen, the Saudis lack the ability to push the Houthis back from the border; instead, Houthi combat squads regularly attack and rout Saudi ground forces inside the kingdom. The Emiratis, the other main force in the coalition, have been more involved in training and supporting local Yemeni groups to fight against the Houthis. They have also done a slightly better job of encouraging an alternative model for the country; in Mukalla, a semblance of normal city life has resumed. But some of the Emiratis’ partners are corrupt and extremist and have a history of fighting among themselves. They have also been accused of orchestrating assassination campaigns against local Yemeni figures whose agendas they oppose.
The Emiratis’ top military priority, a ground effort to capture the port of Hudaydah, has been a slow and difficult struggle. The Hudaydah port supplies at least 70 percent of the food and medicine imported into Yemen, and the Houthis depend on customs duties on that trade for much of their revenue. The Emiratis hope that by capturing the port, they can force the Houthis to sue for peace on their own terms, which would include a retreat from Sana, giving up heavy weapons and some form of guarantee against Iranian influence. Most of the analysts I spoke to, inside and outside Yemen, say they doubt the port’s loss would end the war. Instead, it could merely deepen the misery of civilians, who are already on the edge of mass starvation.
The landscape of Houthi-controlled Yemen is littered with ruins and rubble, especially as you drive north from Sana toward the highlands of the northwest. Sa’ada Province, the wellspring of the Houthi movement, is the most heavily bombed part of the country. Driving through its main city is a bizarre experience, a tableau of destruction so complete that your head spins from trying to take it all in. Every single government building has been demolished, down to the post office, the courthouses, the culture ministry and the immigration office. The university has been destroyed, and so has its bookshop. Plenty of other buildings have been reduced to rubble, too: schools, hospitals, gas stations, restaurants, lots of private houses.
The bombings have forced some two million people to flee their homes, and they are visible everywhere. At one camp for internally displaced Yemenis, just north of Sana, I found a cluster of people who had fled recently from bombed-out areas further north. They were living in a huddle of makeshift tents surrounded by thorn bushes, and they looked much worse off than any of the Syrian refugees I have seen along that country’s borders. There were a few wrecked old cars among the tents, and one of them, I discovered, was the home of an entire family: They crawled out, one by one. They were all bone-thin and filthy, the children barefoot, their faces smeared with gray dust. A middle-aged man with an artificial leg hobbled up and described how he had tried to help victims of an airstrike in his village, only to be hit by a second bomb. He had arrived with his family just 10 days earlier. An older woman sat in front of her tent, keening in a high voice again and again: “We have no food, we have no water.” A handful of children gazed up at me silently, their eyes wide and somber. I asked one boy, a 12-year-old named Hisham, why his family had come here. “They destroyed our houses,” he said.
The Yemeni highlands have no natural water source. They are a place of great beauty, but the landscape, with its arid, lurching crags, its umber mesas, looks like a place that has seen hellfire. There is an almost Martian barrenness. Only in the lower valleys do trees appear, spiky myrrhs and acacias spreading their canopies over the stony ground.
Along the main road that runs north from the capital, every single bridge I saw had been bombed, in what appears to have been a deliberate effort to damage northern Yemen’s economic lifelines. The main effect of the bombing appeared to be congestion, as lines of cars and trucks detoured slowly through clouds of dust, thumping and banging over the rocks. At each collapsed bridge, a cluster of skinny women in black niqabs had gathered to take advantage of the begging opportunity, knocking frantically on the windows of cars as they rumbled past, pointing to their mouths to signal hunger. Some of them clutched babies to their chests.
The coalition’s blockade on Yemen, which began as soon as the war started, frequently bars or delays shipments of food and essential medical supplies. This might amount to a war crime, human rights groups say. I spoke recently to a Yemeni importer I have known for years, who complained bitterly about persistent and needless Saudi obstruction of wheat shipments. He saw these as deliberate and vindictive acts that have only worsened hunger in a desperate population. At the same time, Yemen’s currency has lost most of its value, and food prices have surged. The Saudis also block all commercial flights from Sana, making it extremely difficult for Yemenis with serious illnesses to get out of the country or receive the treatment they need.
The combined effect of the war and these artificial shortages is visible at hospitals all over the country. Outside the front doors of Jumhuriya Hospital, in Sa’ada, I walked past a dozen skeletal bodies sprawled on cots or on the ground. The hospital had no room for these sick and wounded people. Most of the province’s health clinics have been demolished by bombs. Inside the building, the smell hit me first: a reek of old food, sweat, urine and medicine. On the second floor, passing an open door, I looked in and glimpsed a brown puddle of vomit. Even the walls were smeared with grime. Everywhere, women in head-to-toe black clutched infants. One of them spoke to me in a faint voice: Her baby, 20 months old, was being treated for malnutrition. All four of her children were malnourished, but this one was the youngest and in the most danger. “There is bombing near our house — we cannot get food,” she said. “We eat potatoes.” A staff member told me that most of the mothers were themselves suffering from malnutrition and could not provide milk for their newborns. Some families were reduced to eating leaves, he said.
A doctor led me into the intensive-care room, where the worst malnutrition cases were handled. Babies and young children lay on mattresses, mostly sprawled on their backs, their mouths lolling open, their eyes vacant. Flies buzzed all around us. Back in the hallway, a staff member told me the number of critical cases had doubled since July, to 100 cases a month from 30 to 50 cases a month. “The prevalence of diseases has skyrocketed,” he said, including measles, diphtheria and cholera. “We have never had a full-admission situation like this. The staff are overwhelmed.” A 2016 survey in the Sa’ada highlands found that 78 percent of infants suffered from stunting, or chronic malnutrition. The acute form of malnutrition is prevalent here, too, but it is even worse along Yemen’s western coastline, Unicef officials told me. There, the naval blockade has made fishing impossible, cutting local people off from the staple of their diet. Even if the war ends tomorrow, the damage done to those children who survive — stunted growth, more frequent disease, mental deficits — will persist for many decades.
Another, little-noticed measure of this war is a jump in birth deformities and child cancer. A striking number of children in the hospitals I visited seemed to have birth defects of one kind or another. One Houthi fighter in Sana showed me a printed diagnosis of his 1-year-old child, which said the boy had a “tumor mass largely replacing most of” his left kidney. The fighter looked at me pleadingly: There had never been cancer in his family, he said.
A few days later, I secured a meeting with Yemen’s health minister, Dr. Taha Mutawakel, and asked him about what I’d been hearing. He nodded his head vigorously, and then handed me a three-page printout showing a grim picture of worsening disease since the start of the war. “Cancer was already high, but this is a big increase,” he said. “All types of cancer, especially among kids. The rate of deformed births is much higher, thousands of cases.” He told me he thought this was probably related to the toxic residue in the soil and air from thousands of bombings, but couldn’t prove it. He reeled off alarming statistics: 85 medical workers have been killed in the war and 231 injured. Many drugs are now unavailable in Yemen or in critically short supply; about 1,200 people with kidney disease have died because they could not get dialysis. About 250,000 diabetes patients are in danger because insulin supplies are running out. These shortages do not spare those with money and connections. “I asked the minister about my cousin who has diabetes,” Dr. Mutawakel’s young English-speaking assistant told me. “There was no insulin. He died.”
The war has also led to a sharp rise in child marriage. This cruel practice appeared to be on the wane until recently, thanks to the hard work of Yemeni lawyers, educators and activists. Back in 2008, I wrote about Nujood Ali, a girl who was forced into marriage at age 10 and then courageously escaped her abusive husband, showing up alone at a courthouse to demand a divorce. Nujood later traveled to the United States and France, where her story was popularized in a best-selling book. Her case and others like it helped spread a sense of shame in Yemen, and there were widespread calls to enforce a minimum legal age for marriage.
The war has reversed all of that. A Unicef official told me that the rate of child marriage for girls has almost tripled since 2015 and that it is now estimated to be about 65 percent. Parents “need to get rid of girls because they cannot feed them,” he told me. These girls will be pulled out of school — if they were lucky enough to attend in the first place — and many will be raped and forced to bear children before their bodies are ready, perpetuating a cycle of illiteracy and broken health. As for the boys, child soldiers are visible everywhere in Yemen on all sides. I passed many checkpoints where boys who could not have been more than 14 were on duty, clutching guns and wearing camouflage jackets that were far too big for them.
On Sept. 21, the Houthis held a vast public rally in Sana to celebrate the fourth anniversary of the movement’s military takeover of the capital. To reach it, I had to go through layer after layer of pat-downs by young men with Kalashnikovs over their shoulders. Security was tighter than usual; everyone, I’d been told, was worried that Al Qaeda would slip in and try to spoil the party. A Zaydi cleric was declaiming about the Quran over a loudspeaker, and now and then he’d lead the crowd in call-and-response chants of “Labayka, ya Abdul Malik,” a traditional pledge of loyalty. After pushing through thick crowds, I found myself in a river of men holding up red flags to mark the Ashura holiday, which happened to fall on the same day. For a moment, I could almost have been in Iraq or Lebanon, where Ashura ceremonies are a ritual of solidarity with long-dead martyrs. This year, many of them became passionate outpourings of Shiite sympathy for the Houthi cause.
The rally was a riot of fused religious and political symbols, all of them meant to telegraph the themes of suffering and defiance. It’s a narrative of victimhood that has helped the Houthis obscure their own war crimes. Mwatana, one of the few independent human rights groups still working in Yemen, documented 18 instances last year in Sa’ada province — the group’s own heartland — in which the Houthis prevented medical or food aid shipments from reaching people. The Houthis are said to be selective about who receives the limited supply of food and medicine, rewarding loyalists and punishing dissenters. Mwatana has also reported scores of arbitrary detentions, dozens of disappearances and 29 instances of torture carried out by Houthi forces in 2017. (The numbers of disappearances and tortures are higher on the other side.) Although the Houthis remain popular across the north, there are indications that discontent with their rule simmers below the surface. Just after I left, protesters gathered in a public square in Sana, chanting against the poverty caused by the war. The authorities quickly cracked down, beating and detaining several dozen people.
Many secular-minded Yemenis seem unsure whether to view the Houthis as oppressors or potential allies. While I was in Sana, I attended a lunch hosted by Bushra al-Maqtari, a novelist and political activist I have long known. She is a leftist and a pioneering advocate for women’s rights; for years, she refused to wear a veil, a controversial and risky act. (She began wearing one in 2011, in a concession to safety.) Bushra is a tiny woman whose sweet, round face masks a commanding presence. Over a lunch of fish stew, rice and salad with a handful of other intellectuals and friends, she explained sadly why she had to flee her hometown, Taiz, which lies outside Houthi control. “Now it’s a city ruled by Islah” — a Yemeni Islamist party — “Al Qaeda and Salafis,” she said. Street battles and assassinations are common, and tens of thousands of the city’s residents have fled to Sana.
She told me she had no love for the Houthis, but they seemed better than the lawless gunmen in Taiz and elsewhere. She was willing to give the Houthis credit for clearing out the jihadists and allowing people to live relatively undisturbed. The other guests mostly agreed on this point. It is not a small one: Al Qaeda was a persistent problem throughout Yemen during the Saleh years, and the situation got worse after 2011. In late 2013, Al Qaeda militants stormed the Defense Ministry and a hospital in Sana, killing scores of people, including doctors, nurses and patients. President Hadi, whose allies include Islamists with hard-line connections, seemed powerless to stop them.
After lunch, as we sat on cushions in Bushra’s living room, a lively argument broke out among the guests about the Houthis’ ultimate goals and orientation. “Depending on divine legitimacy undermines all their efforts,” one political scientist said of the Houthis. “They don’t really want a state. They depend too much on the tribes, who don’t want a state.” The moderate-sounding Houthis, he added, were the dispensable political figures; the military men were the real decision makers. Another guest agreed, saying the Houthis “could take us all away at any time.” That set off a flurry of cross talk, with one guest saying Houthi unpredictability was part of the problem: “A low-level guy could put you in jail, and then a big guy can’t even get you out.”
One of Bushra’s guests argued forcefully that it was wrong to judge the Houthis by Western standards. They are better than the alternative, he said, and have shown some willingness to adapt. “They are more flexible now — they listen to us,” he said. “The civil society of Sana pressed on them, saying, ‘This is not Sa’ada,’ ” the Houthi stronghold.
This is a theme I heard from several other people while I was in Sana. One official in the Yemeni journalists’ union described a fractious meeting two years ago, in which a high-ranking Houthi commander came to the ministry and shouted about radio stations that were playing “decadent” music. “They should be playing only zawamil,” or battle hymns, the commander said. There was a silence, and the commander noticed that all the union officials were looking at him skeptically. The commander then backed down, the official told me, saying, “We’re not the Taliban.” The radio stations kept playing music, and there were no more complaints.
The lunchtime discussion lasted through tea, and eventually the late-afternoon sunlight was slanting through the multicolored alabaster panes of Bushra’s living-room windows. The clatter of argument and laughter subsided gradually to murmurs and silences. The sadness of Yemen’s plight seemed to have exhausted everyone. I got up to say my goodbyes and left.
Later, as the night came on, I found myself thinking about a young Houthi fighter I’d met a few days earlier. His wife and 8-day-old child had been killed in a Saudi airstrike, along with four other relatives. He told me that if the Houthi leadership agreed to make peace, he would abide by it. But he didn’t sound convinced. He recited the names of the dead women and children, his face blank and stony. “Because of what they did to me,” he said, “I will keep fighting them until the day of judgment.”
Photographs by LYNSEY ADDARIO
Robert F. Worth is a contributing writer for the magazine whose book on the Arab uprisings,“A Rage for Order,” won the 2017 Lionel Gelber Prize, a literary award for best nonfiction book in English on foreign affairs. Lynsey Addario is a Pulitzer Prize-winning photojournalist. She has previously photographed in Iraq, Darfur, Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia and South Sudan for the magazine.
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