Asia, Culture of Peace

Peace Letters in Yemen

By peace journalist Salem Bin Sahel from Yemen (@pjyemen on Instagram) and Terese Teoh from Singapore (@aletterforpeace), World BEYOND War, June 19, 2020

These letters are in Arabic here.

Yemen war: Letter from a Houthi to a member of Hadi’s govt

Dear Salemi,

I don’t know how long we have been at war, and still no end in sight. We’ve got the world’s worst humanitarian crisis. We are extremely pained by this preventable suffering. But when bombs are thrown and the government ignores what the peaceful are saying, measures have been taken in self-defense; preventive attacks are launched to avoid being attacked. Let me share with you Ansar Allah’s side of the story.

We are a ground up movement promoting democracy. We are tired of the biases of the international community, due to vested economic interests in Saudi oil. The transitional government now consists of mainly members of Saleh’s ruling party, without any input from Yemenis, and as expected, failed to provide for basic needs of Yemenis. How is this different from the old regime?

We are not deterred by foreign intervention; it only encourages us to sharpen our battle strategies. Yemen is our land, and foreign countries have nothing but selfish interests in it. The UAE are using the STC as just a temporary marriage of convenience. After all, they’ve both shown support for us as well as blackmailed us by breaking our alliance with Saleh. If the Houthis stop fighting, then the UAE-backed STC will start picking a fight with you anyway. The UAE is interested in the oil fields and seaports in the south, to prevent it from challenging its own ports in the Gulf.

Together with them, Hadi proposes absurd solutions like the splitting of Yemen into six federal states, which is doomed to landlock our movement. And the issue has never been about the shape of Yemen on the map – it’s about the abuse of power and ensuring basic services for Yemenis. It is also wise to note that none of the Gulf nations really support the unity of Yemen. Splitting them only makes Yemen bow down to foreign interests all the more.

More outrageously, they could be even profiting from our suffering. One day we read, “Saudi prince Mohammed bin Salman buys [£452m] yacht.” and then again, “$300m French chateau bought by Saudi prince.” So has the UAE been exacerbating human rights abuses. Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have revealed the existence of a network of secret prisons operated by the UAE and its proxy forces.

The Houthis know foreigners’ strategy well. That is why we never trust the foreigners, and turning to them as a source of quick support only adds complications. We need to pander to everyone’s differing interests to solve this crisis – and fall under their oppression again. Corruption has only shifted from one place to another.

Ansar Allah has chosen a smarter approach. Instead of depending on foreign actors that have personal interests in Yemeni affairs, we have chosen to build up a strong base among Yemeni civilians. We want a Yemen designed by Yemenis; run by Yemenis. Sharing their grievances is why we have been able to forge coalitions with other groups – both Shia and Sunni – unhappy with Yemen’s persistent high unemployment and corruption.

It seems that recently they realized that this approach is crumbling, as expected, so they started calling for ceasefire. But after all the war crimes they have committed, and misled the world to be against us, do you think we can easily believe their sincerity? In fact we were the ones who unilaterally announced that we would stop strikes in Saudi Arabia all the way back in 2015 when the war was in its nascent stage. The Saudi-led coalition responded by bombing, killing more than 3,000.

We will persevere to the end, like the Vietnamese did in the Vietnam war. We cannot lose this opportunity to institute a just system for Yemenis; we’re not going to fall in their trap anymore. They have stoked unnecessary tensions everywhere, from sectarian politics to petro-power rivalry. They might wage another war against us soon again (after they gain strength), with the international military might backing them once more.

There are ways international actors could be helping us. They could invest in our economy, help in providing medical and educational services, and contribute to the basic infrastructure of the country. But most have disrupted all of these very services and precious infrastructure. And they try to devise peace plans for our future when Yemenis have so much they want to say. They should leave us alone, because we know what went wrong in Yemen, we know what to do and how to lead the country.

Despite all the bitterness towards the Saudis and the Americans, we are willing to take a step towards friendly relations if they give Ansar Allah the chance to lead Yemenis, because we want to do what is good for our country.

We will institute a transitional government that takes into account all political parties. We have already worked on a policy document, titled, “National Vision for Building the Modern Yemeni State”, and Ansar Allah leaders have encouraged other political parties and the public to provide input and commentary. In it we also document how to achieve a democratic, multi-party system and a unified state with a national parliament and elected local government. We will continue to uphold dialogue with other international parties and take into consideration the domestic situation of local Yemeni parties. And the government will consist of technocrats, so as not to be subject to quotas and partisan tendencies. We have a well-planned programme ready from the first meeting.

We want the war to end. War has never been our choice, we hate the human rights violations war causes.  We will always champion peace. But international actors have to end their mismanagement in the war. The Arab coalition must lift its air and sea blockade. They must pay reparations for the destruction done. We also hope that Sanaa airport is reopened, and a number of things that must be made available to the Yemeni people.

We see a rainbow at the end of this tumultuous journey for Yemen. We dream of a united, independent and democratic country, with strong judicial, education and healthcare systems, and has warm relations with its Middle East neighbours and the rest of the world. Yemen will be free of mercenarism, oppression, and terrorism, built on the principle of mutual respect and acceptance of one another and where people are in sovereignty over their own land.

Sincerely,

Abdul

Dear Abdul,

From your letter, I feel your rage and pain for Yemen. You might not believe me, but the love for our motherland is something I know very well. Thank you for offering practical solutions to bring us closer to resolution, and let me share with you the Hadi-led government’s side of the story.

Yes, other countries have helped to prolong this war. But they too care about the future of our country, and felt it was their moral duty to intervene. Remember that the US recently announced $225 million in emergency aid to support UN food programmes in Yemen, despite their own difficulties. We would welcome the Houthis in government, but we fear your movement evolving into a terrorist movement, like the Shia and Iranian-backed Hezbollah, in Lebanon. And the Houthis’ deadly assault on a Salafi Islamist school worsens Sunni-Shia tensions, and invites Saudi Arabia to step in further to suppress sectarian hatred.

Many of us also believe the Houthis are trying to restore the imamate in Yemen, as your teachings advocate sharia law and a restored Caliphate, a single entity ruling the whole Muslim world. It’s a reminder of the Islamic Revolution in Iran. Now Iran is slowly building up its capabilities to challenge Saudi Arabia in the Gulf. And this is also why the Saudis are fighting so hard to prevent that in Yemen: no one wants a bipolar order in the Middle East, another name for war.

I know you’re also unhappy with the National Dialogue Conference (NDC) back in 2013 and being unrepresented in the transitional government. But we had the same intentions as you do in creating the new government you envisioned. In the NDCs, we incorporated perspectives from local civil society organizations. It was a real step forward for democracy! Yemen needed – and still needs – your help. So I was stunned when in March 2015, Houthis raided the NDC Secretariat in Sana’a, putting an end to all NDC activities.

I can understand why you feel negotiation is going nowhere, but resorting to intimidation and violence to get your groups into the government turns people off. Yemenis in the south and the east stopped supporting the Houthis and denounced your takeover as a coup. So if you do get into power, if you do it by violent means no one will respect you.

Multiple demonstrations across Yemen show that the legitimacy even in the areas you control is challenged. We’ve faced huge protests too for our policies. Neither of us can lead Yemen alone. If only both of us unite by our shared values, and bring each of our allies to the table together, Yemen can go very far. To heal the deep wounds in the country that each of us have contributed to, we must begin with ourselves.

We once thought that a powerful superpower would cure our woes. Before 2008, the presence of the U.S. helped to maintain somewhat friendly relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia. Thanks to the unilateral power in the region, military deterrence was everywhere. Iran and Saudi Arabia did not have to worry about being decimated by each other. But then again, to think about it, it could be also hyper-involvement and counterproductive. The root problem of the tensions remains unsolved… the painful sectarian division between the Shi’ite and Sunni Muslims. Going back in history, we repeatedly see wars surface because of the same tensions: the 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq war; the 1984-1988 Tanker War. If this rift does not end, we can expect to see more proxy wars beyond Yemen, Lebanon and Syria… and I can’t even imagine the devastating consequences from a direct conflict between the two.

And that is what we must prevent. So I believe in strengthening ties with both Iran and Saudi Arabia in the long-term, and I believe Yemen could potentially be a stepping stone towards stronger relations between the two countries. Saudi Arabia has been unilaterally calling for a ceasefire this year. I still remember in December 2018 when Iran announced support for the talks in Sweden, reiterating shared beliefs: Yemeni civilians’ needs first. It is heartwarming to also see Iran present their four-point peace plan for Yemen in line with the principles of international human rights. The concept that unites humanity. Will the Houthis put down their weapons and join us in this call for peace?

We might inevitably be a little closer to the Saudis in the immediate aftermath of the war, because the Gulf Cooperation Council has promised us economic support. Iran, perhaps in their own struggle with economic issues, has not provided much assistance to address Yemen’s humanitarian crisis nor offered assistance to help Yemen rebuild after fighting ends. But ultimately, seek friendship with both countries.

Like you, I don’t want to divide the country into north and south because given that Yemeni Muslims in the north are largely Zaydis and southern Yemenis are Shafi’i Sunnis, I fear that it will exacerbate the Sunni-Shia divides already present in the region, worsening tensions and fragmenting Yemen instead. I yearn for a united Yemen, yet the South’s grievances are completely justified as well. Maybe we could develop something like Somalia, Moldova, or Cyprus, where weak central states co-exist with territories of consolidated separatist rule? We might have a peaceful merge later, when the South is ready. I’ll share this with the STC… What do you think?

At the end of the day, Yemen is being slaughtered with three different wars going on: one between the Houthis and the central government, one between the central government and the STC, one with al-Qaeda. Fighters switch sides with whoever is offering more money. Civilians don’t have loyalties or respect for us very much anymore; they just side with whichever militia can protect them. Some AQAP forces have merged with local militias that remain part of the Saudi and Emirati proxy networks. Fighting perpetuates the zero-sum notion that until you eradicate your opponent completely, you are the loser. War is not bringing any solutions in sight; war is just bringing more war. The thought of the Yemen war being another Afghanistan war terrifies me.

Neither do wars end when you win. Our history of war should be sufficient to teach us… We beat southern Yemen militarily in 1994, marginalized them and now they’re fighting back. You had six different wars with Saleh’s government from 2004-2010. And so it is the same logic on the world stage. As China and Russia develop their military prowess and as their influence grows, they are very likely to eventually interfere in politics. More regional and international actors are stepping in to protect their own interests through local proxies, and we will see more wars if regional hostility doesn’t end soon.

We must face the mistakes we made, and strive for a reparation of broken friendships. To truly stop the war in Yemen, and to stop all wars will need compassion and humility, and to me that is true bravery. Like you said at the start of your letter, we are facing what the United Nations has called the world’s worst humanitarian crisis. 16 million go hungry everyday. Activists and journalists detained for no reason. Teen fighters are being recruited for war. Children and women raped. 100,000 people have died since 2015. Yemen has already lost 2 decades of Human Development. If it draws out to 2030, Yemen would have lost four decades of development.

The climate of hate is turning all our forces upside down. Today we’re friends, tomorrow we’re adversaries. As you saw in the temporary Houthi-Saleh alliance and the Southern movement-Hadi forces alliances… they don’t last if joined by hatred for a common opponent. And so I choose to throw away all the war definitions. Today I call you my friend.

Your friend

Salemi

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