Salafis forced to flee Dammaj, government forces unable to protect them, they say

News and Press Release
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Published on 16 January 2014 in News
Nasser Al-Sakkaf (author)

SANA’A, Jan. 15—Following a three-month-long conflict with the Houthis, hundreds of Salafis have been fleeing the city of Dammaj in Sa’ada governorate, since Monday, headed to more stable parts of the country.

The two conflicting sides, the Houthis (Zaidi Shiites) and the Salafis (conservative Sunnis), signed an agreement on Saturday, stipulating the exit of non-local Salafis from Dammaj, out of Houthi-controlled Sa’ada.

The majority of exiles were expected to resettle in Hodeida governorate, but there are many raising questions about the practicality of the relocation.

Sheikh Yahia Al-Hajouri, the leader of the Salafis in Dammaj, arrived in Sana’a on Tuesday. He, along with 100 other leading Salafi figures, were flown to the capital in four military helicopters.

Al-Hajouri told the local Khabr agency that their transfer to Hodeida “is still under discussion. Many sheikhs have refused to move to Hodeida.”

The majority of the displaced are heading to live with relatives in different areas of the country, according to local sources because there is no alternative housing in Hodeida ready to receive them.

“The displaced families have moved to different areas of Yemen. Each family went to an area in which they have relatives,” said Soror Al-Wadei, a Salafi spokesperson in Dammaj. “Many families have been transported out, while other families are still preparing to leave. Three-hundred buses were provided to transport the families and their belongings.”

Many described the process as disorganized and chaotic.

The Salafi-operated Dar Al-Hadeeth Salafi religious school in Dammaj had a large foreign student population, which was targeted in the agreement requiring all non-locals to leave the area.

“The signed agreement cheated the Salafis,” said Dammaj resident Mohammed Al-Wadei.

Al-Wadei said Al-Hajouri and many other leading Salafi figures accompanied students from the Dar Al-Hadeeth school, who had nowhere else to go, to the Residential City in Sana’a.

Residential City was established to accommodate a Jewish minority that was evacuated from Sa’ada due to the six wars between government forces and insurgent Houthis in the North between 2004 and 2010.

Al-Wadei said he will also be leaving Dammaj, citing security concerns.

Although the Salafis agreed to sign the agreement, brokered by a presidential delegation, Al-Wadei said Al-Hajouri will be meeting personally with interim President Abdu Rabu Mansour Hadi in Sana’a to discuss the implementation of the signed document.

The agreement already appears to be facing speed bumps. Yahia Abu Osba, head of the presidential committee assigned to broker the deal in Dammaj, reported, “Government forces have not been allowed to deploy throughout the area per the signed agreement. Forces were able to deploy in some Salafi locations, but the Houthis prevented the deployment of government forces.”

The agreement stated that the state military should take control of all locations previously used by the warring sides.

However, Ali Al-Bukhaiti, a Houthi representative at the National Dialogue Conference (NDC), said, the Houthis are working to follow through with the agreement.

“There are some obstacles to the army’s deployment in Dammaj, but we will work to overcome these obstacles,” he said.

Pro-Salafi tribes in Hajja, near Sa’ada, had been blocking the Sa’ada-Haradh road since November and preventing the entrance of goods and services into Sa’ada. At the beginning of January, a deal was finally negotiated to lift the road blocks.

While Salafis feel they were cheated in the agreement, Houthi NDC representative Mohammed Al-Bukhaiti, Ali Al-Bukhaiti’s brother, said, “We had no problem with the existence of the Salafi seminary in Dammaj. The problem was the armed fighters who were students at this school.”

While Abdulnasser Al-Khatari, the secretary general of the Rashad Union Party (the Salafi political party), says they now have to accept the signed agreement, he is not completely happy with it. He says it is a result of the state’s inability to resolve the conflict and worries that it sets a bad precedent.

“[The survivors] had to choose between leaving or being killed, so they chose the lesser evil. We are afraid that this sectarian displacement could happen again in other parts of the country. It is worrisome that this…is based on ideology,” he said.