Yemeni activist who endured and challenged Houthi repression

Yemeni activist who endured and challenged Houthi repression
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Ibetisam Abualdonia.
Yemeni activist who endured and challenged Houthi repression
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A man carries food aid he received at a camp for the war-displaced in Yemen’s northern province of Al-Jawf. (Reuters)
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Updated 11 March 2020

Yemeni activist who endured and challenged Houthi repression

Yemeni activist who endured and challenged Houthi repression
  • Like thousands of poor fighters, the Houthis gave Ibetisam’s relative 30,000 Yemeni riyals (SR176) every month for fighting their opponents

AL-MUKALLA: Shortly before slipping out of Sanaa early this year, Ibetisam Abualdonia, parked her daughter’s car outside her home and moved to another house. “The aim was to assure Houthi eyes I was inside the house,” Ibetisam said in an exclusive interview with Arab News.
Ibetisam, 48, was among a few Yemeni activists who had stayed inside the city for years where they paid a heavy price for challenging Houthi repression and demanding salaries.
Several days before fleeing Sanaa, as many as 14 Houthi men stormed her house where they beat and verbally abused her. The Houthis sought to punish Ibetisam for being filmed strongly criticizing their leader and the movement and demanding salaries.
“They got angry when I criticized Abdul Malik Al-Houthi. They think he is a holy man,” she said, referring to Houthi movement leader. Before raiding her house, Ibetisam said the Houthis harassed her online to stop her activism. “They subjected me to different methods of psychological pressure such as sending death threats through text messages and attacking me on social media,” she said.
After Houthi reprisal attacks, she thought that the Houthis had put her on their radar and would keep abusing her if she continued criticizing them. At the same time, the widowed mother of three had to keep demanding Houthis to pay her husband’s pension in order to survive. “They have not paid the pension for the last three years. We survive on my daughter’s salary.”
She and her children fled Sanaa under the cover of darkness. “We hired a car that drove us to Aden.”
To escape Houthi checkpoints, she covered her body in a black abaya and told the children to say they were taking their sick mother to Aden. The Houthis allowed them to move unchecked.
When she arrived in Aden, she kept a low profile and moved from one hotel to another fearing hidden Houthi eyes. “I did not tell anyone that I fled Sanaa. I kept moving hotels.”
After hearing about her ordeal, officials at the internationally recognized government helped her travel to Cairo and then to Riyadh, where she recounted to Arab News her harsh days under Houthi rule.
After hearing about her disappearance, Houthis began harassing her relatives. “They blew up my uncle’s car and burnt another car of a relative of mine. They phoned my mother, sister and other members of family, vowing to punish me,” she said.
Ibetisam said life inside Houthi-controlled Yemen has exacerbated since late 2016, when the Houthis stopping paying public sector salaries in response to a government decision to relocate the headquarters of the central bank from Sanaa to Aden.
The relocation was aimed at stopping rebels from plundering the bank’s reserves from hard currencies. But instead of paying all government employees in their territories, Houthis used salaries as a leverage to force people into joining the battlefields. Many extremely poor families bowed to the pressure and dispatched children to fight along with the Houthis. One of Ibetisam’s relatives was forced to provide a child for the fighting.
Like thousands of poor fighters, the Houthis gave Ibetisam’s relative 30,000 Yemeni riyals (SR176) every month for fighting their opponents.
Confirming media reports about Houthi mishandling of humanitarian aid, Ibetisam said that Houthis give out aid to loyalists or those families who agreed to send children to take part in fighting.
“Those who do not have combatant relatives have no choice but to beg to survive. People cannot speak out because if they criticize Houthi misbehavior, they will beat or abduct them,” Ibetisam said, adding that people in Sanaa struggle to get basic services such as cooking gas, electricity or water.
Despite Houthi repression, several Yemeni women have remained in Sanaa, where they criticize Houthi political and economic policies. The number of protesters has dwindled since late 2017, when Houthis killed former President Ali Abdullah Saleh, prompting hundreds of his followers into fleeing to government controlled areas or seeking exile. Ibetisam predicted that female activists who challenge Houthis from Sanaa would share her fate sooner or later.
Some of the minor female activists have been abducted for speaking out. “They will be either killed or forcibly disappeared. Before leaving Sanaa, I found out that they forcibly disappeared 10 women,” she said.
Since taking power in late 2014, the Houthi movement has established local police regiments known as Zaynabiat to handle protests by women. In Yemen, women usually have cultural impunity from attacks.
The Zaynabiat are infamous for suppressing rare protests in the capital and other provinces in northern Yemen. The biggest anti-Houthi protest was in October 2017, when dozens of women went out to protest against hunger and poverty inside Houthi-controlled areas.
As women were getting together in Sanaa, armed Zaynabiat in black abayas beat and detained the protesters. Ibetisam said the Houthi policewomen have no offices and are under the command of Houthi observers.
In addition to suppressing dissidents, the Zaynabiat’s other roles include espionage and recruiting female members. “They exercise physical violence and kidnapping,” she said.
As a Yemeni activist who was harassed by Houthis and witnessed the signing of several peace agreements between the militia and the internationally recognized government since late 2014,  Ibetisam said that only military pressure would end the conflict. “I am inclined toward the military option. Houthism is a radical movement. It is not a political group that you can get concessions from,” she concluded.