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Cautious Optimism in Yemen, as Cease-Fire Quiets War

  • Heather Murdock

A Yemeni army tank moves to take a position in Saada, north of Sanaa, during clashes with Houthi rebels, 11 Feb 2010

A Yemeni army tank moves to take a position in Saada, north of Sanaa, during clashes with Houthi rebels, 11 Feb 2010

The fighting in northern Yemen appears to have stopped for the first time in six months, after the government and the rebel army announced a cease-fire last night.

As the 'call to prayer' rings out from speakers hung on minarets all over Yemen, men and some women rush from their homes to the nearest mosque. This Friday, for the first time in a long time, some of their prayers appear to have been answered.

On Thursday night, Yemen's President, Ali Abdullah Saleh announced that the army would halt military operations against northern rebels known as the Houthis. The rebel leader, Abdul Malek al-Houthi had already agreed to the government's conditions for peace in the region.

The last time the two armies agreed to a cease-fire, in September, it lasted less than two hours. Mohammed al-Kibsi, the editor-in-chief of the Yemen Observer, and a reporter who has been covering the war since it began in 2004, says this time, he thinks, the cease-fire is for real.

"I think it is the end because both sides are tired, and there is the intention for peace now, especially since there are some other wars which Yemen is battling: The war against al-Qaida and the Southern Movement," he said.

Al-Kibsi says the Yemeni government is re-focusing its security priorities to battle al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, and the Southern Separatist Movement. Both organizations want the fragile Western-allied central government to fall.

For years, the Houthis have denied being rebels, saying they are only defending themselves against violent political and religious oppression. The Yemeni government says the Houthis are terrorists. And with active support for the Yemeni army from Saudi Arabia, many believe that this war is, or at least could turn into, a proxy war between powerful regional rivals Iran and Saudi Arabia

At least 200,000 people have been displaced by the war, many several times. In the past six months, families have been streaming out of the war-torn province of Sa'ada, eking out an impoverished existence in desert refugee camps and urban slums. Displaced families across the country say what they want the most, is just to go home.

Mohammad Ahmed Talib, fled his home in the Old City of Sa'ada less than two months ago. He says his family is desperate for food and medical care. Talib, his wife and six children now share two dark stone rooms in a remote slum on the outskirts the government-controlled capital.

Talib says he is not a political man, but warns his son not to speak badly about the Houthis. Even if the war ends, and the government wins, he says, there is a good chance that in some areas, the Houthis will still be in charge.

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