Cesar Chelala
Cesar Chelala
A physician and writer

Yemen: The little army that could

In his book Century of the Wind, the late Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano tells how in 1927 the U.S. Marines landed in Nicaragua to quell a revolutionary revolt by Augusto César Sandino, who led a ragtag army of Nicaraguan peasants to fight the invasion. Armed primarily with machetes and 19th-century rifles, Sandino’s army fought the Marines, undergoing heavy losses in an enormously unequal fight. In November 1927, the Marines succeeded in locating El Chipote, Sandino’s mountain headquarters. However, when the Marines reached it, they found the place abandoned and guarded by straw dummies.

Despite massive efforts, American forces were never able to capture Sandino, and eventually, due in large part to the 1929 Great Depression, U.S. soldiers were withdrawn from Nicaragua following the 1932 Nicaraguan elections. As Alfonso Alexander, a Colombian journalist fighting in Sandino’s army said at the time, “The invaders were like the elephant and we the snake. They were immobility, we were mobility.” Chilean poet Gabriela Mistral called Sandino’s warriors, admiringly, Crazy little army.

There is a certain resemblance between these facts and what is now happening in Yemen, the poorest country in the Middle East, where a small army of Houthi soldiers is fighting the combined forces of Saudi Arabia and its allies (the five Gulf Arab States and Jordan, Egypt, Morocco and Sudan), with the support of the U.S. The disproportion of forces between both sides would be laughable if it weren’t tragic. Saudi Arabia, one of the most undemocratic and medieval regimes in the world, claims its attacks are aimed at restoring the democratic government of Yemen.

To make Saudi Arabia’s actions even more deplorable, the coalition it leads has been accused by Human Rights Watch of using cluster munitions supplied by the U.S. Although this kind of munitions is not banned by the U.S., Yemen or Saudi Arabia, its use is banned by 116 countries throughout the world. They are considered imprecise weapons that pose a long-term danger to civilians because of the unexploded remnants they leave behind.

The Houthi rebels have ruled the north of the country for almost a thousand years, until the 1960s. The rise of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula — whom they oppose — and their long-held feelings that the central government wasn’t sharing fairly the country’s resources led to their taking up arms and overtaking the government.

Considered a threat to the regime stability the Yemeni government waged a brutal war against the Houthis in their stronghold in Sa’ada province, in the north of Yemen. Although their leader, Hussein al Houthi, was killed in the first war, he was replaced by his brother and current leader, Abdul Malik.

The Houthis rose to power because most Yemenis want a strong leader, with a clear vision about where the country should go. Both brothers were able to provide that vision that essentially encompasses the desire for government accountability, an end to corruption, fair fuel prices, job opportunities for ordinary citizens and a fairer distribution of resources.

Unrelenting airstrikes have killed and injured thousands of people, many of them civilians, and thousands more have been forced to leave their homes and are desperately trying to find food and potable water.

Najam Iftikhar Haider, author of “Shi`i Islam: An Introduction,” wrote, “The Houthis are seeking a new constitution that guarantees them a representative political voice and guards against the kind of persecution their community has endured since 1962.”

Like the valiant Nicaraguan soldiers, Sandino’s “crazy little army”, the Houthis seemed to have gained important concessions in this bloody conflict with their powerful neighbor. It is possible that the Houthi army’s actions will eventually force a political settlement of the conflict, which seems to be the most reasonable course of action.

About the Author
César Chelala is a physician and writer born in Argentina and living in the U.S. He wrote for leading newspapers all over the world and for the main medical journals, among them The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, The Japan Times, The China Daily, The Moscow Times, The International Herald Tribune, Le Monde Diplomatique, Harvard International Review, The Journal of the American Medical Association, The Lancet, Annals of Internal Medicine, and The British Medical Journal. He is a co-winner of an Overseas Press Club of America award and two national journalism awards from Argentina.
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