Mwatana for Human Rights: Destruction of Yemen’s History

Civilian Atrocities and Leveling of Monuments

School for the Blind in Yemen after an attack. Human Rights Watch says Houthi militants are partially to blame for putting the center in danger by stationing militiamen near the school. Houthi leaders and school workers deny soldiers were stationed nearby. (Photo A. Mojalli/VOA)

A major report detailing the destruction of culture in Yemen was released in mid-November by the organization Mwatana for Human Rights. The Degradation of History: Violations Committed by the Warring Parties against Yemen’s Cultural Property, describes the use of museums, historic sites, churches and mosques for military purposed by warring Houthi and Yemeni government factions and the deliberate destruction of these sites by UK and US weapons in Saudi hands. A second report on human rights issues was submitted to the United Nations Universal Periodic Review of Yemen by Mwatana for Human Rights, Columbia Law School Human Rights Clinic, Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies, International Federation for Human Rights, and The Gulf Centre for Human Rights in 2018.

The reports detail how fighting and destruction have terrorized the entire population of Yemen. The country’s economic collapse has led to a famine affecting millions of Yemeni people, the images of which have been widely seen around the globe.  But, as the reports show, even in the face of threats and severe adversity there are stories of neighbors protecting neighbors, as when Muslim neighbors twice protected the Christian congregants and the Sheldon Church in Aden from extremists. Since 2014, in Lahij, many people without housing were allowed to live in both the Dar al-Hajar Palace and the Palace of the Abdali Sultan with the consent of the sultan’s agent, provided they did not alter anything in the palace and kept it preserved.

The reports also highlight the destruction of mosques, churches and a Hindu temple by Muslim extremists such as Al Qaeda and ISIL, for whom worship in these places is an act of blasphemy and atheism. A list of cities, monuments, and sites damaged in the conflict is summarized from the Mwatana reports and appended below.

Brief history of the conflict in Yemen[i]

As in much of the Middle East, tensions among various factions in Yemen are complex and can be traced back for thousands of years. Although these historical tensions still play a part, the immediate origins of the current conflict began in 1990 with the unification of North and South Yemen under the leadership of former North Yemen President, Ali Abdullah Saleh and former South Yemen leader, Ali Salem al Beidh.

Yemen Unification, May 22, 1990. Uploader يوسف حسين at Arabic Wikipedia. [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons. The area of the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen (also known as South Yemen) was united with the Yemen Arab Republic (also known as North Yemen).

Saleh was a key figure in Yemeni politics from the 1970s to his assassination on December 4, 2017. He had been North Yemen’s President from July 1978 to May 22, 1990, when he became president of a unified Yemen.

In 1990 the new Yemeni government, under Saleh’s leadership, angered the US and Saudi Arabia by opposing military intervention from non-Arab states after the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait. Saleh further alienated these former political allies by abstaining on a number of United Nations Security Council (UNSC) resolutions concerning Iraq and Kuwait, and being only one of two countries opposing the UNSC’s “…use of force resolution” to use all necessary means to expel Iraq from Kuwait. In retaliation, Saudi Arabia expelled 800,000 Yemenis in 1990 and 1991.

Food shortages and unrest inside Yemen led to civil war in 1994. There is some evidence that Yemen’s northern neighbor, Saudi Arabia, funded factions from southern Yemen in a bid for succession. The underlying tensions resulting from these 1990s conflicts have never been resolved and continue to influence relations with Saudi Arabia and the U.S. to this day.

Saleh became Yemen’s first directly elected president in 1999 and was reelected in 2006.

In 2004 an insurgency of the minority Zaidi Shia Houthis’ group called Ansar Allah (Houthis) was sparked in the north following the death of their leader Hussein Badreddin al-Houthi. Al-Houthi was shot in a skirmish with the Yemeni army after resisting arrest on an order from Saleh. Over the next decade the Houthis fought various campaigns against both the Saudis and the Yemeni government under Saleh.

The Houthis originally formed as a group to combat corruption, economic underdevelopment, and political marginalization in Yemen. Their slogan, translated as “God is great, death to the US, death to Israel, curse the Jews, and victory for Islam,” encapsulates other reasons for their regional popularity as well as the alarm felt by some western nations. In general and in the Yemeni conflict, however, they side against Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and ISIL, both of which have a presence in Yemen.

Saleh was ousted in 2012 after the 2011 Arab Spring and revolution in Yemen, and Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi succeeded him as Yemen’s president.

By September 2014 the Houthis had mended their relationship with the now former president of Yemen, Ali Abdullah Saleh. The combined forces then pushed the Yemeni government, now under Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi, from power and seized the capital of Sana’a. This conflict escalated into a full on civil war by 2015, and continues to this day.

Many international analysts believe that the Houthis are currently backed by Iran. In 2015 Hadi partnered with Saudi Arabia seeking its intervention against the Houthi. By so doing, the Yemeni President brought to bear a coalition of nine Arab countries, with access to British and US weapons and with US refueling assistance, on the people and territory of one of the poorest nations in the Middle East.

In the years since, the Arab coalition led by the Saudis has been accused of deliberately targeting the infrastructure of Yemen, including its water, farming and food distribution systems. The Saudis are also accused of blocking humanitarian support, leading to widespread famine and a cholera outbreak resulting in the deaths of tens of thousands of children.

Human rights violations, Baha’i and Jewish persecution

It is widely acknowledged that all sides have engaged in activity that is in violation of human rights in the ongoing war in Yemen. Mwatana for Human Rights has documented atrocities on all sides ranging from the killing of civilians in the destruction of homes, businesses, schools and hospitals by both the Houthi and Arab coalition, to the torture, arbitrary detention and disappearance of civilians by Houthi, Arab coalition and Yemen Government forces. Both the Yemen Government and the Houthi recruit child soldiers and all factions are preventing civilian access to humanitarian aid. Journalists have been targeted by Houthi forces and some have been tortured to death.

Minorities within Yemen appear particularly at risk. 99% of the population of Yemen is either practicing Sunni or Shia Muslim. The remaining 1% consists of a few thousand Christians, Baha’i, Hindus along with about 50 Jews in the largest cities.

Baha’i[ii]

Mwatana for Human Rights and other organizations have documented persecution by the Houthi targeting individuals of the Baha’i faith. Specifically, there have been raids, arbitrary arrests, and enforced disappearance of Baha’i individuals, including women and children. Most reported incidences have occurred in the Houthi-controlled city of Sana’a. Human rights organizations speculate that the detained Baha’i are prisoners of conscience due to the pacifistic nature of the religion.

The last Jews in Yemen at severe risk

At this time the fate of the last 50 documented Jews in Yemen is unknown. The Jewish population in Yemen has a long history as an oppressed and persecuted minority. There have been Jewish communities in Yemen possibly as far back as 1451 BCE though the first historical record of Jews in that country is from the Himyarite Kingdom in 110BCE.

Active persecution of Jews did not occur until early in the 10th century when the Zaydi clan seized power, from the more tolerant Sunni Muslims.  From that time there were alternating periods of persecution and freedom depending on the perspective of the Muslim rulers in power. Sometimes persecution was in response to messianic periods in Yemenite Jewish history.  As was noted in the wiki Yemenite Jews, “The oppression at hands of pious Muslim rulers and endangerment of the community because of the plots of a few Jewish messianists, are common themes in the history of Yemenite Jews.”

Operation Magic Carpet, Yemenite Jews fleeing to Israel by airlift. (1949-1950) Wikimedia Commons.

During the early Ottoman rule, Jews in Yemen were able to live and work in Yemen as more or less accepted members of the community. This quiescent period lasted until 1630, when the Zaydis took over Yemen. A subsequent period of persecution lasted until the 18th century, when, for a short period of time the Imamics were in power. Then there was another period of persecution until 1872 when the Ottoman Empire again came to power. After 1881 there were successive waves of emigration, primarily to Palestine.

From 1920 to 1950 many Jews left Yemen through airlift and sealift programs known as “Wings of Eagles,” and between 1949 and 1950 in the well known “Operation Magic Carpet” in which Alaska Airlines participated.

There were further waves of emigration during the 2000s despite an official ban on Jews leaving the country. These emigrants consisted of groups of 10 to 400 individuals, who left in response to violence against Jewish communities.

Yemenite Jews states, “On October 11, 2015, [Israeli politician], Likud MK Ayoob Kara stated that members of the Yemenite Jewish community had contacted him to say that the Houthi-led Yemen government had given them an ultimatum to convert or leave the country. A spokesman for the party of former President Ali Abdullah Saleh denied the reports as incorrect.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu holds an 800 hundred years old torah scroll as he poses for a picture with Yemenite jews who were brought to Israel. March 21, 2016. Photo by Haim Zach/Government Press Office Israel.

Nineteen Jews remaining in Yemen in 2016 were brought to Israel in what is described as a “covert airlift.” There are said to be fewer than forty or fifty Jews remaining in Yemen today. In April 2017, Yemen’s information minister Moammer al-Iryani told Israel Radio that the Jewish community in Sana’a (the city is now held by the Houthis) are at severe risk because the Houthi see Jews as enemies who must be removed from Yemen in an ethnic cleansing. Forty of these last fifty Jews were said to be in an enclave next to the American Embassy in Sana’a, and they were subject to threats of ethnic cleansing by the Houthis

The refugees who came in 2016 brought with them their community’s 800-year-old leather Torah, and proudly displayed it at a meeting with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Sulaiman Dahari, a rabbi, had carried it to Israel in a duffel bag. Soon after, it was reported that an Orthodox Jewish man and an airport employee had been arrested. The airport employee, a Muslim, was accused of purposefully allowing Dahari to pass through security with the Torah.

Appendix:  List of cultural heritage sites in Yemen and a brief summary of events affecting them drawn entirely from the Mwatana for Human Rights report, The Degradation of History: Violations Committed by the Warring Parties against Yemen’s Cultural Property.  For the complete report, see: http://mwatana.org/en/the-degradation-of-history-2/

Ancient Historical Monuments that have sustained damage:

City of Baraqish – Al-Jawf

The Ansar Allah group (Houthis) took control of the archaeological site of Baraqish in mid-August 2014. It was hit by nearly 20 air strikes during 2015 and 2016 by the Arab coalition led by the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. These strikes damaged the wall, towers and temples of the ancient city.

Northern Gateway to the Old Ma’rib Dam

Armed men and military vehicles belonging to Ansar Allah group (Houthis) were stationed at the northern and southern gates of the old dam. On May 31st, 2015 the Arab Coalition led by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates targeted the northern gateway with an air strike causing “severe damage.”

Al Bayda Site (Nachaq) – Al Jawf Governorate

Since 2015, this historic city has been the site of armed conflict between Ansar Allah group (Houthis) and the “Popular Resistance” loyal to President Hadi causing “lots of damage”.(At the time of the reporting, the Popular Resistance controlled 70% of the Al Maslub District, including the historical site of Al-Bayda.) The Popular Resistance forces have been using the archeological sites for military purposes.

Al Sawda’ Site (Nashan) – Al Jawf Governorate

Used as a site for military operations. There have been clashes between the Ansar Allah group (Houthis) President Hadi’s popular resistance fighters since 2015. Currently the resistance fighters control the area so the extent of the damage can’t be assessed. It’s suspected that it has been looted and that there is significant damage.

Yemeni Cities Listed on the World Heritage List that have sustained damage or are in danger:

City of Shibam-Hadhramaut

The UNESCO World Heritage Committee announced in July 2015 the inclusion of the Yemeni city of Shibam-Hadhramaut and its wall on the list of world heritage in danger.

Al Qasimi Neighborhood in the Old City of Sana’a

An air strike launched by the Arab Coalition led by Saudi Arabia and the UAE targeted the Al-Qasimi neighborhood on June 12th, 2015. The raid destroyed four houses in the historic city of Sana’a and caused serious damage to other nearby houses. The 12th century al-Mahdi Mosque was also affected. In July 2015 Al Qasimi was added to the list of world heritage in danger.

Al Foulaihy Neighborhood in the Old City of Sana’a

On September 18th, 2015, the Arab coalition led by Saudi Arabia and the UAE fired a bomb that targeted the house of citizen Hafez Allah Al-Aayni causing damage. On September 20th, 2016, the Arab coalition led by Saudi Arabia and the UAE targeted the National Security Apparatus building with 11 bombs. One hit the ancient Al-Bakiriyya Mosque causing damage. One hit the house of Mohammad Al Masuri, cutting him in two and causing damage to his house, which is part of the historic city of Sana’a. Other structures were also damaged besides the intended target of the National Security Apparatus.

Monuments that have sustained damage:

Kawkaban Fortress – Kawkaban

On February 14th, 2016, the forces of the Arab coalition, led by Saudi Arabia and the UAE, launched an air strike on the historic fortress of Kawkaban, destroying the entire building.

Dar al-Hajar Palace – Lahij

On March 28th, 2015 a tank from the Ansar Allah (Houthis) and Saleh forces fired on the palace, damaging the Northwest corner. Many people, without housing, were allowed to live in the palace since 2014 with the consent of the agent of the sultans provided they did not change anything in the palace and preserve it.

The Palace of the Abdali Sultan – Lahij

On April 13th, 2015, Houthi and Saleh fighters attacked the palace, forced out the occupants and used the Palace as a barracks. As in the case of Dar al-Hajar Palace also in Lahij, many people, without housing, were allowed to live in the palace since 2014 with the consent of the agent of the sultans provided they did not change anything in the palace and they kept it preserved.

Al Qahirah (Cairo) Castle – Taiz

From May 10th to 14th, 2016, the castle was targeted by the Arab coalition warplanes with an approximate 22 bombs during 12 air strikes. The Houthis controlled the castle until September 2016 bombing the city of Taiz from that location. The popular resistance targeted the Houthis while they occupied the castle, causing more damage. After September 2016 the popular resistance took control of the castle.

According to eyewitness, Tarek, (a pseudonym), (30 years old) “the castle was under the control of the fighters of the Islah Party. Clashes erupted between Al Islah and the Salafis over the control of the castle and the Salafis led by Abu Abbas won.”

It was then used as a military site by armed groups affiliated to the Abu Abbas faction until August 17th, 2018.

The castle has several palaces, including Dar Al Sultan, Dar Al-Imara, Dar Al Adab, and Al-Hamra Fort. It is thought to be very heavily damaged if not completely destroyed

Salh Castle – Taiz

On October 22nd, 2015, the Arab coalition led by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates began airstrikes targeting the Ansar Allah (Houthis) and the Saleh who had set up the castle as a military base. According to eyewitnesses, the airstrikes completely destroyed the castle.

Al Sinnara Citadel in the A’abla’ Site – Sa’ada

On October 5th, 2015, the Arab coalition forces led by Saudi Arabia and the UAE bombed the communications towers on top of Al-A’abla’ mountain, causing minor damages to the historic citadel.

Al-Qefel Site – Sa’ada

According to eyewitness Abdul Kareem (35 years old), (a pseudonym), “Since 2006, the historic Al-Qefel site has been used by the security department and the army. After the Houthi group entered and seized the site in 2009, they turned it into a prison and their headquarters. On the night of Wednesday, June 15th, 2016, the building was hit by two air strikes, only five minutes apart. The two airstrikes damaged the historic site, leaving only the mosque and some rooms standing.”

Touristic Pier – Aden

The pier was struck several times and destroyed during the war in Aden in early 2015, between the Ansar Allah group (Houthis) and their former ally Saleh on the one hand, and the popular resistance in the city and the Arab coalition forces led by Saudi Arabia and the UAE on the other hand.

 

Religious Monuments that have sustained damage:

Al-Hadi Mosque – Sa’ada

In 2011, the Ansar Allah group (Houthis) took control of the city and the mosque.

Airstrikes on Saturday, May 9th & 10th, 2015, by the Arab coalition forces led by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates on businesses near the mosque caused damage to the wall of the mosque.

Al-Maatbiya Mosque – Taiz

On July 15th, 2015 the Ansar Allah group (Houthis) and the forces of Saleh shelled the mosque damaging a wall and “the top.”

Al-Ashrafiya Mosque and Madrassa

In June 2015 a stray artillery shell fired by Ansar Allah group (Houthis) and the forces of their former ally Saleh toward the neighborhood of Al-Ashrafiya hit the eastern minaret of the mosque and caused severe damage.

The Mudhaffar Mosque – Taiz

On July 17th, 2016, the Ansar Allah group (Houthis) and the forces of former President Saleh, targeted the Mudhaffar Mosque damaging the walls and the Muezzin.

Mosque of Abdulhadi al-Sudi and its Dome – Taiz

On July 29th, 2016, the Abdulhadi al-Sudi’s dome was blown up with dynamite by extremist elements affiliated with Ansar al-Sharia group (affiliated with Al-Qaeda) under the pretext that visiting this shrine and mausoleum is considered an act of blasphemy and atheism. The group also dug up some graves by the mosque.

Al Rumaymeh Dome – Taiz

On March 31st, 2017, the Sheikh Ali bin Ahmed al-Rumaymeh mosque’s dome was completely destroyed. A group of armed militants planted explosive devices under the dome and blew it up because they considered it a symbol of heterodoxy and atheism.

Saint Joseph Church – Aden

In March 2015 the Ansar Allah group (Houthis) and the forces of their former ally Saleh broke into the church, smashing statutes and defacing the walls with slogans. On September 16th, 2015 a group believed to be al-Qaeda destroyed the rest of the contents and set fire to the church.

Sheldon Church – Aden

Between March and July 2015 the church was caught in the crossfire between the Ansar Allah group (Houthi) and the forces of their former ally Saleh, and the Popular Resistance fighters in the city and the Arab coalition forces led by Saudi Arabia and the UAE.  About a month and a half after the Houthis and the forces of Saleh from Mualla withdrew from the city in mid-July 2015, al-Qaeda gunmen came and destroyed the cross. Residents of the neighborhood prevented the gunmen from destroying anything else in the church. However, in December 2015, extremists set off an explosive device in the church that caused the roof to collapse.

Al Husseini Mosque – Aden

In 2015, on Ramadan 29th, the Saudi-led coalition forces bombed the mosque and almost completely destroyed it.

Al Banyan Temple or Hindu Temple – Aden

In July 2015 a group of masked men, thought to be al-Qaeda broke in to the temple, destroyed and vandalized the place. They also let citizens come in and steal what was left. There are a few thousand people from India in Yemen. (see also http://eoisanaa.org/indian-diaspora-in-yemen/)

Museums that have sustained damage:

Military Museum – Aden

April through July 2015: The Ansar Allah group (Houthis) shelled the museum during efforts to take the city of Crater. After they were successful, the Houthis used the museum as a base, selling some of its objects to support their efforts. On July 15th, 2015 the Arab coalition bombed the museum causing severe damage to the building. About 20% of it was destroyed according to one eyewitness, Nasser Ahmad Kassem (57 years old). Following the destruction, much of the content of the museum was looted.

The National Museum of Archeology (Al-Oradi Castle) – Taiz

In March 2015, the Ansar Allah group (Houthis) seized Taiz and used the museum to rest and to store weapons and ammunition. The Popular Resistance fighters ousted the Houthis from the museum on August 13th, 2015, and bombed the museum after the Houthis fled. Looting occurred the same day. There were eyewitness reports of gunmen from the Abu Abbas Brigades taking three bags of silver coins and antiquities and three other bags of antique bronze items. When Mwatana representatives went to visit the site, the Popular Resistance’s mixed faction of Abu Abbas Brigades and al-Qaeda militants were guarding the site so no pictures could be taken.

[i] Sources include: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Saudi_Arabian–led_intervention_in_Yemen, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Houthi_movement, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Famine_in_Yemen_(2016–present), For a  2018 map of armed forces: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_armed_groups_in_the_Yemeni_Civil_War#/media/File:Yemeni_Civil_War.svg

[ii] https://www.bic.org/situation-in-yemen/reports-situation-yemen, https://www.thenational.ae/world/mena/houthis-arrest-baha-i-spokesman-in-yemen-1.780142 , http://mwatana.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/10/UNIVERSAL-PERIODIC-REVIEW-OF-YEMEN-2.pdf

 

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