By Andrea Christoph
Holed up in a makeshift bunker, crowded to the brim, the women and children of Dammaj are thankful for a brief quiet after the storm of war. For weeks they have lived with the sky raining hot metal upon them, the ground shaking beneath them and death all around. One American woman, whom I will call Umm Ahmed, has endured more than one war against Dammaj, but “ this one is the worst”. She had never heard such crashing sounds, with such intensity and such frequency in all the years of attacks on Dammaj by Houthi factions. She sits with her children after asr and plays a game with them to distract them. While there is little food and little water, there are plenty of shells from bullets. She makes up a sort of “bowling” game where they stack up the shells and see how far they can go until they fall.
The question on everyone’s mind, and one that has been voiced by many of Dammaj’s students, is how far the Houthis are truly going to go. The eyewitness accounts are horrific, and many cannot comprehend the mindset of those who will not cease attacking so that the dead can be collected. They wonder about the mentality of those who not only bomb places of prayer, not only prevent aid from entering, but also target hospitals where the facilities are already far from sufficient to care for limbs that are blown off, severed intestines and exposed head wounds.
One female student and British national who preferred to be called Aaliyah, spoke of what her husband had seen. “ One brother … Canadian…was shot in his head. Another brother had his leg blown off and bled to death because he couldn’t get treatment. Someone else had a chunk taken out the top of his head and was scratching it, taking bits of flesh with it and unaware of what he was doing.”
She went onto express how uncertain the future seemed. “I don’t know if we are going to come out of this alive. It seems that this is a government thing. For someone to phone from the government and say give them Barakah… We are being bombed and killed…what does Barakah have to do with it?”
Apparently a lot, as Mount Barakah is a mountain that sitting at a strategic position on one of Dammaj’s borders. It overlooks the surrounding regions, and many times has been included in various stipulations presented by the Houthis as a condition for a ceasefire. But once the Houthis have access to Barakah, they would have access to all of Dammaj, and the students are determined not to let this happen. Apparently so is Sheikh Yahya al-Hujooree, even if it meant that his own life might be taken. It was said by one student that the first row of men who were defending Dammaj against Houthi entry were killed, and that al-Hujooree was ready to go to fight saying, “How can I just sit here and wait while my students are being killed?”
One contact expressed that today in Dammaj, six Houthi spies were caught analyzing various key areas. One was caught with a flashlight observing a protective ditch, and presumably its depth, to explain to his superiors. Although there is little to elaborate on, it is clear that the spies were passing on detailed information to the Houthi faction to give them better understanding of how to attack and where to shoot their missles.
“They don’t have exact measurements”, stated the contact. “They need someone to say…increase another 10 meters etc…Because they don’t have that level of accuracy.”
The main masjid in an area called the maktabah has been a primary target for years with the intent of killing Yahya al-Hujooree , who was preceded by Sheikh Muqbil al-Wadee the founder of the largest center of orthodox teachings in Yemen.In the last war one Houthi leader expressed that in an hour he would take the masjid of Yahya and sit and chew qat in it. He never realized this goal, as he and his son were killed within the hour. Nevertheless it is not farfetched that a center of learning could easily become the biggest area for a qat chew if taken over by the Houthi faction. Although there is a lot of distress, there is also much hope, and this hope seems to stem from the faith that gathered the various nationalities and socio economic backgrounds to this center of learning. There are those who state that hundreds of foreign fighters have been brought in, but there have always been people of various backgrounds who chose to study at the center and now choose to defend it.
Sources who are on the ground say that while many reports speak about “clashes between Houthis and Salafis”, it is apparent according to various eyewitness accounts that this is not a situation in which both sides are equipped in a similar fashion. While in Yemeni culture it is quite normal to own a gun and the gun market is easily accessible to the average citizen, many of the students of Dar Al Hadeeth in Dammaj do not possess such standard weaponry.
At the same time the school’s pupils are being attacked with missiles that are made to take down planes, weapons that are called “hounds”. One family who has lived there for many years explained how the shrapnel would come down from over the mountain and how it was so hot that it could not be touched. This is the same shrapnel that had entered her son-in-law’s hand and leg.
“You’ve never seen anything like it. It enters inside of you burning hot and then closes so that sometimes you don’t even know theres a wound“. Her son-in-law had been praying in the masjid of an area called the Mazrah when a bomb entered. He was making his sunna prayers after the congregational noon prayer, and there were six men in front of him also praying. When the explosion happened, it was explained that the smoke was so thick and black, “You could not see your hand in front of you”. After the smoke cleared , the men who had been praying in front of him were all dead.
The latest news as of today was that after the time in which the children were playing with shells, international aid was allowed to enter after being turned down several times. It has happened before that aid was turned back and many students have said this was because the Houthis deny using tanks and missiles and don’t want aid groups to see what they have done. When speaking to a Zaidi Sadah representative with the NDC, the representative asked if there was more being written on the injustice that was happening in Dammaj. She also extended her prayers and expressed, “We are all saddened by what is happening to the people of Dammaj. The Houthis don’t want people to see , but it is time for people to know the truth.”