By Andrea Christoph
With civilians being gassed to death while sleeping in Syria and turmoil all throughout the Middle East, it is little wonder that turmoil in a small village in Northen Yemen can be overlooked. But what makes this situation different is the siege on Dammaj is being waged on a group who take no part in politics or the criticism of leading rulers. They are outspoken against violence except in the case of self-defense, and they justify this relying strictly on authentic texts from three primary sources, the Quran, the Sunnah and the understanding of the earliest generations also known in Arabic as the Salaf. The ones who attribute themselves to the Salaf call themselves Salafi. The center in Dammaj, known as Dar al Hadeeth was founded over 20 years ago by a man known as Sheikh Muqbil al Wadieem who established one of the leading centers of Salafi thought in what was then known as the Zaydee Shia capital of Yemen. This has led to an ongoing number of attacks and sieges on a center whose students are far from equipped to deal with anti aircraft missiles and other heavy duty weaponry.
The Houthi siege on Dammaj affects all, including the animals. The cats, normally buff with shiny coats on a diet of chicken intestines, chicken feet and the student’s leftovers are now tempted to go hunting. One family who had pet rabbits told of us of how a cat dragged off one rabbit and how their son, less than four picked it up while it was having a seizure pleading to it in Arabic, “ Wake up, wake up, Please don’t die.” One rabbit was still left but died a day later from shock at the intensity of the rockets. The family has yet to tell the little boy of the loss of his dear family pet. A bit of humor was mixed with sadness as his grandmother said that the sheikh had been able to get a hold of chickens to distribute to the students he held onto one so tightly, squeezing its neck, “almost killing the poor chicken.” His mother gave him a choice of the chicken or the rabbit and he let go of the chicken.
But while one child may think of the loss of a pet, others are thinking of the loss of a parent. In respecting the privacy of students there is a desire to remove the names but it doesn’t take a name to relate to the level of loss one experiences when their loved one never returns home. One woman, whose husband was killed very close to Houthi enemy territory spoke with such a calm and presence about the levels of tests that she and others were experiencing. But where she is, the sisters are constantly encouraging each other to be patient, praying together, working on texts and Quran they have memorized and still continuing to study in the direst of situations.
As of last night there have been more deaths. Two Algerians, two Russians were reported as being killed on the frontlines. But not all deaths have happened from bombs or missiles sent from across the way. A spy was caught yesterday who confessed to having led two groups of students to a particular area and killing them himself. He had been reported of having an altercation some weeks before in which he head butted another student with such force that the other young boy was walking around in a daze. Suspicious arose when on more than one occasion his group members were all killed and he came back unscathed.
Dammaj is nestled in a desert valley part of which is cultivated by its native people. The Dammajis grow all forms of fresh vegetables, construct wooden frameworks for winding vineyards that catch the sun’s strong rays and harvest red juicy pomegranates for which all of Sadah is known. Countries such as neighboring Saudi and the Khaleej vie for the best pomegranates and produce that Dammaj has to offer.
But today the land of Dammaj, known for bringing forth life is now harboring death. Areas plentiful with leafy clusters of grapes can hardly bring the same sweet delight when their shade is now cast over land where bombs explode, wounds have bled and bodies of martyred students lay in rigor mortis.
Ahmed is a 16 year old American man. He may be young but it would be strange to call him a boy when he has known what it’s like to see the scattering of dead bodies after an explosion and has carried injured men with severed limbs. Past Tuesday, the Houthi faction began an intense assault which included the main mosque in the Maktabah where Sheikh Yahya al-Hujooree dedicates his time to teaching thousands of students daily and the mosque in the Mazraah . The attack began at Dhur, the time of the noonday prayer.
Ahmed’s mother , who lost her husband in the war almost 2 years ago said that they had thought the attacks before were difficult until this war, but the present intensity causes those in the past to fade in comparison. The live only a few houses away from the Mazraah masjid and felt the impact of the bomb causing Ahmed to see what had occurred. He said, “Everyone was hit and a lot were injured…they hit the brothers. Right away six brothers died straight. And maybe 50, 60 people were hit with shrapnel… some were hit in the head… some the hands…others the stomach. Some people were thrown from one side of the masjid to the other side of the masjid.”
He explained that people were afraid that the Houthis would hit the masjid again so they rushed to evacuate the injured. Ahmed had helped with this and explained, “One of the brothers that I took out, his fingers were gone off of his right hand and something was wrong with his head…Another he couldn’t walk and it looked like someone took a knife and just gashed and stabbed big holes in his leg… this was from the shrapnel.” Ahmed’s brother in law was recently in the understaffed hospital presently recovering from an injury in which shrapnel described as “the size of a nokia phone and just as thick” was embedded deep into his flesh.
According to many accounts the Houthis are attacking from a few key areas. The masadeer is an area that is behind the vineyards of the Dammajis. IT does not provide much cover but it is necessary for the men to guard it. According to Ahmed there were several men who were killed in the front lines of the Masadeer and the last he knew the bodies of 4 Adeni students, as well as 4 other men from Ib, Taiz, America and Britian, none of whom could be retrieved. The other area is that of Mount Baraqah, a mountain that rises in a steep climb up to a flat plain overlooking Dammaj and the surrounding villages. There was a time when student couples would climb together to enjoy the scenic view but those days are long gone. It is a strategic place coveted by the Houthis who according to witnesses have tried over and over to claim. Other areas such as the Watn are also being attacked.
While for weeks the ICRC has attempted to take the wounded they have been able to make two successful trips to take the injured to Sadah to then be airlifted to Sanaa.
One of Sheikh Yahya al-Hujoore’s wives is presently in Sanaa as she was in Umrah during the time when the fighting began. When we met with her, she raised her hands in duaa, tears streaming down her face as she asked Allah to give victory to the students of Dammaj. A soft hearted woman, she spoke to her co-wife on the phone telling her to ,“Please give away any clothing that I have left at the house for charity”, or any items that could be of assistance to those who were forced to leave their homes and take shelter in the overcrowded bunkers afraid for their lives.
“Whenever we have a war, it is always the students who suffer, our children who are harmed, and our men who are killed, and only because they are people of the Sunnah (following the example of Prophet Muhammad). It is never in their villages that are attacked because we have no desire to harm them or their families. Has even one war taken place in a Raafidhee Houthi village?”
While there have been no reports to say that children were directly shot, there have been explosions of missiles that caused children to be injured by coal hot shrapnel and incidents of babies dying of fright from explosions that are strong enough to break the windows of homes and vibrations which bring down buildings that are simply in the vicinity of the impact, and not even directly hit.
While the stress of the situation affects people in different ways, many of the women still express that they feel blessed, explaining that every home they heard to be empty and the homes where women have taken shelter have as of yet not been reached by the missiles which often are sent over mount Barakah at random.
The conditions of the bunkers are exceedingly difficult, with the lack of water and the toilet overflowing and hardly enough food, drink or room to sleep. The stores are completely empty of all food and even the men who are on guard duty may eat only bread for three days that the women have baked. More recent reports tell of women delivering babies in the cramped conditions and a woman who was 5 months pregnant for the first time with twin boys, losing them in a miscarriage. The situation is difficult as there are no diapers or sanitary napkins in the bunkers which are often needed for the excessive bleeding that naturally occurs either after successful delivery or after a miscarriage.
While there are women who are not able to reach the bunkers due to the distance and the possibility of being sniped and so they find refuge in homes that are built stronger than their own and can only pray that it is not somehow targeted. Another lesson learned from years passed encouraged people to build underground rooms in case of another Houthi attack.
Women are forced to run with children, carrying supplies and sometimes pregnant. One woman from Europe explained how while she had to leave and there was bombing all around she couldn’t move as fast as other women,” Because I’m pregnant and carrying a 5 liter dubbah (container) of water. And I’m holding my daughters hand… So I’m trying to run, my daughter’s screaming and crying at the top of her lungs because she thinks were going to be bombed.”
She explains how she sat her oldest daughter down to talk to her about how she was feeling and she said to her, “Well, when the big rocket comes I don’t like them, and they scare me. The house shakes, and I feel that maybe we shouldn’t be in this house because it’s not safe for us.” The child went on to express, “But the other bombs, hmm…they’re la’ ba’as (not too bad) because they’re not like the rockets.”
The mother continued saying, “It made me very emotional because I see an 8 year old girl who finds it normal to have bombs falling around her because they’re not… like the rockets.”
But even in times of difficulty the children seem to learn from the parents how to bring ease. Her mother went onto say that she received a lot of comfort from her oldest daughter and how she will give her a hug or make her tea at times and say, “Mommy, you’re stressed.” When the child was asked,“ Why do you say to your mother that she is stressed? “She answered shyly, “Because I see her crying. “
When asked about the youngest who is four the mother said that she would sometimes shake in her sleep, tossing and turning. “One night when the bombing was shadeed (intense), my four year old had her head under the duvet and her little hands were raised up to her face and she was repeating over and over , “ Oh Allah, don’t let them bomb our house, Oh Allah, don’t let them bomb our house, ”until she fell asleep.
Last night, one contact explained that, “This has probably been the worst of all the nights”.
“Last night, she said was just so much bombing, and you know a bullet came through my house upstairs? When my husband saw it, he went upstairs and said, “Look at this”, he was in shock.” The hole that it made from just a little bullet… it seems that it has an outer shell that explodes and then another bullet inside …”
For some the bunkers are not a permanent place but only where they go when there is bombing. These days the Houthis have stopped hitting homes but while the night is deprived of calm and quiet and sleeping is “impossible” according to the students, the day is not exactly restful either. Along with shooting and bombing the Houthis have loud speakers by which they play music and are said to make taunts and threats. The other day it was said that “They threaten to bomb the houses, they say they are giving the women or children four or five days to leave … they say things such as ”itaqillah (fear Allah) Hujooree. With the approach of the 10th of Muharram there is talk of expecting something from the Houthis as although it is an important day for all of the Muslims in which fasting is observed it is considered even more sacred to the Houthis and other Shia who often beat themselves with chains until they are bloody, in remembrance of the loss of Hussein, the grandson of the Prophet Muhammad.
There are countless pictures of the self inflicted beating and bleeding that some the Shia’s engage in on the day of Ashurah, where even young children are encouraged to cut themselves to the point of bleeding. This is an expression of the great loss of Hussein and out of their love for him. Taking all this into consideration, it’s no wonder that some of the Salafi students are concerned about what the Houthis and whoever is backing them may have in store for them. Only time will tell.