While the UN envoy to Yemen, along with members of the international community, were in Stockholm celebrating the signing of the peace agreement between the Yemeni government and the Houthis regarding the port of Hodeidah, a new conflict was unfolding in a different part of Yemen.
In the Hajour district, almost 105 civilians had been killed due to the constant Houthi shelling, but international media had ignored this strategic area, which was also one of the main battlefronts in the country.
In December last year, the Houthis had their eyes on the Hajour district, located in the northern Yemen province of Hajjah. After benefiting from the ceasefire in Hodeidah, the Houthis began to deploy their forces toward Hajour.
The Hajour tribes had fought the Houthis in 2012 and 2013, when they clashed with infamous Houthi leader Yousif Al-Madani, but since then, they had abided by an agreement that ensured a cessation of hostilities, in exchange for the Houthis not to send any armed groups to the area. Even after the intervention of the Arab-led coalition in March 2015, they had managed to remain out of the conflict. However, by the end of December 2018, this was about to change.
The Houthis had been unable to secure the main road connecting the Amran province to the coast because the road passes through Hajour. If, however, the Houthis were to send any reinforcements, it would violate the agreement, even though the latest military developments in the Hajjah province made Hajour strategically important.
As Yemeni government forces began taking control of the coastal part of Hajjah, the Houthis saw the Hajour mountains as a location that would give them a military advantage.
Hajour is a mountainous area that is 2,500 meters above sea level and the surrounding terrain create a natural fortress against attacking forces.
As part of their offense strategy, the Houthis supported uninfluential, small-time local tribe leaders in a bid to buy their loyalty, including Khaled Al-Qadhi.
They supported him with fighters, weapons, and money, and started to position themselves inside Hajour, as well as set up new checkpoints. It was initially expected that the Houthis would swiftly take control of the area, as they had stronger military capabilities than the tribes. However, they faced fierce resistance.
Local tribal leaders tried to intervene and mediate to end the fighting, but their attempts failed after the Houthis sent their top military commander, Abu Ali Al-Hakem, to storm the district by force. By the end of January, the situation reached a breaking point. The Houthis were determined to enter the area by force at any cost, to discourage other local tribes from revolting against them.
On February 10, the Houthis launched an offensive, using heavy artillery and a large number of fighters, who tried to enter the area through the Al-Shahi and Al-Sharfani mountains. They faced strong resistance from Hajour tribes, who managed to push them back. The following day, the coalition intervened for the first time, after the Houthis sent armored vehicles and tanks to Hajour. Two armored vehicles were destroyed, and the tribes managed to take over a neighboring village called Al-Qiam, which shifted the tribes’ position from defense to offense. However, they did not push any further in order to avoid losing their strategic advantage.
As a result, on February 15, the Houthis heavily shelled the Al-Jarrah and Al-Za’alah mountains and succeeded in bringing reinforcements from the capital Sanaa. The attack resulted in the death of a known tribal leader, Ahmed Abdu Hulais.
The Houthis targeted public tribal figures in Hajour, and although Hulais himself was not a top leader, he was considered a prominent public figure in the area. This was especially due to the fact that since the beginning of the conflict in Yemen, several tribal leaders fled, and Hulais acted as a mediator with the Houthis to try to end the fighting in Hajour.
The following day, the Houthis opened a new front from the South of Hajour, which also faced heavy resistance. The coalition intervened again by striking Houthi positions. However, the fighting resulted in the displacement of a large number of people from the villages of Bani Shurayah and Bani Rassam. With the district surrounded, the displaced moved to other locations within Hajour.
After the Houthis failed to enter the area, they imposed a tight siege, preventing food, medicine, and even water from going in. A local source told Al Arabiya English that the Houthis had prevented food trucks from reaching Hajour more than 15 times, and prevented the entry of water trucks over 25 times. Before the fighting, food and water trucks would enter the area daily.
Almost 105 civilians have been killed so far, according to a medical source from inside the area. There is also an increasing demand for medicine and medical supplies needed to treat those injured by the constant Houthi shelling.
In recent days, the coalition made several airdrops of food, medicine, and ammunition, which slightly improved the situation, but the demand remains overwhelming. The district of Hajour remains under siege and hundreds of families are now displaced.
On February 27, the tribes succeeded in taking over new areas in eastern Hajour. The fighting remains intense, and the Houthis are still sending reinforcements, but solidarity between the tribes had so far worked to their advantage.
On March 7, the Houthis announced that they are taking over important parts of al-Abeesah, which will help them finally breakthrough Hajour after more than two months of fighting. According to the tribes in Hajour, the Houthis fired several Katyusha missiles, which forced them to retreat from many positions even as fighting continues in the area.
Hajour tribes have a mixture of political affiliations. The main tribal leaders are Mohammed Al-Zaakari from the GPC, the ruling party under Saleh, Salafi leader Abu Muslim Al-Hajoori, Sheikh Zaid Arjash from the Nasserite party, and Ali Fallat from the Islah party.
However, they are mainly united under tribal leadership rather than political.
The importance of the Hajour battle
Hajour challenged the dominant narrative amongst many Yemen observers and analysts who believed that the northern part of Yemen was Houthi dominated, and that the Houthis would always have the upper hand in the mountainous part of the country. The revolt in Hajour showed that the Houthis do not enjoy local support amongst tribes.
If Yemeni forces, along with the Arab-led coalition, manage to support Hajour against the Houthis, it will motivate other local communities to revolt, and break the wall of fear. However, if government forces and the Arab Coalition failed to support the Hajour tribes, it would limit the possibility of further resistance against the Houthis in the areas they control.
Hajour would also bring a strategic military advantage, as it overlooked the Tihama coast, as well as the bordering Amran and Saada provinces, which had been under tight Houthi control.
Lack of media attention
Since the beginning of February, the Yemeni press had extensively covered the events in Hajour district. Yemenis tune in day and night to follow the developments there. Yet, Western media, which developed a sudden interest in Yemen following the killing of journalist Jamal Kashoggi, had been silent when it came to one of the main battlefronts in the country. The lack of attention on Hajour by western-based media reflected not only a poor understanding of the conflict in Yemen, but also more importantly, the lack of interest in a vital part of the conflict.
For a long time, the conflict had been portrayed as Saudis versus the Houthis, in which the Houthis were “defending the dignity of Yemenis”. However, no light had been shed on the Houthis' war against Yemeni people. The Houthis had crushed any form of local dissent, including peaceful tribes that wished to stay out of the fray.
Not only had the media failed to report on such a large setback to the peace agreement signed in Stockholm last December, but also INGOs have also been silent on the issue. Many INGOs, including Oxfam and UN agencies, are working in Hajjah and have access to this information. They could at least issue press statements and bring some attention to what was happening, if there was a will to do so. Hajour was not the only area facing the Houthi war machine, as many Yemenis were still living the same reality.