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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 24 October 2018

Al Kataba: A village that served as witness to Houthi crimes

Life is slowly limping back to normal after the rebel occupation

A resident shows a Houthi projectile which targeted his house in Al-Kataba. Ali Mahmood Mohamed for The National
A resident shows a Houthi projectile which targeted his house in Al-Kataba. Ali Mahmood Mohamed for The National

In Al Kataba, the air is thick with the stench of the day’s catch. Although the village’s fishing fleet may be depleted after three years of Houthi occupation, a few boats are at last casting their nets once again.

This hamlet south of Yemen’s Red Sea port city of Hodeidah lost 25 of its residents under Houthi rule – many of those women and children. As many as 40 others were left with injuries, some are permanently disabled.

Government statistics report that during three years of Houthi control, more than 900 Russian-made rocket-propelled grenades and Katyusha rockets have rained down on the village.

Mohammed Mahboob, 37, looks sadly at what is left of his house, wading through rubble and possessions bought in more peaceful times. “I struggled for years to build this room. Alas! They turned it into ruins.”

A resident in the village of Al-Kataba shelled by the Houthi militia. Ali Mahmood Mohamed for The National
A resident in the village of Al-Kataba shelled by the Houthi militia. Ali Mahmood Mohamed for The National

Even with the Houthis routed, returning to Al Kataba is not easy. More than 100 homes in the village have been flattened by indiscriminate shelling, and the only steady source of income – the fishing industry – is now crippled.

Galal Doubalah, 22, is leading the government’s efforts to document Houthi crimes in Al Kataba. He knows the risk too well. When the Houthis arrived, he was one of their first targets.

Mr Doublah was the only person in the village with a university education, and he often took to Facebook to document the crimes committed by the Houthis throughout Yemen’s civil war. “The Houthis received information from their proxies in the area about me as soon as they stormed the village at the beginning of the war,” he says. “They often sent their patrols to arrest me.”

Many who have returned to Al Kataba are unable to afford even the most basic medicine and foodstuffs. Ali Mahmood Mohamed for The National
Many who have returned to Al Kataba are unable to afford even the most basic medicine and foodstuffs. Ali Mahmood Mohamed for The National

He was forced to drop out of university, months before he was expected to graduate with a media degree. He fled to nearby Mokha, a port town to the south that has become a main staging ground in the efforts of the Arab Coalition to recapture Hodeidah.

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When the Houthis came to Al Kataba, even the fishermen were not spared. The group levied extortionate taxes on the fishermen in the village, severing its economic artery.

Tears well in Um Abdul Hakeem's eyes as she remembers the final moments of her son Abdul Hakeem’s life.

For two years, the 35-year-old fisherman resisted Houthi efforts to tax his daily catch, the only source of income to provide for his four children. One day, in 2016, as he moored his dhow on the beach, the Houthis shot him.

Now Um Abdul Hakeem struggles to provide even a loaf of bread for her fatherless grandchildren.

“They were left like small birds without a father, I keep working from the early morning to the evening on the farm just to get a little money to feed them,” the 60-year-old tells The National.

From time to time, she is given a food basket from the Emirati Red Crescent, but beyond that, she feels let down. “We haven’t seen any other organisations that claim to save the lives of war victims; they are exploiting our suffering for their own goals.”

Outside a quaint cottage next door, 39-year-old Dawood Ahmed Ghalip rests on a rickety wooden bench, a crutch by his side. Another former fisherman, Dawood has hemiplegia – complete paralysis on his left side after he was caught in a rocket blast as he left Friday prayers last year.

“I was as strong as a horse before the injury. Now, as you see, I am struggling hard on the left of my body,” says Dawood, trying to gesture to his left arm.

Many fled Al Kataba as the taxes and indiscriminate fire made normal life near impossible. Amna Modhis, 50, is one of the few who remained.

The Houthis tried to force Amna out. Homes in the village were a perfect firing position from which to attack advancing government forces in the south.

“They were shelling us day and night, trying to force us to flee so they could use our cottages as fortifications but they couldn't – I and some other residents refused to flee,” she says.

“They were deliberately shelling our homes. Many nights we went without sleep – the shelling was so intense.”

Her home was damaged, but not destroyed. Now, she is determined to rebuild it.