War in Yemen: Shoulder to Shoulder

People carry the body of a commander of the pro-government Popular Resistance Committees militia after he was killed in fighting against Houthi militia in Yemen's southwestern city of Taiz on January 12. REUTERS/Stringer

The Akhdam join the war in Yemen, hoping to end a history of rampant discrimination

BY  Nasser Al Sakkaf

When the Houthis tried to take over Taiz in March 2015, residents of the western Yemeni province banded together to form a Popular Resistance front. Their goal? To protect their city and confront their adversaries.

The resistance attracted disparate groups. Among them, motives differed; Salafist and Islamist fighters joined the movement because of ideological objections to the Houthis. Others signed up for political reasons, with the resistance front now headed by Islah leader, Sheikh Hamoud Al Mikhlafi. One Yemeni group, the Akhdam, however, joined in the hope of ending, once and for all, Yemen’s long history of rampant racial discrimination.

In a nation blighted by poverty, the Akhdam are a marginalized group under the greatest duress in Yemen, numbering between 500,000 to 3,500,000 people. Their name means “servants” but they prefer to be known as “Al Muhamasheen,” or “the marginalized.” Treated as pariahs, marriage between Akhdam and other Yemenis is a virtual taboo. The Akhdam retain African features, distinct from other Yemenis, and mainly live in slums in large cities or in villages scattered throughout Yemen.

The Akhdam are constrained to menial work such as sweeping the streets. The majority of Akhdam children do not attend schools rather, along with the women, they often collect cans and bottles for income—or beg to make ends meet.

Although the ethnic origins of the Akhdam are uncertain, some believe they are descendants of conquering Ethiopian soldiers. Yemen’s 1962 revolution officially abolished ancient status categories—but the Akhdam retained theirs.

When the revolution broke out in 2011, some Akhdam were seen at the forefront of the movement, in the hope of ending nationwide discrimination. The revolution may have faltered, but the Akhdam have not lost hope—or their stake in the game.

For this reason, many have joined the current war in Yemen in a bid to win equality and recognition in society as protectors and guarantors of freedom in the service of their homeland.

“During the last years, I did not feel for one day that I am as any other Yemeni, as the government did not help us to improve ourselves, and only forced us to work as sweepers,” Walid Abadel, 29, a fighter from Akhdam with the Popular Resistance in Taiz’s Al Shimayateen district told Newsweek Middle East.

Abadel used to work as a street sweeper in Al Turbah area. Residents would derogatorily call him Khadem [singular of Akhdam] and treat him with contempt.  “I did not commit a [crime] to be treated in such a way. The government discriminates between Akhdam and typical Yemenis, because we are darker and poorer, so we joined the resistance to end the discrimination,” he added.

In fatigues, Abadel blends in with other soldiers at a checkpoint to inspect cars. When his military commander asked him to join the frontline, he did so without hesitation. He had joined the revolution in 2011, and told me that hundreds of Akhdam are now fighting the Houthis and former President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s forces in Taiz province. Most of the fighters used to work as street sweepers.

The Popular Resistance in Taiz gives each fighter YR2000 $9 per day, while Abadel used to receive YR1000 $5 per day when he working as a sweeper. “I do not care about money. I am willing to lose my life in battle to help others to live free without discrimination,” said Abadel. The Akhdam know that the Houthis are fighting together with Saleh’s loyalists. Many Akhdam accuse the former president of marginalizing the community during his reign.

Solaiman Noaman, 31, another Akhdam resistance fighter in Taiz, left his work as a sweeper and joined the battle driven by anger against Saleh, who he said never helped him earn a decent wage or provide an equal education opportunity. “I studied for the sixth class and when I tried to continue my studies in another school, the headmaster refused to register me as I am Khadem. Saleh did not punish those who discriminate between us and the other Yemenis, so he is our enemy and I am very happy now to fight him,” Noaman told Newsweek Middle East.

Ever since Noaman joined the resistance in June 2015, his commander and fellow troops don’t refer to him as Khadem. treating him as their peer as they fight shoulder to shoulder. I have my meals together with other fighters, and I sleep in the same room with other typical Yemenis. This means that the residents do not like the discrimination, and I hope that all of Al Muhamasheen live like me now,” said Noaman. He added that the resistance leadership opposes discrimination and has promised to help the Akhdam community after the liberation of the country, which is under the control of the Houthis. Other Yemenis are also becoming more vocal against the injustice towards the Akhdam and are calling for an end to discriminatory practices. Azoz Al Samei, a military trainer, told Newsweek Middle East that the Akhdam have proved their mettle in their fight against the Houthis. For this reason, he thinks that Yemenis have to respect the Akhdam.

“When the Houthis attacked Taiz, I [was] surprised to see some of the Akhdam request to join the war to prevent the Houthis from taking over Taiz. I changed my thoughts against Akhdam, and I [came to] respect them more than the Houthis, who are typical Yemenis,” said Al Samei. He said that it was enough that the Akhdam supported the resistance and did not forsake the fighters in their hour of need—even if society had abandoned the Akhdam for decades. “I think that many people in the whole country changed their bad thoughts against the Akhdam. After the war many people will help Akhdam to improve themselves,” said Al Samei.

The Akhdam are also fighting the Houthis in different provinces and not only in Taiz. The change afoot is nationwide. This is the first step “to kill the discrimination,” according to Fuad Al Alawi, the head of Sawa, an organization that fights for equality.

“The participation of Akhdam in this war is a clear indication that they love their country as [is the case with] any other Yemeni. We hope that this step will help them to end history of discrimination,” Al Alawi told Newsweek Middle East. He said that the Akhdam have suffered casualties but exact figures are not yet known.

Al Alawi said that the current war has created a rift between the Houthis and the Akhdam that might influence the treatment of the latter in the future, if the resistance fails to honor its obligation to protect them. But not all of the Akhdam support the resistance. There are a few who support the Houthis, including Mohamed Al Qairaei, a member of the Houthi Revolutionary Committee. But there are no Akhdam fighters within Houthis ranks, according to Al Alawi.

Social specialist and professor in Taiz University, Fadhl Al Thobhani, believes that the civil war in Yemen has an unintended benefit. “I cannot say that the civil war will end the discrimination completely, but it will help to reduce it, as many people in the conflict zones [have come to] respect the Akhdam for their support of the resistance,” Al Thobhani told Newsweek Middle East.

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