November 2, 2012 6:36 pm

Yemen: Journey to a land in limbo

Angry, nostalgic, fearful: a return to Aden reveals a people grappling with their nation’s future
Abigail Fielding-Smith

A short while ago, I swept past the Victorian garrison church overlooking the port city of Aden in southwest Yemen for the first time in more than a year. The trickle of news which car bombs force out of this otherworldly place at the bottom of the Arabian peninsula, with its volcanic crags and strangely empty shoreline, had done nothing to prepare me for how much it had changed.

When I last visited the city at the end of 2010, before the uprising that unseated President Ali Abdullah Saleh, it was the closest thing to an authoritarian police state in the otherwise chaotically ruled country. Troops were everywhere and people were afraid to talk to journalists on the street. Today, there is anti-government graffiti throughout the city, and government troops warned us to stay away from one street because of snipers. On the eastern highway out of the city, fighting between the army and al-Qaeda-linked militants had left the street lights bent like storm-felled trees.

In the space of 30 years, Aden has been a British colony, the capital of a Soviet-backed independent republic, part of a new united Yemen, and the headquarters of a shortlived breakaway state, before being over-run and looted by the unity government’s forces. Residents say the wildly volatile state of limbo they have been in for the past year and a half is more alarming than anything they’ve experienced before.

“The government is not strong, but the people are not liberated,” said Mohamed Ali Ahmed, who recently returned after nearly three decades away and is a veteran of the south’s breakaway war. “It’s a kind of chaos – no one is controlling anything.”

It may not be top of the list in the capital, Sana'a, where clashes between the new president and remnants of the old regime continue, but south Yemen is slipping out of control. The absence of a legitimate authority has created the perfect playground for power struggles, not to mention al-Qaeda. Grassroots separatists warn of “catastrophic consequences” if their cause is ignored. What is happening in the south is not only one of the biggest problems facing Yemen, but potentially a global security concern.

“The rise of the southern issue was the result of not dealing with it years ago,” said Mohammed al-Mekhlafi, a socialist party politician in Sana'a trying to push the new government to adopt a law addressing southern grievances. “The alternative of seizing this opportunity to change is Yemen going to chaos.”

Predictions of chaos are nothing new. Every few years (or, increasingly, months), an event like the recent storming of the US embassy complex in Sana'a will give Yemen a brief claim on the world’s attention. The familiar litany of problems – poverty, resource scarcity, al-Qaeda, heavily armed tribes – will be rehearsed but somehow the apocalypse never comes, leaving the impression that this land of rock castles and dagger dances is unusually resilient. In reality, the mounting cost of such dysfunctionality is hidden in less visible areas, like the south, where scared citizens strive to understand the capricious machinations of the political players.

Old photograph of Aden under the British©Getty Images

Aden in 1890 when it was governed by the British

The uncertainty of the region is symbolised by Abyan, an agricultural province east of Aden where camel-drawn carts still carry produce. Islamic militants took over towns there at the height of the Yemeni uprising last year, sending tens of thousands to Aden in search of safety. Known as Ansar al-Sharia, the militants were thought to be a mixture of genuine al-Qaeda ideologues, local malcontents, and even some people with links to the old regime.

According to Adel, a human-rights activist from Jaar who did not want to give his last name, the militants met little resistance there. “They didn’t force it, they were trying to win hearts and minds,” he recalled. “They did something that neither the government nor the tribal sheikhs did – we call it enforcing the rule of law.”

When I visited Abyan in the summer, the militants had just left after heavy fighting with the army and local tribes. The resulting damage was interspersed with the results of suspected US drone strikes. On one ruined mosque, someone had written, “Is this democracy?” The town of Zinjibar, where cindered armoured personnel carriers sat in the shadow of shattered buildings, was largely empty, while Jaar, which bore far fewer signs of fighting, was edgily busy.

The army was nowhere to be seen inside the town and, in the absence of any other authority, a group of locals had formed a committee to try to keep the place running. A man crossed through the souk to meet us.

“It’s been a month since al-Qaeda left, and we haven’t seen any security,” he said. “We are trying to take care of garbage cleaning, manage the souks, we catch thieves – the government didn’t get in and do anything.”

Like other residents of Jaar, he was not convinced the militants had really gone – no one had yet felt inclined to take down their banners. “You see armed people and you don’t know who they are – they might be al-Qaeda.” Meanwhile, displaced citizens in Aden were reluctant to go back, unconvinced that it was safe. Their caution appears well-founded: on August 5, a suicide bomber killed 45 people in Jaar.

. . .

There is a widely held idea in south Yemen that their society is fundamentally different to that of the north. Adenis see themselves as cosmopolitan and sophisticated, and are proud of the city’s historic links with India (the town was once governed by the British out of Bombay and had one of the world’s busiest harbours). The north, meanwhile, is often portrayed as tribal and backward – Mohamed Ali Ahmed characterises its political culture as based on “sacrificing cows.”

The Marxist state that replaced British-ruled southern Yemen entered into a unity agreement with north Yemen in 1990, but the relationship quickly soured. “Our schoolbooks called for unification,” said Mohsen Fareed, now an activist for southerners’ rights, as we talked in a car on the seafront. “We thought our brothers in the north had the same level of understanding and unity.” Fareed, a red-headed man in his sixties, is bitter. “See, here in the capital of the south, we use flashlights,” he muttered when one of Aden’s frequent power cuts kicked in. “We used to have a state, a real state, we had institutions.”

There is a lot of nostalgia for the Marxist People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen (PDRY) these days. A photo exhibition set up by activists in Aden represents the era with an image of unveiled women playing chess. Historians tend to give it more of a mixed scorecard: it created literacy and provided basic services, but was riven by factional disputes, which came to a head in January 1986, when thousands of people were killed in a series of clashes.

Southern activists say, not without some justification, that the south was treated like a spoil of war after the central government’s armies over-ran it in 1994. Employment was affected disproportionately by civil service cuts and, in 2007, protests began. Fareed himself was arrested several times, and, in 2010, he says his 15-year-old son was imprisoned: “Can you imagine putting a kid underground for months?”

When protests escalated after the outbreak of the Arab spring, so did the repression: Human Rights Watch says at least nine people were shot dead by security forces in Aden in February 2011 alone. But overstretched authorities seem to have given up preventing other forms of dissent. Huge billboards of “martyrs” make it look like a liberated city. The PDRY flag is now ubiquitous in Aden. At the photo exhibition, there was a postcard equating the Yemeni flag with a swastika on display. “People are like toothpaste,” said the curator. “Once you take them out, you can’t put them back in.”

Not everyone wants secession or feels implacably hostile to the central government. Many simply want government. Anssaf Mayo, head of the powerful Islamist political party Islah, argued that people demanding independence for the south are actually a minority. One of the pragmatic, if somewhat fudged, proposals being talked about is a federal solution, which would give the south more autonomy, and the right to hold a referendum on independence at a later date.

But the voices calling for more radical solutions are getting louder. “Al Ayyam was the first to talk about federalism after the war in 1994,” said Tammam Bashraheel, the managing editor of the now banned newspaper. “Now, if I were to go outside this door and talk about federalism, I’d be beaten.” “If not shot,” his nephew, Bashraheel Hisham, interjected.

Aden is becoming more lawless and violent. The government says there are armed elements in the southern movement, though southern activists ascribe violence to “infiltrators”. However, many fear the issue will move in the direction of armed struggle if it is not addressed. One activist chewing qat leaves in his sitting room told us he had begun exploring options for financing weapons purchases. “We don’t want to reach this, but if we are obliged to do so, we will,” he said.

Everyone stresses they are keen for a political solution. A national dialogue conference to tackle issues such as the south is due to be held later this month. The problem is that even if the central government were willing to offer a workable deal, the southern protest movement itself is fragmented, and likely to become even more so. The kind of leaders with the clout to negotiate with Sana'a tend to be enmeshed in the Machiavellian game of Yemeni politics, best summarised by a local who said: “If you don’t turn into a wolf, the wolves will eat you.”

Those living through it may struggle to understand the tangled politics, but they can discern an underlying pattern. On our last night in Aden, an old man stopped us as we were leaving a tea house to which people had swarmed at sunset. He wanted to reach out to us, to see if we saw the degeneration he saw. “The British were best, they made Aden like a flower,” he said as we walked past a sprawl of uncollected rubbish bags on the street. “Everything that came has been worse than what came before.”

Abigail Fielding-Smith is the FT’s Beirut correspondent

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