Tuesday,21 November, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1258, (13 - 19 August 2015)
Tuesday,21 November, 2017
Issue 1258, (13 - 19 August 2015)

Ahram Weekly

A Yemen road trip

Hossam Radman describes an overland journey from Sanaa to Aden in Yemen through areas held by Houthi and anti-Houthi forces

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Al-Ahram Weekly

The last city to be overrun by the Houthi insurgents in Yemen and the first to be liberated from them, Aden is now a big story. It has shown other Yemeni areas the way forward, and is being seen as a model of resistance.

But reading about it is one thing, and visiting it is quite another. The truth is that liberty is a many-layered word, and it comes at a price.

I am originally from Aden, though I live in the Yemeni capital Sanaa. The last time I saw Aden, before the recent battles, was in November. A colleague of mine who works in Cairo, Ahmad Eleiba, had come to Yemen for a visit.

After spending a few days in Sanaa, he was sick and tired of the city, the rivalries, the tensions and the gloominess of it all. So I took him to Aden. “Now I feel I am in Alexandria or Port Said,” he said.

Things are different now, but last November the shops were open, the restaurants were full, and the city was buzzing. There was no fighting, but young people were crowding the streets clamouring for secession, which is a long-cherished dream in the south.

Today, Aden is free. But half its buildings are gone, having been razed to the ground in recent battles. The young men who had crowded the streets to demand secession are nowhere to be seen. They are fighters now, or they are dead.

I went to Aden again to see what was happening, together with two other journalists, all working in Sanaa. I was the only one from Aden and the other two were from Taiz, a detail that turned out to be significant.

My two colleagues, Assem Al-Sabri and Dalil Al-Memari, knew the risks involved. Not only would we have to cross Houthi lines on our way to Aden, but we might also run into Al-Qaeda operatives, or worse.

The road from Sanaa to Aden is usually nine hours, but we would have to travel for 18 hours or so along a circuitous route to reach the south. We braced ourselves, and made up our story.

“If we’re asked, and we will be, the reason for our travels, this is what we’ll say,” I said. “I will say that I am visiting a sick aunt in Aden and that my friends are accompanying me to help transport her back to Sanaa for treatment.”

We had our press cards, and we had made calls to Aden to ensure safe passage. But while in Houthi land, our profession would have to remain a secret.

If our identity was discovered by the Houthis or supporters of former president Ali Abdallah Saleh fighting on their side, we could end up taken to army camps and used as human shields against the coalition raids currently striking Yemen. This had already happened to two colleagues.

It was early on a Thursday morning when we went to the taxi stop for travellers to Aden. The only car there was a 1992 Peugeot. The driver was happy to see us, as he still had three more seats in his car to fill.

But he asked for 20,000 rials instead of the usual 3,000, and then, instead of leaving, lingered in the station looking for more passengers and then asked us to make room for them. Over-charged and over-crowded, we took our lives into our hands.

Our fellow passengers were a curious mix. Our driver was from the north. My two colleagues were from Taiz, a southern city. Zeinab, a woman in her sixties, sat with her daughter and grandson in the middle row and kept complaining about the driver, who had squeezed another passenger into their row of seats.

She had been in Sanaa on business. “I came to get my salary and the salaries of my children after they cut off everything in the south,” she told us. Later, she admitted that the real reason she had left Aden was to flee the fighting.

But now that things had quietened down, she said, she was heading back. Instead of living in Sanaa, she’d rather go back to die in Aden, she said.

In the back seat sat Fattah, a 30-year-old man with his wife, who wore a niqab, or full face veil, and two daughters aged four and two. Noticing how cramped everyone was, Fattah invited me and Zeinab’s grandson to sit next to him and had his wife and one of his daughters sit in the middle row next to Zeinab.

 

THROUGH HOUTHI LAND: The taxi arrived in Ibb, and would normally have proceeded to Taiz, but because of the ongoing conflict it was safer to travel through Al-Hudaydah.

Children in tattered clothes chased after the car, begging for money, and the men guarding the checkpoints from the Houthi-Saleh alliance didn’t seem too suspicious. “They have a family,” the young man told his chief, having taken only a cursory look into the car.

The presence of women and children in the car gave us safe passage though several more roadblocks. This was the good news. The bad news was that our driver, Ali Al-Barrimi, lost his way. For more than an hour-and-a-half, he drove around in circles, bringing on the wrath of the passengers. “You’re like the Hebrews in Sinai,” Dalil quipped.

In Al-Makha, near Taiz, there was more bad news. The car broke down and Ali had to tinker with it for an hour. He fixed it, or said he did. At 7 pm, we were on the road again, the car moving forward in lurches and stopping on occasion. We made it through two more Houthi roadblocks, then the car stopped completely.

It was dark by then, and a blast of wind slapped us in the face as we were waiting for Ali to have another go at fixing the vehicle. This wasn’t a good place to stop. A Houthi roadblock on a main highway could easily be a target for Coalition planes.

As the wind roared around us, we pricked up our ears. Was that the roar of incoming jets in the distance, or was it just the sound of the wind amplified in our frightened ears?

A motorcycle approached. A few metres away from us it stopped and flashed its lights in a rhythmic way, like a secret code. We didn’t flash back. It came closer, and we saw that two men were riding on its back.

They claimed to be from a nearby village. Were they informers for the Houthis? The point was being debated when Ali finally fixed the car and everyone piled into it.

Then Ali ordered everyone out again. While he was fixing the car, he had lost his lighter. Now he was looking for it everywhere, oblivious to the stream of insults the passengers were levelling at him.

The motorcycle men drove away, stopped at a safe distance and then kept an eye on us. The next Houthi checkpoint was near Ras Omran. Again, there was a shout of “family in the car,” and this set us free to proceed.

We were finally out of Houthi land. Two hundred metres later, having traversed a no-man’s land of random barriers, we were in the presence of anti-Houthi fighters.

We stopped in front of a barrel from which an unidentified flag was flying. A young fighter welcomed us with the ominous declaration: “If any passenger is from Taiz, they better go back now.” An ID check followed, revealing the uncomfortable fact that both Assem and Dalil were from Taiz.

There was no way out but to explain who we were and what we were doing. We told the men that we had already arranged the visit with the Aden governor, Naef Al-Bakri, and the resistance spokesman Ali Al-Ahmadi. We gave the same explanation to the men at the next dozen roadblocks, until we ran into Sheikh Omar.

A fierce-looking man, tall and bearded, Sheikh Omar ordered Assem out of the car, cross-examined him and then tried to get the governor, Ali Al-Ahmadi, on the phone. But we were out of telephone range.

The young men at the checkpoint, all bearded, were treating Sheikh Omar with the utmost respect, When Assem came back to the car, he was worried. Was Sheikh Omar from Al-Qaeda?

A minute later, Sheikh Omar got into his truck and ordered our driver to follow him. Thanks to his escort, we drove through five successive checkpoints unchallenged. Then we arrived at Salah Al-Din, the only part of Aden that had repulsed the Houthis with ease, some say because the defenders were trained Al-Qaeda fighters.

Sheikh Omar ordered us to stop. He summoned Assem and Dalil, my Taiz colleagues, for a chat. Speaking in a kind, almost avuncular manner, he told them that there was no way he could let them go any further. They would have to stay where they were.

Coming to their help, I got out of the car, flashed my ID and repeated the fact that we had made arrangements with the governor and the spokesman in Aden. The area in which Sheikh Omar had stopped had been carefully chosen.

He had phone coverage, and in a few minutes he was talking to the spokesman, Ali Al-Ahmadi, on the phone, addressing him as “Sheikh Ali.”

“I don’t think they should pass. They should stay till the morning,” Sheikh Omar then said. I demanded to speak with Al-Ahmadi and was handed the phone. I reminded him of our conversation the day before, but he told us to stay put and to come to his office in the morning to get a written permit.

It was after midnight by then, and the other passengers had had enough of our shenanigans. It was clear that we couldn’t possibly hold them back any further. So we took out our luggage and got into Sheikh Omar’s car.

We tried to strike up a conversation with him, but couldn’t get past the formalities. Then the car stopped at a grocer’s shop, and Sheikh Omar got out.

I began talking to the driver, asking him about the victories in the area. He started bragging, comparing yesterday with today, saying how happy he was about Aden’s current status.

Working himself up with enthusiasm, he struck the car’s mirror where a medallion bearing the flag of the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen (PDRY), annexed to the north after the 1990 War, was hanging.

“By God, we will not stop until the south is back in southern hands,” he said. It was a sentiment that other fighters I talked to later also shared, a cross between nationalist aspirations and religious zeal.

The southerners are using Sunni-Shia frictions in Yemen to further their cause, knowing full well that the Gulf countries are taking their side in the current war against the Iran-backed Houthis.

When the southerners scored victories against the northern Houthi-Saleh onslaught, reports of war crimes abounded. According to some reports, backed by videos posted online, southern fighters have committed atrocities, including torture and mass executions, of the Houthi-Saleh insurgents. The scale of the atrocities has suggested Al-Qaeda involvement in the current conflict.

When Sheikh Omar got back into the car, we carefully inquired about his view on the situation. He knew what we meant. “Frankly, for us, the mass executions and the brutal methods of slaying people, this is utterly unacceptable. These things were carried out by over-zealous young men incensed by the injustice that had been done to them.”

We still suspected that Sheikh Omar belonged to a terror outfit, however. He must have read our minds. “May God save us from Al-Qaeda and Daesh [Islamic State] and their ilk. These are subversive groups, but we are a resistance movement. We are fighting for religion, honour and humanity,” he said.

“So what do you think of secession for the south?” I asked.

“I am for Islamic and Arab unity. But if the interests of the people, both in the south and the north, will be best protected through secession, so be it,” Sheikh Omar said.

Then came the punchline. “If secession takes place, make no bones about it. The old [leftist] southern regime will not be allowed back. The new regime will be Islamic, God willing,” he added.

Sheikh Omar instructed the driver to take us to a flat to spend the night. Finding a house in Boreiqa, the area where we had just arrived, wasn’t difficult. Most of the inhabitants had fled their homes to escape random shelling by the Houthis.

Sheikh Omar told us that this had almost set the local oil refineries on fire. Had they exploded, the entire Boreiqa district would have gone up in flames. But the chief engineer of the oil refineries, Ali Abdel-Karim, had gone into the flames to switch off the taps, preventing the fire from spreading to the rest of the facility. He hadn’t come out alive.

Abdel-Karim was a personal hero to the locals, including Sheikh Omar, who swore to avenge him. Two days after this conversation, Sheikh Omar almost died trying to do so. He was wounded in a battle on the road to Taiz and hospitalised in Al-Naqib Hospital. We visited him there, and he welcomed us with the kind of smile one saves for old friends.

 

ARRIVING IN ADEN: On our first night in Boreiqa, Sheikh Omar arranged a dinner of rice and tuna fish for us. We didn’t know how special that was until we entered Aden itself, where you can spend hours searching for a few biscuits or some canned food.

We spent hours in the back streets of Sheikh Osman’s neighbourhood looking for a grocery store. Most of them had run out of supplies and couldn’t restock because of the fighting, so they had closed down instead.

Restaurants, having no gas to cook with, had also closed down. Telephones were erratic, forcing us to watch our telephone screens for the right moment to make a call. The electricity was rationed: three hours on and three hours off.

The day after our arrival, we went to the press office in Al-Ahmadi neighbourhood to get our passes. The office told me to go to Abu Abdel-Rahman, a bearded 50-something officer.

“These are journalists, and they must not be harassed or stopped at any point,” he wrote on our passes. He also noted that Assem and Dalil had come with “someone known to us,” making me practically their minder.

I knew the situation in the south was bad, but I still wasn’t prepared for what I saw. Not the scale of the destruction, not the level of deprivation and definitely not the mistrust. The mistrust towards the north is well documented, but what has been less so is the inter-south mistrust, with leftists versus fundamentalists and Taiz versus Aden.

Once the Houthi insurgency is rolled back, it will be only a matter of time before the second round of account settling is fought.

Colonel Mahmoud Al-Dal’i came to check on us. He told us that his five sons were fighting on the Salah Al-Din front for secession, but admitted that the course of events was unpredictable at this point in time. Afterwards, we went to the town of Sheikh Osman, one of the cities that had been spared the ravages of the war and has become a refugee camp, filled with people fleeing the violence in other areas.

We couldn’t find a room there, not in a hotel and not in an apartment. Every single room had been taken by the refugees. But a kind spice shop owner, a good friend of mine, allowed us to bunk down in his warehouse. We accepted the invitation and spent a night in hell as a result, being feasted upon by mosquitos in a dusty and sweltering room.

The next day we started talking to the refugees. Each one had his own horror story, a close brush with death, a last moment dash from the bombardments. Everyone was grateful they had escaped the inferno. These were people who had lived a normal life only a few months ago.

At first I thought they were exaggerating the stories for my benefit. But that was wishful thinking. The extent of the destruction I later saw in the neighbourhoods of Khor Mekser, Al-Mo’alla, Al-Tawahi and Kritar told me that every single story I had heard was sadly true.

Everything had been demolished, and the damage was too severe for one to hold out hope that it will one day be repaired. Reconstruction seems to be a far-off dream.

A few days later, I was with Wafiyy Al-Sho’aybi, another journalist from the south, who told me enthusiastically about the victories the resistance had had on all the battle fronts in the governorates of Abyan and Lahj. “Why don’t you want people to enjoy the sweetness of victory?” he asked, noticing my scepticism.

The victory in Aden was complete, at least from the military point of view. The governorate is 100 per cent free from the Houthis and their allies. It lies half in ruins, with no capable government in sight, but with militias all over the place eager not to merge with this or any future government and pleased to be running the show.

Rivalries are already in evidence between the Southern Harak, Islamists of every ilk, the leftists and the army loyal to the exiled President Abd Rabbuh Mansour Hadi.

I talked to Alaa, a young man from the resistance who had recently fought on the Moallah Front, by telephone. I asked him about the fighting, but he declined to talk about the specifics.

Before I hung up, I asked about his grandmother Hajja Hajer. “She’s in a better place now, God bless her soul,” he said. But Aden, everyone tells me, is on its way to a glorious victory.

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