Violence in Yemen sends thousands to lives underground

McClatchy NewspapersAugust 7, 2011 

SANAA, Yemen — The Yemeni capital remained tense Sunday as a second day of clashes between government forces and armed supporters of powerful tribal leader Sheikh Sadiq al Ahmar threatened to reignite large scale fighting in the city.

A tenuous calm has held since the days of fierce fighting between government troops and dissident tribesmen brought Sanaa to the brink of war in late May. These renewed clashes come amid reports that embattled Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh, who has been the target of nearly six months of anti-government protests, is preparing to transfer from the Saudi hospital for further recuperation in Saudi government housing in Riyadh.

Saleh has been in Saudi Arabia since June 4, when he left the country after suffering severe injuries in a bomb attack on his compound.

Since Saleh left the country, his powerful relatives, who command the nation's best-trained and most well-equipped troops, and political allies have reiterated their expectation of his imminent return to the country.

Yet even as remnants of the regime have appeared to consolidate power, they have proved unable to suppress clashes across the increasingly restful country. Much of the violence has occurred far from Sanaa in hotspots like the southern city of Taizz and the restful province of Abyan.

Yet even in the capital, the now-familiar reverberation of artillery fire from the north attests to ongoing clashes in Arhab, a rural district some 20 miles north of Sanaa.

On the outskirts of Sanaa, the city's sprawl dissipates, giving way to scenes of pastoral tranquility. Ancient villages sit amid painstakingly cultivated fields and vineyards, lorded over by the spires of surrounding mountains. In many ways, the district of Arhab exemplifies the stereotypical image of rural Yemen. Yet over the past two months, this calm has been shattered.

Government rhetoric has blamed the violence on armed militant groups based in the district. Three camps of the elite Republican Guard, which is led by Saleh's son and has benefited from significant American counterterrorism aid, are based in the strategically important area, guarding an entrance to Sanaa and the city's international airport.

Armed groups, the government claims, have terrorized the district, battling government forces in an effort to take over the capital with the support of the political opposition, radical Islamist groups and weapons provided by military defectors. District tribesmen have gone so far as to threaten to attack the airport in 'retaliation' for government attacks.

In the town of Yahis, whose surrounding villages lie nearly adjacent to the 62 Camp of the Republican Guard, the damage from the ongoing violence is obvious. But blame, residents say, lies squarely on the side of the government.

According to area residents and tribal notables, seemingly endless shelling from the nearby Republican Guard camp has turned their lives into a nightmare. The ground is littered with missile fragments, while well over a dozen homes have been rendered uninhabitable by damage from rocket fire.

Electricity and water, residents say, have been absent for over a month, while disruptions in supply lines have meant that, even as many in Yemen go hungry, much of the fruits and vegetables produced in village fields are left to rot on the vine. And fear of further attacks, which have killed 10 in the area in ten and over 70 in the district as a whole, has led many to flee the area for safety elsewhere, with many forced to take refuge in caves in the surrounding mountains.

Since shelling began, women and children have abandoned their homes, relocating to roughly hewn dwellings carved from soft volcanic rock. Haphazardly outfitted with furniture and lacking basics like running water, these dwellings have turned from temporary sanctuaries to erstwhile homes for thousands. As this troglodyte existence gains a seeming permanence, feelings of helplessness and anxiety have taken hold along with vocal anger at what they describe as unwarranted government aggression.

"What criminal would force old women and children to live like this, especially during the holy month of Ramadan," said Hail Mohamed Ali, who has taken refuge in a cave with her daughters and grandchildren. "All of Arhab is against the regime, and those that supported it in the past curse their stupidity."

Within the villages, men seemed more devoted to combating the hunger and boredom of the daylight hours of Ramadan than to preparing for battle. As seemingly unprovoked rocket fire emanating from the nearby Republican Guard base, the villagers declined to mount a response.

While area notables admit that others in the district have taken arms up arms, they insist that they have remained peaceful. And even if tribesmen in other villages have geared up to fight, they say, their weaponry cannot compete with that of the well-equipped Republican Guard.

"Some of our brothers in Arhab and [the neighboring district of] Nehm are not as patient as us," said Sheikh Mohamed Ali Amr, surveying damage in his SUV. "But even if we were to take up arms, our guns are no match for the government's rockets."

While many expressed simple bewilderment at the attacks against them, other residents stated that they believed they were being targeted as a show of government forces' strength.

But while anti-government sentiment is ubiquitous here — a delegation from the area has been camped out in the anti-government sit-in in Sanaa for months — residents were quick to express distance from Ahmar, who has seemingly formalized his position as the face of Saleh's tribal opposition through his leadership of the recently formed "Alliance of Yemeni Tribes."

In contrast to Ahmar and the president, who belong to Hashid-affiliated tribes, the Arhabis are Bakils, members of the country's largest, though less powerful, tribal federation. And while Ahmar has offered backing to the tribesmen of Arhab, villagers denied that they were operating under the leadership of the powerful Sheikh.

"We don't want to trade one family of Hashid dictators for another family of Hashid dictators," said Mohamed Abdulkarim, a village schoolteacher. "We accept Ahmar's support, obviously, but he does not speak for us."

Despite the political implications, however, most residents remained focused on more basic concerns. And amidst the seemingly endless shelling, many wondered if calm could ever return.

"I don't understand how a few villages of farmers could deserve punishment like this," said Saddam Haizan, pointing to his leg which was amputated below the knee after he was injured when a missile hit his home. "I just pray to God that this hell eventually ends."

(Baron is a McClatchy special correspondent.)

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McClatchy Newspapers 2011

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