An island of safety in Yemen's Change Square

In a city where everyone is looking over his shoulder, it's nice to be able to concentrate on what you're doing.


    I like going to film with the team in Change Square.

    Not just because of the laid back atmosphere, warm welcome and upbeat music, but because it feels safe.

    It is surrounded by pro-revolution troops, under the command of a general who reneged last year after protestors were shot dead by government troops.

    General Ali Mohsen is no angel in terms of human rights and democratic principles, but his troops do look out for potential troublemakers at entrance points to the square.

    In a city where everyone is looking over their shoulder for kidnapping gangs, al-Qaeda etc, it's nice to be able to concentrate on what you're doing.

    But that feeling of security is so much more crucial for the young protestors there.

    They say leaving the square puts them at risk of kidnapping, secret detention and torture.

    Tamer is heartbreaking to sit with. His whole body seems at odds with reality. When he is in pain, his grimace looks like a smile. When he tries to walk, his legs shake violenty and he has to be put in a wheelchair. His speech is heavily slurred, and the interview must be taken at a snail's pace.

    He's only 18. He should be playing football, or studying for year-end school exams. But instead, he sits in a makeshift tent, shaking.

    Tamer told me he was unlucky enough to be lagging behind at the end of a protest last April, when he was grabbed by pro-Saleh gunmen. They kept him for 11 months, he said.

    They moved him from time to time, but he was always hooded and had no idea where he was. The torture included beatings and electric shocks, he said.

    I ask an obvious question – why would they do this to you? "They just kept saying, 'what good is your revolution to you now'," he explains.

    A doctor from the local field hospital, who treated him when he arrived, said the beatings on the back of his neck were likely to have caused his condition. He stays beside him. He knows Tamer is going to need care for the rest of his life.

    A short stroll away from Tamer's tent is a tarpaulin office, dedicated to the returned detainees and a campaign to have the others released. Some say hundreds are still missing.

    Abdul Karim Thoail heads up the tiny, tented organisation. Kidnappings are still happening here, he stressed. The country's various intelligence agencies are still largely controlled by and loyal to Saleh.

    They are trying to stop the ongoing campaign by protestors to have the rest of the Saleh family members removed from posts in the military. After almost a year and a half of revolution, Sanaa's streets are more dangerous than ever.

    One protestor, an accountant by trade, was taken three times, he says. He writes revolutionary articles in a small publication in the square, and pro-Saleh thugs don't like it one bit, he said. Hunched in the corner of Thoail's tent, his eyes roamed like those of a scared horse. His last ordeal was only two weeks ago.

    He left the square at sundown, and was followed, he said. They only held him for two days this time, but this time they used electricity, he remembers.

    "They have never done that before," he says in a quiet voice. His body is covered in fresh cuts.

    Human Rights Watch recently released a report on such kidnappings, saying, "The United States, European Union and Gulf States should call for the transfer of all detainees to judicial authorities so they can be free or charged and prosecuted in impartial and fair proceedings."

    They also criticsed the intelligence agencies for the kidnappings, pointing out that they have in the past always reported straight to Saleh "and their loyalties remian unclear".

    They also point out that illegal detentions have been practised on both sides of this revolution – the renegade troops are accused of detaining dozens of perceived Saleh loyalists and treating them no better than the other side.

    So again and again, in this hijacked revolution, real activists find themselves not only repressed by the regime, but caught between two powerful sides in an ugly power struggle. One in which both sides are prepared to trample the most basic human rights to win.

    This should be an exclusive, groundbreaking and shocking story. But it is not. In front of a hotel lobby full of various politicians and intelligence service types, I shouted over the din my questions at Prime Minister Mohammed Basindawa.

    "I am trying to get them released as soon as possible," he says. "The allegience of some [intelligence] agencies are still not with us – you know that very well."

    Basindawa is not a Saleh loyalist, but he is the prime minister. And he cannot get people released from illegal custody by government agencies. The level of government control in this country is terrifyingly slim.



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