Remembering Yemen before the bombs

Jane Ferguson reflects on the changes Yemen has witnessed over the past five years, and how the violence and chaos is a relatively new phenomenon.

I remember Yemen before the bombs.

In fact, I spent four of the best months of my life here: blissfully careering through mountains, banana fields and shore-lined plains in an old Toyota Corolla with several other Westerners.

“Welcome in Yemen!” was a phrase shouted from teashop counters, truck stop shops and the occasional passerby in the street. It always made me smile so much I didn’t have the heart to correct the grammar.

I was supposed to be studying Arabic, and much to my devoted teacher Saeed’s despair, preferred often to skip class for trips into the mountains and days spent wandering aimlessly in Sana’a’s ancient Old City.

The Arabic school is closed now and Saeed has changed his phone number – I have no idea how he is feeding his family anymore. I no longer wander aimlessly anywhere in town when I visit.

After only 5 years, I don’t find Yemen itself unrecogniseable – rather my reaction to it. Security has to be considered for every step you take outside. It almost seems exaggerated.

On arriving here last Sunday I debated with myself whether hiring a security company to drive me from the airport into town was being paranoid. The same day, a Spanish man working at his embassy landed in from another flight, got in a taxi, and disappeared. His body was dumped yesterday in the street.

Also yesterday, a male member of the Yemeni Jewish community – a rather unknown but normal part of society here until recently – was stabbed to death in a market place in Sana’a.

What many people don’t realise, is that such violence is in fact extremely new to Sana’a. People gunned down in the street for being non-Muslims is a very modern menace. Yemenis themselves are shocked.

Al-Qaeda’s tactics of suicide bombings also, are something locals react to with a mixture of astonishment and anger.

“To kill yourself is haram [forbidden by God]! I don’t think he can be Yemeni!” shouted a local friend down the phone when a Yemeni student blew himself up in an attempt to kill the British ambassador last April.

Over the past few years, every time I have visited the country for work, locals here have affirmed that things can’t get any worse – Insha’allah [God willing] they will get better soon, they say. But things are getting worse.

A war no-one would have predicted a year and a half ago has been battled out since them, with the loyalists to the strong-man leader Ali Abdullah Saleh in street battles with renegade military units and tribal fighters.

The Yemeni army was split on several fronts as it clamoured to suppress the various pre-existing insurgencies which moved quickly to take advantage of their opponent’s weakened position – both the Shia Houthi fighters in the north and al-Qaeda in the south overran swathes of the country.

Eventually, in February, Saleh stepped down, but the wheels were in motion and chaos ensued – and ordinary Yemeni’s suffered horrifically as the economy stopped. Workers were sent home, basic services ground to a near halt, and food prices rocketed as roads became impassable and fuel prices soared. Now nearly half the population are malnourished.

Wednesday’s Friends of Yemen meeting – where $4bn in aid was pledged – has come so late it is not meant simply to kick-start the economy again, but also to save hundreds of thousands of people from starving to death.

It is widely believed that corruption under the previous regime here overshadowed international aid efforts – Yemeni development analyst Abdul Ghani Iryani was quoted again and again in the media last year alleging that Saleh and his loyalists were skimming $2 billion a year from the economy.

It was the Saudis on Wednesday who stole the show with their pledge of $3.25bn in development aid. An enormously generous humanitarian gift – but it is also likely to be motivated in some way by their own security concerns.

The Saudis need a stable Yemen. They share an 1800km border with it. And Yemen’s branch of al-Qaeda have had the Saudi royal family in their sights for years.

In 2009, the group came close to assassinating Saudi Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, who had been leading a crackdown on the group. Earlier this month, another would-be underpants bomb plot was discovered.

It is makers planned an attack on the US, but the mole at the centre of the discovery was working for Saudi intelligence.
Yemen’s wealthier neighbour is all too aware that poverty and lawlessness go hand in hand and usually feed off one another.

But the pledging of such huge sums also displays the international community’s urge to back the new President Abd Rabu Mansour Hadi completely. At this point, at least some form of stable leadership seems to be the only thing holding Yemen together.

Hadi has taken advantage of such backing from US, EU and United Nations and made bold decisions most would not have predicted from a previous member of the Saleh regime.

After Monday’s catastrophic al-Qaeda suicide bombing of the National Day military parade rehearsals – in which almost 100 soldiers were killed – Hadi vamped up his policy of firing old guard members, including Ammar Saleh, the head of the National Security Bureau and the ousted president’s nephew.

Today, loyalists of Saleh’s – still camped out in Tahrir Square, closed a road in their anger at no longer being paid to protest in his favour. Shots were fired and eventually the road was cleared.

And so Sana’a stumbles on each day, with skirmishes, political standoffs, and the odd killing. All the while a brutal war rages in the south against al-Qaeda fighters – and news of US drone strikes make it to the city regularly.

On my first morning here years ago, I was jolted out of bed at 5am in absolute terror. I had no idea what was being yelled through a loud speaker, but feared it was a police raid. It was the first time I had ever heard a mosque’s call to prayer. My school teachers found this story hilarious and we laughed about it for weeks.

Now, each night from my hotel room, it is almost impossible to tell the difference between wedding celebrations and gunshots fired in anger.

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