On a recent Wednesday morning Aden, Yemen’s once-thriving southern port city, was a ghost town. Shops and banks were closed, their windows shuttered. Few people or cars were visible on what are usually bustling roads.
The only activity of any note was to be found on Mansoura Street, Aden’s main thoroughfare. Positioned at one end of the road was an armoured personnel vehicle, its windscreen cracked and chassis dented, surrounded by an uneven collection of rocks.
Every few minutes the indistinct figures of young men, their faces covered with scarves, would appear from behind a building and hurl rocks at the armoured car. When enough time had passed or enough stones had hit the truck to spur the soldiers inside into action, the crack of warning shots would sound across the street.
Around the corner were three other young men, Mokhtar al-Saeed, Sami Ali and Bashir Radfan. Unperturbed by the sound of gunfire, they idled on the steps of a closed shop in the early morning sun. Each man had a differing opinion of the strikes and acts of civil disobedience which now take place twice a week in Aden. “It is affecting people’s daily lives; it is a mess. You cannot do anywhere or do anything in this situation,” said Bashir.
“We will win,” countered Mokhtar. “Winning” would mean achieving separation from north Yemen, he explained. Like many young southerners, Mokhtar saw no future in the 23-year-old union between the formerly independent states of north and south Yemen. “There will be a civil war,” Sami said.
The ‘Southern Question’
When Yemen’s south captures headlines at home and abroad, it is almost always because of the ‘Southern Question’ – complaints of unequal treatment of southern Yemenis by their northern counterparts that led to the foundation of the separatist Southern Movement, better known in Yemen as Hirak al-Janoubi or simply Hirak, in 2007.
Hirak has become an increasingly visible presence since the 2011 uprising that ousted Yemen’s longtime President Ali Abdullah Saleh, and has been largely peaceful until now. But the standoff on Mansoura Street was representative in many ways of what daily life has become for southerners. Every few days, the south is brought to a standstill as two protagonists – Hirak, and the central government – play out a ritualised, low-intensity conflict in which there is no clear winner or loser. Young people lack education and jobs. For now, all they can do is to vent their frustration by tossing rocks at the army, the straw men of the north.
|Growing calls for secession in south Yemen town|
Like Sami, analysts in Yemen are concerned that the independence movement is shifting towards becoming a violent struggle. In recent months, tribes in the southeastern province of Haramawt took control of the area, demanding a pullout of central security services, while militant groups in another province, Al Dhale, have repeatedly clashed with the Yemeni security services. On January 18, the “Southern Resistance”, a Hiraki group, released a video statement to the pro-secession television channel Aden Live that many analysts have taken as an official announcement of an armed resistance.
Young southerners are integral to the independence movement and would be key to an armed uprising, yet their voices are rarely heard. The politicking and decision making is done by older Hirakis. “No-one talks to the youth about what they want,” said Raed, a 24-year-old college graduate from Aden over a weekly lunch of fish, rice and bread that he shares with a group of friends in Aden’s Khormaksar district (along with the rest of the group, Raed – not his real name -asked that he be quoted under a pseudonym in order to be able to speak freely). “It is like they only exist in social media, in Twitter.”
Most of the group, who were in their early 20s to 30s, agreed with the general grievances put forward by Hirak, their feelings compounded by formative memories of unity that came not from ebullience of the 1990 merger, but the trauma of civil war four years later. In 1994, southern officials, frustrated at what they saw as a northern political and economic marginalisation of the south, attempted to break away from the newly-formed state. A short, brutal conflict followed, ending with a victory for the north.
Raed’s family lived next to Aden’s main refinery, which was bombed during the war. “They blew it up,” he said. “My uncle was injured and my cousin died. I remember the shouting, the people running around. It was a bad time.”
After the civil war, the Saleh regime cemented its control over the south, forcibly retiring thousands of southern soldiers and civil servants and seizing land previously held by the socialist government, distributing it among senior military officers and tribal sheikhs loyal to Saleh. Some of Yemen’s biggest oil fields are in the south, and many southerners complain that the revenues from oil exports were stolen by the regime, rather than being recycled into projects to develop the southern economy.
Southerners say that they have seen no improvement in their situation since Saleh stepped down, and Hirak’s leadership has largely refused to take part in ongoing national reconciliation talks in Sanaa, demanding a referendum on independence which they say “all” southerners want. Hadi, a southerner himself, has said he will not allow unity to be broken, while tribal leaders in the north have promised war if any serious attempt is made at secession.
Not everyone at the Khormaksar lunch agreed that independence was the answer to southerners’ woes. “If we separate, the question is would things be better?” asked Fatima, 29. “We see a lot of problems but separation is not necessarily the solution to these problems.” Most young people, she said, could not properly remember life before unity or were in fact born into it, and relied on older southerners’ memories for accounts of the region’s socialist past.
The night before, at a square in Khormaksar, a group of young men had crowded around a game of table football. All of those present said that they wanted independence. “The government gave me nothing,” said Ali Mohammed Saleh, a 17-year-old high school student. “I want independence.” Pre-unity, “life was better”, he said of a period that ended seven years before he was born. He could not explain why.
At the lunch, conversation turned to the youth-led uprising in 2011 that led to Saleh’s ouster, which largely took place in the north. The diners agreed that their northern peers had become empowered during the Arab Spring in a way that they had not. “The youth in the north have a role now; we don’t,” said Hamid, who at 21 was the youngest person at the meal, of youth participation in the peace talks in Sanaa. His friend Mohammed attributed the differences between northern and southern youth to improvements in education in Sanaa and elsewhere in the north since 1990.
“We were developed before, and they were tribes. But now it is like we are the other way around,” he said. “We are the tribes and they are the developed people.”
Talk shifted to the lack of education and jobs which most affected the party’s day-to-day lives. Youth unemployment in Yemen is well over 50 percent, and by some accounts it is above 60 percent or more in the south. The lack of job opportunities for young people has turned the south into a recruiting ground not just for Hirak but also for extremist Islamist organisations, Fatima said.
The people who are leading us are not trustworthy. But I still believe there are people who can lead the country.
In 2011, the Yemeni al-Qaeda franchise, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), seized control of the southern province of Abyan, enticing young, poor men to join them with the promise of pay, food and eternal paradise through martyrdom. In 2013, young southerners joined another campaign, in the northern province of Sadah where the Salafist residents of an Islamic institute fought the Shia Zaydi “Houthi” militias that control the rest of the province.
“Some of my friends went to Dammaj because there is a group here who do nothing but recruit young people,” said “Ali”, 25, of the Salafists. The recruiters told his friends they would “go to heaven” if they were killed, he said.
“If you have a lot of time and do nothing, then anything is tempting,” Fatima said. For this reason she worried that young southerners could be easily coaxed into violence, a concern given credence by a several members of formal Hiraki groups. “In public, [Hirak’s] leaders say that we are peaceful, but behind closed doors they tell us to do what we want, to fight,” the leader of one of Hirak’s youth wings told Al Jazeera. “For young men with nothing, that is an attractive proposition, but it will be the youth who risk the bullets.”
For the time being, southern Yemen’s young people face an uncertain future – one which is likely to be decided by men and women decades their senior, and who many mistrust. “I think it is a nasty game in both the north and in the south,” Jamila said. “The leaders are very hidden in what they really want.”
Yet a few of those at the lunch in Khormaksar, at least, remained hopeful. “I want for all the leaders to go, from the north and the south and for a new system to be created,” said Mohammed. “The people who are leading us are not trustworthy. But I still believe there are people who can lead the country.”