Middle-east Arab News Opinion | Asharq Al-awsat

The Battle for Yemen’s Unity | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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Sanaa, Asharq Al-Awsat – Fawzi, the eldest son of Al-Zubayri, who belongs to the Al Sarih tribe, was killed two weeks ago. He was serving in Al-Firqah Division of the Yemeni Army. He was taking part in fighting in the rugged Razih Mountains where rebels seeking to restore the Imamate theocratic rule, which prevailed in the country before the1960s, were barricaded. Al-Zubaryi put the photo of his son and that of his son’s friend on the windshield of his cab. Photos of martyrs can be seen on the windshields of cars driving along the streets of Yemen’s central cities like Sanaa and adjacent towns. Those photos reflect the domestic problems Yemen is going through.

Fawzi’s father said: “As I drive my car, I feel sad for those who lost their sons in military confrontations for the sake of Yemen’s unity. While at home, my sons and I feel sad for my son, Fawzi. He was here with us on leave, but when the problem created by Al-Huthist gunmen increased, he returned to the battlefront in the north. He kept in contact with us by telephone until he arrived at his post in the Razih Mountains where gunmen fighting against the state were hiding. Then his news ceased and his telephone and those of his colleagues fell silent. Three days later, the commander of the military division in Sadah informed me that my son was not feeling well and was in the hospital. Deep down, I felt that my son was martyred.”

The Yemeni Government did not announce the number of the army soldiers or of the tribesmen fighting alongside the Army who were killed for the sake of Yemen’s unity. However, private local sources estimated the number of dead soldiers and tribesmen at several thousands. When one meets with any of those bereaved fathers, they do not complain about the hardships of life without a son or brother only, but about the hardships of life too. Centralization of the state, meager income, lack of comprehensive health, and social insurance, as well as power outages and occasional water cuts are all problems that local officials acknowledge. They make plans in hopes of arriving at urgent solutions despite the unfavorable circumstances, thanks to decline in growth rate, fast population growth, and disturbances in the northern and southern parts of the country. The cabinet ministers have traveled in several governorates and promised people that the forthcoming stage will see improvement in their living conditions on the political, economic, and social levels.

In addition to the officers and soldiers who are struggling to maintain Yemen’s unity, other retired Army officers and soldiers view themselves as “martyrs of unity,” because they were forced to retire and their pensions were cut because, according to Colonel Hussein, the authorities believed that they might take sides with the southern separatists or with Al-Huthist rebels in the north. Col Hussein is a retired officer who served in the Army prior to the establishment of unity between the northern and southern parts of Yemen. Col Hussein, who is in his 50s, lives in the Bab al-Yaman neighborhood in Sanaa. From experience, he rules out the possibility of any foreign threat “beyond control” by Al-Qaeda organization, by Iran’s loyalists, or by the rebels in northern Yemen. He said: “Yes, there are various creeds as well as sympathy with the discourse hostile to Israel, but this does not reach the point of danger. The real danger lies in the fighting between local gunmen. As I see it, the problem is tribal; it lies in the weapons in the hands of tribes and confessional and religious extremists, let alone leniency in the application of law on everyone without exception from the time unity was established until today. The problem is that mistakes have continued to accumulate and exacerbate without being addressed early enough.”

Col Hussein emphasizes his support for Yemen’s unity, but he is fed up with having been without work for such a long time. He says that he receives a meager pension and there is often delay in receiving it. He considers himself as one of the “martyrs of unity,” along with his relatives who were killed in confrontation with separatists in the south in recent weeks, including a 23-year-old soldier who served in Al-Dali area when he was targeted by gunmen. He added: “Our own sons are now not more than photos placed on windshields underneath which are the words, a martyr of unity, and a martyr of duty. You see such photos and words on walls and windshields everywhere in Sanaa and in nearby cities, like Al-Zubayri who placed the photo of his son and of his son’s friend on his windshield. Both were killed in early June this year. He drives his cab from place to place as his customers instruct him to take them to their destinations. When someone asks him if his son was killed in the south or north, he says with teary eyes, “he was martyred for the sake of Yemen,” regardless of the location.

Al-Zubayri told Asharq Al-Awsat: “My son, his friend, and scores of other young men joined the Yemeni Armed Forces five years ago. He was stationed in the Razih Mountains, northwest of Sadah, in northern Yemen. Two weeks ago, he was taking part in encircling a building in the mountains where Al-Huthists rebels were barricaded. He and his friend were martyred in the fighting. I do not know the fate of those who were with him. At first, they told me that he was not feeling well. When I went to the hospital to see him, they told me that he was martyred. I said, praise be to God, he died in the line of duty, a great duty, praise be to God.”

Like most Yemenis, Al-Zubayri has many sons. He said: “I have seven other sons and three daughters, and all are in various grades at school. The eldest, late Fazwi was 24, had a son and his wife is pregnant. Since he was martyred, we have been making efforts to secure his rights and pension. The problem is that all his documents are in Sadah. The latest time I contacted his commander, he said, God willing, he will bring the documents with him to facilitate payment of his pension. The commander noted that he could not bring the papers soon because the roads from and to Sadah were closed because of the presence of Al-Huthists rebels.”

A Yemeni government official told Asharq Al-Awsat that an Army soldier gets a salary that is enough for his personal needs, and that pensions are paid to every martyr’s family as quickly as possible so that it may not face problems. However, the families of those killed in battle tell stories of delays in receiving pensions, particularly those who were killed in the northwestern parts of the country. Al-Zubayri said: “My martyred son was supposed to receive 25,000 riyals in pension (equivalent to $125), but there may be some delay, and so we will have to wait.”

The daily expenses of Al-Zubayri’s family total approximately 7,000 riyals. He says that he makes a daily income of approximately 2,500 riyals working as a blacksmith and approximately1, 500 riyals from part time job as a cab driver. Taking a deep breath, he said: “The problems in south and north Yemen do not scare me; I am prepared for them and to stand up to them with all my strength, even if I have to labor all day long to earn a living.” He has no health or social insurance. He added: “When I reach age 60, I will not be getting old age pension.” In his view, the rebels in Sadah do not have understandable demands, and that no one knows the demands for which they are fighting. He said: “May God guide them to the right path because many of my son’s friends and neighbors are fighting there, and I am afraid they may not comeback.” He said: “There is a mountain at the end of every street in Sanaa. One ends up with a mountain, which somehow is like the solutions proposed by the government and the (separatist) opposition. There is a mountain blocking the way at the end of every road in Sanaa. Every path toward solving the issue for the sake of Yemen’s unity has a dead-end blocking the way. We do not know what the solution will be.”

Abdullah, 22, an archeology student at the University of Sanaa, is from the Badan tribe, the Ibb Governorate, approximately 145 km south of Sanaa. The area sees occasional clashes because some southern gunmen demand secession. Abdullah’s tribe has recently offered martyrs in defense of Yemen’s unity. Abdullah says: “I have relatives in the south and north, and I occasionally visit them in both parts of the country. I do not know how any one could think of secession. There is sectarian strife in Sadah. I think that people have been deceived into believing in creeds that have nothing to do with true religion. The clerics in Sadah (the rebel leaders) tell the youth that when they are killed, they will go to paradise. Do they not know that they kill Yemenis and Muslims, their own kinfolk? The problem lies in the discourse of (the Iranian President) Ahmadinejad and (Hezbollah Secretary General) Hassan Nasrallah, who raise the slogan “death to America, “death to Israel.”

The Yemeni citizens write graffiti on walls and buildings, such as “no to terrorism.” They hold the separatists, Al-Huthists rebels, and the Muslim Brotherhood responsible for the disturbances “threatening Yemen’s unity.” Along the way leading to the Bani Hushaysh area, which was the scene of armed classes between the Yemeni Army and the rebels in northern Sanaa last year, there are tens of graffiti rejecting violence and internecine fighting by political groups donning extremist, religious, confessional, or separatist garb.

According to eyewitnesses in the area, rebels on the approaches to Sadah executed an innocent villager, Ali Abdullah, firing a hail of bullets at him. A truck driver in Al-Salim area said: “The rebels kidnapped by cousin, Ali Imran, interrogated him, and found that he had nothing to do with their problems with the government. Yet, they continued to hold him and to beat him for nine weeks. We later received news that the rebels would release him. When we went to the location where the rebels were stationed near our area (Al Salim in the Sadah Governorate) to receive him, they fired at him in the back as he was walking toward us, killing him.”

Muhammad, a sergeant in the Yemeni Army, lost his comrades in arms on the northern front infighting with the rebels. He said: “They are Zaydis like me, but they are fighting against the separation of any part of the Yemeni territory from a united Yemen.” During his current leave, Muhammad works as a taxi driver because of the current calm in the central area north of Sadah. Muhammad has a BA degree in commerce, receives training playing the lute every evening, and is preparing himself to work as an accountant after ending the military service, which depends on the restoration of calm to the rebel areas in the north. He said that he and those comrades of his, who were martyred, support “President Ali Abdullah Saleh because he is at the helm. Should he disappear for any reason at this point in time, no one would know who will steer Yemen to a safe haven.”

Muhammad, who belongs to Al-Azzani tribe in the southern Governorate of Taizz, says that this is the governorate that produces artists and intellectuals in Yemen. As he turned down a song accompanied by lute playing by the Taizz crooner, Ayyub Tarish, he added: “All of Yemen’s problems are caused by the absence of two values: justice and equality. No one likes to see Yemen divided again. However, there are negative aspects that must be addressed. Negligence to solve those problems for such a long time has brought about all those problems.”

Muhammad quit the Taizz Governorate to settle in Sanaa along with his family in the mid 1990s. He fled the clashes that have erupted occasionally since then and also because of the “drought, absence of services, and inability to finish official paper work, such as securing his pension, receiving aid from the government, or having property papers signed without going to pertinent offices in the capital, Sanaa.”

The Yemeni poet, Ahmad Ba-Majbur, whom the official newspapers describe as the poet of national unity, and who was first dubbed such by the Yemeni writer, Dr Abdulaziz al-Maqalih, travels from one place to another throughout Yemen to recite poems advocating unity, as though he trembles to hear the voices of people demanding separation. He comes from the township of Nisab in the Shabwah Governorate in the south. He says that those who find how the official newspapers celebrate him think that he is a rich man. The truth is the opposite, for he lives a life of subsistence and can hardly pay off the cost of medical treatment of his mother. He does not have enough income to meet the simple daily necessities of life.

One of Ba-Majbur’s noted verses, which many Yemenis consider an example of “pride despite poverty,” goes, “I walk carrying an umbrella, while my bare feet ache from the hot sand.” This means he carries an umbrella to protect himself from the hot sun, like rich people, though, in fact, he is barefooted as he cannot afford to buy shoes. Ba-Majbur told Asharq Al-Awsat: “I always wonder if I should take a stand against Yemen’s unity so that the state might seek to please and honor me, as it does with others. But then I say no, I will not retract; I will not spoil my poetic gift. I will devote my gift to the end, advocating the unity, not division, of Yemen. Even if my reward were mere remarks in official papers that I am the poet of national unity that would be enough for me.”

Ba-Majbur is married to a woman from Hadramaut, and one of his grandfathers was the famous scholar and cleric Abdul-Rahman Ba-Majbur, who was the chief imam and preacher of the famous Shabam Mosque. He is preoccupied with the cause of unity and with the sickness of mother, and hopes that unity and his mother will end up safe and sound. Many shop owners, professionals, drivers, and the government offices hoist the Yemeni flag and hang photos of President Ali Abdullah Saleh. They pin great hopes that Ba-Majbur’s endeavors will help restore stability to the country, which was divided into two parts until the early 1990s.

Addressing a local gathering south of the country, Yemeni Vice President Abd-Rabbuh Mansur said: “Yemen has made great achievements; we must be capable of accommodating change. What is going on here or there, in the south or in Sadah in the north, will not affect the march of construction and investment. These incidents cannot harm our country. The local-rule government will address all problems and will end centralization. The day-to-day administration and plan-making will be in the hands of the local authority.

While Yemenis in the federal governorates, considered calmer and more stable than the southern and northern governorates, offered their sons “for the unity of the homeland,” they do not conceal their criticism of the government. They say: “The government must hasten to banish some government officials who have fanned the fire and fomented seditions between tribes and other political, confessional, and religious groups since the first war for unity was waged in1994 and until this day.”

As the challenges facing Yemen’s unity increase in the wake of the revival of separatist calls in the south and rebellion by Al-Huthists in the north, the families of those who sacrificed their lives for the unity of Yemen are getting harsher with anyone who tampered or continues to tamper with the “sanctities of the one national soil.” “The Sons of the Martyrs for Unity” grouping strongly criticized some government officials who called for pardoning or commuting verdicts against separatists, mercenaries, and rebels for fear that they might “resume spreading the venom of sedition, separation, and treason,” the statement of the families of the Yemeni martyrs said.

The sons of the martyrs of the southern governorates threatened the advocates of secession who want to return the country to the state of division that prevailed prior to1990, saying that they will continue to defend Yemen’s unity. A statement by the Sons of the Martyrs,” issued in the Taban Province in the Lahij Governorate, said: “We pledge to God, the homeland, and President Ali Abdullah Saleh that we will stand in the first line in defense of unity and its gains against thugs and plotters, who only live on blood shedding. We will be the strong shield defending the dignity and pride of our homeland and people.”

Speakers at the Martyrs Square in the southern city of Taizz, where Taizz Governor Hamud al-Sufi was present last week, delivered speeches demanding that legal and punitive measures be taken against those who toy with the causes of the homeland,” stressing that “unity means the entire Yemeni society, which is capable of defending unity and the history of the struggle; unity is a religious, national, and pan-Arab duty. The unity is for every citizen, male, and female.” Faris Hussein Al Harharah, chief of the Yafi al-Alya tribe, said in the south: “We are for one Yemen; we will never return to the state of division, sedition, or wars.”