Sanaa, Asharq Al-Awsat- In the last two decades, Yemen has witnessed a wave of kidnappings with tribal groups targeting foreign tourists, experts and diplomats, in the attempt to force some kind of concession out of the Yemeni government, but are usually released unharmed in an attempt to pressure the government. After a relative lull, following the September 11 attacks and the government joining the war on terror, in 2004, an Australian oil engineer and two Omani companions were abducted and later released. In November 2005, two Austrian tourists were seized by tribesmen in the northern province of Marib and later released. A month later, a high-ranking German diplomat was kidnapped with his family in the Shabwa region. In 2006, five Italian tourists were abducted in Marib.
Asharq al Awsat spoke to a number of kidnappers to uncover their motives, to understand the roots of such practices and the real reasons behind them as well as to seek out any possible solutions.
The journey begins in the ancient city of Marib, the world famous capital of the Kingdom of Shebaa, whose inhabitants are known for their particular dress and tribal accent. Traveling along the rugged terrain on the 200km long road from the capital to the northeastern city, the visitor will go through 15 military checkpoints and several outposts manned by different military and security agents. The prevalence of heavy weapons, including tanks and armored vehicles, suggest insecurity is rife in the region. Indeed, the city of Marib is the center of the new wave of kidnapping.
Many have criticized this significant military presence as ineffective, given that government forces have so far been unable to stem the wave of abductions and the release of hostages is secured by negotiating with tribal intermediaries and not military confrontation.
Accompanied by several guards, Asharq Al Awsat traveled to the Sarwah district, to where previous kidnappers have fled and met with Sheikh Mubarak al Mishn. The tribal leader from the Al Zaydi clan is described by some as the designer of earlier kidnapping operations. A tribal and military leader, he is well known for his knowledge of the area and willingness to speak in public.
Asked why the citizens of Marib province and the Sarwah region specifically have kidnapped foreigners in the past, the tribal leader replied, “There are many reasons.”
“If you look at the people of Marib, you will not find any of them in any government institutions… Marib is a large province with many tribes but it is isolated. For example, not one of its inhabitants is in government as a minister or a governor or military leader. When all the doors are shut, where do you seek refuge? The president is the only one who listens to us… but how do you reach him? In daily matters, it’s not possible to refer to him everyday,” he added.
Al Mishn describes Ali Abdullah Saleh, the Yemeni president as “spontaneous and somewhat wise”. However, he criticized the practices of military leaders and government representatives in the region. He gives the example of a disabled elderly father of thirteen who was detained despite being innocent of all the charges against him. He was released a year later on the condition that another member of the family is jailed instead.
Asharq Al Awsat has obtained documents containing the names of all the individuals who have been imprisoned in exchange for this elderly father. The seventeen men from different regions of Yemen were forced by their financial circumstances to replace others in jail, in exchange of $150 dollars a month. The last four kidnappings were carried out in protest of the continuing detention of members of the tribes without charge.
Al Mishn criticized the lack of basic services and indicated that a project to bring water to this arid province was being financed by a local tribal leader. He also accused the “rulers in Sanaa” of “oppressing the region” and “regional racism”. Things should be different, he added, “because Marib is an oil-rich province. But most of its people are unemployed.”
The problem, however, was not simply one of economics and injustice. The tribal leader also took offence to the negative image that many in Sanaa have of the province and its inhabitants who they see as violent. He urged the authorities to compare the number of crimes committed in Marib, since it fell under the central government’s control in 1975, with the number of crimes within 48 hours in the capital.
“You know what the people of Sanaa say about us in Marib. If someone from outside the capital were to assume power, do you think the kidnappings would still take place?”
Dr. Mohammed Abdul Malik al Mutawakil, a political science professor at Sanaa University, told Asharq al Awsat that tribal violence was often a reaction to injustice. If in the past, Yemeni tribes were not as reliant on vengeance as they are today, this was because of “a sense of justice. People relied on justice and knew that strict procedures would be carried out,” he said.
The opposition politician blamed the absence of state institution for the resurgence of tribal identity, as well as the lack of justice, equality and the freedom of political participation.
Asharq al Awsat also met with “Abu Mufrij”, as he prefers to be known, who participated in the kidnapping of the German minister in the Al-Aram valley in the province of Shabwah.
“You want to know the motives? Before I discuss the operation, let me tell you about an earlier killing. Nine months before the civil war in 1994, the murderers were caught. When the Yemeni forces entered the region and took control of Hadramut and Shabwah, the high ranking military officers responsible for the death of Sheikh Ahmad al Nasr and his son were freed.”
Abu Mufrij recalled how his tribe and that of the two alleged killers continued to fight until they “killed Sheikh Mohammed Ahmad Hadi.” He accused the government, and especially the Interior Ministry of refusing to intervene in the dispute and hand over the killers, “until the security services caught members of my tribe and detained them. They were swiftly tried and imprisoned. ”
“Luckily, our fortunes changed with the [kidnapping of] the German minister and his family”.
His version of the kidnapping is as follows. “We met his car in the al Aram valley, on the same day our relatives were being tried. We took him and his family to our village. When we realized , in the first hours [of the kidnapping] that he is a former German minister, we allowed him to inform his government that he had been abducted, even before the [Yemeni] government found out.
As soon as his identity was confirmed, we welcomed him and his family to one of our tribal palaces and treated them kindly. Our tribal sheikhs negotiated the release of our prisoners in exchange for the German official and his family. We set them free but the government has yet to fulfill its promise.”
We surrounded his convoy and after the first few minutes, we informed him we are not terrorists and did not mean him or his family any harm. We told him our problem was that our fellow tribesmen were in jail and that we had no political affiliation. His wife, who spoke Arabic, assured him they were in no danger. He was always aware of this except perhaps in the first few minutes.”
Abu Mufrij revealed the German hostages spent the first night in a Bedouin tent but were later moved to a tribal palace, after his identity was confirmed. He expressed confidently that the former deputy Minister did not hold a grudge against his kidnappers, “because he witnessed our suffering. He saw that we transport water by mules and he saw the rugged roads and the lack of electricity and schools.”
Paradoxically, instead of the Yemeni government demanding citizens respect and abide by the law, Sheikh Mohammed Saleh Al Zaydi, whose two sons were jailed for their role in kidnapping five Italian tourists and Sheikh al Ahmar Ali al Asswad, whose tribe seized the German diplomat, demanded in their statements to Asharq Al Awsat that the government to apply the law “equally for everyone”.