As her family hastily prepared to flee its home in Abyan, a province in Yemen’s south, in the wake of a surprise attack on the local military garrison by fighters allied with Al-Qa’ida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), Nour Mohamed was thinking about the friends, toys and school books she would have to leave behind. Barely 10 years old, and moments away from becoming a refugee in her own country, Nour understood even then that returning home would be almost impossible.
The sun was already in the sky on that Friday morning in May 2011 when the family decided to pack what it could carry, caring more about value than size, and head to Aden, Yemen’s southern port city, to seek shelter and safety from the deadly artillery exchange between AQAP and Yemeni security forces and the steady infiltration of AQAP militants into many of Abyan’s villages.
The family avoided the main roads leading to Aden, which had become too dangerous because of territorial claims made by either side of the conflict. Nour’s father paid double the bus fair to take the children to safety, seats on transport out of Abyan at a premium amid the violence.
As Nour and her family arrived in Aden, they joined many others in waiting to be issued single rooms in a university dormitory building in the Breiqa District. It is here in Aden that Nour began to tell me her story, which began with an eye that can shed no tears; she has long been impaired by a tumor lurking behind her retina.
“My father had always wanted to bring me to Aden to treat my eye, but we didn’t have the money. Now, we’re in Aden – [but] to receive food and drink and to find a safe place to sleep,” she says.
She speaks shyly, fidgeting with a green scarf that covers her head and sometimes her face.
“What are you doing for us? What will you do for us? My eye is getting worse. I want to see and learn like my friends,” she said. She knows that the chances of receiving treatment in Aden now are now all but zero.
Nour’s father has been listening.
“We sensed unusual activity the night before the Yemeni military’s 25th Armored Mika Brigade was besieged,” he said, referring to the battle with insurgents that sent the family fleeing. “Masked men from Ansar Al-Shari’ah (the local ally of AQAP) were distributing flyers. The flyers warned us that government security forces were going to launch an attack on the area. It was the next day that we heard the first gunfire and artillery. We thought Ansar Al-Shari’ah had all fallen, but we were greatly surprised to learn that the military base and central security forces were the ones that fell to Al-Qa’ida.”
His shock, even now, is evident.
“We could not stay. Everyone wanted to leave,” he said, “but we waited three nights to make sure the roads were safe for our children. We finally left on the 29th of May. That night, we saw young Somali, Pakistani and Afghan men strutting around in our town and realized that we had witnessed the end of Abyan.”
It has been a year since war sank its teeth into Abyan, 300 kilometers southeast of the capital, Sana'a. Abyan’s cities – Al-Makhzan, Al-Kawd, Ja’ar, Zinjibar, Musaymir – have almost all become ghost towns, their residents having fled in fear of being used as human shields or being caught in the crossfire of the bullets, artillery shells and missiles that comprise the usual exchange in the ongoing conflict.
Ali Abdullah Saleh, president of Yemen for 33 years, finally left office in February, leaving not only Abyan but the capital and much of the rest of the country – north and south – in chaos. In March, the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) warned that Yemen is facing an unmitigated crisis as tens of thousands of civilians flee tribal clashes in the north. Fighting there has displaced more than 52,000 people in 2012 alone, adding to some 314,000 already unable to return to their homes in the northern province of Sa’ada.
Meanwhile, UNHCR’s March report counted some 150,000 internally displaced persons (IDPs) from the south, with an estimated 120,000 more at risk of forced displacement. Saleh’s hand-picked replacement, Field Marshal Abdo Rabbuh Mansur Al-Hadi (Saleh’s vice president for the past 18 years) seems determined to continue the war on Al-Qa’ida with Abyan as its primary battleground, very much in conjunction with the Obama Administration, the US military and CIA.
“President Hadi is not only making promises, but delivering on them,” said Mohammed Albasha, the Yemeni Embassy’s spokesman in Washington, after an airstrike last week reportedly killed Fahd Mohammed Ahmed al-Quso, 37, who has been on the F.B.I.’s Most Wanted Terrorists list in connection with the October 2000 bombing of the Navy destroyer Cole.
Meanwhile, President Obama recently gave the military greater leeway in launching drone strikes in Yemen, permitting the targeting of suspected terrorists whose identities may not be known at the time of the kill order, but whose activities match certain criteria associated with militant activity, mirroring an authority already in play in Pakistan. It is an escalation that puts civilians at greater risk.
The main difference between President Hadi and his predecessor is that Hadi is fighting his own kin; Abyan is Hadi’s homeland, and has been the land of his tribe for thousands of years. How this dynamic will play out remains to be seen, but is very much a subject of discussion among refugees in Aden.
Civilians are not the only ones to have been rolled over by the wheels of war and forced to leave Abyan. Mohamed, a soldier in the 2nd Brigade stationed in Belhaf in the Shabwah governorate boardering Abyan from the east, told me he recently traveled to Abyan to relocate his wife and three children to a safer area. They left Al-Makhzan, which had come under violent shelling, for Bajdar where there was relative calm. Then, one night in December, the village in which they sought refuge came under fire.
“I had gone out to the market looking for work to feed my family,” he said. “My only possible way to earn income was a motorcycle that I used to transport passengers for 50 riyals a ride. It was only a few minutes past 7pm when shells were fired on our location, in the market. I was hit with shrapnel that tore through most of my thigh, leaving me in a wheelchair.”
Mohamed, now stranded in Aden with his family, still has metal in his right leg and jaw as a result of surgery he got in Abyan. “I thought I took my children and wife out of the valley of death,” he said, “only to realize that I brought them to a valley that has the same fear and despair. ”
Meanwhile, I encountered women among the displaced in Aden who accuse government soldiers of relinquishing the entire Abyan province to AQAP as part of the Saleh regime’s rule-by-barter, a cunning give and take by which the former president was able to “dance on the heads of snakes” for more than two decades, as Saleh has described his strategy for holding onto power for so long.
“People are dying in Abyan and no one knows where the bullets are coming from, not to mention shells and missiles,” says Sa’idah, an elderly IDP. “Al-Qa’ida is armed, but so are the bases. Is it logical for military bases to fall to Al-Qa’ida and for regular soldiers to flee? Are we really to believe that we went to sleep under the protection of the government and woke up hostages to armed groups? Abyan was sold by the regime,” she’s concluded. “There is no other explanation.”
Ansar al-Shar’iah has called upon the people of Abyan to return to their homes, but IDPs say they fear returning to a life of constant crossfire – this despite Ansar’s assurances that the group is making progress on returning water and electricity to the region. Several IDPs I spoke with said they felt optimistic initially, but that their hopes were dashed by stories of young men’s hands chopped off because they were accused of stealing, mosques issuing compulsory calls to prayer and new laws that force residents to please Ansar al-Shari’ah instead of pleasing God.
Today, some 74 public schools in Aden are home to more than 20,000 IDPs, with university dormitories and homes of relatives and friends in Aden and Lahj taking in the rest. Over 2,000 additional IDPs have arrived in recent weeks as a result of an escalation in fighting between government forces and militants in Abyan. Meanwhile, a parallel battle is underway to feed the internally displaced, with Ansar Al-Shari’ah organizing meals in competition with international aid groups.
I found children of IDPs marooned at the schools spending their days playing games, boys imagining sticks as swords and climbing trees and girls playing the role of teachers in imaginary classes, the prospect of real schooling non-existent under the conditions. Meanwhile, elderly IDPs congregate on the sidewalks of the university campus and reminisce. A recent tally of IDPs encamped at the university list 334 families, among them 1,020 men, 950 women and 525 children.
The process of tending to the rising tide of internally displaced is complicated by the fact that Aden, which initially opened its arms to the people of Abyan, is growing tired of them. The school year has begun, for one thing, and the occupation of local schools has created a whole new strain of displaced: students searching for their “classrooms” among makeshift tents. With half a million Yemenis now displaced, this, however heartbreaking, is hardly the most dangerous of dynamics brewing.
Kafa Al-Hashli is a Yemeni journalist based in Sana'a. This is her first piece for Warscapes. It was translated from Arabic by Lana Ayyad, a conference interpreter at the United Nations Secretariat in New York. A grant from the Development and Aid World News Service (DAWNS) supported Al-Hashli in her reporting of this story.