Kafa Al-Hashli

On the outskirts of the city of Little Aden in southern Yemen, a 25-year-old young man lives with his mother, sharing the worries, sorrows and difficulties of daily life and the suffering caused by the war instigated by former president Saleh and aided by Houthi militias against Salah’s handpicked successor, Yemen’s current president, Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi.

Muhammed’s mother did not anticipate certain twists in her son’s life, beginning with his decision to join the resistance to fight Houthi rebels on the front lines when battles first begun. Now, he has finally returned home. He has returned to his siblings, his family and those friends whose lives have not been marred by the war. Indeed, Muhammed was among the few young men to lay down arms and choose to return to ordinary life. It gave his mother further reason to live, she says, because of his strong resemblance to his father, who was kidnapped and disappeared during the 1986 civil war in southern Yemen.

Muhammad’s hands had grown accustomed to the feel of a trigger and the metal of tanks. His ears were filled, still, with the echo of cannon fire. His eyes saw only corpses and destruction throughout the war. In spite of this, he was determined to end that chapter and reclaim his own life.

Muhammad had only been back for two days when he decided, over tea and a chat with his mother, to reopen his downtown Internet cafe.  His mother was pleased by the decision. Very few of the young men who joined the fighting, and who then returned home, have managed to regain their mental health after witnessing the horrors of war. She encouraged him in his plans and asked God to watch over him. 

Muhammad bid her farewell and drove his small car to the market in the heart of this little city, where his modest Internet cafe is located. His eyes wandered over the places in the city where he had roamed as a member of the resistance, the same eyes that had shed tears of joy over the victory of the resistance, and in sorrow over the deaths of his cousins, whose corpses still lay in the front lines, and his friends killed by the rockets and bullets of the coup supporters.

Muhammed’s reminiscence was cut short: he found a crowd waiting for him upon reaching the cafe. He parked the car and greeted friends who worked in nearby shops and restaurants, as well as a group of young local men who had heard of Muhammad’s plans to reopen the cafe and were hungry to check news online after having been long been kept in the dark due to power outages.

Muhammed poured petrol into the generator and let the young men in. Each took a seat behind a computer, immediately losing himself in the World Wide Web. Some read news, others logged on to social networking sites, and the rest started communicating with friends and family abroad.

Only a few minutes had passed when a group of armed youths entered the cafe. All eyes turned nervously to the weapons the newcomers held, but Muhammed’s voice boomed: “What’s wrong with you? Keep doing what you were doing. These are men of the resistance.” They were his former comrades. Heads slowly returned to computer screens while Muhammed rose from his desk and happily greeted the armed men, in whose company he had lived through the hardest moments of the war. They told him that they had been on their way to Bab Al-Mandeb (an important strait for international maritime activity that coup-alligned fighters were trying to control), but when they saw the cafe was open, they had decided to stop by and say hello.  

They prepared themselves to leave and Muhammed walked them to their vehicles. They set off shouting, “Victory or Martyrdom,” and singing the resistance songs that are popular among young fighters in southern Yemen (the songs are recorded by folk singers accompanied by loud, lively music). 

Muhammed had just returned to the cafe when he heard someone calling him from outside. He turned to find a group of young men he knew from the resistance eating bread and beans. He approached them, took a chair and sat down.

The talk was over a recent string of assassinations targeting military, judicial and government figures. They all agreed that the regime and the Arab coalition had failed to control the security situation in the city, and criticized the slow rate at which youth who had fought for the resistance were being reintegrated by the different state institutions. 

Gun fire erupted in a nearby street. The young men stopped eating and stood up, raising their weapons and looking from one side to the other, but no one appeared. As they resumed their breakfast, Muhammed had an idea: “Why don’t we set up popular checkpoints and arrest anyone who disturbs the peace?” he said. “Why are we waiting for those saboteurs flying the banner of Al-Qaida and Daesh to spoil our victory?” 

The men laughed. “Unfortunately, they are heavily armed and have nests and sleeper cells and work for powerful parties,” said one. Muhammed’s friends continued their meal while he returned to his cafe disappointed by their reaction.

Muhammed settled down at his computer, browsing news sites for an hour, looking up only when he heard someone address him: “Peace be upon you brother.” 

Muhammed replied “And Peace be upon you,” raising his head to see who the speaker was. It was a young man, no more than 17 years old, with long curly hair flowing down his back and a dirty shirt hanging down to his knees over a pair of baggy trousers. What a sight he was, with an outfit and style that were so unusual in the south.

“How can I help you, brother,” Muhammed asked.  

He was shocked by the response: The young man pulled out a red USB stick. 

“What am I supposed to do with that?” Muhammed asked. 

“You won’t be doing me a personal favor,” the young man said. “Rather, you will be doing the nation of Islam and your religion a service.”

Muhammed was puzzled by the youth’s words and demeanor, but concluded from the way he was dressed - along with his companions and the guards standing by the door - that he was an Islamic State, or Daesh, militant. 

The Daesh youth broke the silence: “You must copy the chants and play them in your cafe every day, because only these chants are the permitted music. You must stop playing obscene music for young men in your cafe.”

An example of the highly-stylized recordings popular with Islamic State, or Daesh, militants.

Muhammed took the small electronic device from the Daesh youth and silently copied the chants onto the desktop of his personal computer, taking the opportunity to secretly send a friend a Facebook message saying, “I have Dawaish [Daesh members] at the cafe.” The friend realized that Muhammed was in danger and sent dozens of armed men to the cafe.

Muhammed tried to delay the Daesh youth until his armed friends from the resistance arrived, and succeeded: His friends arrived within minutes. Muhammed only then took a stand and said forcefully: “I will not do as you say. I will not play these chants that call on young men to kill, declare people apostates and spread an ideology of slaughter that has nothing to do with Islam.” In a loud voice, Muhammed proudly quoted the Koran: “To You Your Religion and To Me Mine.” (Qur'an 109:1-6)

He then asked the Daesh militants to leave. The curly haired youth approached him and warned: “You will regret this, Muhammed.” The young man then signaled to his group to leave and got into a car bearing the Daesh logo.  These cars openly roam city streets despite the presence of armored government vehicles and the Arab coalition’s security forces, and despite President Hadi’s return to Aden and the numerous promises to maintain security.

From that day since, Muhammed only moves through the city in the company of his armed friends.  His mother’s heart is once again filled with dread, and her health has worsened (she suffers from high blood sugar and asthma).  Every day, she awaits Muhammed’s safe return from the cafe, breaking down with joy each time he returns.

Muhammed’s experience is all too common. Extremists bearing the Daesh banner routinely pressure commercial establishments on a very local level, from the owners of simple handicraft shops to small- and medium-sized businesses, forcing them to fly Daesh banners and play their chants and music. The Islamic State roams public spaces with impunity, even staging video and photo shoots in different parts of the city for footage they can use in their videos, including those of killings, in productions reminiscent of those emerging from other countries in which there is a presence of the Islamic State.

Daesh continues to preach its extremist ideology in an effort to counter Yemen’s tendency towards moderation and tolerance which, in particular in Yemen’s South, the population is accustomed to. In this, Daesh has been successful insofar as the group continues to attract young people, adding them to its ranks of fighters or grooming them as suicide bombers.

In the early light of dawn, Muhammed returns home to his mother with slow, heavy footsteps after a long, hard night of work. In a recent conversation, she recalls a time when her son was shot in the hip by security forces, years ago, when he was standing with his friends in the front row of a popular demonstration in the South demanding the reestablishment of the state after the end of former President Saleh’s rule. It’s a goal that has proven elusive as the brutal civil war in Yemen grinds on.

Kafa Al-Hashli is a Yemeni journalist currently working in exile because of the war.