By Sudarsan Raghavan
The Washington Post
Friday, November 11 2011
Sanaa, Yemen — There’s not a soul walking on this stretch of Amman Street, one of the many front lines in this besieged capital. Shops are shuttered with large padlocks. Like totems, abandoned apartment buildings, scarred by mortar rounds and artillery shells, bear witness to the gloom. Every few moments, heavy gunfire shatters the silence.
Mohammed Shansadine, a government soldier huddled with his comrades next to an olive green armored personnel carrier, knows his enemies well. They are defected members of his military. Some are from his village, men he knew as boys. “It is brother against brother, Muslim against Muslim,” said Shansadine, 24, lean and muscular with a wispy beard. “We have never been this divided.”
A constellation of competing warriors, checkpoints, tanks, berms and trenches has deeply riven this ancient Middle Eastern capital, physically, psychologically and socially, unlike at any other moment in its modern history.
In some areas of Sanaa, a sprawling metropolis that thrived before the dawn of Islam, rival militaries or tribal militias control entire neighborhoods. Elsewhere, power changes hands street by street. No single faction controls enough territory to impose its will on its foes. But all have the firepower to stop any political deal unfavorable to their interests, seesawing the capital between chaos and calm.
The precarious military stalemate helps explain why Yemen, with its abundance of weapons, tribes and poverty, has yet to plunge into outright civil war. But that possibility still exists as more violent confrontations seem inevitable. Cease-fire deals are signed, then broken. In bursts, death grips the capital: Unarmed protesters get shot and clashes erupt, deepening the ruptures. On Thursday, gunmen again opened fire on anti-government demonstrators here, leaving a 13-year-old boy dead and at least a dozen people wounded.
Ten months into Yemen’s populist revolt, Sanaa’s complex partition is the most visible sign of a parallel struggle for power, tribal authority and political survival unfolding among its ruling elites, even as the lives of ordinary Yemenis deteriorate with each day.
“The situation is dark,” said Ali Abdu al-Tinni, 78, a frail retired government worker in the enclave of Hassabah who sleeps on his floor because of the shells and bullets that pound his street almost nightly. “We are living a life of fear.”
Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s abrupt return from Saudi Arabia on Sept. 23 after a nearly four-month absence has hardened the stances of all the warring sides. Saleh, who was treated in Riyadh for injuries sustained in a June assassination attempt, appears more confident, refusing to cede power except on his own terms. Across the capital, his loyalists have become as emboldened. His opponents are ratcheting up their tactics, their mistrust of Saleh deeper than at any previous moment in his 33-year rule.
“There may not be civil war. But tensions will escalate,” said Ali Saeed Ali-Ramisi, 41, an accountant, from his hospital bed after he survived a sniper’s bullet during a recent protest. “Ali Abdullah Saleh is not going to give up power on his own. And we’re not going to let go either.”
From allies to enemies
Seven years ago, Shansadine left his village in southern Ibb province and joined the Central Security Forces, commanded by the president’s nephew. Other villagers were under Maj. Gen. Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar, then the president’s key ally.
After pro-government snipers killed more than 50 unarmed protesters on March 18, Mohsen defected and joined the uprising. And Shansadine was soon battling men he considered his brothers. “They have been brainwashed,” he said of the villagers in the 1st Armored Division, Mohsen’s force.
Today, the revolt has entered a more perilous period. Protesters are increasingly marching into government areas of the capital, protected by Mohsen’s soldiers. Government troops have used that as a pretext to open fire into the crowds.
Shansadine, like most Saleh loyalists, claims that the 1st Armored Division is behind the attacks on protesters, hoping that they will generate international pressure for regime change. “It is all planned from inside Change Square,” he contended, referring to the encampment near Sanaa University where the activists have staged a massive sit-in since March.
Kentucky Square, an intersection where a restaurant resembling a KFC once stood, was two blocks from where Shansadine was standing. It’s now one of the city’s primary front lines. Government forces killed dozens of protesters there in September, triggering fierce clashes with Mohsen’s forces. As Shansadine spoke, a mortar round landed nearby.
“If they continue to attack us, we’re going to move forward,” he warned.
On the other side of Kentucky Square, a mirror image unfolded. Along Haeel Street, sandbags were piled up in front of disfigured buildings that have been pounded by artillery fire. Soldiers and civilians ran swiftly across intersections to evade sniper bullets.
Mohsen’s commanders, near sand-colored armored personnel carriers, said they were fighting to protect the activists. But a visit to a nearby government garrison shows they have pummeled it with mortar rounds and rockets.
“We’re silent, but inside us is a volcano,” said Ahmed Mu’nis, 32, a 1st Armored Division soldier with a grizzled beard, who is also from Ibb province. “If we are forced, we will not stand and do nothing. We’ll fight back.”
Moments later, a high-caliber bullet struck a corner of a building a few feet away, sending a large puff of dust into the air.
A tribal stronghold
A few miles to the north, in the capital’s battered Hassabah enclave, graffiti on a wall read: “Go away, you slaughterer, Ali Abdullah Saleh.”
Men in traditional Yemeni dress, Kalashnikov rifles slung over their shoulders, patrolled deserted streets littered with trash. They are the tribesmen of the Ahmar clan, Yemen’s preeminent tribal family headed by Sheik Sadiq al-Ahmar.
Ahmar is also the leader of the Hashid, Yemen’s most powerful tribal confederation, to which the majority of the warring elites, including Saleh, belong. Once Saleh’s close allies, Ahmar and his nine brothers are now the president’s bitter enemies.
On the streets circling the neighborhood are units of the Republican Guard, headed by Saleh’s son Ahmed. They have engaged in fierce clashes with the Ahmar tribesmen, lobbing mortars and rockets at each other, killing scores. The Ahmars’ palatial ancestral home is now a charred hulk.
Saleh has blamed the attempt to kill him on the Ahmars and Mohsen, who is not related to the family. They have denied the allegation. But they are preparing themselves: Long trenches have been dug around Hassabah to fight off any incursion.
At a Republican Guard checkpoint, Gen. Mohammed al-Qadi said the units were defending themselves, pointing at buildings defaced by bullets and mortars. “The Ahmars are our biggest enemy,” he said. “We are ready to break into their place and fight them in there, but our orders are to hold still for now.”
At a fortified intersection, tribal fighters defiantly vowed to protect their territory at any cost. “Saleh wants revenge,” Saleh al-Saleba, 30, a tribal fighter, said as his comrades nodded. “He has come back to wage war.”
Saleh’s return has deepened tribal allegiances. Soldiers who belong to the Ahmar tribe have defected to join the tribal militia. Injured tribesmen are eager to fight against the government.
“If they enter Hassabah, everyone here will rise up,” said Abdulghani al-Dhawi, 26, on patrol a day after being treated for four bullet wounds. “We love our sheik.”
Sultan Turfan, another fighter, asked: “Hasn’t Saleh learned anything from Gaddafi?”
Just as Yemen’s military is divided, so are its myriad clans. The Ahmars and Saleh have cultivated tribal loyalties through an extensive system of patronage. Now, Hashid tribesmen are fighting one another as well as tribesmen in the Bakeel, the second most powerful tribal confederation, in proxy conflicts, adding a new layer of upheaval.
In Soufan, a neighborhood nestled on the northern edge of Hassabah, 30 Meter Road is the demarcation line of one such standoff.
On one side is the sprawling compound of Himyar al-Ahmar, the deputy speaker of parliament and one of the Ahmar brothers. On the other side is the mansion of Sagheer Hamoud Ahmed Ben Aziz, a pro-government tribal leader with the Bakeel.
For the past several weeks, their tribesmen have been firing mortar rounds and rockets across the road at each other. At the same time, Ben Aziz is fighting Mohsen’s forces, while Ahmar is fighting nearby Republican Guard units.
“They even killed my cook the other day,” said Himyar al-Ahmar, 55, as he walked over shattered glass, his back hunched to avoid a sniper bullet.
Seated in a side room of his mansion — his normal meeting room was covered with debris from an artillery shell that crashed through the wall — Ben Aziz spoke of how his grandfather and the Ahmars’ grandfather also fought each other to resolve disputes. But this tribal conflict, he said, “was the worst in generations.” He vowed to defend Saleh.
“Whenever they attack, we will respond double,” said Ben Aziz, looking across 30 Meter Road. “The president’s return has brought hope for me and all Yemenis.”
Trapped in the crossfire
Zaafran Ali al-Mohana, 42, and her family fled their home near Kentucky Square recently after their house was hit by a rocket and sniper fire. “I grew up in that house,” she said, visibly upset.
“The social life is paralyzed,” added the mother of three who was staying with relatives. “It’s difficult now even for one neighbor to check on another.”
In today’s dissected Sanaa, there are dozens of no-go zones, where a wrong turn can place you in the sights of a sniper. Roads are barricaded with rocks, bricks, even furniture. By nightfall, the city thins out, with some areas turning ghostly.
The vast web of checkpoints has caused long delays; ribbons of traffic unwind for miles. In many neighborhoods, businesses are closed, choking an economy that’s already on the edge of death. Most schools and universities are closed, indefinitely.
In Hassabah, the house of Tinni, the retired government worker, is pocked with bullets. With no electricity, he is forced to buy food each day. If there are clashes, he goes hungry. Prices of candles, like most consumer goods, have risen, so he often lives in darkness.
“We blame all the sides,” he said out of earshot of the tribal fighters. “They are all after power.”