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July 31, 2010


وداعا, for the time being.

May 19, 2010

Paul and I are back in the U.S. this month, soaking up all the Americana we can get. (Star Burger on Haddah is an admirable substitute, really, but it doesn’t quite cut it.)

The Sana’a Bureau will be on haitus until further notice. Thanks for reading!

Los Angeles Times: Southern Separatists Shake It Up

May 19, 2010

Save journalism. Read it here.

Reporting from Aden, Yemen

There is war talk along the southern Yemen coast and the flag of rebellion is painted on the stocks of guns. The separatists call this land South Arabia, and villagers say it’s only a matter of time before insurgency erupts.

“We are ready to fight. All of us. Men, women and children,” said Zahra Saleh Abdullah, a separatist leader, sitting in a living room with a dozen would-be rebels in Yafa, a restive tribal territory in the south. “Yemen is not our country. South Arabia is our country.”

Much of southern and eastern Yemen are almost entirely beyond the central government’s control. Many Yemeni soldiers say they won’t wear their uniforms outside the southern port city of Aden for fear of being killed. In recent months, officials have been attacked after trying to raise the Yemeni flag over government offices in the south.

President Ali Abdullah Saleh crushed an uprising by the socialist-controlled south in 1994, four years after North and South Yemen were uneasily joined. Tensions have since steadily increased in this country at the intersection of the Middle East and the Horn of Africa.

The possibility of renewed conflict comes as the government is contending with a shaky peace with a different rebel group in the north and security threats from an Al Qaeda branch whose attacks have included the suspected attempt to bomb a Detroit-bound U.S. airliner on Christmas Day.

The southern separatist movement complains of economic, political and cultural oppression by the north. The movement’s leaders say the Yemeni government has extracted oil and gas from the south, confiscated southerners’ land and systematically discriminated against southerners when it comes to government and military jobs. It also contends that the national government in Sana has starved southern towns of public money for schools, hospitals and road maintenance.

“The north doesn’t think of us as citizens. To them, we are slaves. They take our resources and give us nothing. They took my family’s farm — it had been my grandfather’s grandfather’s — and gave me nothing in return,” said Fahmi Shabe, a young man living in Aden. “What am I supposed to do?”

Hundreds of separatists were arrested this spring during widespread demonstrations, and a series of government crackdowns left half a dozen separatists and soldiers dead. The government has also periodically stopped cellphone service, restricted road transportation and declared a state of emergency in southern regions.

For the last three years, the separatist movement has been torn by internal differences and conflicting goals. But leaders from Aden and other southern provinces say the movement is beginning to coalesce as already-scarce resources decrease further amid dwindling oil revenue, lack of foreign investment and widespread corruption in Sana. A poll in January by the Yemen Center for Civil Rights found that 70% of southern Yemenis were in favor of secession.

“I think violence is coming,” said Mohamed Tamah, a separatist leader who is wanted by Yemeni authorities. “Too many things have happened. Too many arrests, too many deaths, too much injustice. We are in a state of emergency.”

Analysts say the separatist movement is not yet strong or unified enough to fight Yemen’s central government. That doesn’t mean violence is out of the question. Some say the government will start a war against the separatists, but only when a show of force is politically beneficial for Saleh and his regime.

Saleh has repeatedly lumped his internal enemies into one category, labeling them all Al Qaeda, or simply enemies of the state. In some cases, that has led separatists to publicly distance themselves from the militant group.

Tariq Fadhli, an Islamist fighter in the Soviet-Afghan war in the 1980s and a onetime confidant of Osama bin Laden, defected from the Yemeni government last year and became a prominent separatist leader. In February, he published on YouTube a video of himself saluting an American flag and playing “The Star-Spangled Banner” in his backyard to demonstrate that his loyalties were not with Al Qaeda.

“Saleh wants to scare the West into supporting a war against a freedom- and peace-loving people,” said Sheik Abdu Alribh Naqib, one of the main separatist leaders in the Yafa region. “We do not agree with Al Qaeda. They are not welcome in our land.”

In Aden, many say they long for the days of British rule, which lasted from 1839 to 1967, or for the socialist government, which ruled South Yemen during the 1970s and left a legacy of education, secularism and relative gender equality.

In the last two decades, literacy rates and women’s rights in southern Yemen have slipped, while unemployment and poverty levels have risen. Tribal law and once-banned, conservative traditions — such as child marriage — have also made a resurgence.

“Look around. We have oil and gas and fertile lands and ports. We are educated. We have a history of culture. And look what we have become: poor, oppressed, backwards,” said Wajdi Shabe, a journalist and activist in Aden. “We want our freedom.”

Edwards is a special correspondent.

Times staff writer Jeffrey Fleishman in Cairo contributed to this report.

Global Post: Tourism in Yemen?

May 19, 2010

Read it.

SANA’A, Yemen — Yemen is the most gorgeous place you’ll probably never visit.

In the north and east, the walled-cities of Sana’a and Shibam, both UNESCO Heritage sites, rise up out of the desert, all filigree and engraved ornamentation, like weathered wedding cakes, and in the west and south, the ancient port cities of Zabid and Aden, craggy and timeless, look out over an expanse of white sand beaches, shimmering turquoise water and an exposition of sea life that would make even a hardened diver swoon.

“Yemen is the perfect place for tourists. We have history, culture, historical cities, beaches and adventure,” said Yemen’s Deputy Minister for Tourism Development Omar Babelgheith. “Yemen should be the new Egypt. It should be the international tourist destination in the Middle East.”

Yemen as an international Spring Break hot spot seems laughable, perhaps, in a nation that is better known for battling Al Qaeda, two ongoing internal insurgencies, widespread poverty and worrying political unrest. But no one at Yemen’s Ministry of Tourism is joking.

Hobbled by 35 percent unemployment, skyrocketing population growth and a plummeting of oil revenues — the backbone of the nation’s GDP — by $2 billion in the past two years, the Yemeni government has turned to tourism as a potential source of economic salvation.

“Tourism is Yemen’s only sustainable industry,” said Babelgheith. “We have the natural and historic resources to attract millions of people. It could be a very successful venture, economically and for Yemen’s future.”

Yemen’s tourism sector accounts for 1 to 2 percent of the nation’s GDP — compared to Egypt’s tourism sector, which contributes roughly 11 percent — and that’s after the government spent millions of dollars in recent years expanding the sector, Babelgheith said.

Last year, the Ministry of Tourism hosted 13 publicity fairs in cities across Europe and Asia to raise awareness about Yemen’s tourism potential, and in 2006 it launched — in partnership with the European Commission — the National Hotel and Tourism Institute in Sana’a to train new tour guides and hotel owners in the business of mass tourism.

The ministry has ambitious goals.

It hopes to lure 1.5 million tourists per year by 2015, Babelgheith said — an almost 50 percent increase from 2009, when roughly 900,000 tourists came to Yemen, according to government records, which count as “tourists” anyone who visits Yemen for virtually any purpose — including Yemeni expats, businessmen, students and some NGO workers.

The elephant in the room, of course, is Yemen’s fragile security situation. Yemen is currently battling a separatist insurgency in its southern and eastern provinces, an on-again, off-again war against Houthi rebels in the northern provinces, and a large-scale war against Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, the terrorist group’s Yemen-based affiliate.

Yemen was launched into the headlines on Christmas Day, when Al Qaeda of the Arabian Peninsula took responsibility for the attempted bombing of Flight 253 over Detroit. Last week, Yemen made headlines again after an attempted suicide attack on the British ambassador in Sana’a.

Tourism officials’ problems are compounded by a series of recent terrorist attacks that specifically targeted tourists. In 2007, eight Spanish tourists were killed in a suicide attack near the city of Marib in the Hadramout, Yemen’s eastern desert, and six months later, two Belgians were shot to death nearby. Last March, four South Korean tourists were killed in a suicide attack while photographing the sunset over Shibam, a UNESCO Heritage Site. And in June, seven Germans, a Briton and a South Korean were kidnapped in Saada, a northern province. Three bodies turned up later, and the other six people are still missing. No organization has claimed responsibility for the attacks.

Most Western governments have published official travel warnings cautioning their citizens against traveling to Yemen for a “non-essential purpose.” Tourists who come to Yemen anyway may not travel outside the capital city without a government permit, and are prohibited from traveling to huge swaths of the country at all, due to kidnapping threats.

“People hear this bad news — deaths, terrorist attacks, kidnapping — and what do you think happens? They don’t come,” said Ahmed Baider, whose family has run the Taj Talha Hotel and travel agency for the past 20 years. “We know people who have had to sell the beds in their hotel rooms just to pay rent.”

Tourism in Yemen, which was relatively vibrant in the late ’90s, stopped almost entirely after the bombing of the U.S.S. Cole in Aden in 2000, and the events of Sept. 11, Baider said. The number of guests staying at his family’s hotel increased briefly from 2005 to 2007, but then dropped off again after the Spanish tourists were killed in Marib.

Industry officials expect the number of visitors to Yemen to continue to fall this summer and autumn, as a result of the international coverage of the attempted bombing over Christmas.

Babelgheith, however, remains optimistic. “People forget, or they realize that any travel — even to New York City — can have risks, and they decide to come anyway,” he said, citing Egypt’s problem with terrorist attacks targeting tourists for the last two decades. The 1997 attack in Luxor, Egypt, killed 58 foreigners and was reported to have caused a 50-percent decrease in revenue that year. It’s since largely recovered.

Hesham al-Marwani, who graduated from the government’s National Hotel and Tourism Institute in the first class of 2008, isn’t so sure.

“Four years ago, the Minister of Tourism Nabil al-Fakih came to the institute and promised all of us, 150 of us, that we would have jobs when we graduated. He said, ‘Don’t worry, just study, and the tourists will come.’ But where are the tourists now?” he asked. “I think I’m in the wrong career.”

Reporting for this story was supported by the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.

Foreign Policy magazine: Yemen’s Child Bride Backlash

April 30, 2010

Read it here.

The sad case of Elham Assi, a 13-year old Yemeni girl who died from internal hemorrhaging after being raped by her 23-year-old husband, has certainly sparked conversation in Yemen over the longstanding practice of child marriage. But the conversations — taking place everywhere from Sanaa kitchens to the parliament building — aren’t exactly what you’d expect.

Instead of addressing the question of children’s rights in a country where a quarter of all girls are married before they’re 15 and half before they’re 18, some Yemenis are treating Elham Assi’s death as a rallying point against the so-called imposition of a Western agenda. Instead of catalyzing protective legislation for children in Yemen, as the tragic 1911 Triangle Factory fire did for industrial laborers in the United States, her death may actually make it more likely that others will share her fate.

In February 2009, parliament approved a bill to raise the marriage age to 18 years old, causing an immediate furor in the Islamist community, which denounced the legislation as un-Islamic. The September 2009 death of a 12-year-old-girl in childbirth once again drove home the importance of this issue. However, the bill has since languished while a parliamentary subcommittee decides whether or not it’s in accordance with sharia law. The subcommittee’s decision is scheduled for May.

Over the past few months, Sheikh Mohammed Hamzi, an official in the powerful Islamist party, al-Islaah, along with hundreds of other conservative lawmakers and clerics, has issued a clarion call to “true believers” to oppose the law, arguing that it is a first step toward allowing the West to take over Yemeni affairs.

“We will not bend to the demands of Western NGOs. We have our own laws, our own values,” said Hamzi, who made headlines again this week when a coalition of Yemeni rights groups announced it would take legal action against the sheikh for maligning activists as infidels and agents of the West during his regular sermons at a Sanaa mosque.

Elham’s death sparked reinvigorated calls from local rights activists to pass the bill. In response, Islamist lawmakers, conservative clerics, and members of the ultra-conservative Salafist minority renewed their vehement opposition. On April 22, the infamous henna-bearded Sheikh Adbul-Majid al-Zindani, an influential Yemeni Islamist scholar and reportedly a former spiritual guide for Osama bin Laden, told a crowd at the conservative Iman University that the bill “threatens our culture and society,” and he vowed to gather a million signatures opposing the law. His audience cheered in response.

Proponents of the bill say Islamists like Hamzi and Zindani are just using rhetoric to manipulate Yemeni public opinion. Here, anything that is perceived as un-Islamic or Western is immediately and virulently condemned by liberals and conservatives alike. The root of the problem, perhaps, lies in the frequency that these terms — un-Islamic and Western — are used synonymously. “If people think a law is ‘American,’ it’s done. Finished. It’s over,” said parliament member Abdulrahman Moazid, who supports the ban on child marriage. It’s a political two-step not unlike referring to a law as “socialist” in certain circles in the United States.

Certainly, the frenzied accusation that the proposed bill does not conform with sharia is ill-founded. Saudi Arabia, Yemen’s ultraconservative neighbor to the north and its guide to all things Salafist, has passed similar legislation, declaring it acceptable under Islamic law. Furthermore, despite the claims of conservative clerics, Western NGOs had very little, if anything, to do with the legislation. Yemeni rights activists, lawyers, and women’s groups are almost entirely responsible.

Yet, to many Yemenis, the issue seems to awaken a visceral fear of Western cultural imperialism. Anti-American sentiment runs deep here — there is an entire generation of Yemeni men named Saddam, born after their namesake “defeated the Americans” in 1991 — and this fear directly affects the country’s domestic politics and foreign policy.

In January, after the failed Christmas Day bombing of Northwest Airlines Flight 253 was tied back to a plot hatched in Yemen, rumors about U.S. security forces setting up bases in the country were met with scathing speeches and editorials by politicians, imams, and Yemen’s dwindling literati alike. A group of 150 Islamic scholars signed and published a public letter affirming Yemenis’ religious right and duty to “global jihad” if their land was invaded. Locals posted signs saying that if U.S. troops so much as set foot on Yemeni soil, every Yemeni would join al Qaeda.

Similarly, the Islamists’ double talk on child marriage appears to be working. At a protest outside parliament in late March, opponents of the bill, holding Korans above their heads, accused lawmakers of being anti-Muslim and kowtowing to Western demands. “Who are you to say we should change our laws?” a young woman who had been at the protest asked me. “This is our country. We have our own religion, our own values, and we don’t need you telling us what to do.” Other demonstrators condemned the bill while simultaneously opposing U.S. military involvement on Yemeni soil.

Most Yemenis are appalled by the marriage of 8-year-old girls and were horrified by Elham’s early death. However, they are against anything that impinges on their cultural sovereignty. Yemenis are, and will continue to be, emphatically opposed to anything that is perceived as anti-Islamic. The problem is that, with the help of some rabble-rousing clerics and politicians, the circle of what constitutes “anti-Islamic” is constantly widening.

GlobalPost: Attack calls US Yemen strategy into question

April 26, 2010

Read it here.

SANA’A, Yemen — A failed suicide attack on the British ambassador’s convoy Monday morning shattered windows, terrified passersby and left debris and broken glass scattered on the sidewalks of the capital.

Only the bomber was killed and damage was minimal, but the incident seemed to demonstrate the continued strength of Al Qaeda in Yemen despite American and Yemeni counterterrorism efforts.

Yemen leapt into international headlines earlier this year after the local Al Qaeda affiliate took credit for training and equipping Umar Farouk Abdulmattalab, the Nigerian student who attempted to blow up Northwest flight 253 on Christmas Day.  Since January, United States officials have regularly cited Yemen as a top priority for international counterterrorism efforts.

Like the attempted Christmas Day attack, the bombing here on Monday was a near-miss. The attack occurred early in the morning as the ambassador was making his way to work. The bomber blew himself up next to a large concrete divider, apparently in order to direct the explosion toward the convoy, in the middle of a busy road leading to the embassy. The ambassador’s car was not in the immediate vicinity of the explosion, witnesses said, and an embassy spokesperson said that the envoy was uninjured.

By late Monday, no groups had taken credit for the attack, although the Yemeni Embassy in Washington said that the attack “bore the hallmarks” of an Al Qaeda operation.

“If they had succeeded in the attack, they would have pulled off a major coup,” said Bernard Haykel, a professor of Near Eastern Studies and Yemen specialist at Princeton University, referring to the international stature of the target. “They are clearly looking for symbolically important targets to make a statement.”

Security concerns have already made the work of embassies in Sana’a difficult, and such targeted attacks may make them even more isolated. The British ambassador, Timothy Torlot, a former deputy head of mission at the British embassy in Iraq, was known as a hands-on diplomat and one of the few in Yemen who still ventured outside protected compounds.

The attack on Monday served to demonstrate Al Qaeda’s continued strength in Yemen, despite numerous counterterrorism raids by Yemeni forces in the past few months. It called into question U.S. reliance on Yemeni forces to fight the group.

U.S. military aid to the country is set to double this year, to roughly $150 million, with $34 million for the Yemeni Special Forces announced last week. But even as Al Qaeda in Yemen has become the focus of international attention, the Yemeni government remains distracted by internal troubles. The government is battling a secessionist movement in the southern provinces, an on-again off-again war with rebels in the north and wide-scale poverty.

“The U.S. seems to be relying on [Yemeni President] Saleh, and I’m not sure that he is interested in fighting Al-Qaeda. He’s got other things to worry about,” Haykel said. “I don’t think the U.S. knows what it’s doing in Yemen.”

Gregory Johnsen, a Yemen specialist at Princeton University, cautioned against gauging Al Qaeda’s remaining strength in the region based on one attack.

“In December 2009, Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, the group headquartered in Yemen, was stronger than ever before. That has changed some,” he said. “In recent months, AQAP has suffered several setbacks. How significant those setbacks have been is difficult to judge from the outside. Whether the attack on Britain’s ambassador to Yemen is a one-off attempt or is followed by a more sustained campaign will tell outside observers much about how successful U.S. and Yemeni counterterrorism efforts have been in recent months.”

Foreign embassies in Sana’a have been attacked before. A suicide attack on the U.S. embassy in 2008 killed 16, including all 6 of the bombers. After U.S.-backed raids on al-Qaeda by Yemeni forces in December and January, Western embassies in Sana’a braced for possible retaliation. The U.S. embassy closed briefly in early January due to unspecified threats.

The neighborhood where the bombing took place is largely residential, and is home to several embassies, the Ministry of Public Works, and two Western-owned hotels. Directly adjacent to the site is an abandoned gas station, a large walled garden and soccer fields.

The explosion shattered windows of neighboring buildings, and body parts were found over a large area around the site. A ten-foot wide radius of blackened concrete marked the site where the bomber detonated his suicide belt, which he was apparently wearing underneath a tracksuit, according to witnesses.

By noon, police and investigators had left the scene of the bombing, and only a crowd of local residents lingered, treating the site as a curiosity and snapping cell phone pictures. The event seemed simultaneously extraordinary and ordinary, and in teashops and juice stands across the street, the day’s business went on as normal. “Thank God it wasn’t worse,” seemed to be the refrain.

Reporting for this story was supported by the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting

Seattle Times: Socotra Island’s surreal beauty

April 25, 2010

Socotra, Yemen. A villager in Qalansiya swims in the harbor on Socotra's west coast. (Paul Stephens)

Read it here.

So there I was, lying on my back in a bikini on a deserted white-sand beach in Yemen, squinting into the shimmering turquoise sea to the west, wondering if I could make out Somalia from here.

I couldn’t. Propped on my sandy elbows, all I could see were my own toes, a tract of impossibly fine white sand, and miles and miles of the Arabian Sea, which faded ever so slowly through a spectrum of teals before settling into a deep sapphire blue before, I couldn’t help thinking, bumping up against Somalia, 160 miles away.

The whole situation was a little surreal. Given my geographic location — Socotra, a sparsely populated Yemeni island in the pirate-infested waters of the Gulf of Aden, a boat ride away from one of the bloodiest failed states on Earth in one direction, and a war-torn, impoverished one in the other — I knew I had no business being in a flowery green bikini. But somehow at the time it all made sense.

Perhaps that’s because Socotra — the largest island in an eponymous, four-island archipelago off the southeast tip of Yemen — doesn’t feel like either Yemen or Somalia. It doesn’t really feel like anywhere on Earth.

The whole place has an eerily beautiful, otherworldly feel, beginning with its pocked and looming limestone cliffs, which drop into five-story-tall, white sand dunes, bisected at their bases by veins of grass tracing freshwater springs. Even the otherwise arid mountainsides and red sandstone plateaus look as if they were dreamed up by Dr. Seuss, thanks to the umbrella-shaped Dragon’s Blood trees — so-named because of their red, medicinal sap — that grow nowhere else in the world. My favorite is the Socotran desert rose, a beige rutabaga-shaped tree.

The Socotra archipelago broke off from mainland Africa 250 million years ago, and the island is now home to 700 endemic plant and animal species, according to a United Nations survey, earning it the nickname “Galapagos of the East.” The birds alone — masked boobies, warblers and cormorants — are worth the trip.

It’s no wonder then that Socotra has become a new destination for adventure travelers. In the past 10 years, Yemen’s tourism ministry, in partnership with dozens of international development organizations, has been working to replace the image of Yemen as an Islamic gangsters’ paradise with images of Yemen’s ancient and astonishing UNESCO Heritage Sites — of which Socotra is one — in order to lure much needed economic stimulus to this impoverished nation.

But that’s no small trick. Yemen’s once-vibrant tourism industry took a nosedive in 2000 when al-Qaida terrorists bombed the American destroyer USS Cole in a Yemeni harbor. Tourism continued to plummet after a local al-Qaida affiliate began targeting foreigners at tourist sites in Yemen’s eastern desert in 2007. The U.S. State Department’s travel warning about Yemen reads like something out of a Brian DePalma film: murder, violence, more murder.

The Yemeni tourism industry’s public-relations nightmare reached a crescendo recently, after a Yemeni-trained Nigerian student tried to bomb a plane flying into Detroit on Christmas Day, catapulting Yemen into the international limelight and renewing worries of the growth of al-Qaida and imminent war in Yemen and Somalia. Tourism in mainland Yemen, not surprisingly, is now basically nonexistent.

Casablanca charm

Remarkably, though, tourism to Socotra — which is roughly 250 miles away from Yemen’s mainland, and is considered safe by most experts — has weathered the bad press. Official estimates put the number of tourists to Socotra somewhere around 3,000 people a year — a dramatic increase since 1999 when a small airport, its hand-painted signs and walking tarmac all Casablanca charm, was erected.

Most visitors to Socotra are European and fall into the category of “ecotourists” — folks who are willing to forego flush toilets and electricity in exchange for some untrammeled nature. That’s partly by design. A decade ago, both the Yemeni and local governments signed on to a United Nations development plan that eschews building beachfront resorts in favor of small, family-owned campsites.

The result is that any visit to Socotra is rustic. There are no ATMs or Internet cafes on the island; even finding a power outlet can be tricky. The largest city on the island, Socotra’s capital, Hadibo, features tumbledown stone buildings and fences made of discarded bumpers, sticks and strips of tarp. “Downtown” Hadibo is a dirt road where goats outnumber the locals sitting on blankets hawking fruit. But in place of Wi-Fi and a morning latte, visitors are rewarded with silence, empty beaches and friendly children whose knowledge of English usually begins and ends with the phrase “I love you!” At night, the stars are so bright, you can see them through your eyelids.

Undersea show

On our first day on the island, my boyfriend, Paul, and I snorkeled at the coral reefs at Dihamri Marine Protected Area with tens of thousands of fish, whose iridescent yellow, hot pink, orange and turquoise skins put even the most flamboyant 1980s-era ski suit to shame. Just when we were returning to shore, we spotted a loggerhead sea turtle, the size of a throw pillow, gliding beneath us, seemingly unperturbed by the strange, masked fish following him from above. The next day, we hiked through a surreal, Dali-esque sort of wilderness, and into the Hoq Caves, which feature caverns the size of football fields and wind over a mile into the earth.

On the last day, we asked a local fisherman to take us off Socotra’s westernmost point, where fabled schools of dolphins are said to frolic. We waited for a while, watching the black cormorants nest in the cliffs, watching stingrays slip ghostlike below, and then the dolphins showed up. Dozens and dozens of them, leaping from the turquoise water, catapulting themselves into corkscrews, flopping onto their sides, and then throwing grinning glances in our direction, as if to be sure we were watching. And then, as quickly as they’d arrived, the dolphins began to swim away, careening and leaping into the sapphire sea, perhaps, I thought, on their way to Somalia.

Haley Sweetland Edwards is a former Seattle Times reporter now based in Yemen through the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.