Monday, 12 December 2011

Grasping at Peace, War Zone of a City Tests Yemen

Source: The New York Times,12/12/2011

TAIZ, Yemen — Armed tribesmen had finally retreated from a pocket of this city, handing back to the state an education building they had occupied in recent weeks. The governor, elated, called it a breakthrough.

Dozens of people had been killed during weeks of violence. Cease-fires had come and gone. Now, the building handover again raised the possibility of a truce. For eight hours, the streets were quiet.

Then the tribesmen retook the building.

“I think we will succeed. Or not,” the governor, Hamoud al-Sofi, said Thursday, sounding exasperated. “We will see.”

Yemen has been caught in a cycle of protest, repression and factional fighting that simply will not let go, even though, as in Taiz, there are many moments that appear to signal a breakthrough, as when the president agreed to step down. The interim government that took power in Yemen last week amid guarded optimism faces an array of daunting challenges.

The economy is near collapse; an insurgency is raging in the country’s north; southern groups are pressing demands for their own state; and militants linked to Al Qaeda, capitalizing on the chaos, have seized some territory.

And the government will somehow have to put Taiz — a city now suffused with sharp divisions and deep resentments — back together. The task, complicated and pressing, will test the agreement that removed President Ali Abdullah Saleh from power, hailed by the opposition figures who signed it as a way out of a political crisis and dismissed by many protesters as a deal that changed little.

The agreement called for Mr. Saleh to hand over some of his powers to his deputy and for elections for a new president in February. It called for creating a military committee that is supposed to tackle Yemen’s thorniest problems, including removing militias from the streets and eventually restructuring the armed forces, where key units are still led by members of Mr. Saleh’s family.

Taiz will be a critical test of the committee’s effectiveness, analysts say, because the architecture of the city’s conflict — mirroring the nation’s at large — remains largely intact.

A proxy war has sprung up here around the protesters, pitting the government against its rivals in a contest of weapons and territory that has left parts of the city badly damaged.

 The security forces are still led by the men whom the protesters blame for the deadly government response to the uprising. And the armed tribesmen who entered the fray on the side of the demonstrators say they are willing to withdraw but not to leave the city unprotected.

Since the agreement was signed Nov. 23, the list of victims has only grown longer.

They include Ruwaya al-Shaybani, a 20-year-old protester who studied Koranic recitation and was killed Dec. 4. Though the government denied its soldiers were responsible, protesters said Ms. Shaybani was shot in the chest by a pro-government sniper after soldiers opened fire on a demonstration in the middle of one of the failed cease-fires.

“There has been a breach of every agreement,” said Boshra al-Maqtari, one of Taiz’s most prominent protest leaders, who stood near Ms. Shaybani’s body in the Al-Rawdah hospital as her mother wept over the student.

The hospital’s upper floors were badly damaged during days of fierce shelling by the military, doctors said. “The youth are angry,” Ms. Maqtari said. “Violence brings violence.”

Abdulwahab Dhaifallah, a 31-year-old grocer who lived in Oakland, Calif., was killed on a visit here last month when tribesmen allied with the protesters fired on his car, for no reason, according to his brother, Hatem Mohammed. “We’re not with the government,” his brother said. “We’re not with these guys,” he said, referring to the tribesmen. “This is not a revolution like Egypt.”

Taiz, a city in southwestern Yemen known for its streak of resistance, helped drive the revolt against Mr. Saleh with highly organized protests that unnerved the government and drew a furious response. As protesters were killed, armed tribesmen joined the fight, bringing clashes that transformed the uprising and overshadowed the peaceful protests. The antigovernment activists continue to defend the intervention of the tribesmen, calling them “people protectors.” 

Many bristled at the notion that the only legitimate resistance in the face of the government’s repression was peaceful marches, though in recent days, some activists have asked the tribesmen to stay away from the protesters’ encampment in Freedom Square.

“The square acted as a magnet that attracted all sorts of things,” said Abdulkader al-Guneid, a physician and pro-democracy activist. “Things we are proud of and things we are not.”

The agreement to remove Mr. Saleh calls for the military committee to ensure that the government’s armed units return to their camps and militias leave the streets of Yemen’s cities. The committee’s unenviable task, as the agreement puts it, is to “end all of the armed conflicts.” In Taiz, the committee members will work in a city stripped of trust. Security officials in Taiz forcefully blame Yemen’s Islamists for the violence and say that the demonstrations are being manipulated by opposition parties, a claim protest leaders deny.

Abdullah Qayran, the chief of security in Taiz, admitted that government troops had “made mistakes” and killed civilians and protesters, but he said the soldiers had acted to defend themselves and had not received orders to kill. He accused the tribesmen of using heavy weapons and read the names of the soldiers who had been killed during months of unrest.

The continued fighting in Taiz has led to charges by protesters that Mr. Saleh, hoping to punish the city for its resistance and thwart the agreement that removed him from power, is still directing the government’s response.

Mr. Qayran played down the role of the president, saying he took orders from the interior minister and Abed Rabbo Mansour al-Hadi, the vice president tapped as Mr. Saleh’s successor.

“We have institutions in this country,” Mr. Qayran said. “Some people understand that things are being led by personalities,” he said, explaining that the media and the opposition foster that perception.

Stepping back from the city’s troubles, the security chief tried to strike a conciliatory note. He is loathed by many of the protesters, who say the government response to the demonstrations became more deadly after he was transferred to the city in March.

“If the peaceful protests continued as it was in the first days, I would have thought of becoming one of the supporters,” he said. “Why not? We believe in change.”

Many residents, though, were skeptical that a solution would be possible without more radical change, including the removal of Mr. Qayran and other top security officials.

Haroun al-Nasher, the owner of a stationery store across the street from the contested education building, said the presence of the tribesmen had made him feel safe.

“If they feel the regime is honest, they’ll go back to their villages,” he said Wednesday. The chances of that happening were about “2 percent,” he said.

Four days later, the governor, full of optimism, announced a new truce.

1 comment:

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