The lost land of Abyan

Overlooking the province of Abyan: Lawder, Ja’ar, Zinjibar, Shaqra and all the way to the Arabian Sea.

The ‘frontline of the war on terror’ looks innocuous from here. Perched on the 1,000 meter-high ledge it’s hard to comprehend how this patch of land that stretches just 35 miles to the Arabian Sea is responsible for generating such fear and loathing in Washington.

It’s easy to imagine this place at the edge of the ancient incense trail as hundreds of camels carried frankincense from India to the Mediterranean. It’s just as you start to romanticise about this beautiful country and the wonderful people that the reality hits. Whether it’s a bomb blast like the one that killed 96 people last week, or the phone call we received an hour later whilst driving through Abyan, relaying information that the road ahead in a steep-sided valley was being held by al-Qaeda, prompting our minders to load their rocket propelled grenades. Wistful thinking goes out of the window rather rapidly here.

Veracity is something easily lost in Yemen and nowhere more so than in Abyan.

It just doesn’t add up

Since this latest offensive against Ansar al-Sharia, which began nearly three weeks ago, we’ve all been relying on government and military officials for casualty figures. Everyday new military advances are relayed and deaths reported: 22 militants here, six soldiers there.

“At least 353 people have been killed, according to a tally compiled by AFP, including 259 al-Qaeda fighters, 58 military personnel, 18 local militiamen and 18 civilians.” (May 30)

From speaking to civilian casualties, injured soldiers, hospital doctors, resistance fighters in Lawder and the governor of Abyan, I can tell you these figures are far, far removed from the reality on the ground.

In Lawder alone 93 fighters and soldiers died battling for the town (a figure given by a commander of the people’s committee of resistance fighters and backed up by Abyan’s governor Jamal Nasser al-Aqel).

One civilian casualty of a double air (possible drone) strike on May 15 in Ja’ar told me a day after the attack that 26 people – all civilians - were killed. Official figures on the day put civilian deaths at eight.

If I took these official numbers with a large pinch of salt before, I now know they’re absolutely worthless. All I can be sure of is many more people are dying than we know of, or are being told about.

Who’s who?

Less anticipated was the strong secessionist presence and sentiment in the south beyond Aden.

Anti-government protests last year changed the face of Aden. The town was festooned with southern flags. From the mountain side of Crater to almost every wall, advertising billboard and car dashboard the flag of the former People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen became ubiquitous.

On a more than five-hour drive through the south the feeling of being in another country grows. Southern Movement checkpoints dot the roads, outnumbering the government-controlled barricades. Switching back and forth between the old southern and Yemen national flag protruding from old rusting oil drums it’s hard to tell who controls what and that’s before you get to the black flags of Ansar al-Sharia. At night some roads change hands for 12 hours or so as Ansar al-Sharia set up roadblocks before vanishing after sunrise.

Lawder as a blueprint

Southerner’s feelings towards the military are palpable in Abyan. From light-hearted jeering from the resident militias at their military counterparts, to subtle attempts to prevent us showing government troops in a good light, the underlying tension between the two recent allies is ever present.

The resistance fighters of Lawder, backed by leading Southern Movement figure Mohammed Ali Ahmed (a native of the town), in turn supported by President Hadi, are the first signs of southerners becoming militarily organised – admittedly very loosely - since being defeated in the 1994 civil war.

There’s much talk of Lawder and its resistance force, or popular committees, being the ‘blue print’ for the fight against Ansar al-Sharia and as a long-term solution to keep al-Qaeda out of southern towns.

Certainly the local fighters appear to have been crucial in the battle to oust the insurgents from Lawder. They took nearly twice as many casualties as the soldiers.

What also appears glaringly obvious on the ground is the long-term consequences of expanding this model across the south.

The men of Lawder and the surrounding villages are revelling in their victory and now consider themselves a credible fighting force. A force who’ve defeated one enemy and is now bullish enough, should they wish to, to take on (note: I don’t say defeat) another: their northern suppressors, as they see them.

The call for arming and supporting the south in the fight against al-Qaeda is widespread. From Yemen’s government to Western diplomats, they’re all pressing to get the southern tribes involved. But have they overlooked, or are they just choosing to ignore, the long-term impact of such a strategy? Perhaps those in the higher echelons understand and accept the risk of building this rag-tag force that may eventually turn on its creators. Those I’ve spoken to so far about this are in denial and refuse to see it as an issue.

I should stress that Mohammed Ali Ahmed expressed to me his ultimate desire for separatism, with federalism as the catalyst, but he says he’ll pursue these changes through political channels, not by force or the creation of a southern army.

But if this tribal army expands, what happens next is likely to be beyond his or any other individual’s control. Encouraging and arming men to fight is the simple part. Choosing their enemies for them is likely to be rather more problematic.


Travelling from Sana’a to the Tihama, Abyan to Hajjah, the one thing every Yemeni (and one grumbling foreign journalist) has repeatedly demanded is water and electricity. These two most basic services are severely lacking across most of the country, something Ansar al-Sharia benefited from as they set out to provide electricity, water and food for residents in towns across Abyan, where out-governing the state isn’t a tough challenge.

In Lawder the local power station was destroyed in the fighting. When asked what they’d do for electricity one of the commanders gave me a knowing look and smirked: “we wait for the government?”

As most of the country continues to ‘wait’ for regular electricity he and I joked about how ‘the men down the road’ [Ansar al-Sharia] could solve the problem, probably in a matter of days. But really this is no joke.

If Lawder is going to be held up as a shinning example of how to crush the insurgency then the state has to step in immediately and provide or renew basic services in order to convince people government rule is the better option. At the moment for many people across Yemen it’s not.

See all reports from Abyan trip

Yemen presidency issues statement saying Houthi rebels and southern Herak movement have right to be appointed in state institutions, ending standoff in capital of Yemen capital of Sanaa - @AP

Yemen presidency issues statement saying Houthi rebels and southern Herak movement have right to be appointed in state institutions, ending standoff in capital of Yemen capital of Sanaa - @AP http://bit.ly/1Esetrn

Southern Movement Steadily Aflame In Aden’s Streets

Despite an absence of foreign reporters and international media coverage in Aden, Southern Movement followers continue to hold public meetings and stage weekly marches in the southern port city. While high-ranking southern separatist leaders continue to receive headlines, a recent walk through Aden’s Crater district provided strong evidence that the movement’s strength continues to emanate from the street level.

Southern Movement flags – pale blue and blood red paint on white walls and the sides of houses – can be seen throughout Aden. Some are crudely drawn while others are picture perfect; yet all are recognizable for what they are, and whether they’re accompanied by writing or not, all strongly convey the message of a city desiring secession from the north.

One middle-aged woman, hardly raising her voice amidst the noise of a small crowd, said, “The price for my son’s blood is independence and freedom for Southern Arabia.”

Her son, Nasser Al-Bakshi, a 19-year-old student, had been killed on July 2, 2011 by army soldiers. According to Nasser’s mother, he had been murdered “by occupying military forces just because he was a youth with Herak [the Southern Movement].”

She spoke of “occupying military forces,” who, like herself and her now-deceased son, were Yemeni. Just the day before, with little prompting, youths at Aden’s battered and beaten Southern Movement headquarters formed the number ‘14’ in recognition of a national day which is celebrated by both southerners and northerners – in this case, to commemorate the eviction of a truly ‘foreign’ occupying force, the British, in the year 1969.

From Stargate SG-1 6x22, "Full Circle."
  • Herak:Surrender or die!
  • O'Neill:What?!
  • Herak:Surrender or die!
  • O'Neill:I was just gonna say the exact same thing!
  • Herak:O'Neill, of SG-1.
  • O'Neill:Hey, how're you doin'? You'll have to forgive me. I'm terrible with names! What was--
  • /Jaffa fires staff weapon/

04/27/12 #Syria Herak, Daraa: Protestors take an oath to continue until victory

Yemen presidency issues statement saying Houthi rebels and southern Herak movement have right to be appointed in state institutions, ending standoff in capital of Yemen capital of Sanaa - @AP

#Syria presses assaults ahead of Annan peace bid

DAMASCUS — Syrian forces pursued armed rebels on Tuesday in a number of flashpoint areas ahead of a peace mission by UN-Arab League envoy Kofi Annan, as a top US senator called for air strikes to protect civilians.

Soldiers in tanks and armoured carriers stormed the town of Herak in the southern province of Daraa, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said, adding that it was not possible immediately to determine whether there had been casualties.

And army deserters clashed with troops overnight in villages of Deir Ezzor, eastern Syria, while in Hama province of central Syria, troops backed by tanks circled the town of Tibet al-Imam, said the Britain-based Observatory.

On Monday, Syrian forces bombarded the city of Rastan, a rebel bastion in neighbouring Homs province for a second day running, monitors said.

The Red Cross, meanwhile, negotiated for a fourth day with Syrian authorities to be allowed to deliver aid and evacuate the wounded from the battered Baba Amr rebel district of the city of Homs in the centre of the country.

The Observatory said at least six people, including two teenagers, were killed nationwide on Monday.

Rastan, which activists expect to be the next target of a drive by regime forces to expel rebels who have regrouped from Homs, 20 kilometres (12 miles) away, came under renewed shelling, the Observatory said.

"What’s happening in Rastan is exactly what happened in Baba Amr: a siege, artillery fire and rockets," said Hadi Abdullah, an activist in Homs of the Syrian Revolution General Commission.

"Free Syrian Army fighters are still in Rastan. They will not give up because nobody wants another Baba Amr," he said.

The violence in Homs province has sent more than 1,500 Syrian refugees, mainly women and children, fleeing across the border into Lebanon in the past few days, UN and Lebanese officials said on Tuesday.

With diplomatic efforts so far stymied, US Senator John McCain, an influential Republican, called for American air strikes on Syrian forces to protect population centres and create safe havens.

"Time is running out," McCain — a hawk on both Syria and Iran — said in remarks on the floor of the Senate.

At the request of the Syrian opposition, McCain said, “the United States should lead an international effort to protect key population centres in Syria, especially in the north, through air strikes on Assad’s forces.”

On the diplomatic front, former UN chief Kofi Annan is on Wednesday to launch a mission aimed at convincing Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to silence the guns blamed for thousands of deaths since anti-regime protests broke out last March.

Annan is to hold talks with Arab leaders in Cairo before he heads to the Syrian capital on Saturday as joint special envoy for the United Nations and the 22-member Arab League.

The seasoned negotiator himself called it “a tough challenge” last week when he was named to the post.

The immediate aim of his first Damascus talks will be to secure a humanitarian pause in the fighting and access to the protest centres where the United Nations says more than 7,500 people have been killed.

Then, Annan said, he would “work with the Syrians in coming up with a peaceful solution which respects their aspirations and eventually stabilises the country.”

He will be accompanied by his deputy, former Palestinian foreign minister Nasser al-Qudwa, a nephew of Yasser Arafat, on their first trip to Syria, where state media has welcomed the mission.

The two envoys are to serve under a mandate set out by a UN General Assembly resolution passed last month and Arab League resolutions on the crisis.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, meanwhile, said he was to meet his Arab counterparts on Saturday in Cairo where the League has its headquarters to discuss Moscow’s ally Syria.

Moscow and Beijing have since October twice wielded their Security Council veto to block UN condemnation of Syria.

Washington said on Monday it hoped that with the Russian presidential elections over, Moscow would now turn its attention to Syria and push for humanitarian relief to civilians.

"We’re hoping for some fresh attention to the tragedy in Syria now that the elections are past," State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said.

Adding to the diplomatic flurry, China’s former ambassador to Damascus, Li Huaxin, is due in Syria on Wednesday for meetings with the government and other parties.

And UN humanitarian chief Valerie Amos said Damascus has finally approved a visit, to take place from Wednesday to Friday.

The aim of her visit would be “to urge all parties to allow unhindered access for humanitarian relief workers so that they can evacuate the wounded and deliver essential supplies,” she said.


18/08/2012 Daraa, #Syria: Shelling of Herak by the airforce


(08/07/2012) *GRAPHIC WARNING* Herak, Daraa, #Syria: A Massacre took here as a result of Assads criminal shelling that targets the heavily populated areas of Daraa.


(12.31.2011) Hrak | #Daraa | Night protests calling for the fall of the #Assad regime - #Syria