The gunmen of Aden
Meeting the militia.
The gunmen of Aden who keep saying sorry
As fighting raged in the Yemeni port of Aden this last week, the BBC’s Orla Guerin made a brief visit from nearby Djibouti. Here she describes her journey in a local cargo boat and a tense meeting the local militia, which is defending the city against attackers from the north.
As we lined up in front of our rusting boat a colleague – who was staying behind – decided to take a photo.
“Thanks,” I said, “nice to have a picture of the team.” It’s not for that,” he replied. “If anything goes wrong, it will help identify your bodies by your clothing.” We were all well aware of the risks of entering this particular war zone, and our trip was meticulously planned, but suddenly the intense African heat turned cool.
We said our goodbyes and climbed on board for a 21-hour voyage from Djibouti to Yemen. On paper it was the perfect cruise – calm blue seas, constant sunshine, and the occasional passing dolphin. The crew served us hot sweet tea and flatbread for breakfast, and fish straight from the Gulf of Aden for dinner. Alas, we had company from a small army of cockroaches, but we had chartered a boat normally used for livestock.
It was plain sailing until we neared the southern port of Aden, where there had been another round of Saudi airstrikes that morning. A sudden gunshot had us diving for cover. It came from a vessel full of heavily armed men, in traditional Yemeni wraparound skirts, and flip-flops. One started waving a rocket-propelled grenade in our direction. They demanded that everyone on board line up on deck.
“Couldn’t be pirates,” I thought. We were too near land and Somali pirates are not the threat they used to be thanks to the presence of international warships in in these waters.
Since our visitors didn’t identify themselves, we did. “Sahafa BBC,” we shouted – “BBC journalists.”
Once they heard that, they lowered their weapons and rushed forward offering profuse apologies. “Welcome, welcome. Sorry, sorry, sorry.” It wasn’t the only time we heard that during our brief visit.
Once on dry land, we headed to the nearest hospital, where six more war wounded had just arrived. There was no electricity and the generator was running out of fuel. “We can’t even do X-rays,” said Dr Mohamed Mohsin, a harried orthopaedic surgeon. “I often have to just patch patients up and send them home to make room for new ones.” Almost 50 people have died at the hospital in the past month, most shot in the head or heart – the signature of a sniper.
An hour later we were in a sniper’s killing ground, in the front-line area of Al Qalooah. It’s under the control of locals from the so-called Popular Resistance Committees. They are the DIY defenders of Aden, trying to keep Houthi rebels out of their neighbourhoods.
Akram Yafooz, a softly spoken social worker, pointed out a red-brick building on a hilltop occupied by the Houthis. He insisted the local fighters would win, though they are outgunned. “They have tanks and we have Kalashnikovs. But our heavy weapons are in our chests,” he said, pointing at his heart.
We moved up the main street, towards the last checkpoint held by the militia. The road is exposed to sniper fire and the Houthis had been shooting hours earlier.
Chaos erupted when a car tried to turn the corner – into the line of fire. The fighters across the road suddenly pointed their guns at us. When we shouted – once again – that we were journalists they came running over, and there was another round of armed apologies – “Sorry Sorry!”
Across town we sat down with around a dozen volunteer fighters at their makeshift headquarters – a decrepit compound which they said was used by British forces in colonial days. The youngest was an 18-year-old called Ahmed Nasser, who is still at school.
“I’m ready to die for this,” he said with conviction. “They came all the way from Sanaa to fight us on our land, we didn’t go there to fight them.”
The militia men see the Houthis as northern invaders, trying to overrun their southern homeland. They want Yemen to be divided again, North and South, as it was before 1990. “Everybody should go to their own land,” said Ghassan Haider, a salesman turned fighter. “No compromises, no middle ground, no federation.”
The only winner so far in Yemen’s latest civil war appears to be the local branch of al-Qaeda. It has been exploiting the chaos to rob a bank, conduct a jail break, and expand its territory.
Soon we had to rush back to the port. Our ship had been warned to go before dark. As we sailed away, dense black smoke was rising from Aden. We could leave in safety while so many others could not. It was my turn to feel very sorry.