On recent events in al-Dhale

Over the past few days, the village of Jaleela, in the southern province of al-Dhale, has been the scene of a fierce violence. The facts are muddled, owing to Jaleela’s general isolation and the (unsurprisingly) differing narratives of those involved. But the basic chain of events appears more or less uncontested. A convoy of troops from the Republican Guard was met with some form of resistance from locals as it traveled through the area. Things soon escalated. Subsequent clashes proved deadly, leaving at least three–including a child–dead, and raising accusations that the military used excessive force.

Its unfortunate for a number of reasons, but sporadic violence in rural areas of Yemen often risks fading into a blur. Regardless, here–or anywhere, for that matter– clashes are almost never just “clashes;” regardless of catalyst, events cannot be divorced from the environment in which they occur. And while recent events in al-Dhale may seem minor in the grand scheme of things, the violence touches on issues that reverberate far beyond the south Yemeni countryside.

As is inevitably the case, context is key. People in the area where the fighting took place have long harbored a fierce independent streak. During the 1960s, the area of Radfan–now split between the Lahj and al-Dhale–saw intense fighting amidst the struggle against British occupation; somewhat ironically, the clashes featured attacks on British military convoys in the area. Half a century later, many southerners claim that the Sanaa-based government’s rule is ultimately just another form of ‘foreign’ domination. Its a viewpoint that seems to hold particularly wide currency in al-Dhale; the member of parliament who (technically) represents the provincial capital, Saleh Shanfara, has been an outspoken secessionist for years and, far from coincidentally, Mansoura, a neighborhood that’s heavily populated by people originally from al-Dhale, is a locus of secessionist activity in the former southern capital of Aden. In such a climate, its far from surprising that a Yemeni military presence in al-Dhale would fuel tenses and risk sparking violence. The most recent clashes are far from the first that have to have occurred between the Yemeni Army and secessionist locals in the province; they’ve been happening sporadically for years.

The extent of the militarization of southern secessionists remains hotly debated, and ultimately, the fact that the villagers of Jaleela have taken arms against soldiers doesn’t seem to be the evidence it may appear to be. Even by Yemeni standards, men in al-Dhale are heavily armed; an activist friend from the area–a former PDRY diplomats daughter, interestingly enough–once jokingly told me that, rather than the gunfire common elsewhere weddings in her village often end in the celebratory launching of RPG shells (regardless of how serious she was, the point was made). And as events in other parts of the country have demonstrated, easy access to weapons means civilians can transform into ‘tribal fighters’ rather quickly if they feel they’ve been given reason to do so.

On a larger level, events in al-Dhale have, not surprisingly, proven to have political legs. Many southern leaders have seized on the clashes, characterizing them as the result of blatant “northern aggression.”  For separatist hardliners, they serve vindication for their rejection of the national dialogue process; vivid proof, they claim, that that claims of inclusive aims are ultimately empty rhetoric.

However, its not just about the Southern Issue. Its been the case for some time that the question of which part of the Yemeni military is involved in a conflict is nearly as important as that of whether the Yemeni Armed Forces are involved at all. The soldiers involved in the clashes in al-Dhale belonged to the Republican Guards, an elite branch of the military lead by the former president’s son; the specific brigade is commanded by Abdullah Daaban, who was previously involved in last fall’s devastating clashes in the city of Taiz. Much of the reaction in Sanaa has focused on these two men. In the eyes of many activists, the fighting is an indictment of a stillborn process of military restructuring; figures like Abdullah Daaban and Ahmed Ali, they argue, should have been sacked long ago and must be removed from their positions if Yemen is to move forward.

Still, particularly amidst the focus on the upcoming national dialogue conference, the violence in al-Dhale seems distant from the Yemeni capital. But nothing takes place in a vacuum, and moving forward, events like this maintain the ability to echo far beyond where they take place. It may sound like an overwrought invocation of the ‘butterfly effect,’ but in the context of Yemen’s current instability, even ‘minor’ incidents have the ability to escalate into something with far-reaching effects. At the risk of sounding alarmist, in the current climate, its almost misleading to refer to ‘localized’ events. Clashes in a rural village can easily ripple nationwide.

Postscript (since I can’t add footnotes, apparently):

-For a different take on al-Dhale see Salma Samar Damluji’s incredible book on the traditional architecture of South Yemen.

-Most in depth piece I’ve seen regarding the recent clashes in al-Dhale in English is this story from the Yemen Times.

-While the town of al-Dhale is ancient, the province of al-Dhale is a relatively recent creation, formed out of parts of the southern province of Lahj and the “northern” provinces of Ibb and Taiz in 1998. Before the Yemens were unified in 1990, the areas that became al-Dhale were separated by an international border and were the scene of a decent amount of cross-border fighting and, regardless of its administrative unity, the pre-unification line still seems to divide al-Dhale. The north of the province shares broad political and social similarities with the rest of what is often referred to as “middle Yemen.” The rest of al-Dhale–including Jaleela,where the recent violence took place–is a hotbed of secessionist sentiment.

-The symbolic meaning of the accession of Abdo Rabbu Mansour Hadi, who was born in the southern province of Abyan, takes a different hue in al-Dhale due to historical tensions between the two regions. Its a mistake to simplify southern politics to the division between the Zumra (mostly from Abyan and Shabwa) and the Tughma (mostly from Lahj and al-Dhale). But the hostility sown by events like the bloody 1986 Civil War means the factional division continues to resonate, particularly amidst quiet accusations that Hadi has favored fellow Zumra in appointments he has made since taking office.

-For a take on some of the issues involved in tensions up north, see this piece I filed from Amran about two months ago