Uneasy calm returns to Aden’s streets

A southern Yemeni separatist fighter checks cars at a checkpoint in the city of Aden, as calm descends on Aden streets. (Reuters)
Updated 09 February 2018

Uneasy calm returns to Aden’s streets

ADEN: A fragile calm has descended on Aden a week after heavy fighting saw southern Yemeni separatists take control of the city in a move that threatened to mark a volatile new phase in the conflict.
Saudi Arabia and the UAE helped broker a truce between warring factions in the area after heavily armed militiamen seized a local military barracks sparking clashes that killed 38 and injured more than 200.
The assault by the rebels of the Southern Transitional Council targeted government soldiers loyal to President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi and left the two sides, who are both part of the Saudi-led coalition in the wider war against Iranian-backed Houthis, facing off against each other on the city’s streets.
After several days of intense combat, the fighters appeared to be on the verge of capturing the presidential palace.
But as a new round of clashes seemed set to erupt this week, the main countries of the coalition intervened to broker a cease-fire and prevented further bloodshed, Yemeni soldiers and civilians told the Arab News.
An uneasy truce now exists in Aden, bringing a semblance of normality back to a city that has long been central to the fluctuating conflict.
Mohammed Khalil, a 22-year-old university student, described how the fighting had damaged buildings and sent terrified families running from their homes. Just as he was also about to join the exodus from his neighborhood, however, the violence stopped.
“Last week was horrible. I had decided to to flee the city for a safer area but the Saudi-led coalition intervened just in time to stop the clashes,” he said.
As the de-facto center of government for President Hadi, Aden has played a key role in the civil war that has torn Yemen apart since 2015. The conflict began when the Houthi-led militiamen and forces loyal to the former president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, took control of the national capital Sanaa and tried to remove Hadi from power.
When the fighting spread to Aden, Saudi Arabia and the UAE intervened in an effort to protect the Hadi government and the Houthis were pushed back in the summer of 2015.
The situation in Aden remained volatile and the coalition and their Yemeni allies have had to confront a series of attacks and assassinations in the city carried out by extremist groups taking advantage of the conflict.
The city has also traditionally been the center of support for the Southern Movement, which calls for a separate state in Yemen’s south. The recent fighting was sparked when government forces tried to prevent a rally calling for the restoration of South Yemen, which was an independent country until 1990.
Yemen’s Prime Minister Ahmed bin Dagher appealed on Wednesday for reconciliation with the separatists, whose fighters still control much of the city and large areas of nearby provinces.
“The mission today is to bridge the gap, heal the wounds and abandon political escalation,” Dagher told a Cabinet meeting.
Aden was already heavily damaged when the Houthi militias attacked the city in 2015 and residents are desperate not to see similar scenes again.
Saeed Bamashmoos, 34, who works at the Al-Shorooq Exchange Company in Al-Muallah district, said things had improved this week in the city after the fighting.
“By dialogue, people can discuss and solve their disagreements and not by force. Force is not a solution at all, so I hope that the sides use dialogue instead of arms,” he told Arab News.
Fighters on either side also said they did not want to clash again with each other while they are meant to be fighting against the Houthis.
Mohammed Al-Qirbi, 26, a captain with the forces of the Southern Transitional Council said when they arrived at the presidential palace in Aden, they received orders that forbid them from storming the building.
Al-Qirbi said many fighter’s from Hadi’s presidential forces surrendered rather than fighting.
“I am very sad about our colleagues who were killed in these clashes,” Al-Qirbi said, adding that he hoped fighting in Aden would not resume. Sergeant Salem Al-Lawdari, 33, a sergeant in Hadi’s presidential forces was arrested amid clashes in the Crater area but released the next day. He told Arab News that they did not want to kill any of the southern separatist fighters.
“We were shooting in the air to avoid killing our colleagues, and then the president Hadi and the Saudi-led coalition directed us to stop fighting so fighters withdrew from battles and returned their barracks,” Al-Lawdari said.
Abdurrahman Al-Naqeeb, a spokesman for Aden’s police, said: “The coalition called on all sides in Aden to calm and all sides welcomed this plea.”
The casualties add to the more than 10,000 people killed in nearly three years of war in Yemen.

To fast or not? Syrians in Raqqa mark relaxed Ramadan

Artisans prepare sweet bread at a bakery in the Syrian city of Raqqa on Thursday, during the holy month of Ramadan. (AFP)
Updated 51 min 3 sec ago

To fast or not? Syrians in Raqqa mark relaxed Ramadan

  • Muslims around the world fast from dawn until dusk, but in Daesh territory, anyone caught eating or drinking water was subject to draconian punishments.
  • For more than three years, residents of Raqqa were subjected to Daesh’s ultra-strict interpretation of Islamic law — particularly stringent during the holy month of Ramadan.

RAQQA, Syria: To fast or not to fast? For the first time in years, Syrians in Raqqa can choose to observe a relaxed Ramadan, without the rigid regulations imposed by Daesh and their religious police.

“We are free to fast or not,” says Ahmad Al-Hussein, a resident of the northern Syrian city that was the inner sanctum of Daesh’s self-styled “caliphate.”

“We used to fast in fear, but now it’s out of faith,” the stonemason tells AFP.

For more than three years, residents of Raqqa were subjected to Daesh’s ultra-strict interpretation of Islamic law — particularly stringent during the holy month of Ramadan.

Muslims around the world fast from dawn until dusk, but in Daesh territory, anyone caught eating or drinking water was subject to draconian punishments.

“Those that didn’t fast were locked in an iron cage in a public square, under the sun and in front of everyone, to serve as an example,” recalls Hussein, in his 40s.

A US-backed offensive ousted Daesh from Raqqa in October, after months of clashes and bombardment that left much of the city in ruins and littered with explosives.

Still, tens of thousands have cautiously returned to their homes and marked the start last week of what they hoped would be a more festive Ramadan.

Hussein says he will observe the day-long fast, but is excited to resume one custom in particular: Gathering around the television with his family to watch month-long drama series aired specially during Ramadan.

Daesh had clamped down on satellite dishes and any form of entertainment seen as contrary to religion.

“We missed these Ramadan traditions. For four years under IS (Daesh), we were banned from watching these series,” Hussein tells AFP.

Already, Ramadan feels different, with those opting not to fast eating publicly without fear of retribution.

Young men gather at a restaurant in the city center, sipping on chilled fruit juices under the scorching sun.

An employee carefully slices slabs of meat that will be barbecued for juicy sandwiches.

During Daesh reign, “we could only open our restaurants two hours before breaking the fast,” says owner Dakhil Al-Farj.

Anyone seen eating during the day was arrested by the hisbah, or religious police, he recalls.

“Now, we start serving customers at 10 am. People are free. Those that want to fast do, and those that don’t are also free not to,” Farj says.

Daesh defeat in Raqqa came at a heavy price.

Residents are still losing their lives to the sea of unexploded ordnance left behind by the militants.

Bombing raids by the US-led coalition backing the offensive against Daesh flattened entire neighborhoods, and rebuilding efforts have been slow.

Many districts still have no electricity or running water, and there are barely any jobs.

That means many are unable to afford a lavish iftar, the sunset meal that breaks the daytime fast.

In one street market, Syrians stroll among stalls piled high with fragrant oranges, bananas, bright white cauliflowers, potatoes and deep purple aubergines.

Huran Al-Nachef, a 52-year-old Raqqa native, will pick up a few tomatoes, cucumbers, and potatoes for a modest meal.

“It’s all obscenely expensive and there’s no work,” says Nachef.

His children look for odd jobs every day to try to provide for their families, but can barely break even.

“Those with money can prepare iftar, but those poor like me can’t help but feel sorry for themselves,” he says.

Nadia Al-Saleh, another resident, shuffles into a bustling bakery to pick up maarouk, a brioche-like pastry covered in sesame seeds that is ubiquitous during Ramadan.

“We’re buying some pastries to make the kids happy, make them feel the Ramadan spirit,” says Saleh, whose hair is covered by a dainty midnight-blue shawl.

“We’re still homeless. We’re living with other people, our husbands have no work. Our situation is really tough.”

But baker Hanif Abu Badih is feeling optimistic.

“There’s no comparison. Despite all the destruction, people are extremely happy that the nightmare is over,” he tells AFP, dressed in a traditional bright white robe.

Under IS, he was sentenced to 40 lashes and three days in prison, and his bakery was forced to close for two weeks.

Why? One of his youngest employees tried to hide when the hisbah was rounding up men for obligatory prayers.

“This year, we are going to fast without IS. We’re going to live however we want, in total freedom,” says Abu Badih.