4:06am

Sat June 16, 2012
Middle East

Militant Territory Cleared In Yemen, For Now

Originally published on Fri July 6, 2012 10:27 am

In southern Yemen, government forces backed by U.S. advisers claim they are routing al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula and allied groups from territory that the militants had controlled over the past year.

This is the same al-Qaida that has tried to send so-called underwear bombers to attack U.S.-bound planes.

Abandoned Streets

Just outside the town of Zinjibar, it's clear that fierce battles went on here. It's deserted. There are no people, but there are an enormous number of bullet and shrapnel holes in the buildings.

Until a few days ago, it was impossible to pass through here. The roads and the towns they lead to were controlled by al-Qaida-linked militants who go by the name Ansar al-Sharia. They took the area more than a year ago.

They imposed strict Islamic law. Legend here tells it that militants amputated the hands of thieves.

Now, the government claims to have defeated the militants. In an online statement, the militants say they merely staged a tactical retreat.

Either way, the black banner of Ansar al-Sharia is in tatters, barely hanging on to its frame. The army is now stationed at the provincial headquarters on the outskirts, and the rest of the town is deserted.

There's just rubble everywhere, and doors are completely shut, blocked by piles of trash and concrete blocks.

The town mosque was hit by what residents say was a U.S. airstrike. The militants wrote graffiti on the mosque before they left town. One phrase reads: "This is democracy, even God's mosques are damaged!"

Dreaming Of Home

A few blocks away, there are a couple of families that have made their way back.

Salem Faraj, his wife and four of his five children took a bus from the nearby city of Aden, where tens of thousands of people fled after the militants took Zinjibar. It's the first time the family has been home in eight months.

The mother says they made the trip back for their children. "The just wanted to see their house," she says.

The family says they'll be gone by nighttime, back to a school where they live as refugees in Aden. They say they just want life to go back to normal in Zinjibar, before the militants came.

'They'll Be Back'

It all seems like the simple story: The bad guys were here, now they're gone.

But in Jaar, the next town over, it's more complicated. While Zinjibar was where militants made their last stand, Jaar is where the militants made a home.

There's video evidence that at some point the militants captured a man who they believed was a spy. They crucified him and left him out for public viewing for three days in the town's soccer stadium.

The al-Qaida signs and graffiti are still all around this town, unlike in Zinjibar, where everything has been taken down. It's almost as though it would be ready for them at any time if they wanted to come back.

Militants might have left Zinjibar, but not all of them have left Jaar. What's more, the people of Jaar haven't left either. Many of them still sympathize with al-Qaida and Ansar al-Sharia.

This is the problem for the Yemeni government. It's one thing to force militants into retreat — it's another thing to administer a poor and neglected province such as this one. People here say the militants provided order and security, something the government hasn't done for years.

"The militants might be gone now," one man in Jaar says, "but I guarantee you, they'll be back."

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

And in southern Yemen, government forces backed by U.S. advisers claim they're routing al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula and allied groups from territory that the militants had controlled over the past year. Now, this is the same al-Qaida that has tried to send so-called underwear bombers to attack U.S.-bound planes. NPR's Kelly McEvers is one of just two Western reporters who've been able enter the area once controlled by al-Qaida and its allies. She begins her report on the road to Zinjibar.

KELLY MCEVERS, BYLINE: Now, we're just outside of Zinjibar and it's very clear that fierce battles went on here. First of all, it's deserted; there are no people. And second of all there is just an enormous number of sort of bullet holes and shrapnel holes in the buildings. I mean, literally, up until three days ago, this was completely impossible to do. I mean, you could not pass these roads.

That's because the roads and the towns they lead to were controlled by al-Qaida-linked militants who go by the name Ansar al Sharia. They took the area more than a year ago. They imposed strict Islamic law. Legend here tells it that militants amputated the hands of thieves. Now, the government claims to have defeated the militants. In an online statement, the militants say they merely staged a tactical retreat. Either way, as we enter Zinjibar, the black banner of Ansar al Sharia is in tatters, barely hanging on to its frame. The army is now stationed at the provincial headquarters on the outskirts of town. And the rest of the town is deserted. There's just rubble everywhere. And doors are completely shut. Doors are blocked by piles of trash and concrete blocks. Our guide tells us to quiet down as we pass the town mosque. It was hit by what residents say was a U.S. airstrike. The militants graffitied the mosque before they left town. Our colleague translates one phrase.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: This is democracy, even God's mosques are damaged.

MCEVERS: A few blocks away, we finally see a couple of families who've made their way back.

SALEM FARAJ: (foreign language spoken)

MCEVERS: Salem Faraj, his wife, and four of his five children took a bus from the nearby city of Aden, where tens of thousands of people fled after the militants took over Zinjibar. It's the first time the family's been home in eight months.

So, we're unlocking the door. OK. (unintelligible) the lever.

One of the little girls sounds like she's crying, but she's actually laughing at the sight of a porch swing that's been stowed inside.

Why did they come back today?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: (foreign language spoken)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (foreign language spoken)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: (foreign language spoken)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (foreign language spoken)

MCEVERS: We did it for the kids, their mother says. They just wanted to see their house. The family says they'll be gone by nighttime, back to the school where they live as a refugee in Aden.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (foreign language spoken)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: (foreign language spoken)

MCEVERS: They say they just want life to go back to normal in Zinjibar, before the militants came. It all seems like the simple story. The bad guys were here, now they're gone. But in Jaar, the next town over, it's more complicated. While Zinjibar was where militants made their last stand, Jaar is where the militants made a home.

This is the football stadium, the soccer stadium. It's mainly just a big open-air field. There's video evidence of this that at some point the militants captured a man who they believed was a spy. They crucified him and left him out for public viewing for three days in this stadium right here. The al-Qaida signs and graffiti are still all around this town, unlike Zinjibar, where everything had been taken down. Almost as if, if they wanted to come back at any time, it would be ready for them.

My colleagues start to look nervous and guide me back into the car. They whisper that the militants might have left Zinjibar, but not all of them have left Jaar. What's more, the people of Jaar haven't left either. Many of them still sympathize with al-Qaida and Ansar al Sharia. This is the problem for the Yemeni government. It's one thing to force militants into retreat. It's another thing to administer a poor and neglected province such as this one. People here say the militants provided order and security, something the government hasn't done for years. This sentiment is clear as we walk around town. Even though I'm fully covered, we meet hard stares. The militants might be gone now, one man in Jaar tells us, but I guarantee you, they'll be back.

Kelly McEvers, NPR News, Aden, Yemen. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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