JAAR, Yemen (Reuters) - Yemenis who fled the fighting after al Qaeda militants occupied their home towns are now under pressure to go home, but many are hesitating for fear of the group’s lingering influence despite assurances that the area east of Aden is now safe.
Around 150,000 people left Jaar and Zinjibar after militants calling themselves the Ansar al-Sharia swept in between March and May 2011, taking advantage of a security vacuum during an uprising against then-President Ali Abdullah Saleh.
After Saleh stepped down in February, the army was gradually able to remove the militants with the help of U.S. forces firing missiles from air and sea.
“We had the army on one side and al Qaeda on the other and our house was in the middle,” said Ali Yousef al-Qarnabi, the head of one of 11 families left in the scruffy yard of the Balqees school in Yemen’s main port of Aden.
“In the afternoon, they bombed houses with shells and we fled. We left everything, we just left with the clothes we were wearing and ran,” said the father of three.
Of the around 70,000 who sought refuge in Aden, some 30,000 remain, most of them camped out in schools that want them to leave so they can reopen.
The refugees are resisting, however. They say that many of their homes are still in ruins and al Qaeda militants are still operating in their communities, making the resumption of hostilities possible at any time.
Since Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula was formed by Saudi and Yemeni militants in 2007, the group has carried out suicide attacks against Western tourists and foreign officials, sent a bomber into Saudi Arabia in a bid to kill a senior prince and tried to send explosive packages on planes bound for the United States.
The uprising marked the first time they had seized territory. During their brief period of control, they ran Jaar and Zinjibar, two adjacent towns in Abyan province, as Islamic “emirates” under sharia law.
Government officials say the area has now been cleared of Al Qaeda and is safe.
But locals say militants have joined the “popular committees” formed last year by local tribes to help keep them out. The committees have taken over security in the towns while the army mans only distant entry points outside.
One committee member in Jaar, who gave his name as Mahjoub, said some Ansar al-Sharia members who negotiated surrenders with the military in exchange for their lives remained in the town.
Residents were right to be afraid, Mahjoub said.
“A lot of people here hated them for ruling them by force, and for specific misdeeds some of them committed while they were here,” he said.
“Now you see the same faces of people who are supposedly wanted as (al Qaeda) leaders but running checkpoints ... You’ll see Ansar al-Sharia or something with another name here again.”
The strain the displaced population placed on Aden, a sprawling city of two million, has been considerable. Of 140 schools, 80 were commandeered for the refugees and of those around half are still occupied. Until the refugees go back home, children are crowding into the schools that can open.
Aden governor Waheed Rasheed said the refugees left the schools in a mess.
“They destroyed everything in the schools, they took fans and pulled out electric fittings,” Rasheed said.
Aid groups and refugees said the authorities were applying indirect pressure by cutting back on food rations and other assistance.
“I can’t stand living here in Aden anymore,” says Fatoum Ahsan Mohammed, an angry mother of five living in the Balqees school.
“We’re not getting enough to feed a family here,” she says, pointing to three children with her. “If the government just gives me pots and pans or even a tent to live in, I’ll go. It’s much cheaper than it is here.”
An aid worker concurred, asking not to be identified because he did not want to openly criticize the government.
“They started cutting water and electricity from some schools, and they stopped paying rations in the last two weeks to pressure them ahead of school season,” he said.
“But it’s a questionable situation. Citizens are concerned about the popular committees. Some are not from there and they could start imposing (Islamist) rules again.”
Inside Jaar, an agricultural town just inland from coastal Zinjibar famed for its bananas, checkpoints are manned by the volunteer militia.
Many buildings, including mosques, stand half destroyed or covered in bullet holes. Cars still lie overturned or burnt out on the roads, casualties of the missile strikes to oust the militants.
“They were bombing buildings around us all the time, from the air, usually at night. They bombed this,” said Mohammed Abdullah, a teenaged member of a popular committee, driving past a local government building the militants used as a headquarters.
He said several hundred militants had occupied the town, including what local residents believed were Egyptians, Somalis, Saudis and Chechens, under the leadership of a Yemeni named Galal Bil-Eidy.
The black-and-white flag known as the flag of al Qaeda remained on some walls, but life was clearly returning to normal.
The destruction was worse in Zinjibar. In a bloody fight to win back the city, buildings were reduced to rubble and militants planted mines before they finally fled or were killed, making driving or walking off-road hazardous.
There is no electricity or water, and residents say the main pipe network is too badly damaged to be used again.
In a windswept building along the sea, the new governor of Abyan province Gamal al-Aqel recounted a systematic attempt to set up an Islamic government in the two towns.
The militants appointed officials to oversee employees in public bodies such as courts, mosques, hospitals, police and postal services, but brought in their own medical team, he said.
“We couldn’t believe the amount of destruction and theft we found after the fighting,” Aqel said. “We had to bring in deminers and a number of them died. They laid more than 12,500 mines, of the difficult and nasty type.”
He expressed confidence that the militants were gone for good, however.
“Now al Qaeda has returned to its original job - kidnapping and carrying out suicide attacks,” Aqel said laconically.
“They found a political environment here, a security vacuum while the army was split. We’ll never let them back in here again at any cost.”
Additional reporting by Joseph Logan and Dhuyazen Mukhashaf; Editing by Sonya Hepinstall