| JAAR, Yemen
JAAR, Yemen Oct 17 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
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."
STRAIN ON ADEN
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
"I can't stand living here in Aden any more," says Fatoum
Ahsan Mohammed, an angry mother of five living in the Balqees
"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 criticise 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."
RUINED TOWNS REVIVE
Inside Jaar, an agricultural town just inland from coastal
Zinjibar famed for its bananas, checkpoints are manned by the
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
"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
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
The black-and-white flag known as the flag of al Qaeda
remained on some walls, but life was clearly returning to
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
"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."