SANAA (Reuters) - Like a Beirut, Belfast or Berlin of old, Sanaa is now a capital divided between entrenched and bitter enemies.
South Sanaa is under the control of President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s security forces, and the north is mainly controlled by General Ali al-Mohsen al-Ahmar, one of Yemen’s most powerful military leaders who defected in March to protesters demanding the end of Saleh’s nearly 33-year-old rule.
Heavily armed soldiers behind barricades, sandbags and checkpoints separate the two sides as they continue a week-long battle that may decide the future of a failing state convulsed by protests for the past four months.
The fighting, pitting forces loyal to Saleh against members of the country’s most powerful tribe, the Hashed led by Sadiq al-Ahmar, was the bloodiest Yemen has seen since anti-government protests began in January.
Sporadic explosions could be heard near the site where thousands of protesters are still camped.
Black smoke from mortar fire mixes with the haze of pollution and dust that hangs over the Yemeni capital like a shroud.
Sanaa is shabby and run-down at the best of times but after the months of protests, the barricaded streets have an air of destitution and decay with mounds of uncollected rubbish, swamps and leaking sewage as a principal feature.
Queues outside petrol stations, banks and food shops testify to the fear gripping the capital of 2.5 million. Several electronic and clothes shops were open but few buyers were around except those shopping for food.
Now that fighting is escalating after a tense but mostly contained standoff between Saleh’s supporters and opponents, panic is beginning to grip the city.
Residents were fleeing Sanaa by the hundreds, hurriedly fastening possessions to the roofs of cars, hoping to escape the violence that has killed more than 80 people since Monday.
“I fear war. This is why I bought a bag of flour, rice, beans and canned cheese to ensure we have food,” said Mansour al-Fayed as he shopped at a supermarket.
Supermarket owners said the influx of residents wanting to buy food provisions have doubled over the past two days, with sales of essential items such as rice, sugar, rice and beans equaling a month sale in normal times.
But in a country where 40 percent of the population live on only two dollars a day, not many people can afford to stock up on food. Many destitute Yemenis simply rely on mosques and charities to survive.
Even before the popular uprising started to bring Yemen to a halt, its economy was prostrate. Now four months of unrest have cost the economy $5 billion and decimated one of Yemen’s main foreign currency earners by keeping tourists away.
Two thirds of Yemen’s population, already the largest in the peninsula and set to double by 2035, are under 24 years old. The literacy rate is 33 percent for women and 49 percent for men and unemployment stands at around 40 percent.
At the protest camp, where revolutionary songs blared amid multi-colored tents made of plastic sheets, the demonstrators seem almost like a forgotten cause.
Most voiced concern at the turn of events and what they described as Saleh’s readiness to resort to civil war rather than quit peacefully.
“The Ahmar family are part of the revolution and the president is trying to turn it into civil war,” said Ahmed al-Malahi, a 39-year-old medical doctor.
”This president has oppressed us. Imagine with all the resources of Yemen the people live in abject poverty...There is no other people in the peninsula who live under such conditions: poverty, backwardness, unemployment and corruption.
“All the government revenues and all the foreign aid to Yemen are going straight to their pockets.”
Most said they were determined to continue their protests because they saw no future for their children under Saleh.
“Saleh has destroyed our country and our youths,” said Mohammed al Jaradi, a retired soldier, 50. “He crushed our future and we accepted our lot but we want to save the future of our sons. This is why we will not back down and won’t be silenced so that ours sons will have a better future.”
Many residents blame Saleh for the woes of this tribal state, awash with weaponry and corruption and racked by a secessionist movement in the south, a Shi‘ite insurrection in the north and a growing al Qaeda presence in the center.
They said Saleh favored a one-man, one-family rule, granting monopoly and privileges to his sons, relatives and associates while following a divide-and-rule policy among tribes and factions in order to tighten his grip on power.
“Yemen has been heading to the abyss. Those who have connections get a job and others don‘t. Under this government and regime there is no future for us,” said Meshaal Jahhaf, a 22-year-old graduate of languages.
Editing by Sonya Hepinstall