Before Kabul, a Yemeni city was taken over by Al Qaeda. This is its story
Five years after its liberation, the city of Mukalla still suffers from the scars left by a year of darkness
Scenes of the Taliban takeover of Kabul in August brought back memories from 2015, when Al Qaeda occupied my own city of Mukalla, in Yemen, for over a year. At the time, Yemen’s multifaceted war overshadowed the tragedy. When I look for news from that period, I find only snippets from local media outlets that dared to report despite the repercussions. The international press was almost absent.
Mukalla is a coastal city of half a million inhabitants. It overlooks the sea and is the capital of Yemen’s Hadramawt province, the largest in the country and one of the most important sources of petrol, agriculture and fish.
In 2015, I was a high-school student when I decided, along with a group of other girls from my school, to produce our first school play in English. It was about the Arab revolutions. There were no cultural events in the city at the time, especially for girls. I dreamt of having a theater at school and I was about to fulfill my dream when the nightmare began.
On 2 April, after months of preparation, it was time for the play. I got ready to race to school. I had waited a long time for this day. But quickly, it turned into tragedy.
Tragedy started at night, in fact. People living at the edge of the city, like my family, had not even heard the gunshots, and in the morning, like me, they were going about their day.
I remember running out of the house at seven in the morning. My neighbor stopped me and told me to go back inside because it was not safe. But I thought to myself, these are just some demonstrations like those we have been witnessing since the February 2011 revolution. She insisted, and even threatened to tell my mother if I did not go back. There was something she said that I will never forget: “they are here… the country is no longer ours… they are here!”
I did not fully comprehend, but I went back home. And my play was never performed.
Chronicles of an occupation
Al Qaeda fighters first took a military zone abandoned by loyalists of the previous president, Ali Abdullah Saleh. They attacked the prison and freed more than 300 prisoners including Khaled Batarfi, one of their leaders who had been in prison since 2013 and who was later to be named Emir of the newly declared Yemeni Islamic Emirate.
Tragedy started at night, in fact. People living at the edge of the city, like my family, had not even heard the gunshots
Families who could afford to leave were quick to escape to Saudi Arabia or Oman, while foreigners were evacuated. As for those who had limited means, like my own family, we were left alone to face the new reality.
We would huddle all together inside the house. Schools, universities and public institutions were all closed. I remember the unbearable heat. Electricity was cut for days and we worried about needing anything, especially because in the first few months, wages were delayed.
This all coincided with the displacement of thousands of families escaping the fighting in the coastal city of Aden, which had been invaded in March by the Houthis and the loyalist army of Saleh.
Rumours in Aden were that Al Qaeda in Mukalla were there to protect Hadramawt from the Houthi expansion, especially that the Al Qaeda fighters had called themselves ‘Sons of Hadramawt’.
And while the Saudi-led coalition and the US were focused on fighting the Houthis, Al Qaeda’s takeover of Mukallh was just another nail in the coffin of president Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi’s government, who fled to Riad after the fall of Sanaa in the hands of the Houthis in 2014.
My family used to gather daily to listen to the 2 o’clock news on the radio while having lunch. But the day after the invasion, we woke up to the news that the radio building was on fire with all the documents, archives, and rare recordings in it.
After that, looting became the norm. People carrying desks or chairs from public offices or private businesses, and more alarmingly, guns and rifles from weapon depots.
The biggest loot, however, was the $100m stolen by Al Qaeda fighters from the central bank, in addition to $1.4m from the national oil company and up to $2m every day from taxes on merchandise coming in from the port.
There are no exact numbers of the disappeared during that period, and many who were released do not want to speak about their difficult experience
Fighters would drive around with their Toyota Land Cruisers, armed with arrogance and flashing stacks of money.
Salem, a cashier at a supermarket in the city, recalls: “A fighter would come daily at noon to buy large quantities of the fanciest sweets and drinks. He would throw a stack of money and leave without caring for his change.” This was at the same time when people were struggling to get by or find food.
Crackdown on freedoms
Activists, human rights defenders and journalists were quickly silenced. Those who dared speak out against the new rulers would find themselves arrested and disappeared in secret prisons inside or outside the city.
“I used to post on Facebook against these extremist groups who called themselves ‘Sons of Hadramawt’,” explains Mohammed, who is now a soldier in the Hadrami Elite Forces managed and trained by the UAE. “And because I felt the danger, I left the province for four months. But as soon as I came back in March 2016, I was kidnapped,” he recalls.
Mohammed says that he was held captive for 22 days, during which time he was moved from one place to another blindfolded. “My mobiles they confiscated are still with them today. They only released me when the coalition air raids started in April.” The young man adds, “As soon as I was released, I went into treatment for the torture that I was subjected to in sensitive parts of my body.”
There are no exact numbers of the disappeared during that period, and many who were released do not want to speak about their difficult experience, either because of the trauma or for fear that Al Qaeda will be back at any moment. Most of the journalists and activists I spoke to, who did not want to have their names published, either fled or hid during that period. Those who had no time to flee were captured, tortured, and released only when the 10,000-strong army of the Hadrami Elite forces took back the city in April 2016.
US officials have called the Arab Peninsula faction that took over Mukalla, the most deadly of Al Qaeda factions. This explains the horrifying scenes we got used to seeing, like when they hung two dead bodies from a bridge that connects the East and West sides of the city, and overlooks the sea.
The violence was justified as Islamic Sharia orders coming from the ‘Hisba’, an authority that plays the role of the judiciary.
Hisba orders also targeted religious groups like the Soufist, a sunni sect that is present in Hadramawt. According to Ahmed Barweis, a local Soufist himself, their rituals were banned and Al Qaeda fighters even destroyed some of the buildings that had a religious and cultural significance to the community.
As was the case with the Taliban in Afghanistan this year, women were the first target for Al Qaeda in Mukalla. By doing that, the group wanted to gain the support of the patriarchal part of society. Women were forced to wear the burqa and to abide by many other restrictions. Fighters went around the city removing any images and signs of women in public, defacing street ads and store fronts.
This was not all. There was also physical violence. “I can’t forget the scene of a woman being stoned to death in the street because she had an illegitimate relationship with a man from Al Qaeda,” Mohammed recalls. “The sentence was performed on her but not on the man in question,” he adds.
She was not the only woman subjected to violence. Fighters attacked the house of a well-known doctor and activist who runs a feminist relief organization. They kidnapped her brother and husband because they were covering a demonstration against Al Qaeda and threatened to kill her elderly father. Her brother was released but her husband is still missing, and has not seen his son who has now turned six.
Five years after the end of Al Qaeda’s rule over Mukalla, signs of this dark period remain. Fear and trauma can be seen on the streets, where the sound of Al Qaeda chants calling for violence and death have replaced the songs about the sea and other traditional music.
During the year of its rule over the city, Al Qaeda succeeded in gaining the support of some of its inhabitants by providing basic services and filling the vacuum left by the absence of the state. Some people still speak well about those days.
Medical student Fatima, for example, writes on Facebook: “They came to bring us closer to God, and wake us from our slumber. I no longer talk to the guy I was seeing. They protected our honor and protected us from the Houthi attacks. May God bless them.”
Five years after the end of Al Qaeda’s rule over Mukalla, signs of this dark period remain
Many young men and teenagers joined the armed group either to earn a living or because they were somehow influenced by their ideology. Some were killed during the liberation battle, others arrested when UAE supported forces took over the city.
The lack of cultural or sport activities did not help in curbing extremism among the youth in the city. The only public space equipped to host events is the Belfakih Cultural Centre that was damaged during the fighting when Al Qaeda fighters used it as a hiding place from the coalition bombs.
The centre is currently under renovation funded by the UAE Red Crescent but is still used by the forces of the Hadrami elite forces.
But there were also some youth initiatives, such as book fairs in public parks and at the university, organised by volunteers who donated their books, effort and money.
Together with five other young colleagues, we started a cultural club called Takween. We wanted to create a safe space for young people interested in culture, art, and heritage. We organised poetry readings, music, debates, screenings, festivals and other cultural events.
An isolated place
Five years later, the city is still in isolation. Since the beginning of 2017, I have joined a campaign to reopen the city’s international Riyan airport which had been closed since the Al Qaeda takeover. Together with eight other women, we called ourselves ‘women of Hadramawt for peace’. During our campaign we saw how people, many of whom were seeking medical services abroad, had to travel more than 300km by land to the closest open airport, Seiyun international airport in Wadi Hadramawt. Some had their health deteriorate, or even died as they traveled along the road, which is not fully paved.
Riyan airport reopened on 27 November 2019, and its first flight, arriving from Cairo, Egypt, was celebrated by Mukalla’s inhabitants. But soon after, the pandemic started, and the airport shut. Today, it is still closed, even though life is coming back to normal. The UAE forces have claimed that opening it would be a security risk - and it receives only military flights and official delegations, causing anger among the people in the city.
Al Qaeda’s rule over Mukalla was without a doubt a difficult experience for many in the city. It was perhaps the only experience of war for its inhabitants, and sadly received very little attention both internally and internationally amid the long bloody war that engulfed Yemen. For many Yemenis, Hadramawt is the safest and most stable province in the country, it is also the largest host of internally displaced. The year under Al Qaeda will remain a nightmare I face every time I fall asleep, and pray that it does not come back to haunt my city.
*Some names have been changed
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