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Documenting Yemen's Injured South

[Flag of South Yemen on a wall in Aden. 11 July 2012. Photo by Ammar Basha] [Flag of South Yemen on a wall in Aden. 11 July 2012. Photo by Ammar Basha]

I shot the film presented here, "Third Day in the Heart of the Revolution,’’ over a single day. Divided in two parts, it tells stories from the south of Yemen two years after the revolution started. The first segment focuses on the Yemeni governorate of Abyan and those who fled its capital Zinjibar during the war with Ansar al-Sharia. The second presents the youth of al-Mansura in Aden who have been expelled from Sahat Al-Shuhada' (Martyrs' Square) through the use of deadly force by security forces.

After the two short films I made about the youths in Change Square of Sana’a and the Life March in late 2011 that briefly reinvigorated Yemen's uprising, I wanted to follow up with a film about the youths and their revolutionary spaces in different cities in Yemen. I consider each city in Yemen a heart for the revolution, and given its importance to activism in the south, Aden was my next choice.


Part 1: Abyan and War's Consequences


Aden, the former capital of the People's Democratic Republic of Yemen, has two revolutionary squares. Freedom Square, in the old central neighborhood of Crater, is controlled by Islah, the Islamic reformist party, while Martyrs' Square, located in the working class neighborhood of Al-Mansura, is dominated by al-Hiraak, the Southern separatist movement. When I arrived to Aden on 11 July 2012, Freedom Square was empty during the day due to the soaring heat. I learned that Martyrs' Square, ringed by army vehicles, was also empty. Activists had first been forced to evacuate the square on 30 April 2011 after violent attacks by the military, but attempts to reoccupy it continued. However, after the assassination of General Salim Ali Qatan in Al- Mansura by a suicide bomber on 18 June 2012, the military reasserted itself, claiming the need to drive out al-Qaeda forces who had allegedly seized control of the neighborhood. Friends advised me to visit al-Mansura in the afternoon – the military snipers that shoot unarmed civilians in the square took their break at that time. "It is the time they go to chew qat,’’ I was informed.

While we drove through Aden, waiting for the right time, my attention turned to crowded queues in many places - Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) from Abyan, I was told. Almost every school I saw in Aden contained large numbers of people of different ages and genders living in extremely hard conditions. With the temperature exceeding 40 degrees Celsius, there was little to no access to water and healthcare, very little food and constant power cuts. The knowledge that such a humanitarian crisis, with over one hundred thousand IDPS from Abyan alone, went largely unrecognized amidst the political violence, social unrest, and drone strikes – each one a national and international news story – was shocking.

After taking this little detour, I decided to include Abyan and the IDPs in what eventually became the first part of this film. The war that drove these people from their homes is now over, but the immense damage remains. Just a short twenty-minute drive from Aden, I found a whole city that had turned into rubble, land mines planted in almost every corner. The infrastructure of Zinjibar, Abyan's capital, had been totally destroyed; even the houses and cars that survived the bombings were looted and left empty. Soldiers stationed in the city wore civilian clothes to hide their military identity, afraid of the constant suicide bombings that targeted them even after their declared victory.

When you see these images of Abyan, you might ask yourself many questions that this film does not answer. How did militants, identifying themselves as Ansar al-Sharia, take over a whole city in less than two nights? Why did the army withdraw from its bases in Abyan and leave all its weapons, artillery, tanks, and armored transport behind for the militants? How did these militants, once defeated, just disappear in one night?

I was told numerous stories that sought to make sense of events of March 2011, many of which remind you of old Rambo films or Three Kings. In one account, soldiers were slain while they slept by the militants who came from the sea in middle of the night and overran the army base that had once guarded Zinjibar’s port in March 2011. "The purpose of taking over Abyan is to attack Aden and take control of it,’’ another person said. "All the generals gave up so quickly except one, who was leading the 125 Meka base,’’ he continued. "If it was not for this small base which stopped Al-Qaida from advancing to Aden, Aden would have fallen.’’ "That general was released from his command at later events and was sent home, an act which raises many questions about what was going on," he added

The war in Abyan lasted for almost a year and escalated when President Hadi appointed General Salim Ali Qatan as the Chief Commander of the Southern Army Division, replacing an old general loyal to the old regime. More than one hundred air strikes in one week, in combination with US drone strikes, brought an end to the war. While there are many scenarios behind the war in Abyan, the humanitarian disaster that it generated remains hidden from our TV networks and newspaper front pages. In recent reports by the UNHCR, they stated that more than twenty five thousand people fled to the neighboring cities, most of them living in schools of Aden. Given the hardships endured by the people of Abyan, and their amazing perseverance under these conditions, I decided to focus on this humanitarian crisis. In doing so, I tried to let them narrate their own experiences and grievances, and stayed away from explicitly addressing the political conditions that caused such a disaster.


Part 2: Aden and the Youth of al-Mansura

In this second segment of "Third Day in the Heart of the Revolution," you meet the people of al-Mansura who remain protesting in the streets of their neighborhood, hoping to return to Martyrs' Square. When I arrived to al-Mansura, not far from the square, a funeral was underway. The Central Security forces had assassinated a young activist in al-Hiraak, Sharaf Mahfoodh, in the early morning hours on the day of my arrival. The people were angry and many espoused the belief that Islah was behind the killing. Islah was also blamed for planning the attack on the square in hopes of expelling them in June 2012. These accusations aimed at Islah illuminate the tensions in southern Yemen which emerged in 2011 as the uprisings in Sana'a and other northern cities became increasingly co-opted by institutionalized parties and political elites, many of whom had participated in the subjugation of the south in 1994 and since.

The residents of al-Mansura are often characterized as terrorists in state propaganda, allegations that the subjects of this film firmly deny. Rather, the violent realities of everyday life in this part of Aden stem largely from the state's security apparatuses – sniper fire, arbitrary arrest, and deadly assault threaten the lives not only of youths calling for justice and equality, but of all residents. Yemeni media outlets have done little to challenge the state propaganda, either ignoring the discrimination and violence against which the youth of al-Mansura struggle or mischaracterize their nonviolent resistance as thuggish brutality in the service of al-Qaeda.  

A silent majority exists between the activists of al-Hiraak, the members of Islah, and the supporters of central government – a majority that struggles just to make a living, their only hope to live in peace. As tension continues to rise in the South, these Yemenis wait expectantly for the national dialogue to end hatred and injustice in the country. But with political parties playing dirty games, with TV channels fabricating stories for their own self-interest, and general disbelief in the viability of peaceful change, the future of Yemen remains dark and unpredictable.

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