Yemen’s Unity Frays in Leaderless Aden

From: Berhane Habtemariam <>
Date: Thu, 3 Sep 2015 16:22:41 +0200

Battles have reopened historic divisions between country’s north and south

Graffiti depicting the old South Yemen flag, used when southern Yemen was an independent state until 1990, is scrawled on a wall in the southern port of Aden.
Graffiti depicting the old South Yemen flag, used when southern Yemen was an independent state until 1990, is scrawled on a wall in the southern port of Aden. Photo: Hamza Hendawi/Associated Press

ADEN, Yemen—Now that pro-Iranian Houthi militias have been expelled from much of southern Yemen, many here are wondering when President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi will return to his homeland from Saudi exile—and, more importantly, under what flag.

Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and their Sunni Arab allies intervened in the Yemen war in March with the express goal of upholding “legitimacy” by restoring Mr. Hadi to power after he was deposed by the Houthis.

Some of the war’s most brutal fighting happened here in Aden, the sprawling port city that served as the capital of the independent republic of South Yemen from 1967-90. In the current conflict, it became the bedrock of resistance against the Houthis, who hail from Yemen’s far north.

The battles of recent months have reopened historic divisions between the country’s two halves. The Houthis were backed by regular Yemeni Army units loyal to Mr. Hadi’s predecessor, Ali Abdullah Saleh, also a northerner. For many Aden residents, the red, white and black flag of united Yemen—which Mr. Hadi, a southerner, claims to lead—has now become a hated symbol of the enemy.

In Aden, that banner is no longer visible anywhere. Instead, the city’s walls and local fighters’ checkpoints fly the flag of the defunct South Yemen republic, a staunch Soviet ally that was formally known as the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen. The colors of the U.A.E. flag can also be seen, and there is also the occasional sighting of Saudi Arabia’s banner.

Graffiti proclaim Aden to be the “Free South” and some fighters have even swapped Yemeni license plates on their cars for makeshift black plates of “South Arabia,” the name that southern Yemen had under British rule in the 1960s.

“The south is our homeland. The northerners had taken everything from us —our land, our houses, our rights,” Rayyan Shambar, a commander in the anti-Houthi forces, said as he drove past beachfront villas that Mr. Saleh had given in Aden to army officers and other senior officials from the north.

Most of these northerners fled the city during the fighting, and are reluctant to come back, fearing reprisals. At one of these villas, a red spray-paint sign proclaimed that the owner was “a son of the South”—an attempt to deter looters.

Mr. Hadi, a graduate of the Moscow military academy who once served as a general in the South Yemen republic’s army, backed the north when southern Yemen tried to secede in 1994. Apart from a few recently raised roadside billboards with his portrait, there is little outward sign of support for Mr. Hadi among the resistance fighters, a motley group that spans the spectrum from southern secessionists to ultraconservative Salafi Islamists to supporters of al Qaeda.

At a checkpoint on the isthmus leading into the rocky peninsula where Aden’s center is located, local resistance fighters brandishing Kalashnikov rifles on a recent day swarmed around a convoy of SUVs transporting troops from the United Arab Emirates, believing that one of the cars contained Aden’s new governor, appointed by Mr. Hadi.

“We don’t want the governor. We won’t let him in,” they chanted. Having ascertained that the governor wasn’t in the vehicles, they let the convoy pass.

Mohammed Ali Maram, the head of Mr. Hadi’s office in Aden and the president’s special secretary, said the country’s government would return as soon as adequate facilities could be established in the embattled city, which Mr. Hadi has proclaimed a temporary capital. The presidential palace in Aden was bombed by the Houthis in March, days before the militia closed in on the city and the president fled to Saudi Arabia by boat. Many other official buildings lay in ruins.

Mr. Maram also said he doesn’t see any problem with the anti-Houthi fighters in Aden flying the South Yemen flag instead of the Yemeni national banner.

“It’s history. They have a flag, and we are not looking at that as something wrong. But we have a lot of people,” he said. The very same youths with the separatist banners are eager to join the new Yemeni national army and police units that the government is rebuilding with U.A.E. funding, he added.

“If they go to work, they will forget about that.”

But even some of the generals under Mr. Hadi’s nominal authority don’t hide their irritation with the fact that the Yemeni government has remained in the comforts of Riyadh more than a month after the Houthis were driven from Aden.

“We need the state here,” Maj. Gen. Ahmed Seif al-Yafai, the commander of anti-Houthi forces in Aden and four nearby provinces, quipped when asked when the government would move to the city. “But, unfortunately, the seven-star hotels do not exist in Aden.”

Write to Yaroslav Trofimov at

Received on Thu Sep 03 2015 - 10:22:42 EDT

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