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Yemeni artists commemorate victims of suicide attacks

The Yemeni government has been silent in response to recent deadly suicide attacks, prompting artists to launch a campaign to mourn the dead.
Artist Murad Subai paints a graffiti depicting a grenade on a street in Sanaa January 9, 2014. The paint is part of a graffiti campaign against armed conflicts in Yemen. REUTERS/Khaled Abdullah (YEMEN - Tags: POLITICS SOCIETY CIVIL UNREST) - RTX177LB

The majority of the world remains unaware of the terrorist attack that rocked Sanaa last Dec. 5, beginning at 9 a.m. It targeted the al-Ourthi military hospital, on the grounds of the Ministry of Defense. This heinous act left 56 people dead, the majority of them doctors, nurses and civilians. Thirty minutes after the attack, early footage of it was televised. Several hours and explosions later, news broke of Nelson Mandela's death, and the rest was forgotten to history.

The next 24 hours were taxing. The public was left uninformed until the Supreme Security Committee (SSC) announced the findings of its investigation. It revealed that 12 suicide bombers, most of them Saudi nationals, had committed a “terrorist act,” wounding 215 on top of those killed. The government hastily attempted to assuage the unnerved masses. First, it televised a five-minute, edited video of the attack. The images, as one might expect, generated collective terror and panic. They also created enough backlash to halt future replays. Second, it declared a nationwide minute of silence. Sadly, silence has been the symbolic and literal response of the government ever since.

Several months later, and in light of the government’s seeming lack of concern, a group of young Yemeni artists decided to commemorate the victims by drawing their faces and names on the walls of the al-Ourthi hospital. They collected 31 photos and 55 names at their own initiative. Two victims were never conclusively identified. To this day, there is no official record list of the names of all the victims. According to the artists who spoke to Al-Monitor, the Ministry of Defense declined their request to paint at the site of the attack just a day before the scheduled event. “Victims are everywhere,” they were told.

Undeterred, on March 6, the volunteers found a new location for their concept, which they named the 8th Hour. “Due to the absence of memorials, the 8th Hour is a kind of protest,” Murad Subay, a graffiti artist, informed Al-Monitor. In 2013, he launched the 12 Hour Campaign, a project to show through illustrations 12 major obstacles, or “hours,” in the path of Yemenis. At the time, he did not anticipate that terrorism would be one of them.

After the Yemeni uprisings of 2011, the grip of the government on the state had continued to weaken. Exploiting the new state’s frailty, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) expanded its operations. Not only did the government fail to curb the group's influence, it repeatedly neglected to address the worries of the people.

On May 21, 2012, the first suicide bombing in Sanaa took place and was dubbed the Sabeen massacre. The assassin targeted a rehearsal for a military parade, wounding 167 and killing more than 86 soldiers, 50 of whom died instantly. President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi immediately fired two generals, but the government then failed to develop a follow-up mechanism. No officials publicly commented on the event. The president spoke to the people through a TV anchor.

The president’s response after the 2013 hospital attack was almost indistinguishable from the one in 2012. This time, however, his silence was perceived from the start as a lack of concern, especially because he was rumored to have been at the hospital during the time of the attack. The government's inaction gave a wide berth to conspiracy theories. To this day, some people believe the al-Ourthi attack was a mere extension of the Houthi-Salafi war in the north.

Independent journalist Mohammed al-Absi took matters into his own hands and dedicated laborious hours to collecting evidence, photographs and accounts of survival from al-Ourthi. His reporting revealed that the Counterterrorism Unit, which responded to the attack, had been unaware that suicide bombers had dispersed themselves throughout the building. Even though the unit used excessive force, including six hours of tank fire, in the hope of killing the last terrorist standing, Absi found that the last bomber killed himself at 4 a.m. the next day.

Some of the details in Absi's expose on the government's inadequacy conflicted with the SSC’s investigation. He reported that nine suicide bombers had committed the crime rather than the 12 cited by the SSC. An official AQAP statement eventually confirmed the number provided by Absi. Moreover, Absi indicated that the SSC report had misidentified three victims as terrorists, further highlighting problems with the government's fieldwork.

In the age of technology, the Sabeen and the al-Ourthi attacks were of course videotaped, leaving authorities little room to conceal their incompetence. In 2012, Mutee Dammaj, a member of Yemen’s Socialist Party, and several others demanded the creation of a telecast showcasing the humanitarian side of the deceased soldiers, Dammaj told Al-Monitor. Tawfeeq al-Sharabi, a national television filmmaker, ultimately produced a series on the lives of the deceased soldiers as recalled by their families. The show was canceled after one broadcast. A few months later, al-Sharabi quit his job.

In 2014, similar scenarios played out. While the government broadcast no more than a few minutes of al-Ourthi attack footage, Absi gathered 30 clips from 250 cameras available at the scene. He had hoped to produce a revealing documentary about the details of the attack, but, Absi told Al-Monitor, he was turned down by several channels due to a lack of funding or interest. He therefore uploaded the footage to YouTube as a preview of what he aspires to document.

The Yemeni government has still failed to generate a public response to terrorism aside from an aggressive drone policy. It has also shown little interest in exposing the operations of its declared enemy. Worst of all, the current government wasted significant leadership opportunities by simply relinquishing responsibility during such a critical period.

While the public remains ignorant or passive in the face of the uncertainty engendered by terrorism, the apathy and incompetence displayed by the government has created a space for an earnest and dynamic group of civil activists to publicly dissect this paramount issue. Today, the task of remembering and honoring hundreds of wasted lives lies solely on the shoulders of the citizens. The 8th Hour is a glimpse of hope in a bleak reality. It is a positive sign that Yemenis are not ready to yield to terror and social chaos.

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