Shortly after the war between the Yemeni army and al-Qaeda militants across the province of Abyan came to an end, Al-Khaleej toured the devastated areas to shine a light on the conditions facing the people. With the support of various tribes — what came to be known as the "people’s committees" — the Yemeni army dealt a heavy blow to al-Qaeda militants, forcing them to withdraw from the Yemeni regions.
We started our tour in Aden, a mere 30 miles (50 km) away from the contested town of Zinjibar in southern Yemen. In the morning we took a taxi from the main station in al-Hashimi from the main station, the point of departure for those heading off into Abyan province. We crossed the infamous "flag area," — considered the dividing line between the city of Aden and the province of Abyan — and we knew that we had been allowed access into the province. Years before South Yemen’s independence in 1967, British troops carefully chose this spot for the planting of their British colony flag. The people have called it the "flag area" ever since.
We stopped at a checkpoint, and an exhausted soldier gave us the signal that we were cleared to enter Abyan. As we started down the road, the coastline — which stretches as far as the eye can see — seemed longer than usual. Piles of sand and the remains of military equipment that had witnessed fierce battles littered the sides of the coastal roads. Some pieces of equipment were destroyed, but others may be ready to be used again.
When we reached Zinjibar, the capital of Abyan, we were able to witness firsthand the unprecedented, horrific destruction that had been wreaked on the city. The governorate building, which had only been completed at the end of 2010, had been completely demolished. The main street leading to the Shakra roundabout demonstrated the scale of the destruction and fire that tore apart the residential apartment buildings constructed by President Salem Rabih in the mid-1970s to house governmental cadres. Some buildings stand pockmarked by shelling while others are completely demolished.
Some of the residents who rushed to inspect the remains of their homes warned us to beware of mines laid by the al-Qaeda militants before they left the areas that had been under their control. We also saw traces of the trenches dug at the city’s entrances, which had faced in the direction of the 25th Mechanized Brigade.
From Martyrs' Square, which was built in the mid-1980s during the reign of Abyan’s most famous governor, Mohammad Ali Ahmed, you can see all of the buildings and neighborhoods of Zinjibar, Fallujah, Bajaddar and al-Sareh. A view from here reveals the extent of the tremendous damage inflicted upon these areas. The square and its surroundings have been stripped of all aspects of life. Fierce battles destroyed power lines and poles along with the city’s water, sanitation and telecommunications networks. Banks and streets throughout the city had been destroyed by the shelling. However, we did not notice a heavy presence of security or military forces, except for a few members from the people’s committees, whose curiosity had compelled them to check our IDs when they saw us taking pictures of the destroyed city.
Near a new building lying on the coast of the Arabian Sea, away from the ruins of the devastated city, lives Governor Jamal al-Akel. As we approached the compound, we noticed sandbags lining the building's walls and security guards checking the identity of any newcomers. As we had already set an appointment with the governor, we were led directly into his humble office, out of which he runs the affairs of the ruined city.
Akel told Al-Khaleej: "We found everything demolished. We started from scratch or even below that. The scope of the damage and destruction was much greater than we expected. Everything was flattened: the people, the buildings, the crops, the livestock and the land. We are now estimating the damages, the loss of life and properties in coordination with regional and international organizations, seeing as we are a country with limited means."
He continued: "We are currently working on damage estimation with the support of the High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), which, in turn, urged other international organizations to take part in a process based on scientific and technical accuracy, away from exaggeration. We seek to abide by international standards and expertise. This might take some time, but it will lead us in the right direction."
When we asked Akel about his priorities after the damage has been surveyed, he responded: "Everything is running in complete harmony. Eliminating mines and repairing the electricity, water and telecommunications networks are all high on our list of priorities. This is a hard task, but our will must be strong.”
“We have started to re-erect the electricity pylons so that residents can be provided with electricity, especially in Jaar. We have also started to pump water back to the city, given that the damage in Jaar was not as tremendous as in Zanzibar. Military units and the people’s committees are all present in the city to normalize conditions through the removal of mines and explosives. All these tasks are high priorities; none can be compromised," he added.
No time for differences
Akel believes that it is in no party's interest to question the authority’s achievements following al-Qaeda's withdrawal from the governorate. He said the province is facing a grave crisis and that all parties must join hands to overcome this challenge.
"Today, we are facing a real crisis. Assessing the war's achievements is not within our priorities, at least not for the time being. There is no time for differences. Let the others assess the situation. We must dedicate our capabilities to serving the citizens," said Akel.
The people's committees
The governor praised the Popular Committees, which supported the army in battles against al-Qaeda.
"These committees emerged in an urgent need to face the challenges and hardships experienced by the people of Abyan. The Popular Committees are proof of the citizens' awareness of the dangers of extremism and terrorism. We are part of this world; therefore, the [town] of Lauder was the epicenter of the people's committees. This is a great honor for Lauder and its sons," he said.
A meeting of the Council of Ministers was held in Aden to discuss the situation in Abyan province. The governor stated that the meeting dealt with the resumption of investment into the province, and finding ways to overcome difficulties. The meeting also discussed the establishment of a Reconstruction Fund, which will distribute capital amounting to $46,500. The fund will be made up of contributions from the government as well as money gathered from neighboring countries, “friends,” businessmen and expatriates.
Living conditions of the displaced
In our visit to the province of Abyan, we met with several members of the Executive Unit for Refugees. A member of the unit told Al-Khaleej that some refugees were complaining about a lack of food supplies.
"We understand their complaints. It is only normal for there to be some confusion, but tampering with the refugees' basic requirements is not acceptable at all. However, some have made efforts to help and we appreciate that. We have gathered all the refugees in one place and we have dealt with them transparently. Any problem with Abyan's refugees must be addressed properly, away from political disputes," said the member of the unit.