Friday, July 8, 2011

Is South Yemen Preparing to Declare Independence?

By TIME Staff / Aden Friday, July 08, 2011

Yemen's flag of three horizontal bars of red, white and black is a recognizable symbol throughout most of the country, flown by anti-government protesters and regime supporters alike. But in Yemen's southern port city of Aden, hardly a single Yemeni flag is flown without the triangular, sky-blue badge and red star of the socialist party hastily spray-painted on its left side, recreating the banner of the now defunct People's Democratic Republic of Yemen, which once ruled a region that makes up roughly two-thirds of Yemen.

The military personnel loyal to the regime of President Ali Abdullah Saleh are distinctly absent in Aden. Unlike Yemen's capital where anti-government banners and signs are found only near Sana'a University, the port city is emblazoned with anti-government graffiti on walls, shops and even across the high security walls of now empty government buildings. Slogans like "Get out Ali, you dog. Long live the South" can be read up and down the Mu'alla district of the city where anti-regime protesters have blocked off the entire road, one of Aden's largest and busiest. While some of South Yemen's protesters support unity under a new government, most demand a free and independent state. Broken up bricks and shattered concrete slabs litter the street as children play soccer among the ruins, the evidence of fighting between protesters and military that took place as recently as last month.

But Saleh's army is now a rare sight, if not altogether invisible, and covert foes have emerged to fill the vacuum. Once operating out of the shadows of the ancient volcano towering over Aden, South Yemen's Southern Movement, known as the "Harak", has exploded from its hiding places to stand proudly and defiantly against the ailing President (who continues to recuperate in Saudi Arabia from wounds suffered from an assault on his palace) and his northern regime, demanding a return of sovereignty to the area. "If the Harak declared independence, would soldiers obey orders to travel to the south and enforce unity? No. The soldiers that haven't been shipped off by Sana'a to fight the tribes wouldn't go up against the entire south," says Mohsen M. Bin Farid, Secretary General of the RAY party, South Yemen's first independent political organization. Indeed, the regime's military is not only engaging rebel tribesmen in the north and Islamist militants in the south but is divided into factions facing off against each other in the capital, players in the dangerous game of succession unfolding in Sana'a.

As that unfolds, the Harak is looking to seize the opportunity of a weakened central government in Sana'a to reassert South Yemen's claim to independence — and once again split the country the U.S. and the West has supported as a bulwark against Al-Qaeda. South Yemen and North Yemen were united in 1990 to form the Republic of Yemen following almost 40 years of separation. But after just four years, the fragile union was torn apart by civil war. Saleh drew first blood with a relentless aerial bombardment of Aden before dragging the south back into a unified state through sheer military domination.

For members of the Harak, South Yemen's independence isn't simply a matter of political disagreement but necessitated by what they deem to be irreconcilable cultural differences. Aden residents often refer to northern Yemenis as dahabashi, meaning savages. "We don't want the northern system of tribal patronage. We want the rule of law," says Qasim Dawoud, a longtime member of the Yemeni Socialist Party. "We were tricked into unity and now we are ready to reestablish our own state," he adds.

For one man, that war between the North and South has yet to come to an end. Brigadier General Ali Mohammed Assadi, an Aden native and a prominent southern movement leader, defected from the unified military and led his southern forces against the Saleh regime in the 1994 war. "The south was occupied by the British, then held by the iron fist of the Yemeni Socialist Party and since 1994, we have been living under the occupation of the northern tribal regime," says the general, speaking in his home in Aden, surrounded by friends and colleagues from Harak.

General Assadi's struggle against north Yemeni "colonialism" is a fight that has torn his life apart. In 2008, members of Yemen's National Security Bureau stormed his home and arrested him. "They broke down my door and opened fire, shooting at my children. I screamed for everyone to run before I was arrested and thrown into the political security prison in Sana'a. Members of Al-Qaeda are held in normal cells there but myself and other Harak members were locked in small boxes in the pitch black basement," he says.

He was imprisoned in his small cell for 13 months before he was inexplicably released. But he would gladly return to that darkness if it meant his son would still be alive. Just two weeks ago, the general and his son Giyab, a medical doctor and father of two, joined a funeral procession of another southern movement member who was killed by security forces. "Security forces opened fire on us with tank mounted heavy machine guns. My son was gunned down standing next to me. He's now one of the over 1,300 martyrs of the Harak," he trails off, staring blankly down into his newspaper.

Since the formal founding of Harak in 2007, there have been plans for a new government, though as yet no time table has been drawn up. The example of South Sudan, which is now on the cusp of independence from the regime in Khartoum, inspires many Harak members, who nevertheless point out thatthe new African nation was never a sovereign state in the past — a heritage and advantage South Yemen enjoys. "We have plans for a new government and a new political future," says General Assadi. "The new state will be a liberal, social democracy, similar to current European socialism." However, no formal military infrastructure is in place and defending their independence may prove to be difficult should Saleh — or a succeeding government in Sana'a — decide to retake the region. Still, most Harak members doubt Saleh's will and ability to do so. "We aren't worried about the response from the north. Our political and government infrastructure is already in place. All we have to do is pick up where we left off in 1990," says Assadi.

In Sana'a, tanks, light armored vehicles, and technical trucks with heavy machine guns mounted in the back can be found at most major intersections and, as night, soldiers with AK-47's check passing cars for weapons. However, in Aden, the regime has vanished. "Look around," says one local in the port city, "If we declare independence, who is going to stop us?" He then returns to sipping tea on the side of Mu'alla street, beneath the flag of south Yemen painted on the side of an apartment building.

Source: TIME Magazine

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