This #Yemeni #city defeated #Al_Qaeda. Now it needs the #world’s help


A traditional Yemeni mawazz hugs Ahmed Mohammed Omar towering frame, but he is reduced to tears when he recounts the death of his son at the hands of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula

“There were nine of them, they were slaughtered,” he told The National

“Some had their heads cut, then they even drove a car over the corpses. We had nine bodies, we didn’t know whose head to whose body, as they lay scattered”

When Al Qaeda came to town, his son Saber was one of thousands who volunteered to fight as part of the UAE-backed Hadramawt Elite Forces

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Saber fought in the battle for Mukalla, freeing the city after a suffocating year of occupation by the militants. But there was a sting in the tail; four months ago he was captured by Al Qaeda in an ambush. He was executed alongside his comrades

Such are the raw memories of life under Al Qaeda. As cars trundle over Mukalla bridge locals tell how the corpses of two men accused of spying hung from the structure’s girders for three days. To the east sits a beachside park in which Al Qaeda leader Naser Al Wuhayshi was killed by a US drone strike in 2015

AQAP took advantage of national disarray caused by Houthi advances in 2015 to capture the city, and for one year it was the jewel in the crown of a group that US officials have dubbed Al Qaeda’s deadliest franchise

The group looted $100 million from government banks in the area, and swathes of weapons from the government forces who fled as the city fell. But the locals largely stayed, hoping to survive their occupiers

Barely two years after its liberation residents describe Mukalla as the safest city in Yemen. It is more than four months since there was a suicide bombing and there is a genuine sense among security officials that AQAP’s presence in the city has largely been dealt with, though they concede there may still be sleeper cells

In this former extremist stronghold there are glimmers of a Yemen at peace, and some sense of what the country might look like after war

In Mukalla, locals are forbidden from carrying weapons, a common sight in a country awash with millions of guns

At a checkpoint to the city’s north, cars approaching the city are searched, and those carrying weapons are told to hand them over – they are given a ticket, and told they can collect them when they leave the city. “It should be like this in all of the country,” says Captain Saed Bouasted, who manages the checkpoint

Hadramis’ largely attribute the stability, which evades so much of the country, to the influence of the elite forces, and Governor Farrah Al Bahsani

He returned from 20 years of exile in Saudi Arabia and Egypt to help lead the locally recruited forces in their push back against AQAP. Then last year, he took over as governor

The Hadramawt Elite Forces now number 30,000 including several hundred female recruits and are responsible for security in the city, as well as maintaining the fight against the remnants of Al Qaeda in the governorate’s north. Locals are fiercely proud of them

Since moving into the governorship, Mr Al Bahsani has positioned himself as a fierce advocate for his city’s interests, regularly lambasting what he feels is the failure of President Adrabu Mansur Hadi’s government to deliver for his people. In the latest pressure play he last week, he threatened to stop transferring the governorate’s oil revenues if the government failed to deal with a pressing shortage of cash

Though his position outside of the federal government leaves him with little direct influence over the nation’s perilous economic situation, Mr Al Bahsani has had small successes in finding local solutions to what is a national crisis. He encouraged traders to resist the urge to raise food prices, encouraging them to take the hit on losses for the good of Mukalla’s people. He is also pushing an ambitious $130 million plan to expand Mukalla port

The city’s port became a cash cow for AQAP during their year in control. They abolished a number of taxes, simplified the bureaucratic procedure for importing goods, and abandoned safety regulations preventing old, unsafe ships from docking. One former employee estimates there was a 50 per cent increase in traffic. It became the cheapest means of importing into Yemen, and traders from all over the country would brave the journey in militant-held territory to bring their goods in through it

Despite the horrors, Mukalla’s tale of life under Al Qaeda is one of determination. Civil society continued to function, Hadramawt University refused to bow to demands to segregate classes and local businessmen pitched in to pay government salaries when they failed to arrive. Put simply, Mukalla pulled together

Mohammed Al Bosaery runs one of the country’s largest money exchange business and says he stepped in to pay one billion rials worth of government salaries

“To keep the society alive,” he tells The National of why he did so

As the university’s vice-chancellor Dr Abdullah Babaer says: “We can lose financial aid, we can be hurt psychologically. The greatest loss would be if we lost our own ethics, our own values, our own traditions”

It is a message the city governor echoes, alongside an appeal for what follows life under Al Qaeda’s Arabian affiliate

“The people of Hadramawt have proved themselves, says Mr Al Bahsani. “Now we are asking the world to help us rebuild”

For many in this corner of Yemen, a plunging currency is the latest hardship. Even small falls in the local currency’s value have the effect of pushing up the prices of basic foodstuffs

A dependence on food imports – perhaps as much as 90 per cent before the war began – has left Yemen particularly susceptible.

The UN says that more than eight million people are suffering the effects of severe food insecurity and are at risk of starvation

The prosperity many assumed would come with forcing out the militants has yet to arrive

But for grieving fathers such as Mr Omar his son’s sacrifice is part of the Mukalla’s resilience

“We will do whatever it takes to keep the city secure, even if our sons have been killed we will never allow Al Qaeda to come back”

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