Wandering in Yemen

The Road To Al-Jawf

Last week I went to al-Jawf governorate, which lies a good two hours outside Sana’a to the North-East to visit the father of a ten year old victim of a drone attack (more on that in another post), and managed to scratch off al-Jawf from the list of areas I hadn’t been to in the process.

Al-Jawf is poor, desperately poor. It is a governorate that is largely devoid of even basic services such as electricity, let alone things like the internet. Its capital, al-Hazm, essentially consists of two roads. We stopped in the town when some of the group wanted to buy qat, I had no idea that it was the provincial capital till someone pointed it out.

The residents of al-Jawf complain about al-dawla, the state. Where is it, they ask? Al-Jawf has agricultural potential, there were lush green farms dotted in certain places. But these were few and far between, and the farms were enclosed by trees on all sides, in an attempt to stop the encroaching desert. Apparently, one year, the government did help locals and money was given to encourage them to grow crops – leading to a bumper harvest. However, that never happened again, and the land quickly reverted back to its dusty state.

Residents of al-Jawf are eagerly anticipating the oil extraction that is likely to begin soon in the governorate. Large oil reserves have been spoken about for a long time in al-Jawf, with many suspecting that the region’s proximity to Saudi Arabia means that Yemen’s larger neighbour has prevented any attempt to extract the oil. Tribesmen also spoke of Saudi involvement in their own inter-tribal wars. Two tribes whose land straddled the Saudi-Yemeni border fought a war for years, at the same time as the final border was being agreed between the Saudi and Yemeni governments. Both tribes were against the final border as it would cross their land, but were too busy fighting each other to give it much attention. Of course, both sides were being regularly supplied with heavy weapons, and of course, you can guess who was supplying them.

Along with poverty, al-Jawf has seen years of fighting between various different ideological groups. The Houthis, Islah affiliated tribes, and AQAP have all fought each other, and evidence of this fighting still exists. One example: a girls school that had been taken over by the Houthis and used as a base was later hit by an AQAP suicide bomber. Houthis banners still adorn the semi-destroyed building, and who knows where the girls are being educated, if at all.

A legacy of the fighting is the checkpoints that you pass through in al-Jawf itself. There are the typical government ones, with lopsided barrel, haphazard speed-bump, and soldier chewing qat. But there are also Islahi tribal checkpoints, and, more prominently, Houthi checkpoints. The Houthi checkpoints really surprised me. They were organised, freshly painted and with nice brickwork. A big picture of their slain leader, Hussein al-Houthi appeared on one side of the road, and their slogan on the other. They even had a sign apologising for the inconvenience, explaining that the checkpoint was for the citizens’ protection. If I didn’t know better, I’d assume they were the state in these parts.

Finally, the weak nature of the state wasn’t just visible in al-Jawf, but also in Sana’a governorate itself. In Nehm, armed gunmen had stopped dozens of oil tankers, along with some other trucks, and were preventing them from entering Sana’a, precipitating a slight fuel shortage that followed in the days ahead. A banner explained that the tribesmen were doing it because of some problem they had with the government over money, but as ever, with Yemen, there’s probably more than meets the eye.

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