A visit to the area bombed with 15 cruise missiles and two cluster bombs
Special to National Yemen
When South Yemen was the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen (PDRY) from 1967 to 1990, the area lived under the rule of the Yemeni Socialist Party, and hard-line Islamic Jihadist groups did not exist in this part of the country.
The socialist regime reined in the country after independence from the British Crown in 1967. However, after the Yemeni unity between both Northern and Southern parts of the country on May 22, 1990, many radical religious groups returned to the south of Yemen, and most of them had been in Afghanistan and came to be called ‘the Arab Afghans.’
Also, the Southerners among them were hostile to the former Marxist regime in South Yemen, and they accuse it of abusing clergymen in the South before the unity. Perhaps that hostility was the primary motivation for the alliance of these forces with the northern part for unity during the political crisis in 1993, and their participation in the war of summer of 1994 against the forces of the Yemeni Socialist Party, which was defeated in the war.
There were a lot of prominent names in this field, such as Sheikh Tareq Al-Fadhli, Jamal Al-Nahdi, Khalid Abdul Nabi and other ‘Jihadist’ personalites from South Yemen. But, with the passage of time new figures appeared and joined, not only the jihadist groups, but also Al-Qaeda itself. Among these is the hardliner American of Yemeni origin, Anwar Al-Awlaqi, as well as his fellow Fahd Al-Qasa’ Al-Awlaqi, and others.
In the last few years and with the growing ‘southern movement’, which calls for what it calls ‘disengagement’ or separation from the North, Yemeni authorities began to accuse the southern movement of coordination with al-Qaeda, and the official media began to point fingers to the so-called ‘the Al-Qaeda southern movement,’ accusing it of being behind a number of security incidents taking place in some southern areas.
But, before the recent security developments in southern Yemen, a number of major terrorist incidents took place in Yemen, such as bombing of the USS Cole in October 2000 in the port of Aden. Two years later the French oil tanker ‘Lindburg’ was targeted near Al-Dhabba port in the province of Hadramout, along with other terrorist incidents that the al-Qaida organization carried out.
During the last few months, the Yemeni security forces have fought in violent clashes against Al-Qaeda elements in the provinces of Abyan and Shabwa, and perhaps the most notable are the confrontations in Lawder city in Abyan and al-Houta in Shabwa.
These continued events made South Yemen a scene for the activity and movement of al-Qaeda in this region across wide geographic area, most of which is characterized by very rugged geographical terrain.
The new developments have created a new rhythm in the war on terrorism in Yemen, where warplanes were used to carry out a series of air strikes against the positions of al-Qaeda.
One of these positions lies in the region of Rafadh in the Directorate of Al-Arem, Shabwa. The following account is the first visit by a media organization to the ruins of the bombing, after a whole year since it was bombarded on 24 December, 2009.
Rafadh is located to the north of Al-Arem city that is located on the Aden-Shabwa road, but to which access is very difficult. It is mountainous with unpaved roads, and above all, it is remote and far from population centers.
The most prominent thing a visitor can notice is that there is no official presence of the State or the Government of Yemen with the exception of a single public school, whose story will be discussed later.
Rafadh is one of the areas inhabited by al-Awaleq tribes of Shabwa. The al-Awaleq tribe is divided into two parts: higher Awaleq and lower Awaleq. To the higher Awaleq belong Fahd Al-Qasa’ and Anwar Al-Awlaqi, both wanted by the U.S.A. and the Yemeni authorities for the time being.
When you pass the main road that connects Aden-Abyan-Shabwa-Hadramout-Al-Mahara in the south, and you stop in some cities and areas on the main road, you’ll find a presence of the state, although in some relatively small military checkpoints. However, when you leave the road to the countryside, you’ll only find high mountains, canyons, misery and difficulty life for the inhabitants of those Bedouin areas.
In this region are a lot of important figures and influential personalities in Shabwa, including Sheikh Ali Abdullah Abdul Salam, known as Al-Mullah Zabarah, a member of the local municipal council and one who had kidnapped foreigners in order to meet demands for raising the level of services and improving infrastructure in their region.
Rafadh, whose name is derived from the word for ‘rejection; non-acceptance’ can be described as outside modern history and geography, especially for the concerns of government.
The region is rugged and its inhabitants live a hard life. The region has unpaved roads, with no electricity, water or education projects. Most people there live a semi-primitive life with wild beasts and reptiles, with the exception of some dignitaries’ attempts to provide some elements of modern life for their families.
For example, Sheikh Lahmar Lasud, has assigned a car to transport his children, nephews and cousins from the region of al-Naqabah, near Ataq city, the capital of the province. The students’ trip every day takes nearly two hours to al-Naqabah (one hour on the rough, unpaved road and one hour on the asphalt road, while most of the region’s children cannot even attend school.
There is only one school in this region, which is closed because it has no teachers. This school was used by elements of Al-Qaeda organization there to teach the Koran and religious sciences to children before they left the school after the bombing we referred to previously.
The school was closed. Following the same air bombardment, most of the villagers left their homes, some of which consist of several floors, and moved to isolated camps and communities in valleys.
Every family member gets together in one camp at a distance from the other. The residents al-Mullah Zabarah says that the region does receive any official attention, and that teachers and services, including electricity, water, roads, etc., do not reach the region. “However, only the elections’ ballot box reaches the region.”
Zabarah saidthat the region was hit by U.S. Cruise missiles and cluster bombs, because an area believed to be al-Qaeda’s military training camp was targeted. The Yemeni authorities claim that the Yemeni planes carried out an air strike on the farm of Fahd Al-Qasa’, an Al-Qaeda leader and the world’s third wanted man for terrorism after Osama Bin Laden and Ayman Al-Zawahiri.
But residents and American sources said that the U.S. Air force performed the strike. In one of the regions of Shabwa last Tuesday, “al-Sharq al-Awsat” newspaper held an interview with Fahd Al-Qasa, after a visit to Rafadh.
A visitor to the Al-Qasa’ farm and other sites that had been bombarded will find ruins and debris of the air strikes with missiles and bombs, which the citizens say were cluster bombs.
The generator that pulls up water from the well on the farm was destroyed, as well as the house which was used by Al-Qaeda elements as a store for food and supplies. It is clear from places that were targeted by the bombing that these elements were distributed to groups in the mountains so as not to be targeted collectively.
There the visitor can see the effects of the bombing apparent on the stones, burned trees, destroyed houses and remains of some of the blankets used by the wanted elements of Al-Qaeda. It was learned from the residents of the region that the air strike left 5 militants dead, including an Algerian citizen.
Near the tents of his family, Al-Mullah Zabarah keeps a number of pieces of rockets and bombs that hit the region. The man makes use of the metal plates to cover some parts of one of the tents. He affirmed that the region was bombarded with 15 cruise missiles and two cluster bombs.
When you take a tour in the long and dry valley, which divides Rafadh into two parts, you will see some yellow balloons, which are said to be part of the cluster bombs, among trees.
He also emphasizes that the missiles were launched from the US warships in international waters and that the US aircrafts dropped the bombs. Of course, he criticizes the authority for not paying a visit to the region after the bombing and cleaning it of bombs.
He says that because the citizens’ knowledge of the risk of these balloons, they blew them up by fire from machine guns.
The issue of the U.S. forces carrying out strikes in Yemen remains one of a subject of controversy and dispute, until the truth is out.
The people of the region demand that the Yemeni government and the International Red Cross pay a field visit and assuage their suffering brought about by the displacement from their homes, which were destroyed in the bombardment or damaged, or may even be exposed to another bombing.