At first glance the city of Jaar, in Abyan Governorate near the Gulf of Aden, resembles many Yemeni towns struggling to rebuild after a year of nationwide protests shackled the central government’s ability to provide basic services.
Donkey carts line litter-strewn streets, and feral cats and dogs tiptoe past bullet-pocked storefronts and vacant buildings. Gaunt, bearded men drink tea and chew khat while shouting to each other across the street. In many respects, however, the remote settlement is different.
Controlled by a militant group called Ansar Al Sharia (Partisans of Islamic Law), the city is patrolled by armed militants in army trucks pillaged from the Yemeni military weeks earlier. The group’s black-and-white flag - a symbol of stability, according to Ansar al Sharia - flies at each entrance to the city, flapping behind Kalashnikov-toting soldiers riding motorcycles.
In a rare visit to Jaar on 5 March - the day after Ansar Al Sharia soldiers stormed a Yemeni military base outside Zinjibar killing more than 150 Yemeni soldiers and capturing 73 more - IRIN met civilians living under the expanding jihadist government.
Yemeni authorities believe the group is linked to Al Qaeda. Some local residents of Jaar said life under Ansar al Sharia was stable. One passer-by, when asked by a jihadist official what he thought of the “new [militant] government”, said it was “peaceful” and “nice”.
Other locals say Ansar al Sharia provided them with reliable services, including electricity, food, water and even health care, which they would not otherwise be able to find. IRIN could not verify the claims, however, due to tight monitoring and restricted access by the militants. In one instance, the group refused to grant entry into the town hospital, one wing of which had been destroyed in an alleged missile attack prior to IRIN’s visit.
While speaking to merchants in Jaar’s central market, a toothless old man with a long red-dyed beard lashed out at the attacks against the militants, asking repeatedly: “Why drones? Why American drones?” But others interviewed said Ansar al Sharia was merely using Jaar’s impoverished people, who are clinging to any form of stability amidst escalating conflict and instability, as a stepping stone to accomplish unclear political objectives.
Recent fighting between government forces and the militants has forced thousands of families to abandon their homes in Abyan Governorate, despite claims by the Islamist group that it is bringing order and security to a lawless region.
According to the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) more than 150,000 people have been displaced from Abyan since May 2011. Thousands of people remain in the Jaar area, but others have fled, citing worsening conditions. At the start of March, at least 1,800 people were displaced from Jaar in two weeks of fighting between government troops and militants.
When asked what caused her to flee Jaar, a middle-aged woman taking shelter in an unfinished building on the outskirts of Aden, Yemen’s second city to the west of Abyan, mimicked a soldier firing a rifle and made exploding sounds, in reference to the violent confrontations between military forces and Ansar al Sharia.
Abdelqadir, a former soldier who declined to give his last name, fled Jaar with his entire family last May when air strikes intensified following Ansar al Sharia’s takeover of neighboring Zinjibar, the capital of Abyan Province. Sitting in the courtyard of a tattered schoolhouse-turned-shelter in Aden, he explained that conditions in his camp had not improved since they left Jaar.
“We hope the president improves things,” he said, describing their situation in Aden since last month when Vice-President Abdul Rab Mansour al Hadi took charge of the country. But some observers see the current crisis as a by-product of the missile-heavy military approach to tackling militants.
According to Gregory Johnsen, a Yemen expert at Princeton University, the Yemeni military “appears unable to defeat Al-Qaeda on its own, which means that the US is once again relying on air and drone strikes. This is apparently in the hope that these attacks will keep Al-Qaeda on the run to the point that the organization won't be able to launch any attacks on the US.”
The US and Yemen military are known to have carried out at least 15 air strikes in Yemen since early May 2011, when Al-Qaeda seized Zinjibar, about 30km south of Jaar and 50km west of Aden. Five of those strikes have taken place in 2012, four of them in the last week. “I think such an approach actually does more to exacerbate the problem of Al-Qaeda in Yemen than it does to solve it,” said Johnsen.
Tough for women
Among the displaced, the situation is particularly bad for women. “I’m against them, but they were safe,” said Rafiqa Hassan Ahmed Salih, referring to Ansar al Sharia. She was displaced from her home and lives in Jaar, which was the first of five southern towns Ansar al Sharia seized during last year’s uprisings against former President Ali Abdullah Saleh.
Salih said she and others fled fierce clashes between Ansar Al Sharia and the Yemeni military, which included relentless aerial bombardments of Jaar and its environs. Since arriving in Jaar, however, they had found that the situation for women was tough. For example, a woman found in the company of a man other than her family or husband, or wearing a tight `abaya’ gown, faced violent punishment.
Selim Bin Amar, one of the displaced people from Jaar now living in an Aden schoolhouse, when asked if he would return to a town governed by Ansar Al Sharia, said: “If there was security and stability, we would return, even to a camp.”
An aid worker who preferred anonymity said some residents of the jihadist stronghold had been subjected to beatings for not attending mosque at prescribed times.
In recent months, several thousand displaced people from Jaar marched to Abyan, where they hoped to reoccupy their homes. However, most were forced to turn back by continuing military operations in the area.