Sanaa, Yemen — There’s not a soul walking on this stretch of Amman Street, one of the many front lines in this besieged capital. Shops are shuttered with large padlocks. Like totems, abandoned apartment buildings, scarred by mortar rounds and artillery shells, bear witness to the gloom. Every few moments, heavy gunfire shatters the silence.
Mohammed Shansadine, a government soldier huddled with his comrades next to an olive green armored personnel carrier, knows his enemies well. They are defected members of his military. Some are from his village, men he knew as boys. “It is brother against brother, Muslim against Muslim,” said Shansadine, 24, lean and muscular with a wispy beard. “We have never been this divided.”
A constellation of competing warriors, checkpoints, tanks, berms and trenches has deeply riven this ancient Middle Eastern capital, physically, psychologically and socially, unlike at any other moment in its modern history.
In some areas of Sanaa, a sprawling metropolis that thrived before the dawn of Islam, rival militaries or tribal militias control entire neighborhoods. Elsewhere, power changes hands street by street. No single faction controls enough territory to impose its will on its foes. But all have the firepower to stop any political deal unfavorable to their interests, seesawing the capital between chaos and calm.
The precarious military stalemate helps explain why Yemen, with its abundance of weapons, tribes and poverty, has yet to plunge into outright civil war. But that possibility still exists as more violent confrontations seem inevitable. Cease-fire deals are signed, then broken. In bursts, death grips the capital: Unarmed protesters get shot and clashes erupt, deepening the ruptures. On Thursday, gunmen again opened fire on anti-government demonstrators here, leaving a 13-year-old boy dead and at least a dozen people wounded.
Ten months into Yemen’s populist revolt, Sanaa’s complex partition is the most visible sign of a parallel struggle for power, tribal authority and political survival unfolding among its ruling elites, even as the lives of ordinary Yemenis deteriorate with each day.
“The situation is dark,” said Ali Abdu al-Tinni, 78, a frail retired government worker in the enclave of Hassabah who sleeps on his floor because of the shells and bullets that pound his street almost nightly. “We are living a life of fear.”
Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s abrupt return from Saudi Arabia on Sept. 23 after a nearly four-month absence has hardened the stances of all the warring sides. Saleh, who was treated in Riyadh for injuries sustained in a June assassination attempt, appears more confident, refusing to cede power except on his own terms. Across the capital, his loyalists have become as emboldened. His opponents are ratcheting up their tactics, their mistrust of Saleh deeper than at any previous moment in his 33-year rule.
“There may not be civil war. But tensions will escalate,” said Ali Saeed Ali-Ramisi, 41, an accountant, from his hospital bed after he survived a sniper’s bullet during a recent protest. “Ali Abdullah Saleh is not going to give up power on his own. And we’re not going to let go either.”
From allies to enemies
Seven years ago, Shansadine left his village in southern Ibb province and joined the Central Security Forces, commanded by the president’s nephew. Other villagers were under Maj. Gen. Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar, then the president’s key ally.
After pro-government snipers killed more than 50 unarmed protesters on March 18, Mohsen defected and joined the uprising. And Shansadine was soon battling men he considered his brothers. “They have been brainwashed,” he said of the villagers in the 1st Armored Division, Mohsen’s force.
Today, the revolt has entered a more perilous period. Protesters are increasingly marching into government areas of the capital, protected by Mohsen’s soldiers. Government troops have used that as a pretext to open fire into the crowds.
Shansadine, like most Saleh loyalists, claims that the 1st Armored Division is behind the attacks on protesters, hoping that they will generate international pressure for regime change. “It is all planned from inside Change Square,” he contended, referring to the encampment near Sanaa University where the activists have staged a massive sit-in since March.
Kentucky Square, an intersection where a restaurant resembling a KFC once stood, was two blocks from where Shansadine was standing. It’s now one of the city’s primary front lines. Government forces killed dozens of protesters there in September, triggering fierce clashes with Mohsen’s forces. As Shansadine spoke, a mortar round landed nearby.
“If they continue to attack us, we’re going to move forward,” he warned.