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As Yemen slides further into the hell of war, one town is thriving like never before

- marib reuters 0 - As Yemen slides further into the hell of war, one town is thriving like never before


“Everybody knows us. No one shoots the khat driver,” said 33-year-old Bashir Samedi. 

In Yemen’s vicious civil war, many of the front lines over which Houthi rebels and tribal forces loyal to the government face off are now at stalemate. There is hardly any movement between the two sides – except, that is, for Yemenis’ beloved national pastime: khat. 

Truckloads of the plant move faster and more easily than anything else in the country – people, food, weapons, aid. 

Khat, the leaves of which are chewed for an intense caffeine-like high, is one of the most economically viable crops for Yemen’s farmers, and a major reason why almost 90 per cent of the country’s food is imported.

It has also made Mr Samedi and his business partner, 31-year-old Madhi Ali Ahmed, two of the wealthiest men in Marib province.

Marib itself has also seen its fortunes change for the better since Yemen slid into a full scale civil war almost three years ago.  

Khat dealers Madhi Ali Ahmed (L) and Bashir Samedi are two of the wealthiest men in Marib province (Bethan McKernan)

“I used to have a mechanics shop in Hodeida,” Mr Samedi said.

“I started trading khat when the war broke out and I moved here. I never had an education or a chance to do anything else with my life. So why not?” 

Six years ago, Marib province was given the dubious honour of “al Qaeda capital” of the country.

Extremists and rival tribes fought for control of the desert, often destroying civilian infrastructure or cutting off power and water supplies to their enemies. 

Yet Marib’s star has risen in the civil war, even as the rest of the country descends into death and destruction.

At least 10,000 dead in fighting; a famine which looms over 7.3 million people; more than 19 million completely reliant on aid to survive. Yemen’s population suffers in silence behind the Saudi blockades which stop journalists, food and medicine getting in – and people from getting out.

It is the financial and military backing of Riyadh and Tehran, the proxy powers fuelling the war, which has brought the country to its knees. 

Saudi Arabia’s powerful defence minister (and newly crowned heir to the throne) Mohammed bin Salman dragged his country into the conflict when he was just 29. It is an open secret that the Kingdom would like to extricate itself from the costly war next door if it can.

  ‘There is a great community of women here. We all want to help build Yemen’s future’, one student said (Sanaa Centre)

Despite the fact several Western nations have called for an end to the fighting, there appears to be little international will power directed at a real political solution for Yemen.

Many governments, including the UK, have sold billions in weapons export licenses to the Gulf since the Saudi-led Arab coalition began bombing the Houthi-controlled capital of Sanaa in March 2015. 

Marib province is far from safe in the usual sense of the word. US drone strikes and raids across the province have killed several civilians and during The Independent’s visit, a Houthi rocket hit the outskirts of the town. 

Yet the town is a relative oasis of calm and stability compared to even the de facto government capital, Aden.

Marib’s university has grown from 1,400 students before the war to 5,000 (Sanaa Centre)

Its population has swelled from around 40,000 people to an estimated two million; the centre’s traditional Yemeni architecture, mud brick and stone houses reminiscent of iced gingerbread houses, has been eclipsed by new cinder block developments for housing new arrivals.

One street – full of gun shops before the war, too – has never seen better business. 

A football stadium is being built with astroturf brought from Germany and Google Maps – rather optimistically – has already labelled Marib Airport.

Foods such as hamburgers are now being served in some restaurants. There’s even a Baskin Robbins ice cream parlour.

With the huge influx of newcomers, the gulf between the rich and the poor has grown more obvious. Middle class young women from Sanaa, Taiz and Ebb sit in university classes, while on the edge of town, destitute internally displaced people are camped out on a construction site which will eventually become the university’s second campus. 

For locals, the war has brought change both good and bad. Rents for most families have tripled, but their daughters now have a bus route to help them get to school and university safely. 

Marib General Hospital is a beacon for those in need in Yemen

“I’ve made so many friends from all over the country,” said 20-year-old Sameh Abdan, a first year student. “There is a great community of women here. We all want to help build Yemen’s future.”

As well as its oil and gas reserves, Marib can thank one man for reversing its fortunes: Governor Sultan al Ardah, who tells the group of foreign journalists he has invited to his town that “necessity is the mother of invention”. 

Since becoming governor in 2012, the politically astute and well connected tribal leader has managed to push both al-Qaeda and Houthi rebels away from the city – with the help of Saudi Arabia and the rest of the Arab coalition’s air power.  

“People just want to live in peace,” Mr Ardah said. “Unfortunately, we have reached a political deadlock.”

As long as the deadlock lasts, however, Mr Ardah is possibly the most powerful man on the ground – a position he maintains despite the fact his brother is currently on the US’ terrorist blacklist for financing al Qaeda (when asked, Mr Ardah dismissed the allegations as “fake sources, fake news”.)

Marib appears to have laid down the civil structures and vision for the future it may need to weather future violence. But it’s impossible to gauge exactly how safe the area is on such a short visit – or to predict future developments in Yemen’s brutal war.

At a gathering of more than 40 local sheiks and political figures, Ahmed al Shulaif, the head of the anti-Houthi resistance in Marib’s Serwah district, smiles when asked if the war has been profitable for his tribe and for Marib. He looks down to adjust his belt, which which holds both a traditional janbiya dagger and a pistol, before answering.

“You know the answer to that question,” he replied. 

Independent

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Middle East

Jalalabad bombing: Explosion at Save The Children offices in Afghan city as gunmen clash with security forces

- 1516778066 breaking - Jalalabad bombing: Explosion at Save The Children offices in Afghan city as gunmen clash with security forces


Attackers set off a car bomb near the office of the Save The Children aid agency in the eastern Afghan city of Jalalabad on Wednesday and then clashed with security forces, a provincial government spokesman said.

“There was a blast and the target was Save The Children,” said the spokesman, Attaullah Khogyani. A clash was going on after the blast, he said.

Khogyani had no word on casualties but the director of the provincial health department said 11 wounded people had been taken to hospital.

There was no immediate claim of responsibility.

There were several other aid groups and government offices in the immediate area, raising the possibility that Save The Children was not the target.

Jalalabad is the capital of Nangarhar province, on the porous border with Pakistan.

The province has become a stronghold for Isis, which has grown to become one of Afghanistan’s most dangerous militant groups since it appeared around the beginning of 2015.

Backed by intensive US air strikes, Afghan forces have claimed growing success against the Taliban and other militant groups, including Isis, but attacks on civilian targets have continued, causing heavy casualties.

The attack in Jalalabad came just days after Taliban militants attacked the Hotel Intercontinental in the capital, Kabul, killing at least 20 people, including 13 foreigners. 

Reuters

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Middle East

Manbij becomes key as US looks to rein in Turkey’s Syrian offensive

- 1516747391 tirkey syria tank - Manbij becomes key as US looks to rein in Turkey’s Syrian offensive


The US is trying to prevent the fighting in Afrin between Turkish forces and Syrian Kurds spreading east into the main Kurdish enclave in Syria where US troops are based. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has threatened to drive the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) fighters not just from Afrin, but from Manbij, a strategic town west of the Euphrates.

“Terrorists in Manbij are constantly firing provocation shots,” said Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu. “If the US does not stop this, we will stop it.”

Some 6,000 Turkish troops backed by 10,000 Free Syrian Army fighters controlled by Turkey are seeking to fight their way into the isolated Kurdish canton of Afrin in northern Syria. Their progress has so far been slow, with thick cloud hindering air strikes in the hilly terrain. The YPG and Turkish-led forces have been fighting for the Bursaya Hill, with the summit, which overlooks the eastern side of Afrin town, changing hands several times.

The US has so far given muted support to its Kurdish allies in Syria, who provided the ground troops for the successful campaign against Isis. The US has supported the YPG during the war against Isis with massive air power, military equipment and some 2,000 specialised US troops.

The US is hoping to keep the present fighting confined to Afrin, which is separate from the bulk of Kurdish territory. There have never been any US military forces in this enclave, though there were Russian observers that have now been withdrawn. But if Turkey attacks Manbij then the US will have to decide if it is going to be seen as betraying its Kurdish ally or risk a military confrontation with its Nato partner Turkey.  

The Kurdish authorities in north-east Syria are calling for a mass mobilisation in defence of Afrin. But they already have large numbers of experienced combat troops previously fighting Isis that they can deploy if they wish. “The Turkish state has been trying to enter north Syria for days, but it will not be able to,” said Siyamund Walat, a YPG general. “We have forces in Afrin, thousands… they are protecting the border and the people. If necessary all the soldiers will go to Afrin.”

It may be in the interests of the Syrian Kurds to prolong the fighting in Afrin so international diplomatic pressure increases on Turkey to end Operation Olive Branch, as it calls its campaign. On the other hand, Afrin is cut off from the rest of the Kurdish-held area and the one supply road to the south is held by the Syrian Army. Syrian soldiers have been refusing to allow refugees from Afrin through their checkpoints to reach Kurdish areas in Aleppo city 25 miles away.

Explosions as Turkey confirms airstrikes on Afrin, Syria

The Turkish campaign only became possible when Russia agreed not to oppose it and, above all, allowed Turkish jets to operate in Syrian airspace. This is under Russian control west of the Euphrates. The long-contemplated Turkish assault was finally provoked by the US announcement last week that its forces would be staying in Syrian Kurdish territory for the foreseeable future. This de facto guarantee of the Kurdish statelet, directed against the Syrian government and Iran by the US, radically changed the strategic balance in Syria. The US had assured the Turks since the end of 2014 that its military cooperation with the YPG was purely tactical, directed against Isis and would end when Isis was defeated.

Mr Erdogan is taking advantage of a wave of patriotic support in Turkey for the Afrin operation to arrest dozens of politicians, journalists and activists who are accused of criticising the offensive. Many of those arrested, often for critical media posts, belong to the pro-Kurdish HDP party. “Journalists are having their doors rammed down without anybody knocking,” said HDP spokesman Ayhan Bilgen. “People are [becoming] afraid of keyboards, pens, words and writing”

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Middle East

Syrian Kurds Refuse to Participate in Sochi Talks

- acdbaa5482f0c834200ff60cc8e9a0ad L - Syrian Kurds Refuse to Participate in Sochi Talks


ERBIL — Syrian Kurds will under no circumstances attend the Syrian National dialogue Congress in Sochi, said Aldar Khalil, the co-chairperson of the Democratic Society Movement (TEV-DEM).

Khalil said in an interview with Reuters that on one hand Russia consented Turkey’s attack on Afrin and on the other hand also invited the Syrian Kurds to participate in Sochi. 

“It is  contradictory,” he said, arguing that in such a situation, taking part in a Russian-brokered talk is of no significance.

He pointed out that the Kurdish participation in the congress is a weak possibility.

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