Yemen on the brink of hell

The New York Times reports:

On May 29, a young woman named Bushra al- Maqtari joined a group of several thousand protesters marching down a trash-strewn boulevard in the Yemeni city of Taiz. The Arab world’s democratic uprising was five months old, and patience among the protesters in Taiz — Yemen’s second largest city — was wearing thin. Maqtari had been one of the first and most fearless leaders of the movement. She is a remarkable figure: a 31-year-old university administrator and fiction writer, she is also a childless divorcee who refused, until recently, to wear the abaya, the all-covering gown that is practically mandatory for women in Yemen. Tiny and frail, she has a round, lovely face, with level brows and tranquil brown eyes.

On that afternoon, Maqtari was standing in a crowd gathered around the city’s General Security building — an imposing six-story edifice flanked by guards — when she heard cracking sounds. She looked up and saw that the officers on the building’s roof were not just throwing rocks, as they had in the past. They were firing straight down into the crowd below. Within minutes, at least four people were dead and about 60 were wounded. Maqtari began running back toward “Freedom Square,” the intersection where thousands of protesters had been camped out for months demanding the resignation of Ali Abdullah Saleh, Yemen’s strongman president. Then the real assault began. Armored vehicles, tanks and bulldozers began converging on the protesters’ tent city from all sides. They fired tear gas and water cannons into the square and began shooting protesters at point-blank range. They doused the tents, which extended for hundreds of yards in every direction, with gasoline and lighted them on fire. None of the protesters had weapons. “People were dying all around us, and there was nothing we could do,” Maqtari told me. Some were burned alive. At around 11 p.m., Maqtari fled to her sister’s house, about 200 yards uphill from the square. There, she and other protesters watched as flames engulfed the entire square, raging for several hours. Officers stormed through the local hospital and several field clinics where protesters were being treated, firing tear gas down the corridors, shooting up the ceilings and arresting doctors and nurses. Some thrust their gun butts into patients’ wounds. Others were laughing hysterically, as if they were on drugs, Maqtari and others told me, and shouting into the darkness, “Ali is your god!” The next morning, amid the charred remains of the tents, someone had scrawled a sardonic reversal of the protesters’ chants on a wall. “The regime wants the fall of the people,” it said.

The massacre in Taiz received little attention in the West, blending in with the larger chaos and violence enveloping the Arab world. In Syria, tanks were rolling through the streets of several cities, as months of protest evolved into a bloody national insurrection. In Libya, the civil war was festering into a grim status quo, with NATO airstrikes unable to dislodge Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi from his Tripoli stronghold. Even Egypt and Tunisia seemed endangered, with fresh violence breaking out and their economies in tatters.

Yet the events in Taiz took on a tragic dimension that went beyond the numbers of dead and wounded. Taiz is Yemen’s least tribal city, home to the highest number of educated people, professionals and traders. The city was “the heart of the revolution,” in one popular refrain, and its protesters were less politicized and more rigorously nonviolent than elsewhere in Yemen. The attack on May 29, with its deliberate cruelty and excess, confirmed what many Yemenis feared: that Saleh sees the democratic uprising as a greater threat to his power than Al Qaeda.

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