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Thursday, January 14, 1999 Published at 14:37 GMT


Yemen: Arabia's 'Wild West'

Sanaa, Yemen's capital city, offers breathtaking views

By Jonathan Fryer

The road from Yemen's mountain capital Sanaa down to the town of Ma'rib offers vistas of breath-taking beauty. For those with a taste for exotic travel, there's a magnificent sense of wildness. And that extends to the people. This is a part of the world that globalisation hasn't reached.

Most Yemeni men still wear with pride traditional curved daggers, which are held at their waist by richly-decorated belts. But in the Ma'rib region - as in several other parts of this tribal country - they sport a Kalashnikov as well.


[ image: Yemeni tribesmen sport Kalashnikovs as well as the traditional dagger]
Yemeni tribesmen sport Kalashnikovs as well as the traditional dagger
Indeed, there are said to be three or four times as many guns in Yemen as there are people. "Purely ceremonial," my local guide informed me reassuringly. "Besides, in many cases, they can't get hold of ammunition."

A land of inconsistencies

There was a certain inconsistency between that remark and his observation earlier that unfortunately some of the local historic monuments are pockmarked with bullet holes, as weekend picnickers tend to do a bit of shooting practice.

Weddings provoke a barrage of explosive joy. But then Yemen is a land of inconsistencies: a society that in many ways remains medieval, despite being thrust into the modern age when it opened up in the 1960s.

The people couldn't be nicer, more hospitable, and more trustworthy - unless you get on the wrong side of them. Or unless they kidnap you.

Effective blackmail


[ image: Yemeni terrorists: Kidnapping was almost a national sport]
Yemeni terrorists: Kidnapping was almost a national sport
Until the tragic events of 29 December, kidnapping had been something of a national sport, at least among disaffected villagers who felt the government wasn't giving them a fair share of the cake.

Grab a few foreign tourists and ransom them for a new school or a tarmacked road; quite an effective form of blackmail. And until recently, the kidnappers usually treated their hostages well. Some of the "victims" later said they'd had a marvellous time.

The hostage controversy

But not the group that was seized just after Christmas - this time by Islamic militants, who had more than schools and roads on their minds. And this time the authorities didn't just meekly pay up. The army stormed in, with consequences that are likely to be the subject of controversy for months to come.

So, inevitably, hostages were on my mind as I drove down to Ma'rib - not just the group whose plight had hit the headlines, but also four Germans who'd been seized at the beginning of December, and who were being held near Ma'rib. In fact, they were released unharmed that very day, in a little-reported response to the showdown between the Yemeni army and the militants.

Perhaps that was why the armed escort that was meant to accompany my land cruiser down to Ma'rib, in convoy with others, didn't show up. We all stood around in the sun for a while, then the guide shrugged his shoulders and we moved off.

The drive to Ma'rib


[ image: Concern grows when the army steps in]
Concern grows when the army steps in
My driver - who couldn't have been very comfortable with both a dagger and a pistol stuck in his belt - was determined to make up for lost time. He hurtled round the hairpin bends, a tape of frantic local music drowning out any possibility of conversation, let alone complaint.

Ma'rib is famous for a number of pre-Islamic temples and ancient settlements, as well as what must have been a stupendous dam. Yet some of the sites themselves are sparse and disappointing. "The Bedouin took most of the stones and artefacts away," my guide lamented. "In fact, despite the wire fences, they're still doing it."

The Bedouin, I quickly discovered, are blamed for almost everything that goes wrong in the area - a bit like the gypsies are in parts of Europe. "They've never accepted central government authority," my guide continued. "They make their own laws."

Shooting at a roadblock

One of which, apparently, is that the Bedouin don't stop at roadblocks. There was one just as we drove into Ma'rib. A Bedouin in a pick-up truck shot through in front of us, and out of a sentry-box, a young soldier emerged, seething with rage.

He knelt down at the side of my window, and pointed his Kalashnikov at the rapidly retreating pickup.

"He'll never shoot!" I thought to myself. But he did.



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