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Yemeni Villagers Protest Dictator Sheik

  • Heather Murdock

In Yemen, the government controls the cities, sheiks control the countryside, and everybody it seems is connected to everybody. For a month, about 300 people have been camping in the capital city, protesting what they say are human-rights abuses from a powerful sheik who rules their district.

This is a situation that could be, but is not, from the Middle Ages; about a powerful sheik who rules with an iron fist and his subjects who escaped the countryside to seek help in the city.

Outside the tent where she, and almost 300 other villagers have set up an ongoing protest in Sana'a, Hena Yahia Noman reads a poem. "Humiliation, humiliation, humiliation," she says, "This is our song, Oh Yemen."

Villagers say Sheik Mohammad Ahmed Mansour, the president's poet laureate, the father of a member of parliament, and a former parliament member, is in charge of the area where they live, not the government.

Mansour did not respond to a request for an interview.

At the Sana'a protest, villagers say his laws and personal taxes are enforced by a militia of about 1,500 troops, and dissidents are thrown into the sheik's prison. Children say when their parents refused to hand over the deeds to their lands, they were snatched by soldiers as they returned home from school and were chained in the cold prison for days.

Nagib Hassan pulls up his shirt inside a protester's tent to show a dark blotch of dried blood from a recent stab wound. He says the sheik's men followed the villagers to Sana'a and attacked them when the families staged a protest outside the parliament building.

A leading member of the ruling party, parliament member Abdulaziz Gubari, says legislators saw the attacks but did nothing.

He says many parliament members and government leaders are also the same sheiks who rule most of the countryside. Stopping the attacks, according Gubari, would undermine much of the leaders' authority.

Last year, a government committee went to investigate complaints against Mansour. Gubari says the committee was turned back, and threatened by Mansour's soldiers.

The head of Seyaj, a Yemeni human-rights organization, Ahmed al-Gorashi, says the local government is also responsible for the abuse. He says the governor knows what is going on, but cannot, or will not, stop the atrocities.

Al-Goreshi says Mansour should be arrested and tried in court, but at the moment, this sheik appears to be stronger than the local government. And sheiks in general appear to be stronger than the central government.

Villagers agree with al-Goreshi, saying Mansour's connection to the president makes them pawns in a national political chess game. According to villagers, their area has been nicknamed "The Golden District" because 100 percent of the people, including children and dead people, vote for the ruling party.

But some city dwellers in Sana'a say either the abuse or the protest is an act, staged by the opposition party in an effort to gather their votes in sympathy.

But in the dank tents, villagers say they really do not care who they vote for. They say their homes have been destroyed, their crops have been stolen, and women and children have been harassed and imprisoned.

Hana says the sheik imposes unbearable taxes and demands that villagers hand over legal claims to their farms. In the future, she wants the government of Yemen to rule her area. But for now, she just wants it to stop the violence and end the humiliation.