In southern Yemen, government forces backed by U.S. advisers claim they are routing al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula and allied groups from territory that the militants had controlled over the past year.
This is the same al-Qaida that has tried to send so-called underwear bombers to attack U.S.-bound planes.
Just outside of Zinjibar, it’s clear that fierce battles went on here. It’s deserted. There are no people, but there are an enormous number of bullet holes and shrapnel holes in the buildings.
Up until three days ago, it was impossible to pass through here. The roads and the towns they lead to were controlled by al-Qaida-linked militants who go by the name Ansar al-Sharia. They took the area more than a year ago.
They imposed strict Islamic law. Legend here tells it that militants amputated the hands of thieves.
Now, the government claims to have defeated the militants. In an online statement, the militants say they merely staged a tactical retreat.
Either way, the black banner of Ansar al-Sharia is in tatters, barely hanging on to its frame. The army is now stationed at the provincial headquarters on the outskirts, and the rest of the town is deserted.
There’s just rubble everywhere, and doors are completely shut, blocked by piles of trash and concrete blocks.
The town mosque was hit by what residents say was a U.S. airstrike. The militants’ graffitied the mosque before they left town. One phrase reads: “This is democracy, even God’s mosques are damaged!”
Dreaming Of Home
A few blocks away, there are a couple of families that have made their way back.
Salem Faraj, his wife and four of his five children took a bus from the nearby city of Aden, where tens of thousands of people fled after the militants took Zinjibar. It’s the first time the family has been home in eight months.
The mother says they made the trip back for their children. “The just wanted to see their house,” she says.
The family says they’ll be gone by nighttime, back to a school where they live as refugees in Aden. They say they just want life to go back to normal in Zinjibar, before the militants came.
‘They’ll Be Back’
It all seems like the simple story: The bad guys were here, now they’re gone.
But in Jaar, the next town over, it’s more complicated. While Zinjibar was where militants made their last stand, Jaar is where the militants made a home.
There’s video evidence that at some point the militants captured a man who they believed was a spy. They crucified him and left him out for public viewing for three days in the town’s soccer stadium.
The al-Qaida signs and graffiti are still all around this town, unlike in Zinjibar, where everything has been taken down. It’s almost as though it would be ready for them at any time if they wanted to come back.
Militants might have left Zinjibar, but not all of them have left Jaar. What’s more, the people of Jaar haven’t left either. Many of them still sympathize with al-Qaida and Ansar al-Sharia.
This is the problem for the Yemeni government. It’s one thing to force militants into retreat — it’s another thing to administer a poor and neglected province such as this one. People here say the militants provided order and security, something the government hasn’t done for years.
“The militants might be gone now,” one man in Jaar says, “but I guarantee you, they’ll be back.”