Al-Jawf, a neglected governorate of angry citizens [Archives:2008/1148/Reportage]

April 21 2008

Mahmoud Assamiee
Trouble is brewing in Al-Jawf governorate. The region, located in northeastern Yemen with an estimated area of 39,496 square kilometers and nearly half a million residents, lacks basic services such as water and electrical networks, sanitation and paved roads. Likewise, it has no public hospitals or health centers.

Although the region is known for its antiques and was home to the ancient Ma'een civilization that flourished between 4,000 and 1,000 B.C., it's also notorious for its plethora of both under-educated and armed residents.

The society in Al-Jawf is still tribal and citizens carry their arms – mainly Kalashnikovs -along the roads, in the markets and even in government facilities at all times.

A new approach to demands

Al-Jawf residents don't hide their anger regarding the Yemeni government's negligence toward them, demanding it provide them services and projects in the fields of electricity, water, education and paved roads.

Two weeks ago, five journalists representing the Yemen Times, the Yemen Post, Al-Ahali, Al-Nass and Al-Sahwa newspapers went to Al-Jawf to cover the launch of a health center donated by the Japanese government in Al-Hazm district.

After the journalists left the Japanese officials with Al-Jawf's governor and the Yemeni Minister of Telecommunications, a group of armed men stopped the journalists' vehicle on the road back to Sana'a, demanding to know if the group was comprised of government officials. The journalists said no.

However, the armed tribesmen didn't believe them, having seen them traveling with the government vehicle cavalcade. “You're from the government!” they said, “We need projects because our governorate lacks government services. We won't let you out of the governorate without a commitment to carry out projects here!”

One journalist remained in the vehicle while his press colleagues spoke with the armed tribesmen, but when the situation escalated, he implored them to acquiesce, fearing a clash involving gunfire.

“Are you from the government?” one of armed men asked him. “We need an electrical project,” another said, adding, “You won't be able to go without pledging us a project.”

Reiterating that the group wasn't from the government, the armed men left after the group again swore that they weren't affiliated with the government.

Tackling the arms problem is just one hurdle

Ali Khamis, a dignitary and an educated resident of Al-Jawf, talked about the situation in his tribal governorate. “Health services are very bad. For example, if someone has a sick relative, he or she must take that individual to Sana'a due to our lack of hospitals. Likewise, if a woman experiences difficulty in childbirth, her relatives are forced to take her to Sana'a for help. In such cases, some women die while on the road to Sana'a.”

Asked why local residents don't utilize the governorate's vast agricultural area and dig wells to expand its agricultural capability, Khamis replied, “No one dares to dig a well for fear of tribal clashes wherein everyone claims ownership of the land.”

Regarding the widespread phenomenon of carrying arms, Khamis attributes the phenomenon to the lifestyle of tribal peoples. “Residents always carry their arms in order to protect themselves against clashes resulting from the numerous problems between them,” he explained.

Abdulrahman Al-Marwani, head of Dar Al-Salam Organization for solving revenge issues, attributes such revenge killing to several factors such as absence of law, poor economic conditions, tribal issues, the spread of violence, absence of national force and tribal sheikhs who spread problems among the people.

“Wars sometimes erupt between tribes over land and water problems due to their desire to turn to their sheikhs to solve their problems. For their part, sheikhs are working to maximize these problems for their [own] special interests,” Al-Marwani said.

He notes that Dar Al-Salam has settled more than 300 disputes in Al-Jawf and other tribal governorates, explaining that the organization solves such problems by gathering the tribes and coexisting with them by eating and drinking with them, as well as using moderate religious figures to enlighten local residents about the dangers of violence.

Rich in antiquities nd problems

Only 143 kilometers from the capital of Sana'a, with flat agricultural plains yielding fruits, vegetables and grains, Al-Jawf governorate is one of Yemen's richest areas for antiquities and historical sites.

During previous times, it was known as “Jawf of the Ma'eenis” within the Ma'een kingdom, which dominated an area extending from the Arabian Sea to the port of Gaza in the Mediterranean.

The governorate contains the ancient cities of Ma'een, Baraqesh, Kharbat Hamdan, Al-Beidha, Al-Sawda' and the temples of Antar, Nasayeb and Jabal Allouth. The cave of ancient Yemeni King Asa'ad Al-Kamel is among its other historical sites.

Although the Yemeni government depends upon the local residents to protect these historical sites, allocating them salaries for this service, the sites still are subjected to damage and looting.

As one antiquities expert who requested anonymity claims, “Locals are looting the antiquities. With foreign help, they are conducting night digging of ancient sites to find antiquities and then sell them abroad.” Abdullah Askar, who is responsible for the Orphan Care Department at the Charitable Society for Social Welfare, an association managed by the Islah Party, criticized his fellow citizens for their backwardness and arms-bearing, attributing the governorate's poor services to government negligence and area residents' lifestyle. “Government services are absent in Al-Jawf due to its people's backwardness,” he explained. “There aren't enough public hospitals and the only public one here closed due to government negligence and problems among citizens over the hospital's land.”

“You could say that the government is turning a blind eye to what's happening here,” Askar concluded.