First hostage in Yemen recalls memories [Archives:2003/632/Community]

April 21 2003

Irena Knehtl
For the Yemen Times

I was the first hostage taken by Jahm tribe in Sirwah in 1982. If fact at all counts and has meaning. At that time I found myself managing a private company with a variety of development projects and trading activities owned by Sheikh AbdulRahman Ahmed Noman. My memories of that time were climbing mountains and villages, and traveling wadis behind Sheikh AbdulRahman to mobilize creative energies of rural Yemen. To do this he proclaimed himself as AbdulRahman Water, AbdulRahman electricity, and AbdulRahman roads. In addition Sheikh AbdulRahman was also entering business relationships with various tribal communities from eastern Yemen for different projects and undertakings.
In 1982 our company was awarded the contract for mapping the mineral masters plan for eastern Yemen. Our team of French geologists has just re-discovered the ancient silver mine at Jabali, thought to be an important source of wealth of Kingdom of Saba. They were further mapping Jebel Hailan in Nehm/Jahm area. As result I used to be a frequent visitor to the area.
On one such trip to Mareb in 1982 while having breakfast at the checkpoint prior entering Mareb we were approached by man who wanted to travel with us to Mareb in order send an urgent telegram from there. I refused, driver agreed. Few meters after he pointed the gun at us. What followed was that we were driven to Sirwah close to the ancient palace. Upon seeing the scene an old women begun screaming loudly to attract attention, held me tight and never left my side. A boy then probably aged 15 named Ali rushed to the site, and said, do not be afraid, my father works for the government. He is sick but he will come.
He did come, opened wide his arms and said: Welcome our dear guests, welcome to my house. We entered his house and waited for negotiations to start. The old women holding me tight still was pouring endless cups of hot coffee. The man in which house we were sitting was Saleh Saleh Azzaydi, then a Colonel in Yemeni army, the boy was his eldest son Ali, and the old women who held me tight Saleh's mother. The issue at the time was that with by building and organizing the Yemeni army tribal soldiers were no longer required. As result “hijackers” salary was stopped. He had no other means to support his family, and acted out of mere desperation. Sirwah during that time was the last place on earth, all box style mud houses. There were no rains for more than seven years. As result drinking water was scarce, and diseases on the rise. Saleh's house was then the first and only house build out of stone, a long rooms which served as living, reception, and sleeping room all in one. After long, long negotiations matter was solved, salary restored, sheep slaughtered, qat chewed. Colonel Saleh repeatedly urged me not to be afraid. And I was not. Above where he sat I noticed a photograph of Yemeni President Ali Abdulla Saleh, as source of their pride in inspiration. During 1982 in eastern Yemen not a very common sight. Once we were free to go as a special gesture Saleh eldest son Ali would be out escort to the cross section of the new Mareb road. And so we parted.
Upon my return to Sanaa I kept over the event silent. I had my own calculation. I loved to travel and explore all around Yemen and prided myself I can take care of myself, handle any situation. If the story would become known, nobody would ever let me go out of Sanaa. And for a while it remained so.
Meanwhile the Jahm tribe from Sirwah applied for 6 water wells to the Rural water well department in Sanaa. The department had different priorities, it did not consider the wells for Sirwah as that urgent. During 1982 it had been simply bombarded with requests for wells. The people from Sirwah thought that I went out of my way and told everybody in Sanaa how bad, and absolutely terrible they were. And this was the reason they were not getting the wells. Until one of them said, if that women is still angry we are ready to slaughter another sheep. But we need the wells! So the whole story came out. I confirmed to Rural water well department I was not at all angry, and asked them to put the wells for Sirwah as top priority. It was immediately done. Within days the 6 water wells for Sirwah were approved and executed soon after.
Few weeks later I received a message from Colonel Saleh that he was coming to Sanaa. He was in need of medical help. Behind Taj Sheba hotel a Yemeni Doctor AbuBakr Qirbi has just opened his clinic. Fame grew around the Yemeni Doctor not only among foreign community but also among common people for his effective and simple approach, and his accessibility. I suggested to Colonel Saleh Dr. Qirbi. The very same Dr. Qirbi who is the current Minister of Foreign Affairs of Yemen. Called him at home, said there was a special case, but did not elaborate, and took the appointment. We went to our appointment, we i.e. Colonel Saleh, his two sons, wife, mother, uncle, brother and myself. Dr. Qirbi voiced surprise how is it that you come together. I replied I will tell him later, which I never did. The established diagnosis was: beginning of Tuberculosis. Could be also fatal. It was due to effective measure of Dr. Qirbi who stabilized the disease that Colonel Saleh Azzaydi was to live for several more years.
Another call came in few weeks later from Colonel Saleh. He and his family would love to pay me a visit at my home in Sanaa for a qat session. I asked uncle Abdo to be mahram. For the first time uncle Abdo was angry with me. Very angry. He went on and on how he has lived to see that somebody in Sanaa is hosting Jahm tribe. It is just not being done. Unthinkable. Beni Husheish was bad enough. But we knew them, were selling water well equipment and spare parts to them. But Jahm. Wild people. Anything can happen. No way. But I had my way, and convinced him. We did host Colonel Saleh and his family at my home in Sanaa after all. They were about 15 of them, Saleh, his two sons, wife, mother, brothers, uncles, cousins. Qat was chewed up to midnight. Tales and stories were told and retold. Old Arabia came alive. Saleh was just like any father worried about the future of his two sons, and future of his country. I would tell them about my own plans, work and projects. Uncle Abdo only reluctantly confessed later that this was the best and nicest qat session ever.
Yet another call from Colonel Saleh came in. This time he was proposing that he is ready to entrust me his two boys Ali and Nasser for schooling provided I will be responsible for them in Sanaa. Coming as he was from Shaikh Azzaydi family from Jahm tribe, an army officer in the rank of Colonel, he was not only the role model for his community, but set to pave the way for his community into the world of education and knowledge to Sanaa by setting example. He walked a fine line between past and present, and future, tradition and modernity.
I agreed.
Henceforth the two boys from Azzaydi family from Sirwah became very much part of our and my daily life. Reporting daily from the school and about the school. They liked going to school, and learned well. In order not to be looked down by others at school we concealed the fact they were from Sirwah. But simple said the boys were from Taiz road, outside Sanaa. The boys grandmother came to see me separately. She was the same old women who held me tight at the beginning. She was very grateful I was looking well after the boys. I in turn would spend as much as possible time with them and thought them separately in addition. More, I begun to view them as my boys, and the old women became also my grandmother.
Eventually Colonel Saleh was promoted in became the military commander of Ibb province, took the boys to Ibb to complete their schooling there. Ali completed the Air Defense College and Nasser helped his father. The boys eventually got married and started their own families and went to live in Sirwah. In subsequent years we saw one another less, but forwarded greetings as often as possible. Several years ago prior his death Colonel Saleh said to his two sons should they ever require guidance, assistance, or help, or advice they should look for me. Easy said than done. In particular today. After Saleh's death, the situation with Jahm tribe deteriorated, and escalated in a series of kidnappings of tourists, and foreigners. The Jahmis became viewed as outlaws, the dammed tribe.
Recent word has it that Ali, my boy, is along with 20 others kept as hostage in prison in Mareb. No charge. Now if I want to pursue this matter further I run risk being accused to maintain contacts with fundamentalist, terrorists, and possible al-Qaeda suspects. Should the boys by any chance want to establish contact with me as their later father suggested, they will be immediately accused of masterminding another kidnapping etc. And what else not..
Mahatma Gandhi, the great soul of India would have said about our time without bridges and of an unbearable weight of pain and injustice that eye for an eye makes the whole world blind.
The Jahm tribe like no other tribal community in eastern Yemen is being caught in a time change, in time bomb of many conflicting interests. What was now gained and what was lost? Principles. But they have always been mans most breakable possession.
Is guilt individual or collective
Is punishment individual or collective
Is crime punishment individual or collective
If collective we can punish whole communities, and whole countries. We are punishing them – for our own shortcoming. We have become our own hostages. We are hostages of ourselves and the time we live in unable to reach out and across. The late Colonel Saleh – this noble man – from the Sheikh Azzaydi family from Jahm tribe has long ago showed us the way.