Most of you following Yemen are aware of what happened at the demonstrations last Saturday, March 12th. What most of you don’t know is what was happening before the violence. I’m also confident that absolutely no one knows exactly what started the violence.
I got a text message from one of the youth organizers who is running a part of the facebook portion of the movement at around 11 PM Friday night. He mentioned that some armed thugs had been spotted near the borders of the sit-in. When I went to Sana’a University to assess the situation, I didn’t find any armed thugs. However, I did find that the protest had taken new ground, erecting tents at least half a mile past City Mart on Dairee Street (for those of you familiar with Sana’a).
There were also 75-100 riot police, accompanied by two huge water hose anti-riot trucks, on either side of the intersection by City Mart. These are the police that would eventually clash with pro-democracy demonstrators later that morning. What was bizarre about yesterday’s violence is that, the night before, these riot police and these demonstrators spent hours standing in front of each other, talking, and having a laugh or two.
Sometimes chanting, sometimes talking, the exchange was casual. Almost friendly. Most of the chants being sung by demonstrators were ones begging for the police to join the protest. When the police answered back using megaphones, they made sure the demonstrators knew that they were all brothers and that everyone was just tired.
“Please, both of us (police and demonstrators) should just go to sleep,” said one of the police officers with a megaphone. Both sides laughed.
These exchanges were broken up among tiny events and actions like the water pump of the riot truck being turned on or police adjusting their riot shields. Every time a light on a riot truck would turn on, the scene would become tense again. People would begin yelling and pushing each other. I’d rip my notepad out of my back pocket, bracing myself for shooting and tear gas. But that moment never came.
I eventually went back home at 4 in the morning, 5 hours after I arrived, after 5 hours of nothing but what seemed to be causal banter.
After an hour and a half of sleep I got a text message from the same youth organizer. “They’re attacking us now.”
When I made it back to where I’d been just two hours before, the scene had descended into chaos. It made me think of cheesy post-apocalypse movies like Mad Max. The fact that police and protesters were cracking jokes to each other two hours before made it even more bizarre.
This picture is exactly where I was standing that night, before fighting broke out. The same place cops were cracking jokes and protesters were begging them to join in their calls for Saleh’s ouster.
To assess the situation, it seems as though a small contingent of Yemeni Central Security soldiers were tasked with making sure that protesters didn’t set up camp passed this intersection. There were, at most, 100 soldiers on either side and thousands of protesters. It was obvious that the soldiers were scared and wanted to avoid violence as best they could. The fact that they negotiated with them for five hours before violence broke out is testament to this.
Who knows who threw the first stone or swung the first baton in this battle. But from what it seems, Yemeni military and security forces are spread so thin that they are now being sent to complete impossible tasks. Keep in mind that after hours of fighting, protesters armed only with stones eventually forced the soldiers into retreat.
Following Saturday’s violence, I won’t be surprised to see soldiers begining to join the protests. I’m fairly sure that the only reason many haven’t already done so is because they don’t want to lose their job. As it becomes clearer that Saleh’s days are numbered and soldiers continue to be sent off to fulfill impossible and incredibly dangerous tasks, they’re going to start defecting.