A little over a week ago, I was stuffing my small camera into empty packs of cigarettes to take it into the pro-democracy protest camp in front of Sana’a University. I’d seen Saleh’s Central Security Forces taking memory cards out of cameras several times and I couldn’t afford to let that happen to me. Literally, I couldn’t afford it, I didn’t have enough money to spend another 40 bucks on a damn 16 gig memory card.
Last Monday, I walked to the protest camp to interview demonstrators to see what they thought about Major General Ali Muhsin al-Ahmar, a rather polarizing figure, joining their movement. As I walked toward the military security line on the border of the protest, the first thing I noticed was that I didn’t spot the ostentatious blue, digital urban camouflage of President Saleh’s highly trained Central Security Forces. Rather, there was the Gulf War era desert camouflage of soldiers in Ali Muhsin’s first armored division.
As I moved closer I could here people screaming “mashallah” (as God willed) and “alhamdulilah” (praise God) as they embraced these soldiers and kissed them on their cheeks. As I grew closer, I could see one soldier wearing a white sash across his chest, draped over his AK-47 magazine ammunition vest. It read, “Revolting for a more democratic society.”
I stared in awe at him and he was a bit perplexed by my rather impolite stare.
“Sura?” he inquired, asking me if I wanted to take a picture.
Shocked, I fished the pack of cigarettes out of my front pocket and pulled my camera out of it. The soldier laughed and held up two finger, symbolizing peace, posing for this bizarre photo op.
A few weeks ago, central security force soldiers arrested me just for walking home. My house is right next to the protest camp. I spent almost two hours trying to convince them I wasn’t a journalist before they let me go (suckers).
As I moved further into the protest camp I saw soldiers sitting on the ground having lunch with protesters, bargaining for qat, and having a bit of tea, all the while with AK-47’s slung over their shoulders.
“Hiya buhum” is difficult to translate into English. “Welcome” is a decent translation but its insufficient. The phrase means “rush to be with us”. This is how protesters greeted soldiers.
At the same time, the youth protest security committee had been working tirelessly for weeks to keep any and all weapons out of the camp, patting down quite literally everyone coming into the protest a number of times. As soldiers waltzed in armed with AK-47’s, grenades and the like, many youth organizers were livid.
“Weapons are forbidden here!” one of them screamed at the soldiers.
The situation was tense then and its tense now. But the good thing is, this time around, I can take pictures of the whole damn thing.