Crucible of poverty, terror

Yemen: The small Arab nation is battling with itself, caught between its people's needs and the West's war against terrorism.

March 03, 2003|By Michael Slackman | Michael Slackman,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

BANI SAD, Yemen - Most of the news the West gets from Yemen is about terror. Missionaries gunned down. Politicians assassinated. Clerics accused of supporting Osama bin Laden.

There is another form of terror - it comes from poverty - and for Yemenis like Mohammed Saeed, that is no news at all.

To visit Saeed requires a bone-crunching car ride along a dried-up riverbed strewn with rocks and boulders. It's slow going, bouncing, sliding on the silver gray rocks, up and over an embankment and finally into Al Hagri, a village of stone huts and dirt paths that has not changed much in centuries.

There, Saeed, 70, lies motionless in a muddy courtyard, resting on a cot made of tree limbs and dried vines, sheltered by an overhang of old stalks. He is weak from malaria and can't speak because his teeth are painfully rotten. Even if he could afford it, there is no sense making the two-mile trip to Bani Sad's hospital.

The only indication that that building is a health care facility is a hand-lettered sign that says "Hospital." But open the door and there is nothing inside except a few cold, bare light bulbs and some cots. There is no medicine or electricity. There are no doctors or nurses. And there are no patients.

"We acknowledge there is a shortage in Yemenis' lives," says Ali Mohammed Othrop, a member of parliament and former interior minister. "The state is really not capable of meeting those needs."

Yemen is in a battle with itself, caught between its people's immediate needs and the West's global war against terrorism. With every attack, every American killed on its streets, Yemen loses more ground in its struggle to pull itself into modernity. Not only is it the poorest country in its region but it is also among the poorest in the world. The United Nations ranks it 148th among the 174 least-developed nations.

Who will invest in such a country? The global donor community gives $300 million annually to Yemen's approximately 18 million people, very little compared with what goes to other developing countries. Last year, the United States gave about $400 million in aid to Jordan, which has a population one-third of Yemen's.

Efforts to move closer to the West and build democratic institutions that could help curb the popularity of radical Islamic thinking have created a deep sense of unease in a country where tribal loyalties are very much alive. Pro-Western leaders have avoided dismantling the tribal system, which for centuries has governed how people live but whose very existence often conflicts with efforts to effect change.

Yemen has the most open government on the Arabian Peninsula, a nascent democracy with an elected parliament and president, a purportedly independent judiciary and a constitution. But the institutions are weak, and attempts to impose the rule of law are often overshadowed by the leadership's inclination toward secrecy, the tradition of strong tribal loyalties and widespread distrust of government.

Yemen's meager revenue, about $3 billion annually, is inadequate to meet the material needs of its people and the security demands occasioned by al-Qaida's presence in the country. Its money comes mostly from oil but also from remittances from abroad, the income of the port of Aden, and some industry and agriculture.

Recognizing the problem, the United States has taken a multi-pronged approach to helping. In addition to well-publicized security operations here - such as the missile killing of suspected terrorists last year - the United States is planning to finance a $10 million health project in some of the more remote regions. It is also planning to reopen an office of the U.S. Agency for International Development here for the first time since the mid-1990s.

"If you want to minimize terrorism in Yemen, you do have to address it across the board and use all of the tools available to do so," says U.S. Ambassador Edmund Hull.

The country has some big cities, San`a and Aden, where there are wealthy districts. But even in the cities, most people are poor, supplies of electricity and water are intermittent at best, and the streets are crowded with beat-up cars and barefoot children.

Bani Sad is typical of much of Yemen.

The district is about 70 miles west of San`a, the capital, but driving here takes three hours along a narrow road that zigs, then zags, through mountainous terrain, past vistas rivaling the Grand Canyon and the red rock cliffs of Sedona, Ariz.

Winding down, switching back and forth, the road leaves the barren landscape that is much of Yemen and opens onto the Sardoud River. This time of year, the river is a trickle, just about ankle-deep. But even that is a source of water in one of the most parched regions on Earth and is enough to throw up a shock of greenery that softens and transforms a bleak horizon.

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