A War of Resentment and Nostalgia
former communist apparatchiks are bitter about lost glories, and seek to reassert themselves...
In Yemen in 1994 tension was growing between the forces loyal to the republic and those supporting the socialist party, the former government in the south until unification in 1990. It was not that the south wanted a return to communism, more that they resented their sense of defeat and wanted a return to former glories. They were nostalgic: socialism in Aden had been poor but not without advantages. Everyone had a roof over the head, women had greater freedoms than ever before, and there was cold beer available. Resentment and nostalgia proved to be an explosive mix.
One evening in Sana’a I head to a recital of Yemeni music organised by a curious eccentric character who has appeared in the city, apparently having travelled overland from Iran. His name is Bruce. He speaks several languages and is knowledgeable on everything except modern life. I’d like to find out more about him, but events take a turn. (Better to read last week’s post before this one, for context.)
I open my eyes at dawn and lie there, wondering what has woken me. Then I realise it is the silence. No call to prayer. In my early days in Yemen I would always wake to that. In time I learned to sleep through it. Now I am awake because of its absence. I think back over the previous evening and Bruce's party, smiling to myself at the comedy of expatriate life and also at this unique character who has arrived in our midst.
Then the scream. Not human, but a jet engine. A sudden terrifying crescendo, like a shock wave, followed by a sickening boom. And silence for a few seconds before crazy tirades of gunfire. I would learn later that a fighter jet from the southern rebel forces has bombed Sana'a, before crashing into a mountain.
Thinking more bombs might land, I grab Caitlin and Conor, and run with them to the kitchen, putting them under the table. I realise that my mouth is bone dry and fetch bottles of water for everyone. We only have bottles. No water has been pumped to our area for days and the tank is empty.
I go up on the flat roof. My neighbours are already up on theirs, brandishing Kalashnikovs and waiting to take pot shots at the next plane, but it never comes. What does happen is a lot of noise away to the west. I can see dust coming up from an area of the city about half a mile away. A neighbour, Nuri, tells me that a number of tanks were shooting at soldiers in the Socialist Party headquarters. "I'm going shopping," he says, "You should too. In an hour there will be nothing left."
I suppose war situations create these mad moments. I am in the street with Nuri, hunting for a bakery that is open. The small supermarket has been cleaned out. The only items still in stock are large jars of something called Gruber Jelly: an American treat consisting of peanut butter and jam. Even in a desperate wartime situation no one has bought it. I cannot find candles.
Everyone is convinced that bread will be a problem. A couple of pick up trucks with machine guns in the back go speeding past. I find myself running towards the sound of shooting because someone has reported a bakery open in that direction. Pushing through the throng outside I find myself in a madhouse. The bakers are barricaded behind tables over which hangs a forest of arms, each hand brandishing cash. The flat breads are being flung out into the crowd, like shrapnel. I grabbed a few and chuck some cash down on the table.
Back at home, a Yemeni friend, Radwan arrives. Socialist Party HQ has been surrounded by tanks and turned into rubble. That explains all the noise. We are less than half a mile away. The air attack this morning was three Mig fighter jets. His cousin in Dhamar had rung him and shouted, "We are all dead," then slammed the phone down.
By two in the afternoon, Yemen is the top story on the BBC World Service. We learn that a State of Emergency has been declared. After dark there is a cacophony of anti-aircraft fire and the sky is sliced apart by tracer fire. Conor and Caitlin complain bitterly from beneath the kitchen table where they have been sent once again. Why can't they go and see the fireworks? At 0130 a massive explosion shakes the plaster dust off the ceiling. Conor and Caitlin sleep through it, as they do for a huge anti-aircraft barrage at 0430.
The BBC have been issuing statements all night. 'All British residents in the Hadhramaut Valley proceed to Abyan for evacuation by French warship.' And in Aden, '...proceed to Steamer Point for immediate evacuation.' But of Sana'a, still no word.
Next day the round flat bread has shrunk in diameter by two inches. In the suq I meet a British expatriate who is panicking: “We only have 10,000 litres of water left.” He tells me he has been eavesdropping on British embassy radio chat. “They all have call signs: stuff like Giraffe, Warthog and Argent. I heard Warthog call Giraffe and order baked beans on toast for lunch.”
Later that day, I go to a qat session in the Old City and hear that Bruce has left for the coast. He plans to inspect antiquities for as long as possible before finding a boat across the Red Sea to Somalia. “He's interested in Somali poetry,” I am told. “Then he plans to spend time in Zanzibar. Apparently he's friendly with the family of the former sultan.” I have no idea if any of this is true. It sounds utterly implausible. As darkess falls I sit with old friend and Sana'a resident, Tim Mackintosh Smith, and watch red tracer fire curling across the sky. Tim has no intention of leaving. Had he heard anything about Bruce? No. No address. Nothing. I expect we shall never see him again. Pity.
More air raids and explosions in the night. Next day the BBC announce an evacuation. '...proceed to the Sheraton Hotel with a maximum of 10 kg of luggage.'
At the Sheraton plump Americans are rushing about shouting into walkie-talkie radios, “Commanche, this Apache, do you read me?” One of them, Rebel Rebel, is bellowing into the radio when a passing American lady touches his arm. “Don't tell me - Minnesota, right?”
A queue of buses for the airport are already filled with American oilmen and they get priority. Some women are holding their babies up to the bus windows to shame the oil executives into giving up a seat. None do. A man in a Yemen Hunt baseball cap (the oil company working in Yemen) stands by the entrance to one bus. 'This is my bus and you ain't gettin' on it.' People are crying, running, shouting, waving. The grip of hysteria is rising.
Apache comes sprinting past. 'Commanche! Commanche! Do you read me?'
I had not planned to leave, only to see Judith, Conor and Caitlin off, but now I'm wondering if we should all go home - and I mean the house in the old Jewish quarter. The situation is starting to unnerve the kids.
Apache is screaming at the radio, 'Commanche! Commanche! Oh God, man down!'
We head back home for a cup of tea.
Next day at the British Council they tell me the Germans are leaving and have places. We drive over to their embassy. Everyone is lounging around on the ambassador's lawn drinking wine. Apparently the ambassador has sworn that no one is going until his cellar is empty.
When this onerous task is complete, Judith and the children calmly board a bus and wave goodbye. (They fly to Djibouti and then, eventually, to Britain. She goes to stay with her parents and the local newspaper comes to photograph them. They make the front page: 'Family flees wartorn Yemen.')
I go home. At 2315 I am walking across the courtyard when the sky is burst open by an immense flash of light followed by a thunderous boom. A Scud missile has landed. I go up on the roof, but retreat rapidly when a piece of shrapnel goes zinging past my ear.
Everyone is talking of leaving, but the British seem incapable of organising anything. A Russian lady reports that she went to her embassy to check evacuation plans and discovered the compound locked and the building empty. The staff have discreetly been spirited away to Moscow. So it is that each nation reveals its character in the crisis. The Russians abandon everyone except the elite, the Americans dive into melodrama, and the British make beans on toast. At a qat session we devise a board game, "Wartime Evacuation". The object of the game is to become German.
And then a couple of days later, I am on a plane to Djibouti and then, eventually, a train to Yorkshire. I stare out at the country that I left twelve years before. In my notebook, I write a short description: 'England: small, pale, fat'. I wonder how the hell I am going to cope.
Six months later in Yorkshire, still wondering, I receive a phone call. “Kevin, my dear. This is Bruce. I'm organising a lunch at a friend of mine's place near Tadcaster. Do you ride? They have some wonderful horses.”
It turns out he is living five minutes walk from where I am.
“What happened… I mean during the war?”
“I took a shared taxi down to the coast to see the ruins at Zabid, then a dhow to Somalia. They have such fine poetry, you know. I was in Zanzibar for a while. Do you know the family of former sultan at all?”
From war had come a precious friendship that would last more than a quarter of a century and include travels together and many lunches. Bruce lived like a lord on almost nothing. His 60th birthday party was held in a housing association kitchen in York, but he persuaded the musicians from the former royal court of Afghanistan to come and play. Wherever he went he would send a postcard, scrawled in elegant spidery script: 'I am translating rock inscriptions in Bamiyan until Thursday. Come for breakfast Saturday.'
In late 2019, already suffering from a terminal illness, Bruce took a final journey to Chechnya and Dagestan. He died in York in January 2020. Later that year Eland Books published a collection of stories about his life.
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