SANA’A, June 29 — When fighting broke out between the state and tribes aligned with the Al-Almar family in the Sana’a district of Hassaba, fear quickly spread to surrounding neighborhoods.
Residents in other neighborhoods decided to protect themselves and their property by forming popular committees. The original idea was to protect their neighborhoods from ‘gangs’ that might take advantage of the insecurity whilst the state was busy fighting the tribes.
Rumors quickly spread, however, that the ruling GPC Party had called for the formation of popular committees, saying that everyone was now responsible for their own safety. Some said that the ruling party was distributing YR 2,000 a day and a weapon to those prepared to join the popular committees. Other rumors suggested that opposition parties were encouraging the formation of their own popular committees.
The youth in each neighborhood came together and divided themselves in to smaller committees, each to protect a different entry point to the neighborhood at night. Multiple shifts were organized such that everyone could participate at different times.
On June 3, the president and other officials of the government were targeted by an explosion whilst they were praying. At the time, the shelling in the middle of the city was at its worst. The Hadda neighborhood was heavily targeted by the state, so the battles between the Hashid tribal confederation and the state were mostly in the Hadda area beside Hassaba.
Hadda is considered one of the richest neighborhoods in Sana’a, where many large houses and restaurants are located. The families of many residents fled the area in fear of their lives on June 3. Often one man from each family stayed behind to protect their house. A father who helped his family to flee and returned to protect his house was shot dead.
“The concept of the popular committee was there even before Friday [June 3], as the residents feared gangs. Three times looting occurred in empty houses,” said Mohammad Abbas, a resident of Hadda. After June 3, the whole neighborhood decided to block the entry points into the neighborhood to protect houses and to prevent the tribes from using houses to fight the state.
The popular committees, whether armed by the state via the head of the neighborhood or not, were mostly armed with personal guns or Kalashnikovs, sometimes only with sticks.
For more than three months, a widespread campaign of searching vehicles for weapons had been conducted by soldiers at the many check points around the city. However, security forces did not prevent the popular committees from being armed.
“The whole neighborhood is armed. Recently some strangers shot at the police station in the neighborhood, so security rounded up all the youth from the popular committee there,” said Abbas.
Abbas said that in his neighborhood the popular committees were not political. However residents in other parts of the city told the Yemen Times that their committees are political.
“In my neighborhood, only those who belonged to the ruling party participated. Less than 50m from my house is another committee that is all Islah party members,” said Ali Saeed, a resident of Taiz St.
Saeed said that he was invited to join his local committee, and that he would be paid YR 2,000 every night and would be provided qat as well. He rejected the offer as he believed that if the people had to protect themselves and state security could no longer help, then it would not be useful to stay in the capital. He would feel more secure in his village where everybody knows each other.
“Popular committees are the wrong concept and make us worry even more, as every night we hear gunfire. We know the committees are political. They are from two conflicting parties that may fight at anytime,” said Saeed.
In Haeel St, the committees appeared briefly after the president assassination attempt. Instead of the committees suggesting that each person protect his own house, in buildings with several flats the guard set a time by which everyone should be home, after which he closes the gate.
On Mondays, fuel stations receive delivery of fuel and the city gets crowded with cars forming long queues in those neighborhoods with fuel stations. Fights between drivers are heard all the night, sometimes descending into gunfire. Some popular committees have blocked roads inside their neighborhoods to prevent cars from queuing so as to avoid more trouble.
Some who have joined the popular committees are known as thugs or teenagers who are trying to take advantage. One annoyed resident, Yaseen Al-Makhlafi who lives in Haeel Street, told the Yemen Times that some of the committees ask everyone queuing for fuel to pay YR 500, which eventually leads to more fights and gunfire.
“Those who joined the popular committees are the same those who were known to be thugs,” said Mahmood Saleh, a resident of the Al-Sabeen neighborhood. But it may not be the case in other neighborhoods he admitted.