Yemen Tribesmen Protect Anti-Government Protesters The Yemeni city of Taiz was the first to see mass sit-ins by protesters opposed to the country's president. Since security forces shot and killed dozens of protesters in May, tribesmen have been protecting demonstrators. The tribesmen have regularly clashed with soldiers. It's a formula that's being repeated across Yemen, and one that many believe could push the country into civil war.
NPR logo

Yemen Tribesmen Protect Anti-Government Protesters

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/139346563/139345585" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
Yemen Tribesmen Protect Anti-Government Protesters

Yemen Tribesmen Protect Anti-Government Protesters

Yemen Tribesmen Protect Anti-Government Protesters

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/139346563/139345585" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

The Yemeni city of Taiz was the first to see mass sit-ins by protesters opposed to the country's president. Since security forces shot and killed dozens of protesters in May, tribesmen have been protecting demonstrators. The tribesmen have regularly clashed with soldiers. It's a formula that's being repeated across Yemen, and one that many believe could push the country into civil war.

STEVE INSKEEP, Host:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

RENEE MONTAGNE, Host:

And I'm Renee Montagne. Good morning.

In the heart of Yemen is the city of Taiz, a city that was the first to see mass sit-ins by protesters opposed to Yemen's president, Ali Abdullah Saleh. Those protests have swept the country over the past six months. NPR's Kelly McEvers recently traveled to Taiz. And she reports the situation there, like elsewhere in Yemen, is pushing the country to the edge of war.

KELLY MCEVERS: The moment for Taiz came on February 11th, when Egypt's president, Hosni Mubarak, announced he would step down. Yemenis had already been calling for their president to do the same. Thousands of student protesters in Taiz, a city tucked into the mountains that's known as more secular and wealthy than the rest of Yemen, sat down in their square. And didn't leave.

ABDULKADIR AL GUNEID: Taiz young people went mad. They just erupted into the streets. And they didn't leave it.

MCEVERS: That's Abdulkadir al Guneid. He's a Western-educated doctor who read about a thing called Twitter during the Egyptian uprising. He appointed himself the Tweeter of Taiz, and began documenting, and later helping lead, the city's revolution.

Like in cities around Yemen, protesters built tents in the main square of Taiz and pledged to stage a peaceful sit-in until Saleh stepped down. Then, on May 29th, things got ugly.

Snipers fired at protesters. Security forces entered the square with tanks, bulldozing some tents and shooting water cannons, tear gas, and live ammunition. Then they burned down the rest of the tents. To this day, Guneid says the exact number of dead is unknown.

AL GUNEID: We were furious. We were mad. Felt beaten, defeated, and angry.

MCEVERS: The following Friday, protesters assembled for prayers in a different place in Taiz. Security forces showed up, started firing, and then something happened. Men who'd placed themselves among the protesters fired back. Guneid the Tweeter broadcast the news.

AL GUNEID: I started tweeting, prayer protectors are shooting back.

MCEVERS: Prayer protectors is Guneid's euphemism for the armed tribesmen from the hills around Taiz who'd joined the protesters. He now calls them people protectors. Either way, it was a turning point in the revolution. A moment when the movement decided it could no longer remain peaceful.

AL GUNEID: We developed a new understanding. Yes, we are peaceful. But sorry, you can't kill us. Sorry. I mean, to defend yourself is basic.

MCEVERS: Sheikh Hamoud al Mikhlafi leads one of these people protector tribes. Known around town as a criminal who's killed for a living, the soft-spoken law graduate shows us how his house was attacked by government forces.

So are these from Kalashnikov, or these are from...

HAMOUD AL MIKHLAFI: They're from (unintelligible).

MCEVERS: Oh, so it's just shrapnel from a bigger explosion. Oh, what's that? Hello.

AL MIKHLAFI: This is the one that...

MCEVERS: That was fired at a - what is that?

It's a mortar round Mikhlafi says was fired at his house. The explosion killed his nephew.

Mikhlafi says his goal is to remain peaceful, that people protectors only fire when fired upon. But several other sources in Taiz say Mikhlafi's tribe has acted offensively, attacking government checkpoints and confiscating government vehicles and weapons.

This is what worries analysts in the region. They say the more government forces and anti-government forces are prone to use violence against each other, in Taiz and in other parts of the country, the more likely it is that Yemen's protest movement will turn into an all-out civil war.

(SOUNDBITE OF PEOPLE SPEAKING FOREIGN LANGUAGE)

MCEVERS: Down at the main square in Taiz, protesters have slowly begun to put up their tents again. People protectors search anyone who enters.

(SOUNDBITE OF PEOPLE SPEAKING FOREIGN LANGUAGE)

MCEVERS: Late into the night protesters sit and debate and argue about the next steps of the revolution. They insist that their goal is to remain peaceful. The next day, though, government forces attacked protesters again. And the people protectors shot back. Four soldiers were killed.

Kelly McEvers, NPR News.

Copyright © 2011 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.