Mukalla: The Yemeni city that defeated Al Qaeda and now needs the world's help
Ahmed Mohammed Omar is reduced to tears when he recounts the death of his son at the hands of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (Aqap).
“There were nine of them,” he tells The National. “They were slaughtered.”
“Some had their heads cut, then they even drove a car over the corpses. We had nine bodies, we didn’t know whose head to whose body, as they lay scattered.”
When Al Qaeda came to town, his son Saber was one of thousands who volunteered to fight as part of the UAE-backed Hadramawt Elite Forces.
Saber fought in the battle for Mukalla, freeing the city after a suffocating year of occupation by the militants.
But there was a sting in the tail; four months ago, Saber was captured by Al Qaeda in an ambush. He was executed with his comrades.
Such are the raw memories of life under Al Qaeda.
As cars trundle over Mukalla bridge, locals tell how the corpses of two men accused of spying hung from the structure’s girders for three days. To the east is a beachside park where Al Qaeda leader Naser Al Wuhayshi was killed by a United States drone strike in 2015.
Aqap took advantage of national disarray caused by Houthi advances in 2015 and captured the city. For a year it was the jewel in the crown of a group that US officials dubbed Al Qaeda’s deadliest franchise.
The group looted $100 million (Dh367m) from government banks in the area, and caches of weapons from government forces who fled as the city fell. But the locals largely stayed, hoping to survive their occupiers.
Barely two years after its liberation, residents describe Mukalla as the safest city in Yemen. It is more than four months since there was a suicide bombing and there is a sense among security officials that Aqap’s presence in the city has largely been dealt with, although they concede there may still be sleeper cells.
In this former extremist stronghold there are glimmers of a Yemen at peace, and some sense of what the country might look like after war.
In Mukalla, locals are forbidden from carrying weapons, a common sight in a country awash with millions of guns.
At a checkpoint to the city’s north, cars approaching the city are searched, and those carrying weapons are told to hand them over – they are given a ticket, and told they can collect them when they leave the city.
“It should be like this in all of the country,” says Captain Saed Bouasted, who manages the checkpoint.
Hadramis largely attribute the stability, which evades so much of the country, to the influence of the elite forces and Governor Faraj Al Bahsani.
He returned from 20 years of exile in Saudi Arabia and Egypt to help lead the locally recruited forces in their resistance against Aqap. Last year he took over as governor.
The Hadramawt Elite Forces now number 30,000, including several hundred female recruits, and are responsible for security in the city, as well as maintaining the fight against the remnants of Al Qaeda in the governorate’s north. Locals are fiercely proud of them.
Since taking over the the governorship, Mr Al Bahsani has positioned himself as a strong advocate for his city’s interests, regularly lambasting what he feels is the failure of President Abdrabu Mansur Hadi’s government to deliver for his people.
In his latest pressure play last week, he threatened to stop transferring the governorate’s oil revenues if the government failed to deal with a pressing shortage of cash.
Although his position outside the federal government leaves him with little direct influence over the nation’s perilous economic situation, Mr Al Bahsani has had small successes in finding local solutions to what is a national crisis.
He encouraged traders to resist the urge to raise food prices, encouraging them to take the hit on losses for the good of Mukalla’s people. He is also pushing an ambitious $130 million plan to expand Mukalla port.
The city’s port became a cash cow for Aqap during their year in control. They abolished several taxes, simplified the bureaucratic procedure for importing goods and abandoned safety regulations preventing old, unsafe ships from docking.
One former employee estimates this led to a 50 per cent increase in traffic. It became the cheapest means of importing goods into Yemen, and traders from all over the country would brave the journey into militant-held territory to bring their goods in through it.
Despite the horrors, Mukalla’s tale of life under Al Qaeda is one of determination. Civil society continued to function, Hadramawt University refused to bow to demands to segregate classes and local businessmen pitched in to pay government salaries when they failed to arrive. Put simply, Mukalla pulled together.
Mohammed Al Bosaery runs one of the country’s largest money exchange businesses and says he stepped in to pay one billion rials (Dh14.6 million) worth of government salaries.
“To keep the society alive,” he tells The National, when asked why he did so.
As the university’s vice-chancellor Dr Abdullah Babaer says: “We can lose financial aid, we can be hurt psychologically. The greatest loss would be if we lost our own ethics, our own values, our own traditions.”
It is a message the city governor echoes, alongside an appeal for what will follow life under Al Qaeda’s Arabian affiliate.
“The people of Hadramawt have proved themselves,” Mr Al Bahsani says. “Now we are asking the world to help us rebuild.”
For many in this corner of Yemen, a plunging currency is the latest hardship. Even small falls in the local currency’s value have the effect of pushing up prices of basic foodstuffs.
A dependence on food imports – perhaps as much as 90 per cent before the war began – has left Yemen particularly susceptible.
The UN says that more than eight million people are suffering the effects of severe food insecurity and are at risk of starvation.
The prosperity many assumed would come with forcing out the militants has yet to arrive.
But for grieving fathers such as Mr Omar, his son’s sacrifice is part of Mukalla’s resilience.
“We will do whatever it takes to keep the city secure, even if our sons have been killed, we will never allow Al Qaeda to come back.”