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The Dead and the Disappeared

Yemeni protesters, one of them holding a picture of a martyr killed during last year's rebellion against president Ali Abdullah Saleh, shout slogans during a demonstration in Sanaa on September 4, 2012, demanding the trial of the former president (MOHAMMED HUWAIS/AFP/GettyImages)
Yemeni protesters, one of them holding a picture of a martyr killed during last year’s rebellion against president Ali Abdullah Saleh, shout slogans during a demonstration in Sana’a on September 4, 2012, demanding the trial of the former president. (MOHAMMED HUWAIS/AFP/GettyImages)
Sana’a is a vibrant, jolly city. It’s loud—walk through its many streets and souks dedicated to shopping or food, and you’ll hear street hawkers haranguing you to buy their goods, friends chatting and joking with each other as they pass by, and car horns blazing as they try and squeeze through seemingly impossible gaps.

But look closely at those cars, and you might spot a face staring out from a poster. In fact, look around at the street’s walls and, among the flyers advertising various events or political figures, you might again see a solemn, usually young, face staring out. Sometimes they’ll appear on billboards, sometimes they’ll be painted onto walls as murals.

These are Yemen’s martyrs.

They define the pain that this country holds deep inside it. They come from various backgrounds, and various political groups, if any at all—this pain is one shared throughout Yemeni society.

They are usually young men. The average age of Yemen is under twenty. They are the ones being sacrificed as Yemen’s revolutionary birth pangs grow more and more painful. But will the child even live to see the light of day, or will it be stillborn?

Some of the faces were killed protesting. They went out in the morning to demonstrate, and ended the day in the field hospital, and then the morgue. And then they wound up here, printed in their thousands, distributed to their family and friends, put on cars, on walls, in houses, so that their memory can be kept alive—and, of course, so that whatever movement they supported can use their memory for propaganda purposes.

Some of the faces—in fact, many of them—were soldiers. In their military garb they too stare out. Often they’ll have the place they were killed written at the bottom of the poster. Abyan, Sa’dah, Mar’ib: a checklist of Yemen’s recent wars, battles that have produced no definite conclusions, fights that still rage on. They were told they were fighting for their country, against Al-Qaeda or the Houthis, Internal enemies that needed to be crushed. For the country’s sake, of course. But they were often betrayed by their leaders, political and military, men whose own backroom dealings often ignored the young men they are responsible for.

Some of the faces were simply in the wrong place at the wrong time. Maybe it was a car crash. Maybe it was the result of banditry, a robber who went too far. One face that is often seen is that of Sam Al-Muallim, a popular actor, killed by armed men who apparently tried to rob him and his friends. Sam, and others like him, were killed because of a breakdown of law and order; where the state was supposed to protect, it was too busy dealing with protests or fighting wars against internal enemies.

The posters will often have messages on them. Some will exhort the reader to pray for the victim, to ask God to grant the soul a place in heaven. Others demand justice and revenge. They ask the authorities to find the perpetrators, to bring some closure.

On some walls, you will see a row of faces. Stenciled in black and white, they show some men in military gear, others in 1970s fashions, and others who appear to be from more recent times.

These are the ‘disappeared.’

They are men who were active politically in one way or another, and who were never seen or heard of again. It is likely that they ended up in unknown cells, political detainees who never saw the light of day again until, perhaps, the day of their execution. Each face has the name scrawled next to it, and the date of disappearance. The dates range from the 1970s through to the 1990s, with the most recent being 2011.

The dead, the disappeared—they’re all wasted lives. They’re scars on the open wounds of a nation that is still trying to recover—a nation that is still at the start of a long, and perhaps never-ending, path to recovery.

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Abubakr Al-Shamahi
Abubakr Al-Shamahi is a British–Yemeni freelance journalist. He holds an MA in Near and Middle Eastern Studies from SOAS, University of London. Abubakr tweets at @abubakrabdullah. His blog can be found at www.alshamahi.com

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