The port in the southern city of Aden, which is in open rebellion. Image Credit: NYT

Sana’a: Men bearing sheaves of documents pack a small and noisy room in Aden, south Yemen, thrusting papers at a handful of officials seated behind desks.

The visitors brandish title deeds, utility bills and promissory notes from government bodies, all in an effort to prove they own property they allege was seized from them by the government after south and north Yemen unified in 1990.

“There are a lot of problems here that will turn your hair grey!” one of the administrators calls out above the clamour. “Their lands, their houses, their cars — all of them are stolen.”

These are the chaotic early days of a landmark Yemeni effort to address grievances that have long festered in the south, threatening to tear the country apart even as it moves towards elections next year under an internationally backed transition plan.

A special legal tribunal set up to work through the summer to return sequestered assets is a small — and, critics charge, late — effort to keep Yemen one, amid a growing movement for southern independence that some analysts worry could trigger fresh violent civil conflict.

Southerners have held protests since the deaths of four demonstrators in Aden in February in clashes with government loyalists and security forces. Another four people were reported dead at the weekend in a suspected drone strike in the southern province of Abyan where government forces backed by US air power have been fighting militants.

“No one was speaking about us before,” said Tareq Al Fadli, an ex-jihadist southern tribal leader who once fought alongside Osama Bin Laden in Afghanistan. “Now the international community is saying how the south is the key 
solution to all the problems.” The status of south Yemen is widely seen as the biggest question facing the country as it holds a national dialogue on its future after Ali Abdullah Saleh, the ruler of 33 years, was forced from office last year. Once a British protectorate and then a communist state, the south rebelled against unification within a few years, only to be crushed in a 1994 civil war that many southerners say ushered in almost two decades of sometimes deadly northern persecution.

Now Aden, the biggest city in the south, and significant parts of the countryside are in open rebellion, the blue triangle that distinguishes the secessionist flag from the national one ubiquitous on buildings, walls and even the hills of the region’s mountainous countryside.

Development debate

There is pride here — at times shading into snobbery — at what people see as an education and sophistication that is in part a British legacy and compares favourably with Yemen’s ‘tribal’ north. There is also a bitterness at perceived efforts by the north to stifle the south’s development, whether through mismanagement of Aden’s once world-renowned port, or the running down of basic services.

Thousands of southerners say they were purged from government jobs or had property seized after unification. In the cramped claims room of the assets tribunal — which officials say received more than 5,000 cases in its first 15 days — Yahya Hassan Yahya, 39, a former soldier, clutched a plan of the house he said had been grabbed by the authorities in 1993.

“They took everything,” he said. “They only let me get out with my T-shirt.”

This southern indignation is pitted against powerful forces that do not want the region to split off. President Abd Rabbo Mansour Hadi, himself from the southern province of Abyan, was the Sana’a government’s minister of defence during the 1994 civil war. After taking office in February last year, he rejected or delayed a series of southern demands, before finally setting up the assets tribunal this year.

Western suspicion of the southern cause has been intensified by US claims that its more militant elements receive support from Iran. “Our viewpoint is that a decision [on southern independence] has been made and we can’t keep revisiting settled issues,” one diplomat said.

Other independence sceptics say that the south — though it has much of Yemen’s small oil reserves — is neither brimming with thriving industries, nor culturally homogenous.

In the office for asset petitions, Yahya clutched a 2007 letter signed by Saleh pledging him compensation. A handwritten 2008 note on the order, ostensibly from the then minister of defence, read: “Give this man two properties.”

That much for trust.

— Financial Times