AMRAN PROVINCE, Yemen — I knew we should have opted to take an older, cheaper car. As the tribesmen running the checkpoint demanded that we pull over, I cursed myself for letting my misgivings slide. I'd taken the road before -- the split-second pause before getting the go-ahead from the armed locals who run the informal roadblocks dotting the roads running through the villages north of Sanaa may have raised my blood pressure, but I had never had any issues. Until now.
Confusion quickly ensued. The guys running the checkpoint -- a disorganized group of about a dozen armed, but generally disheveled, tribesmen in their late twenties -- seemed split on what to do. Most just wanted to let us pass, one seemed intent on stealing my friend's car, and a few seemed convinced I was an Iranian spy. After about 15 minutes, I realized that revealing my identity as an American journalist was probably the best of a slate of bad options.
Frantic arguments continued. Growing increasingly nervous, I pulled out what I knew would be the trump card, threatening to bring their sheikh into the matter. As I dialed the number for a close associate of the sheikh, a longtime friend, I vainly hoped they'd realize that it wasn't worth troubling one of Yemen's most powerful men with what was, until that point, a rather minor issue.
It didn't work out that way. Dragging the sheikh into it turned out to be exactly what the tribesmen wanted: They now agreed that I was indeed an American journalist rather than an Iranian spy, and further decided that I would be an excellent bargaining chip in their lingering dispute with the central government.
"You'll stay until the government compensates us for what we lost in the war in Hasaba," I was told. I had come here to get a better idea of the tenuous state of things in the tribal areas north of Sanaa. Instead, I had become a hostage of them.
My kidnapping -- which occurred, ironically, on the second anniversary of the start of Yemen's revolution -- had its roots in the wounds opened up by that revolt, which remain unhealed to this day. In May 2011, the uprising against then President Ali Abdullah Saleh finally sparked the urban warfare that many feared was inevitable. A day after Saleh refused to sign an internationally backed power transfer agreement, fighting erupted between pro-Saleh troops and fighters loyal to one of the country's most powerful tribal leaders. Despite the seeming asymmetry, the tribal forces put up a hell of a fight in the ensuing weeks, seizing control of a number of government ministries as their scores of kinsmen -- including the guys who kidnapped me -- descended from north of the capital to join.
A year and a half after the sporadic battles ended, Hasaba, the neighborhood where the fighting was concentrated, still bears resemblance to civil war-era Beirut. Government assurances of compensation for those who were affected by the fighting, it seems, have yet to come to fruition. I've largely associated all of this with the bombed-out buildings in the area that was once the epicenter of the fighting. But the ripple effects of the fighting extend for miles: The guys that kidnapped me, it turned out, were still bitter over the loss of their car, which was destroyed when they traveled to Sanaa to join in the battle. The Hasaba war of May 2011, oddly enough, bore indirect responsibility for my time as a hostage in February 2013.