Sightseeing in Yemen's Droneland

For an infamous danger zone, Marib province is beautiful, ancient, and, at times, remarkably peaceful.

MARIB, YEMEN — The invitation came early in the morning. A friend texted, asking whether I'd like to travel with him to Marib province, in Yemen's rugged interior. I said yes, but with two conditions. First, we'd have to see the Arsh Bilqis, a millennia-old ruined temple whose five pillars are one of Yemen's most ubiquitous national symbols. Second, he'd have to guarantee my safety. Marib's reputation for instability -- not least of all due to its long-standing al Qaeda presence -- makes it a place one can't travel to lightly. In recent days, a series of U.S. drone strikes has pounded the region.

He answered both in the affirmative, so I packed my bags and hopped in a car with my friend and one of his co-workers a few hours later.

As we wound through mountain after mountain, it was the twists and turns of the roads -- rather than any security concerns -- that left me nervous nearly to the point of shaking. But despite my long-standing fear that I'm destined to die young in a tragic Yemeni car accident, we nevertheless made it safely to the provincial capital in decent time. Upon first impression, the monotony of its sweltering gray streets cast it more as an economically depressed town in the middle of nowhere than a place on the front lines of the battle against al Qaeda. At least in their initial stages, the bulk of the conversations I had with people there reinforced that notion.

Yemenis often talk about Marib the way Westerners talk about Yemen itself -- peppering discussions of the place with stereotypes of backward tribesmen and complaints about lawlessness and irresolvable disorder. Although Marib is the source of much of the country's oil and gas wealth, few of its residents have access to regular water and electricity, let alone decent health care or schooling.

It was Marib's more pedestrian challenges that seemed to be at the forefront of locals' minds: the rampant unemployment, the lack of development, the absence of government services, the "theft" of the province's natural resources, and the resentment all these things have fueled. The locals wanted to make sure I was aware that al Qaeda wasn't the only thing making their lives difficult.

"Even our own government may act like we're a bunch of backwards extremists, but look for yourself.… Don't you think we just want to live in peace?" a young Maribi studying at Sanaa University's satellite campus in the provincial capital mused to nods from the others in the room.

I nodded, mumbling something about how that's all anyone anywhere truly wants.

"We want to live with dignity, free from fear," another continued, "whether from the fighters of al Qaeda or from the American planes that terrorize everyone whenever they appear."

Nearly every time the subject came to al Qaeda during my time in Marib, the American drone program came up along with it. It's not as if people there seemed to have any sympathy for the group; condemnations of al Qaeda were generally treated as statements of the obvious. But the psychological effects of previous strikes were palpable, the lingering fear they've sown clear solely through the tone of a person's voice.

"You just don't know when another one will come," a teenager who witnessed a strike told me, the cracks in his voice doing more to convey his point than anything he could ever say. "Civilians have been killed and injured. Each time we hear the sound of a plane, we immediately worry it will happen again."

"Do Americans know this?" he said, straining his words as he seemed to hold back tears. "Does your government?"

I'd hate to imply that such heavy moments characterized the bulk of my conversations in Marib. For the most part, they were remarkably informal and, at times, uplifting: a gesture to shared humanity.

But even during my visit to the ruins of the Arsh Bilqis, the shadows of U.S. drones seemed nearly inescapable. 

My friend's local partner, the head of the Marib-based NGO that was hosting his meetings, jumped at the opportunity to make the visit happen, driving us out in his Land Cruiser and maintaining a continuous narration of the area's history, both ancient and modern. Seeing the surprisingly peaceful greenery of the Wadi Abida, often dubbed an infamous "al Qaeda hotbed," was an education in itself.

"What's it like driving through Marib with an American?" I asked our host at one point, expecting him to agree that the whole thing felt a bit unreal.

"It's weird," he said with a pause prior to heading in a different direction. "Your planes bomb my country, and you're sitting in the back of my car even though … you're my enemy."

Uttered without even a hint of hostility, his words still left me numb. It had nothing to do with any fears for my safety -- if anything, it seemed like the guy would take a bullet for me, if necessary. That didn't change the fact, however, that he still irrevocably associated me with the missiles my country's military has launched at targets in the vicinity of his home. It wasn't always this way, he noted, reminiscing about when he used to work with a tourist company "before drones or al Qaeda."

Either way, my instincts immediately told me nervous laughter was the only acceptable response, freeing me up to silently speculate about the long-run effects of fallout from the so-called "war on terror."

By the time we made it to the Arsh a little later, the mood had again lightened, and after giving the five columns and the surrounding ruins their necessary attention, the four of us did the inevitable and scoped out a decent spot to take ridiculous pictures of each other in the hopes that at least a few would be decent enough to post on Facebook. I had more interviews to do and my friend had a pressing meeting, so we were only able to spend about a half-hour there. But still, as we drove off, I saw fit to declare an early mission accomplished. Obviously, I'd file a few stories, but as I flipped through my iPhone, the photos of me standing in front of Yemen's most famous ancient monument with one of my closest friends seemed like enough to deem the trip a success. From this point forward, whenever I thought of Marib, I figured, I'd think of the Arsh and these photos, gesturing on some small level to some better world where Marib is simply a decent place for a road trip rather than an al Qaeda hideout.

When I got word of a drone strike in Marib a few weeks later on Aug. 6, however, those memories of jokingly flashing peace signs in front of ancient ruins suddenly felt rather incongruous. I thought back to my friend's comment that the only time he was truly worried during the trip was when we stopped so I could use the bathroom in the middle of the desert on our way back to Sanaa. Noting that we were in a car full of young men parked on the side of a highway shortly after dusk, he said he couldn't shake fears that we might get droned. At the time, there hadn't been a strike in the province in months; it was hard not to see the scenario he imagined less as a legitimate fear and more as a piece of black comedy -- an American journalist making it safely in and out of a particularly unstable part of an unstable country, only to have his own government accidentally kill him as he's taking a piss on the side of the road. As I wondered whether I'd passed by the site of the latest strike during my trip to Marib, however, his fears didn't seem as irrational. It was the fourth in a series of drone strikes tied to a raised terrorism alert stemming from intercepted communications between high-ranking al Qaeda officials. The threat shuttered embassies across the region, prompting British and American diplomats to evacuate Sanaa, while spurring the United States to carry out 10 attacks on al Qaeda targets -- two of which occurred in Marib -- in roughly two weeks.

I went to Marib to experience its history. I came away with a more nuanced take on a part of Yemen that even Yemenis tend to stereotype. Yet I still can't help associating Marib with drones and al Qaeda terrorists. Far more unsettling, however, is that when people in Marib think of terrorism, they also think of drones. And being an American means that when they're thinking about drones, they're ultimately thinking of me.



'They Struck Us Down Like Animals'

As Egyptian authorities use brute force to disperse two pro-Morsy sit-ins, protesters vow to resist the crackdown until the bitter end.

CAIRO — A hail of gunfire crackled in the background as paramedics rushed a young male protester on a blood-spattered stretcher away from the frontline of the Islamist sit-in in Cairo's Nasr City. The neat bullet wound to his stomach, the medics speculated, was from a rifle round. For a few minutes they tried CPR -- but to no avail. Before anyone could learn his name, the man, who appeared to be in his twenties, was dead.

"Most of them are shot in the head or the chest," said the exhausted looking medic, Ahmed, his green uniform smeared with dried blood. "In my truck alone, four protesters have died."

This is how it went for most of the day on Wednesday, Aug. 14, as Egyptian security forces' attempt to clear two sit-ins manned by supporters of ousted President Mohamed Morsy devolved into a bloody, 12-hour long battle that by nightfall in Cairo left more than 250 dead and 800 injured. It marked the single most violent day in Egypt since Hosni Mubarak was ousted from power in February 2011.

The Interior Ministry, the military, and interim government had promised to peacefully disperse the camps, raising the idea of cutting off their electricity and water to force protesters to go home. But at 6:30 a.m. this morning, it became clear they had decided to take a less subtle approach: Armored cars, police officers, and soldiers marched on the protests in Nasr City and Giza, opening fire with birdshot, tear gas, and live ammunition.

"They didn't give us a chance. They struck us down like animals, I've never seen it like this," said Ahmed Azazy, a 44-year-old businessman from Banha, who was taking a rest from the front line of the clashes by the main encampment. "I can't tell you the amount of people who died in front of me. Go to the field hospital, see how many bodies there are."

The Rabaa al-Adawiya mosque, which sits at the center of the Nasr City sit-in, became a makeshift morgue as the casualties from clashes with the police mounted, eyewitnesses told Foreign Policy. The ground was covered in blood, protesters reported, and medics were forced to lay the bodies on the floor. Most were shot dead, they said. One reportedly burned to death after his tent was set on fire.

The field hospital next to the mosque was surrounded by clashes. Protesters on the southern side of the sit-in took turns sprinting through a corridor of live fire to access the building in order to check on the wounded and the dead.

Hours into the onslaught, hundreds of protesters still held their ground, resisting the security forces with rocks and Molotov cocktails thrown over the makeshift barricades of pavement stones. Meanwhile, women and children remained huddled behind sandbags and concrete walls in a southern corner of the Nasr City sit-in. The gunfire, coming from all directions, was bewildering. Bullets rained down from above and zipped past at street level -- protesters claimed they had seen snipers shooting down on the encampment from the overlooking buildings. Black columns of smoke mingled with the impenetrable plumes of tear gas, making it difficult to breathe.

"Killers, they're killers, they slaughtered us like sheep," shouted one protester on his way back from the frontline, a Quran tied around his neck and a cheap plastic gas mask on his head.

Standing among the weary fighters, a protester took a break from the fighting and started a chant to boost morale. "We are ready to give our blood and our soul for Islam," he shouted, and hundreds joined in. They climbed the sandbags in defiance of the security forces, who respond with gunfire.

On the side streets of the residential area, security forces shot at anyone attempting to access the sit-in. Residents, journalists, and families of those trapped inside ran from car to car, taking cover from the hail of gunfire. The authorities had promised a safe exit -- but all entrances were barricaded in by the security forces or blocked by street battles.

"My son, he's just 21 years old, he went to help when he heard the gunfire. He cannot get out, we cannot get in, what do we do?" said Mona Salama, 40, a doctor who lives nearby. "There are snipers on the buildings who shot at us as we tried to get in. It's not safe."

Eyewitnesses later reported that the security forces raided the medical center, forcing protesters and medics to flee, leaving the dead behind. For its part, the Muslim Brotherhood released a statement accusing the police of stealing the bodies to cover up the size of the massacre.

The violence was not restricted to the capital. In Upper Egypt, pro-Morsy demonstrators attacked local government offices, setting fire to a courthouse in the city of Beni Suef. Some 41 people were killed in the province of Minya, according to Health Ministry officials, as street battles with security forces raged on into the evening.

It was not just Morsy supporters who were under attack: By midday, the violence had morphed into sectarian bloodshed. The main Coptic Christian church in Sohag and in Minya was set on fire by Islamist protesters according to local media reports. In the Nile Delta's governorate of Gharbia, citizens formed human chains around one church in a bid to protect it from an impending assault.

With Egypt in flames, the government moved quickly to try to restore law and order by all means necessary. Interim President Adly Mansour's office announced that a curfew would be put in place from 9 p.m. until 7 a.m., and that a month-long state of emergency would be implemented. Mansour also called on the military to support the Ministry of Interior and its police force.

But even as Mansour tried to assert control, his administration was showing signs of strain. Vice President Mohamed ElBaradei, who had been pushing for reconciliation with the Muslim Brotherhood, tendered his resignation in a statement that condemned the breakup of the sit-ins.

However, other political forces sympathetic to the government defended the crackdown. Egypt's main coalition of non-Islamist forces, the National Salvation Front (NSF), defended the actions of the security forces in a statement, calling the day "a victory against all political forces trafficking in the name of religion." Khaled Daoud, a leading member of the NSF, told Al Jazeera that the Muslim Brotherhood bears "full responsibility" for what happened, as their encampments were not peaceful.

The destruction of the pro-Morsy protesters' sit-ins, however, seems to have done nothing to dull the opposition's resolve to keep up the resistance to the military government. Even after 12 hours of bullets and tear gas, they were already preparing for the next round of fighting.

At the back of the Rabaa al-Adawiya mosque, where protesters were still battling with lines of police, protesters remained determined to keep the demonstrations going.

"Whatever the police do, we will get Morsy back, he will remain our president," said Ahmed Alam, a 28-year-old engineer readying himself to go back into the fight. "They have to kill 80 million of us to get the power they so desperately want."

Ed Giles/Getty Images