YAFA, Yemen | “You see this,” said Mohamed Tamah, a leading member of Yemen’s southern separatist movement. He gazed at ancient terrace farms and fairy-tale villages dotting the sides of the mountains. The hills stretched out, fading to gray in the distance. “This,” Mr. Tamah said, waving his hand toward the scenery, “is all free.”
Mr. Tamah’s farm was perched atop a rocky, bald hillside in the Yafa region, a part of southern Yemen that many locals call “Al-Janoob al-Har,” the Free South. Yafa technically falls within the borders of the impoverished, arid country. But Yemen’s central government does not come here.
Like a lot of Yemen’s countryside - northern and southern - a network of sheiks and local leaders, not Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s regime, governs the area. But unlike other regions, where sheiks peacefully rule their private fiefdoms with the apparent blessings of the central government, much of the south is held by a growing separatist movement that seeks to end the 20-year-old union between northern and southern Yemen.
In recent months, about 100 people have been arrested in connection with Southern Movement protests, and at least seven people, including separatists and government soldiers, have been killed. Last week, Yemen’s deputy prime minister for internal affairs narrowly escaped assassination after separatists attacked his convoy. Over the weekend, one soldier was killed when a convoy carrying a high-level defense official was ambushed, according to Reuters news agency.
This comes after a February cease-fire quieted Yemen’s 6-year-old northern war, freeing resources and soldiers to fight in the south. Separatists say that since then, arrests and violence against activists have increased.
On Wednesday, Mr. Saleh publicly renewed his vow to crush the rebellion. “We will not let criminals, bandits and callers for separation achieve their goals,” he said, according to Yemen’s state-run news agency, Saba.
As tensions escalate, many separatists say, they have been driven underground. Ali Haitham, a lawyer and wanted Southern Movement activist, said that a few months ago he could travel inside government-controlled areas. Beefed-up security, he said, has made it impossible for him to leave rebel strongholds without getting arrested. “Now I cannot go to Aden,” he said softly.
The Southern Movement says the northern regime uses the 1990 agreement that unified the north and south to funnel resources out of their territories, while denying southerners political rights. Separatists say they are oppressed by the “northern occupation” and denied equal access to government services, like building schools and roads. Most of the country’s oil and fish wealth comes from the former South Yemen, officially known as the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen.
The Yemeni government vehemently denies charges of human rights abuses regarding southern activists. When activists are arrested or harmed in clashes, it is only because they have broken laws to which all Yemenis are subjected, said former Prime Minister Abdul Karim al-Iryani.
Mr. al-Iryani also denied accusations that the government sometimes isolates separatist regions by cutting off cell phone and Internet service. Separatists, he said, isolate themselves. “I think it is [the Southern Movement] that closes the roads,” he added.
Nestled in a plush couch belonging to Sheik Abdu Alrib al-Naqib, another leading southern separatist, and his own local government, Mr. Tamah said the Southern Movement does occasionally shut down roads. They do not have a standing military, but he said the last time he wanted to close a road, 500 men volunteered. “We have to defend our position,” Mr. Tamah said.
Sheik al-Naqib passed out chocolates and sat quietly on the other side of the drawing room wearing a brown New York Yankees baseball cap - a nod to the movement’s current pro-Western posture. In an effort to garner support and distance themselves from Yemen’s other armed conflicts, which include fiercely anti-Western dissidents like al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, separatists often wave British and American flags. When talking with Western reporters, many repeat the phrase “God bless America.”
Many southerners do not support secession, but unhappiness with the northern government is almost universal. “I am from the South,” said one aging soldier in a tight beige uniform and a red beret. He, like many soldiers of the former South Yemen army, complained he had not received his pension in years. He stood near a bus station alongside the Ministry of Defense in San’a with other former soldiers, hoping to get paid. “I am from the South,” he repeated. “We are oppressed.”
Sultan M. al-Shaibi, the deputy governor of Aden, a southern port city controlled by the central government, acknowledged the unrest in the countryside. But he dismissed the Southern Movement, saying that it was more like a gang than a political movement with no power and little popularity.
“Someone just crossing the road and stopping cars, and taking people out of their cars in front of their families and killing them?” he said, referring to soldiers reportedly killed by Southern Movement activists. “Just because they are from here or from there? That’s not the proper thing to do.”
Sultan al-Shaibi had some of the same complaints as the separatists. Before the unification, many southern customs were more British than Arabian, he said. The clothes most modern Yemeni women now wear - long black robes with veils covering their faces - were only worn in the north. In the old days, he said, his mother wore miniskirts.
In the 1990s, a “morals police” was unleashed on southern Yemen. Fundamentalist Islamic soldiers harassed women who appeared in public with exposed faces and demanded marriage certificates from couples on the streets.
That police force has long been dissolved, but southern women say they still appear in public fully veiled because they are afraid. The morals police, they say, used to throw acid at women’s exposed faces. Over the years, northern Yemen’s conservative traditions crept into what was once a secular society.
“After the revolution, I’m going to reclaim my face,” said one veiled southern woman, who asked not to be named for security reasons.
It is unclear, however, whether the Southern Movement has the capability of staging a revolution. There are no southern militias or training camps, and leaders disagree about how to achieve their goals. Some say the movement seeks to secede peacefully, while others openly call for war. Even those calling for change through peaceful protest looked slightly pleased when they all agreed that a violent uprising is possible, with or without their support.
Southern people, who all have guns in their homes, they say, would fight in the war. The southern Yemeni army was almost entirely dismissed after a brief yet bloody civil war in 1994 that ended in what many southerners call “the northern occupation.” Sixteen years later, the soldiers are still armed, trained and ready to fight.
But local men’s AK-47s cannot match northern tanks, planes and bombs, said Mr. Tamah, who spent much of his life in the U.S. He readily gave the names of American officials he knows personally and said he hoped the U.S. will support a revolution and recognize southern Yemen as an independent country. They want to call it “South Arabia.”
For Western countries, al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula is the main security threat in Yemen. Both the U.S. and the United Kingdom are staunch supporters of the Yemeni central government, which has committed to eradicating the threat. Neither is likely to support a rebellion that seeks to cripple that government. In the past few months, billions of dollars of foreign aid has been pledged to Yemen’s efforts to fight the al Qaeda branch.
In Yemen, a complex web of loyalties and tribal rivalries often blurs the line between jihadist, separatist and government. Tariq al-Fadhli, one of the Southern Movement’s most popular leaders, fought with Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan in the 1980s against the Soviet Union. In the ‘90s, he was a close confidant of the president and fought alongside other al Qaeda members to quash the southern rebellion.
More recently, Mr. al-Fadhli has been known to fly an American flag and lead separatist demonstrations. Activists fondly refer to him to as “our sheik.” When asked whether Mr. al-Fadhli was considered suspicious to the movement when he switched sides, Mr. Tamah said “no” at the same time another separatist said “yes, at first.”
Despite his side-changing, separatists now seem united in their loyalty to Mr. al-Fadhli.