After pro-government snipers killed more than 50 unarmed protesters on March 18, Mohsen defected and joined the uprising. And Shansadine was soon battling men he considered his brothers. “They have been brainwashed,” he said of the villagers in the 1st Armored Division, Mohsen’s force.
Today, the revolt has entered a more perilous period. Protesters are increasingly marching into government areas of the capital, protected by Mohsen’s soldiers. Government troops have used that as a pretext to open fire into the crowds.
Shansadine, like most Saleh loyalists, claims that the 1st Armored Division is behind the attacks on protesters, hoping that they will generate international pressure for regime change. “It is all planned from inside Change Square,” he contended, referring to the encampment near Sanaa University where the activists have staged a massive sit-in since March.
Kentucky Square, an intersection where a restaurant resembling a KFC once stood, was two blocks from where Shansadine was standing. It’s now one of the city’s primary front lines. Government forces killed dozens of protesters there in September, triggering fierce clashes with Mohsen’s forces. As Shansadine spoke, a mortar round landed nearby.
“If they continue to attack us, we’re going to move forward,” he warned.
On the other side of Kentucky Square, a mirror image unfolded. Along Haeel Street, sandbags were piled up in front of disfigured buildings that have been pounded by artillery fire. Soldiers and civilians ran swiftly across intersections to evade sniper bullets.
Mohsen’s commanders, near sand-colored armored personnel carriers, said they were fighting to protect the activists. But a visit to a nearby government garrison shows they have pummeled it with mortar rounds and rockets.
“We’re silent, but inside us is a volcano,” said Ahmed Mu’nis, 32, a 1st Armored Division soldier with a grizzled beard, who is also from Ibb province. “If we are forced, we will not stand and do nothing. We’ll fight back.”
Moments later, a high-caliber bullet struck a corner of a building a few feet away, sending a large puff of dust into the air.
A tribal stronghold
A few miles to the north, in the capital’s battered Hassabah enclave, graffiti on a wall read: “Go away, you slaughterer, Ali Abdullah Saleh.”
Men in traditional Yemeni dress, Kalashnikov rifles slung over their shoulders, patrolled deserted streets littered with trash. They are the tribesmen of the Ahmar clan, Yemen’s preeminent tribal family headed by Sheik Sadiq al-Ahmar.
Ahmar is also the leader of the Hashid, Yemen’s most powerful tribal confederation, to which the majority of the warring elites, including Saleh, belong. Once Saleh’s close allies, Ahmar and his nine brothers are now the president’s bitter enemies.
On the streets circling the neighborhood are units of the Republican Guard, headed by Saleh’s son Ahmed. They have engaged in fierce clashes with the Ahmar tribesmen, lobbing mortars and rockets at each other, killing scores. The Ahmars’ palatial ancestral home is now a charred hulk.