Exporting Democracy: A Place Called Al Jawf

A Struggle for Peace in a Place Where Fighting Never Ends

By David Finkel
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, December 19, 2005

SANAA, Yemen -- Word of the ambush of Sheik Rabea al-Okaimi came by cell phone. It was Rabea himself calling, late in the afternoon this past Sept. 11, from an isolated part of Yemen called Al Jawf. At the very time memorial services were underway in Washington and New York, an agitated man in Al Jawf was describing what happened a few hours before. He was in a car. He was cut off. There was a shootout. Two of the attackers were injured. He has to go, he said, he'll call back, and the telephone connection went dead.

The next day, he called again. Calmer, he said he was on his way to a meeting to help settle an escalating war between his tribe and a neighboring one when the attackers arrived in three cars. He and his guards dove into a ditch. The attackers bunkered themselves in another ditch. Both sides had Kalashnikov assault rifles. Bullets went back and forth for more than an hour. He thought the two men who were hit were severely wounded. "It's like American films," he said, "but it was real," and then the connection went dead again.

There was no word from Rabea the next day, or the next several after that, and in Sanaa, the capital of Yemen, at the office of a Washington-based organization called the National Democratic Institute for International Affairs (NDI), the worries of its director, Robin Madrid, grew a little more.

These ambushes and conflicts are why she received $300,000 from the U.S. government as part of its effort to promote democracy around the world. She had been given six months to address the problem of tribal conflicts in Al Jawf and two other troubled parts of Yemen, but, at the halfway point, her project to help this country had again and again been hobbled and reshaped by the very fact that this is a country that needs so much help.

The near-assassination of Rabea, a man vital to Madrid's project because of his importance as one of the most powerful sheiks in Al Jawf, was just one example. By this point she had expected to have seen Al Jawf for herself. Her plan was simple enough -- she and an interpreter would get in a car and go. But in Yemen, nothing turns out to be so simple.

If you're an American, you can't travel to Al Jawf without the permission of the Yemeni government, and permission means a trailing truck of armed soldiers who won't leave you alone, even if you explain that the people you're meeting with won't speak candidly in front of soldiers with guns.

So Madrid had requested an appointment with the minister of the interior to talk about this, and when two weeks went by without a response, she talked to a contact at the U.S. Embassy who urged her to just go. But then she spoke to a tribal sheik she had been working with who beseeched her to do no such thing because it would backfire in ways she couldn't imagine. All of which meant that on the day she was thinking she would have been in Al Jawf, she was instead still in Sanaa, worrying about her program, when she suddenly rose from her desk because of a popping sound outside.

There were three gunshots. Then a pause. Then a burst. "Staff," she shouted, "away from windows and doors!" There was another burst, followed by a police car speeding by with open windows and wagging machine guns, followed by more pops, an unnerving silence, and then, as if nothing had just happened, her 3 o'clock appointment walked in.

Ahmed Jabeli seemed unfazed by the commotion, perhaps because he had just returned from Al Jawf. Maybe Madrid couldn't travel, but Jabeli, a Yemeni she hired to help with the tribal-conflict project, could go anywhere he wanted, and he was here to tell Madrid about the place where Rabea nearly died. About its geography. About its buildings. About its colors. About the boiling desert sun. About the night sky filled with too many stars to count. About everything an American can only imagine until she could find a way to get there herself.

"Four words," he began. "They are very poor."

And just like that, Al Jawf was reduced from mystery to its essence.

"When you come to Al Jawf, don't bring money. You won't need it," Rabea had said several weeks before the ambush, extending an invitation as a way to explain why he wanted Robin Madrid's program to succeed. "In Al Jawf, everyone is poor."

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