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."

"We are talking about violence. We are talking about armed confrontation. We are talking about people who are killed every day," one U.S. Embassy official said, cautioning against such a visit. "They are the border of Saudi Arabia, and that's where al Qaeda is."

"We don't have terror in our area," Rabea said. "What we have are tribal wars, poverty and illiteracy." His only caution about visiting: Not only is he one of the few people from Al Jawf ever to have met an American, he is also one of the few to have positive feelings about a place that most people there hate because of Iraq, Abu Ghraib, the Palestinian issue, a widely believed rumor that the United States wants to invade Yemen, and a recent increase in fuel prices urged on Yemen by the World Bank, which is assumed to be under U.S. control.

"You will need to be tolerant. You will hear nasty things. 'Americans do this. Americans do that,' " he said -- and on Sept. 23, 12 days after the ambush and in the first moments of a trip into a part of Al Jawf that has never seen an American, that's exactly what was taking place.

"I want the hurricane to destroy the U.S.," a man was saying after hearing a report on a battery-powered radio about Hurricane Rita approaching Texas.

"So the U.S. knows that God is bigger," another man said. The two men and a dozen others were sitting on the sand in a very dark desert, finishing a midnight dinner of freshly killed goat after a four-hour drive over rocks and through ravines. It was too dark to see anything other than the silhouettes of the men as they unshouldered their assault rifles and talked about whether "the U.S. will do to Yemen what it did to Iraq," as one of them said.

Off to the side there was an orange glow as a man inhaled a cigarette. This is Rabea. He is 38 years old. He has three wives. He has 11 children. Thirteen days ago, he didn't smoke. Twelve days ago, he began.

What is Al Jawf to the U.S. government? It's a place of concern because of terrorism. What is it to Robin Madrid? It's a place in need of democracy and rescue. What is it to Rabea? That's what he would try to answer over the next three days, beginning the next morning when the sun rose early and hot over a landscape empty and vast.

Just as there are no police here, or courts or government or law, there are also no roads, only smoothed tracks in the dirt and sand, which Rabea and his armed guards drove along until they arrived at a village called Aal Shinnon. It has no electricity, no functioning school, no functioning anything, only an angry man who, when the subject of the United States came up, said, "We're ready for the Americans. If they come, we will kill them."

Next stop: a village called Al Muhtoon, where a man said of the United States, "It's the biggest country in the world, and it doesn't do much good for the world." Why, he asked bitterly, doesn't American money come here? He was standing outside the health clinic, which had bullet holes in the front gate, trash in the courtyard, a padlock on the door and nothing visible inside except a broken scale, a rusted bed frame and a dust-coated sink. A year ago, there was a doctor here, the man said. He stayed for two months, waiting for the government to send equipment and medicine, and when nothing showed up he went away.

And so it went in village after village, until Rabea arrived at his destination for this first day, a dusty town of 5,000 people called Mymerra. This is the village where Rabea was raised, along with 22 brothers and sisters, in a house that has seven photographs on the walls, one of which is of Osama bin Laden. "He is considered a great fighter here," Rabea explained.

There may be no greater compliment in Al Jawf, where tribal wars are so common that over the past 40 years, according to one estimate, 5,730 people have been killed. One of those wars is between Rabea's tribe, called the Shawlan, and a neighboring tribe, called the Hamdan, in which 75 people have been killed over 25 years of intermittent fighting, seven of them in the past several months.

What begins such a war? Someone wants to dig a well, or build a house, or siphon some rainwater runoff, on land that bordering tribes claim as their own. Out come the assault rifles, the grenades, the missile launchers. And soon entire villages are on the move to somewhere momentarily safe, until one more truce can be worked out in a place stitched together not by a shared vision of civilization but by temporary agreements written on flimsy pieces of paper.

This is what happened in Mymerra two weeks before when it was shelled and evacuated, and this is what Rabea wanted to show -- the effects of fighting on even one village and its residents.

So here was a man displaying the glass eye he got after a grenade explosion in 1985.

And here was a man showing a bullet hole in his upper left arm that he got in the 1990s.

And here was a man, a teacher, parting his hair to show where he was shot in the head in July, one of the first victims in this new round of fighting that began when someone chose the wrong spot on a blurry border to build a little house.

"Hamdan," he said when asked who shot him. He said he was in the back of a car that was sprayed by machine guns. Where did it happen? Outside the provincial capital of Al Jawf. It was raining, he said, and at first he thought he was hearing thunder. Then his right hand went limp. Then one of his eyes was closing. Then came blood. Then came a long drive back to Mymerra, which has one of the few functioning medical facilities in Al Jawf -- a small private hospital where for 200,000 Yemeni rials, which is equivalent to $1,036, which was all of the teacher's savings, a doctor dug into his head and saved his life.

This happened on July 25.

Eight days later, a Hamdan sheik named Abdullah Hassan al-Iraqi was walking along a street in Sanaa when he was shot in the back of the head. A month after that, Mymerra was evacuated, and Rabea was diving into a ditch and turning into a smoker.

And now, because of an agreement that Hamdan would apologize to Rabea by giving him 44 Kalashnikovs, the people of Mymerra were back, resuming what life is like for them when there's peace.

Men, most of whom don't work, were standing around in clusters. Women were returning on donkeys from the morning's search for water. Children were roaming wherever. The school had been closed for so long that a chalk outline of a child's hand on a classroom wall was fading. The public health clinic remained closed as well. And Rabea was in the courtyard of his house, surrounded by men waiting to see if he would invite them inside for a free lunch, which they knew he would do because such are the obligations of a sheik.

One was the teacher, who said, "I don't have a great life, so I don't feel bad about being shot. You either live or die."

Another was a man who had just finished praying at a mosque. "I asked God to destroy America," he said of his prayer.

The next day, Rabea headed toward the front line of the war, and however sad or unsettling or surreal Al Jawf seemed the day before only increased in intensity.

Because as he drove through a moonscape that truly was in the middle of nothing, a cylindrical shape appeared on the horizon, which turned out to be a lookout tower with bats in the stairwell and five men on top who are there day and night scanning the sky. They were looking for approaching missiles, one man said. Far in the distance, just visible, was another lookout tower, presumably with men on top watching them. "Hamdan," the man said.

Then came a village of a few lonesome houses where a man knelt in his front yard and stripped off his clothing while describing a recent battle in which two people were killed and four were injured, including him. He had a hole in his shoulder and a fresh gash across his back. "Is there a truce?" he asked Rabea.

"Yes," Rabea assured him.

"I don't trust this," the man said. He put on his clothes, buckled a belt that held his dagger, and hung his assault rifle over his shoulder. "We are ready," he declared.

And now came the village closest to the front, Al Hessn, which looked like something from the Middle Ages and felt like something still under attack. The amount of damage was striking: The mosque was crumbling, some houses were wrecked, and many others had been hit by bullets and mortars, including the most prominent building of all, a 350-year-old castle where Rabea lives part of the year with his third wife.

As intimidating as a castle with thick walls and turrets might seem, it was not safe. In fact, nothing is safe when there isn't a truce, Rabea said, not in Al Hessn or anywhere else. You can be killed in the mosque, he said. You can be killed in the market. You can be killed in school. You can be killed as you sleep in your bed. "If you're crazy, they don't kill you," he said. "If you're crazy, you're safe. So the only way out is to become crazy."

And if you're not crazy? You travel everywhere with armed guards, one of whom this day was Rabea's 19-year-old nephew Salih, who said one of the pleasures of life in Al Jawf is to pull the trigger of an assault rifle. He has seen "many" die, he said, the most recent in this very castle a couple of weeks before. It was a shot to the head, he said, and it was probably the worst thing he had seen. "We brought him downstairs and he was talking for about an hour," he said, and whenever shooting would erupt he would shudder and move his hands along the ground "as if searching for his gun."

The gun, of course, was a Kalashnikov. A new one costs about $350. A bullet costs 36 cents. Somehow in this poor place, everyone finds the money for at least one Kalashnikov and multiple clips, the only exception being an elderly man who instead was carrying a menacing-looking Chinese rifle.

The man, Saleh Ali al-Hadj, is a sniper. He said he used to be a farmer, and then the war began, and since then he had watched over Al Hessn from the same spot for "25 years and seven months, minus eight days." To get to the spot, he removed a seven-inch key from his belt, bent down and unlocked a miniature door that seemed straight out of a fairy tale. He crawled through the opening, climbed up a spiraling stairway and emerged on top of the tallest turret in the village.

There, mounted to the floor and covered with canvas, was the only American export ever to reach Al Hessn, a .50-caliber machine gun.

The sniper of Al Hessn explained what he knows about America. Its president is named Bush. It wants to invade Yemen. And it makes a machine gun whose bullets can accurately reach the Hamdan village he was looking at now through binoculars, where a man was climbing onto a tractor and a woman and child were walking hand in hand.

One other thing about the Hamdan village: Rabea's third wife is from there. She is Hamdan. And her father is a sheik who helps direct the Hamdan side of the war.

"These are very complicated matters," Rabea said, trying to explain how a Shawlan could marry a Hamdan, but they are really not complicated at all. They met during a truce, and during a truce, anything feels possible. Peace will be permanent. Aid will be coming. Development will be right behind. Modernization is inevitable.

From time to time, Rabea has tried to share this vision with the men around him whose love is for fighting and who seem so utterly filled with despair. "If this were not going on, you could go out and see things," he told them. "You would know things."

"You have money," he said they answer. "You can travel. You have options. We have nothing."

"You would have opportunities," he said.

And sometimes they might listen, he said, and sometimes they might say to him that what they need is money, not fantasies, and unless he gives them some they will fire their guns at Hamdan and ruin the truce.

Blackmail? Desperation?

What's the difference? Rabea asked. He is continually peeling bills off the bankroll he keeps on the front seat of his car for just such occasions, because what else is there to do?

"In America, any problem has a solution," he said of what he has gleaned from reading newspaper articles, seeing images of the United States on satellite TV, and most recently meeting with Robin Madrid. "You have courts. You have law. You have democracy. You have accountability."

Here, he said, there is only fighting. "I hate it," he said at the end of this day. "I hate killing. I wish I didn't have enough money to buy even a pack of cigarettes in exchange for no fighting."

A sheik's wish: that Al Jawf could be like other places in the world. Like the United States? "It's impossible," he said. Maybe like the United Arab Emirates, where he visited once and didn't have to carry a gun.

Sleep this night was as it always is for Rabea: on a pillow under which is his Kalashnikov. Six hours later, he awakened to news that there had been shootings in one of the villages he'd been in two days before.

Soon after sunrise, he went to the village to find out what happened because a sheik in Al Jawf is the court, the law, the democracy, the accountability and the solution. It turned out that four people had been shot by a man who suspected three of them of taking one of his guns. He went looking for them, found them hanging onto the side of a pickup truck they had flagged down for a ride, and opened fire. All three men were hit and injured, and the driver, whose only role in this was to stop and give three people a ride, was killed.

"Where is he?" Rabea asked and was directed to a house in another village about a mile away.

So he went to that village and was escorted into a room lined with 20 tense men, including one at the far end, who abruptly stood up, grabbed his assault rifle and said he didn't do anything wrong.

The killer. Who was baby-faced, biting his lip, and might be all of 18.

He brushed past Rabea and went outside, and Rabea stayed where he was. There was no point in following him because what would he do with him? In the United States he might be arrested, tried and imprisoned, but here, where there are no functioning jails, courts or police, justice has nothing to do with the individual, only the tribe. Better, then, for Rabea to stay where he was and to settle the matter quickly, before there could be time for a revenge killing, which could spiral into more.

The deal he proposed: The family of the dead man would be given four assault rifles, and the killer would be told to go away.


A potential war averted. Justice has been done.

"Very, very sad," Rabea said back in the car, on his way to one last stop, to see the injured men. He wound his way back to the small private hospital in Mymerra, where the three men were inside. One was shot in the thumb. He would be fine. One was shot in the chest and elbow. He would recover. The third was the most serious. The bullet passed through him near his spine. He was in surgery for four hours, and now he was wrapped in iodine-soaked bandages and mumbling incoherently as another man sat next to him holding his hand, a third man stood guard with his gun, and dozens more pressed in on a doctor in the corridor who said to Rabea, "We're worried about keeping him here. We're worried he's in danger."

There was nowhere else for the man to go, though, no facility except this one, where the only reason he had been admitted was that the people who brought him promised to pay. How? they were asked. They motioned to the pickup truck they had arrived in. It was the truck of the dead driver who had stopped to give the three men a ride.

This is Al Jawf, the place that Robin Madrid hopes to rescue.

"The most difficult days ever," Rabea said of these past weeks, heading home now and worrying about something new. The truce settlement called for Hamdan to surrender 44 of its Kalashnikovs to Shawlan, but so far it had surrendered only two.

What would he do if the rest weren't turned over? That's what he was worried about. He would have no choice, he said sadly. In his wishes, Robin Madrid's program would succeed, but until then, there was only one answer.

"We will attack them," he said.

Two weeks later, as the two-thirds mark of her six-month program closed in, Robin Madrid was summoned to a meeting with Thomas C. Krajeski, the U.S. ambassador to Yemen.

She had been working increasingly long hours, trying to launch the research part of the program that was a condition of her $300,000 grant from the U.S. government. With the help of a University of California researcher, she had developed a 15-page questionnaire whose answers would lead to a definitive list of every tribal conflict in Al Jawf and two other governorates, a list on which future programs about ending tribal conflicts could be based. She had hired a team of Yemeni researchers who would spend a total of six weeks in the governorates administering the questionnaire to 450 people from every tribe and sub-tribe, and she had worked out arrangements with some sheiks from each of the governorates to help the researchers with access and oversee their safety.

None of this had gone easily. It is no simple thing, for instance, to find researchers in Yemen conversant enough in the language of Western-style questionnaires to follow instructions such as "Insert into the questionnaire one copy of Sections Three and Four for each conflict discussed."

More difficult were some of the discussions with the sheiks, who astonished the woman they affectionately call Dr. Robin by asking for $200 a day to help the researchers.

"There is not a chance," she told them, because her organization's per diem for Yemen is $17.25. "Not. A. Chance."

"Exasperated, she said that there are two types of organizations in the United States -- those that hand out the money they get, and those, like hers, that use the money to go to a place and do work. NDI is "a huge building in Washington" with "an accounting department of 25 people," she explained. "The reason I'm telling you this is because you heard the president say we got $300,000 for the program, and you think, 'Wow.' " But the truth is that "very little of it gets to Yemen."

That's one truth; another is that every day has come with similar difficulties. All, though, have been resolved except for one -- an increasing lack of cooperation from the Yemeni government.

At first, officials all the way up to the president had seemed supportive. But then came signs that they were starting to worry about a program that would unite two dozen sheiks whose historic inability to get along with one another is one of the reasons the president has remained in power for 27 years. And now the U.S. ambassador had summoned Madrid to tell her about a meeting he had the day before with Yemen's foreign minister -- a meeting in which the minister was almost certainly speaking on behalf of the president.

The minister's message: " 'We want the program stopped. Immediately,' " Madrid told her staff after returning from the embassy.

The ambassador told her that he tried to negotiate, she said, going over their conversation. "He clearly thinks this is an important program," she said, "but he's also aware, increasingly aware, of how nervous it makes people in the government. He said, 'Look, it's your decision if you want to shut the whole thing down.' He doesn't want to shut it down. But what he does want to do" -- to let things settle -- "is delay the start of the research."

For how long?

Give it a month, he'd said, maybe more. He mentioned that Yemen's president was scheduled to visit Washington in early November to meet with President Bush and suggested delaying the project until after his return.

So that's what she will be doing, she told her staff, slowing the project down -- and now, two days later, she was breaking the news of this to the sheik who had initially approached NDI in March 2004 asking for help and had been waiting expectantly since.

When she was done, all that the sheik, whose name is M'Fareh Mohammed Buhaibeh, could think to say was, "If you become weaker, they will turn against us."

"Do you have some recommendations?" she asked. "Some ideas?"

"Our work should continue the same," he said. "Because we are not doing anything wrong."

"When they tell me I have to delay the research, I don't have much choice," she said of the pressure.

"You dare to work with the tribes, and the tribes dare to work with you. So the pressure is both ways," he said.

"Do you have any ideas?" she asked again.

"Yes," he said. "You should ask for a meeting with the president, and ask him to let this proceed."

The president, of course, was the one who once referred to her dismissively as old and worthless, an ajooz . And whose newspaper just the day before had accused her of spying under a headline that said, "American Democratic Institute -- Hidden Objectives!" That's what she was thinking, but what she said was, "There's a possibility that there will be a meeting with him in the United States."

"You should do it here," M'Fareh said.

"We've tried," she said.

"Then you'll just have to do it in Washington," he said, and that's how the fourth month of a six-month project came to an end, with Rabea in Al Jawf, worried about 42 Kalashnikovs, and Madrid in her office, worried about a president in whose hands her project to help Rabea and everyone like him now rested.

"He is ajooz ," a frustrated staff member said of the president.

"No," Madrid said, knowing better than that. "I am."

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