Protesters after dusk, just moments before soldiers opened fire killing 13
Iona Craig Sanaa
The muffled scream was a brief distraction from the encompassing gunfire of scores of AK47s. A teenage boy was being crushed under my body weight and that of at least a dozen protesters scrambling for shelter behind an eight-foot-wide wall of a cash machine.
I shouted in broken Arabic, trying to push people off to let the boy breathe, before hearing the crunch of my camera lens breaking into pieces as more men dived in for cover. Tens more clambered over our backs as we crouched on the pavement in a panic-stricken heap.
More than a hundred soldiers were closing in on us in the latest violent chapter of protests against the Yemeni regime. I glanced up amid the barrage of heavy gunfire. In the darkness, orange sparks emanated from four gun muzzles, firing from the top floor of a half-built building directly opposite our pitiful protection. It was time to make a run for it.
Fighting their way out from under the squirming mass of terrified bodies to cries of “Allahu akbar [God is greatest]”, others also ran for their lives. The soldiers had advanced and were waiting for our dash from cover. The yellow light of a street lamp lit up the dark-red beret of an officer who fired continuously from the hip with his Kalashnikov. A young soldier, a few steps behind, charged at fleeing activists with a wooden club. Heads down and against the wall of Sanaa’s only blood bank, we ran, sniper fire still raining down from the other side of the street.
The thick club struck the shoulder of the man running at my heels, throwing him against me and both of us to the ground. As if bursting out of the starting block for a 100m sprint, I pushed myself up at a run, but not quickly enough. The baton met the side of my head and face, throwing me to the tarmac once more.
Pulling myself up for a second attempt, the teargas hit the back of my throat, but my legs were already in motion as a pick-up truck, mounted with a 50-calibre machinegun, rolled down the street ahead. The intense gunfire never ceased as I ran another 50 metres down the road before ducking into the nearest side street while the hipshooting soldiers marched past.
The afternoon had started like many others in three months of protests. Calling for an end to President Saleh’s three-decade rule, activists left their expanding tented village to march through the streets of western Sanaa. But this time the Council of the Youth Revolution — representing more than 140 protest groups across the country — announced an “escalation plan” to march to key government buildings, perhaps as a test run for their ultimate goal: the presidential palace.
One group made it a few hundred metres from the edge of the encampment towards the Prime Minster’s house before being confronted by troops. On Wednesday night, for the first time in the capital, uniformed security forces shot demonstrators without warning or provocation after they attempted to pitch more tents.
By the end of the night, at least 13 demonstrators were dead and, of the 500 or so who stayed to face the soldiers, more than 250 had gunshot wounds. Sustained gunfire rang out for another three hours as Central Security Forces clashed with rebel soldiers of the First Armoured Division who were ordered by their commander, Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar, to protect several thousand activists camped out on the streets of Sanaa.
The deaths of more than 160 protesters in Yemen since mid-February — including the killing of 52 worshippers on March 18 — have largely been blamed on baltagiyah (thugs), who are accused of being soldiers in civilian clothing.
In his post-Friday prayers speech last week, to the weekly mass rally of his supporters, Mr Saleh described the protesters as “retards and terrorists”.
The Arab Spring’s longest-running uprising, inspired by events in Tunisia and Egypt, has dragged on since January. Attempts to broker a peaceful political settlement by the regional Gulf Co-operation Council have repeatedly faltered. Qatar, one of the GCC members, quit the process last night, voicing its frustration with lack of progress and continued violence.
Protesters have rejected the initiative that would grant Mr Saleh, his family and aides, immunity from prosecution and begun campaigns of civil disobedience.
In a statement this week the antigovernment movement announced the ten-day intensification in demonstrations, calling for general strikes and expanding protest camps. A march on the presidential palace, planned for next Tuesday, could leave up to 2,000 dead, according to estimates discussed by the “escalation committee”.
I was fortunate enough to walk away from the soldiers’ attack with nothing more than grazed knees, bruises, a sore head and the sound of gunfire ringing in my ears. But, with the gap between politicians and the people widening and Mr Saleh intent on maintaining his grip on power, the struggle looks set to become increasingly bloody.
My accompanying analysis piece: Crushing the protests is last option for Saleh (£)