Source, New York Times, By LAURA
TAIZ, Yemen — This ancient city among the steep cliffs of central Yemen, once known as the commercial and intellectual hub of this south Arabian nation, has emerged as the violent center of a long political standoff between a president who refuses to step down and demonstrators who want him out.
The government has attacked here with a ferocity not seen in Sana, the capital; on Wednesday, government forces shelled residential neighborhoods after local fighters took over a ministry building. Seven civilians were killed, including two children.
But this is not a one-way battle, not in Taiz, where the tribes have united, organized and fought back. Five soldiers were killed, too, on Wednesday.
For all of the attention focused on the capital, where demonstrators have camped out for 10 months in the streets and many have died in sporadic fighting, this is the front line, or at least that is the way President Ali Abdullah Saleh and his allies seem to see it. They fear that Taiz could become the equivalent of Benghazi in Libya, a makeshift capital for the opposition, where forces seeking to oust the president can coalesce, organize and recruit supporters.
“The opposition parties thought that if Taiz falls, they could make it into a Benghazi, and use that to put pressure on the president,” Hamoud al-Sofi, the governor of Taiz Province, said from his home, where he was protected by an armed guard. “This isn’t a conflict between protesters and the government. It is a war, from all senses of the meaning. Each party has its own weapons.”
Buildings throughout the city are pockmarked from bullets and explosions. The shops are closed, apartments are abandoned and graffiti denouncing President Saleh is everywhere. The intense fighting in Taiz eclipsed the protests, with only about 1,000 of the most hard-core, but unarmed, demonstrators braving the violence to stay on the streets. Government forces have stepped up their operations in recent weeks, killing at least 30 civilians in October.
“For the government, Taiz is an important governorate,” said Shawqi Hail Saeed, a prominent resident and businessman. “They think it is a very serious case. They have to make sure Taiz is secured, that it doesn’t fall.”
Taiz is a city apart in Yemen, where it long ago earned a reputation as a place where law, order and civil society flourished. Residents took pride in creating a more peaceful environment than existed in much of Yemen, a nation where men routinely carry around weapons and wear a large dagger on their belt as part of their daily dress, much like a tie in the West. In Taiz, both customs were frequently rejected.
“In Taiz, we had reached a stage when you didn’t see people carrying even a dagger,” Mr. Saeed said. Now its common to see a man on the streets of Taiz with a Kalashnikov on his back.
But there is another fact about Taiz, one Mr. Saleh knows well, having once been the regional military commander. Taiz is the birthplace of political opposition in Yemen. Residents of Taiz were instrumental in establishing the largest Islamic party, and the Socialist Party was founded in the city. With civil society came civic involvement.
When anti-Saleh protests broke out in Yemen, setting off the protracted political standoff, they moved quickly to Taiz. But as has often happened in Taiz, the city carried the idea forward; where demonstrators marched in Sana, they camped out in Taiz. The government immediately saw the threat and sent its forces to Taiz.
Unlike in Sana, where officials had plainclothes gunmen fire at unarmed protesters, in Taiz the government allowed uniformed forces to shoot at and kill demonstrators. Those same forces also beat women who were demonstrating, something that had not happened in other cities.
In late May, government forces set fire to a demonstrators’ tent camp in Taiz. At the same time, soldiers sacked a nearby hospital treating protesters. By the end of the day, at least 12 people had been killed, according to a local doctor.
At that point, tribal leaders from the surrounding countryside gathered at the residence of Sheik Hamoud Saeed al-Mikhlafi and decided to fight back. They sent armed fighters to attack government buildings, military installments and soldiers.
“Taiz has always been ‘Yes, sir’ to the authorities,” said Sheik Mikhlafi, who has become the leader of the armed rebellion in the city. “All of Taiz went out on the streets. They stopped being obedient and they revolted.”
He said that if he chose to, he could mobilize thousands of tribal fighters in two days, but that so far he had decided to hold back. “People with the government are only fighting for the salary,” he said. “We are fighting for belief.”
Sheik Mikhlafi is a member of the Islamist party and is a cousin of the Nobel Peace Prize laureate Tawakkol Karman, who was one of the first people calling for Mr. Saleh’s downfall.
“I respect Sheik Hamoud because he brought us back our dignity,” said Abdul Rahman al-Alimi, an employee of an optical shop in Taiz. “I don’t know him personally, all I know about him is that he respects us,” he added.
Taiz’s population is often described as the most educated in Yemen, but the people here complain that they are treated as second-class citizens, and that the culture of Yemen has been dominated by the northern tribes since Mr. Saleh came to power.
Not that far away from Mr. Alimi’s home is a civilian apartment badly damaged last week by artillery fire. The owner of the house is in Saudi Arabia with his family, and his brother, Mansour Abdul Wahab, was trying to manage the situation. “I’ll go to the government and ask for repayment for this,” he said standing just outside the rubble of what once was a bedroom for his brother’s three children.
“When will that be? After one year?” asked Omar al-Sarmi, who lives in the house next door, as he stood next to Mr. Abdul Wahab. “We don’t want money, we want to be safe.”
Yemenis fear that anger will linger, even if there is a political solution and even if peace returns to Taiz and the weapons are once more stored away.
“Even if the change comes, and I am sure the change will come, it will take a longer time because of the amount of suffering we have had as a people in Yemen, and in Taiz particularly,” Mr. Saeed said.
“The number of houses and shops that have been attacked, or people who have been killed, it will take a long time for the mentality of people to change in the future to forget what has happened,” he said.