Hostage for a Day

How I became a bargaining chip in Yemen’s tribal maze.

AFP/Getty Images
AFP/Getty Images

AMRAN PROVINCE, Yemen — I knew we should have opted to take an older, cheaper car. As the tribesmen running the checkpoint demanded that we pull over, I cursed myself for letting my misgivings slide. I’d taken the road before — the split-second pause before getting the go-ahead from the armed locals who run the informal roadblocks dotting the roads running through the villages north of Sanaa may have raised my blood pressure, but I had never had any issues. Until now.

Confusion quickly ensued. The guys running the checkpoint — a disorganized group of about a dozen armed, but generally disheveled, tribesmen in their late twenties — seemed split on what to do. Most just wanted to let us pass, one seemed intent on stealing my friend’s car, and a few seemed convinced I was an Iranian spy. After about 15 minutes, I realized that revealing my identity as an American journalist was probably the best of a slate of bad options.

Frantic arguments continued. Growing increasingly nervous, I pulled out what I knew would be the trump card, threatening to bring their sheikh into the matter. As I dialed the number for a close associate of the sheikh, a longtime friend, I vainly hoped they’d realize that it wasn’t worth troubling one of Yemen’s most powerful men with what was, until that point, a rather minor issue.

It didn’t work out that way. Dragging the sheikh into it turned out to be exactly what the tribesmen wanted: They now agreed that I was indeed an American journalist rather than an Iranian spy, and further decided that I would be an excellent bargaining chip in their lingering dispute with the central government.

"You’ll stay until the government compensates us for what we lost in the war in Hasaba," I was told. I had come here to get a better idea of the tenuous state of things in the tribal areas north of Sanaa. Instead, I had become a hostage of them.

My kidnapping — which occurred, ironically, on the second anniversary of the start of Yemen’s revolution — had its roots in the wounds opened up by that revolt, which remain unhealed to this day. In May 2011, the uprising against then President Ali Abdullah Saleh finally sparked the urban warfare that many feared was inevitable. A day after Saleh refused to sign an internationally backed power transfer agreement, fighting erupted between pro-Saleh troops and fighters loyal to one of the country’s most powerful tribal leaders. Despite the seeming asymmetry, the tribal forces put up a hell of a fight in the ensuing weeks, seizing control of a number of government ministries as their scores of kinsmen — including the guys who kidnapped me — descended from north of the capital to join.

A year and a half after the sporadic battles ended, Hasaba, the neighborhood where the fighting was concentrated, still bears resemblance to civil war-era Beirut. Government assurances of compensation for those who were affected by the fighting, it seems, have yet to come to fruition. I’ve largely associated all of this with the bombed-out buildings in the area that was once the epicenter of the fighting. But the ripple effects of the fighting extend for miles: The guys that kidnapped me, it turned out, were still bitter over the loss of their car, which was destroyed when they traveled to Sanaa to join in the battle. The Hasaba war of May 2011, oddly enough, bore indirect responsibility for my time as a hostage in February 2013.

Regaining my composure, I called my friend, who told me to pass the phone to my kidnappers. However, I soon lost this vital link to the outside world: About three minutes in, my phone ran out of credit. Whether as a result of the conversation or their independent decision, the tribesmen decided to take me to meet a local military official in a location that, unfortunately, was outside of my cell phone carrier’s coverage. After remaining calm as I spent what felt like an eternity, but was probably about 15 minutes, screaming about my lack of service, the army guy, who had been in contact with my friend, passed me his phone.

The sheikh, my friend relayed, was currently in a meeting, but he gave his assurance that I’d be released in a few hours. Until then, the military official would host me at his home — a euphemism, I soon discovered, for the fact that I’d spend the evening chewing qat with half the village, my kidnappers included. It took about an hour for me to realize that there was something kind of odd about a military officer mediating a kidnapping.

I settled in, as relaxed as I was ever going to get given the circumstances. My kidnappers were rather welcoming, stressing that they saw me as a guest rather than a hostage. I didn’t have cell coverage, but my portable modem worked, which allowed me to keep tabs on my Google news feeds to make sure news of my predicament hadn’t hit the media. Until the publication of this article, I don’t believe it has.

For the next two hours, my kidnappers and their kinsmen issued a litany of complaints and requests in the hopes that I’d pass them on to my contacts when I got back to Sanaa. Gas, they grumbled, is too expensive and often difficult to find. Jobs are scarce, they said, and government services are nearly absent.

"Why don’t foreign businesses and [humanitarian] organizations come here?" one tribesman asked, prompting the room to erupt in claims of the area’s mineral wealth and a cataloguing of the inadequacies in education and health care. The entire district, apparently, lacks a single hospital.

"Kidnapping an American journalist might not be the best way to get foreigners to come here," I noted in English, prompting my Yemeni friend I was traveling with — a hostage by association — to burst out laughing, forcing us to translate what I said to the confused tribesmen, most of whom laughed as well. Generally speaking, it wasn’t too different from the hundreds of social gatherings I’ve attended in Yemen that didn’t involve me being held against my will: I may have been inconvenienced, but I certainly wasn’t in any danger.

Nevertheless, I was pretty pleased when the call came through with the news that a resolution had been reached. My release was guaranteed, and the army officer would travel to Sanaa in the coming days to discuss compensation there.

Still, my kidnappers’ problem was far from solved. They didn’t make much of an effort to hide their disappointment. In the end, their demands were simply forced up the chain of command — a far cry from their hope of getting urgent government attention.

"If you called the government, I would have gotten my money," one vented. My half-hearted attempt to stifle a laugh failed miserably.

"My brother, how long have you been a Yemeni?" I retorted, prompting a few in the room to erupt in laughter. "If we left this in the government’s hands, I’d be married from your village with two kids by the time I got out."

Most in the room nodded their agreement. It’s a fact of life in Yemen: When it comes with dealing with an important issue, it’s best to ignore the question of whom you should trust, and instead defer to whoever will actually be able to get things done. I had full faith that my friend’s connections would get me out as quickly, quietly, and as safely as possible. More conventional ways of dealing with the issue never crossed my mind.

I said goodbye to my erstwhile captors, who sent me on my way, urging me to call to confirm my safety as soon as I returned to Sanaa. The ordeal was over.

In a way, what happened to me was an odd testament to the resilience of the informal conflict resolution mechanisms embedded in Yemeni society. Everything transpired without the involvement or knowledge of Yemen’s government or, for that matter, my country’s embassy — "tribalism" caused the problem, and a few hours later, it provided the solution.

That’s not to say, of course, that the rather painless resolution of my kidnapping means that all’s well here. A diverse group of Yemenis may have taken to the streets in 2011, but when you asked those demonstrating what they wanted, most of them ended up saying the same thing. "Dawla madania," they repeated, "a civil state." In English or Arabic, they’re rather flexible words — they could suggest a genuine attachment to  secular ideals, or nothing more than political posturing.

Staring blankly at revolutionary commemorations as I sat as a guest-hostage in a random village 60 miles north of Sanaa waiting for a politician-sheikh to pacify his irate tribesmen, efforts to project ideology or politics onto the upheaval in Yemen seemed to miss the point. For most citizens, having a "civil state," ultimately, just means having a government that actually works.

"Don’t blame me, blame the people in Sanaa," one of my kidnappers told me, pushing back at my tongue-in-cheek suggestion, at one point, that he apologize for wasting so much of my time. "This wouldn’t have happened if the government did what it was supposed to do."

I take issue with his means of dealing with the problem. But still, I have to admit — the guy has a point.

Adam Baron is a visiting fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations and an International Security Program fellow at New America. He was based in Sanaa, Yemen between 2011 and 2014. @adammbaron.

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