SANA’A, YEMEN – Thank you for your wishes for “peace and quiet” and “safety and peace.” It seems one can’t keep anything secret any more. The Internet shows newspapers from China to Switzerland to Australia have reported the recent racket in Yemen.
Specifically, there were four blasts here in Sana’a in a month: two near the United States embassy, one at the home of a Yemeni intelligence official, and another at Yemen’s civil aviation building. Nobody’s hurt and police have arrested two suspects from a group calling itself Sympathizers of Al-Qaeda.
It seems a suitable name since it must hurt to be in Osama bin Laden’s camp these days. And these folks truly do appear sympathetic. After one bombing here, they apologized for collateral damage and promised to reimburse neighbours.
Meanwhile, thousands of Yemeni have marched in the streets for Palestinian rights and the severing of diplomatic ties with America. Fearing more violence, the U.S. embassy closed for a week.
Extremists here are sore that a few dozen American military are training Yemeni security to fight terrorism. The Friends of Osama are also demanding release of 173 mujahedeen held for several months without formal charges. The group has given the Yemeni government 30 days, ending at the time of this writing, to release the militants or it will begin suicide bombings.
You may think it’s all enough to keep one in bed. But one does learn to take these things in stride. Consider that after the Sept. 11 attacks on the U.S., a Canadian embassy official in the region sent a no-nonsense e-mail to Canadians to leave Yemen without delay. Within 24 hours that changed to “please disregard the previous warning.”
Alerts from other embassies are also clear as mud, usually suggesting to be on guard for “strange things.” Is there anything not strange to a Canadian in Yemen? Granted, it’s good to avoid certain crowds. The only time I’ve felt personally targeted here was when some rowdy kids smacked my vehicle, assuming I was American, and I had to roll through a busy street market.
Most Yemeni realize westerners among them are here to help. And life is uncertain regardless of where one lives. You or I might get hit by a truck while crossing the street. Indeed, in Yemen, with 1,300 traffic deaths a year, an accident is a far more likely way to go than terrorism.
Of 13 countries in the Middle East and North Africa, Yemen’s death rate per 10,000 vehicles is only behind Syria’s. According to the Transportation Research Laboratory, that’s a rate 16 times higher than Canada’s, which runs in the middle of the world’s 24 most motorized countries.
In the last 15 years traffic deaths in western countries are down while in the developing world they’re up: 40 per cent in Asia, 36 per cent in the Middle East, 26 per cent in Africa and 16 per cent in Latin America. Outside Yemen, some of the places it’s particularly dangerous to drive are India, Kenya, Uganda and Ethiopia.
If these places are anything like Yemen, it’s no wonder. Consider this warning from a consulate office: “Yemen should be considered risky. Within cities, minivans and small buses pick up and drop off passengers with little regard for other vehicles. Despite traffic lights and traffic police, each intersection requires an act of negotiation. Yemen has no traffic laws governing turns on red lights, maintaining lanes, merging or right-of-way. Drivers commonly drive on the wrong side of the road.
“Many underage drivers are on the roads. Many vehicles are in poor repair and lack functional turn signals, headlights, taillights, and brake lights. Pedestrians, especially children, and animals, constitute hazards. Major inter-city roads are paved and maintained in fair condition, but rural roads generally require four- wheel drives or vehicles with high clearance.”
They forgot to mention passengers hanging precariously from backs and sides of trucks, a practice that’s particularly treacherous on narrow mountain roads. Overloaded motorcycles with drivers and passengers wearing flip-flops are a precious sight. Windshields on cabs are cracked like topographical maps. Fumes are deadly. And let’s not forget the mines from the 1994 civil war.
The good news is that since alcohol is banned in Yemen, you’ll never get hit by a drunk driver. Also, kidnappings on rural roads are down. Tribes who detain motorists want human leverage to get government funding for services such as hydro. Thankfully, they do have a reputation for treating their so-called guests very well.
Life has inherent risks. When we try to play it safe, it seems to me we only create more insecurity. That’s too bad, considering the need for more westerners to link with the developing world.