Dumped in a War Zone

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Middle East » Yemen » Aden
September 21st 1964
Published: February 12th 2019
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As the Himalaya approached Aden I remember thinking that this was by far the most desolate looking place that I'd ever laid eyes on. This view appears to have been shared by P&O's pamphlet on the port, the introduction to which is "First sighting of Aden from the sea is uninviting, when the hot sun, reflected from the yellow volcanic rock, gives the whole coast a parched and unwelcoming appearance." Mum and Dad must have decided that it looked a bit safer than Port Said, because we happily went ashore, and then walked along what I remember as a single row of small shops on the waterfront. There were camels and goats everywhere, but virtually no trees or other greenery. I don't remember there being overly many people around either, despite the pamphlet's assertion that its population at the time was around 200,000. I suspect this was probably because it was so crazily hot, and it was only cruise ship passengers who were stupid enough to be wandering the streets in the midday sun. I remember being very excited because I'd been told that it was a duty free port, which to me meant that toys and other goodies could be bought very cheaply. I think my parents must have felt obliged to buy me something, because we came away armed with a ridiculous looking battery powered monkey that played the drums.

Apparently local legend has it that Aden has been inhabited since the dawn of human civilization, and some say that Adam and Eve's offspring, Cain and Abel, are buried somewhere in the town. The legendary Queen of Sheba, who is also mentioned in the Bible, is rumoured to have ruled here around 500 BC, and is said to have been responsible for overseeing the excavation of seven large water tanks from solid rock in the volcanic crater that forms part of the town.

Mum and Dad might have thought that Aden looked safe (of course it was safe, it was British!), but if the ever reliable Wikipedia is anything to go by, it seems that in 1964 it was actually one of the more dangerous places on the planet. In late 1963 the so called Aden Emergency began with an attack on the British High Commissioner by the communist National Liberation Front. From then until 1967 there were numerous similar attacks aimed mainly at slaughtering off-duty soldiers and policemen. More than 600 people were killed during the Emergency. This eventually resulted in the British withdrawing from Aden in 1967, which was much earlier than they'd originally planned, which in turn led to the formation of the independent People's Republic of South Yemen. It seems that Port Said, which Dad had deemed too dangerous to venture into, was a sanctuary of peace by comparison. I think I would have remembered dodging bullets and mortars, so maybe we just happened to be there during a lull in the fighting. I think it's more likely however that the combatants were all just too sensible to be out lobbing grenades at each other in the midday heat, and were more than happy to leave the streets to the tourists for a few hours. There was no mention of any conflict in P&O's pamphlet, so I'm fairly sure that Mum and Dad and all the other passengers from the Himalaya were oblivious to the fact that they'd just been dumped in the middle of a war zone.

I suspect the locals probably hoped that independence would bring peace, but things don't really seem to have improved a lot since 1967. Under former president Saleh, Yemen was described by some as a "kleptocracy". This means something along the lines of a government run entirely by kleptomaniacs, and no surprise then that in 2009 Yemen was ranked 164 out of 182 countries in the world government corruption rankings. It is currently the poorest country in the Middle East, and has been in a continuous state of political turmoil since 2011 when the locals took to the streets to protest against then President Saleh's proposal to make himself president for life. That sounds fairly characteristic of what you might expect the head of a kleptocracy to do. In 2012 he decided that he might have a better chance of staying alive if he stepped aside, so he handed over control to his Vice President Hadi. This move proved to be not all that popular with a local Islamic group called the Houthis, who'd modelled themselves on similar groups in Iran, and had adopted their Iranian counterparts' hatred of anything American or Israeli. In 2014 they managed to drive Hadi and his government out of the capital Sana'a, and Hadi then fled to his home town, which just happened to be poor old Aden. This forced the port town back into the firing line once again. The Saudis apparently weren't (and still aren't) too keen on anything even remotely associated with Iran, so they wanted the Houthis out and Hadi reinstated. This led to them joining the civil war, and assisting Hadi's supporters in defeating the Houthis in the so-called Battle of Aden in 2015. I suspect the poor old residents of Aden once again hoped that that would be the end of it, but no such luck; a South Yemeni secessionist group calling themselves the Southern Transition Council wanted Hadi out as well, and managed to seize control of his headquarters in 2018. Wikipedia's account of all this stops there, but I suspect that the violence is probably far from over.

According to Wikipedia, the whole of Yemen has been subject to blockades by the Saudi and the US governments since 2015, such that 21 million out of a total population of 28 million are now considered to be in need of humanitarian aid. This is the greatest number of people in need of such assistance of any country in the world.

Aden is also notable for being the site of Al Qaeda's first ever attack, in 1992, on a hotel known to house American servicemen. It doesn't sound like it was all that successful, and only managed to kill one Yemeni and an Austrian tourist. It seems however that Osama Bin Laden and friends weren't going to let that little failure deter them, and in 2000 they launched a suicide attack on the USS Cole while it was moored in Aden harbour, killing 17 US sailors.

Given all this background, I'm not sure that Aden features on too many cruise ship itineraries these days, so I should probably consider myself very fortunate to have visited it when I did.


14th February 2019

Thanks for sharing your story and the history of the times. This really pulled it together for me. What an experience. MJ
15th February 2019

Hi Dave and Merry Jo, Thanks for your kind words. Where are you off to next? Cheers, Dave
15th February 2019

Your next trips
Wait, I can see, New York, and then South America and Antarctica. Sounds great!

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