In early February, a car made its way along the winding road from the southern Yemeni port city of Aden to Dhale, a dusty mountain town of traditional mud-brick houses. As the car sped toward its destination, the flags and checkpoints increased in regularity with every passing mile.
Yemen's flag is made up of three horizontal stripes of red, white, and black. Those flying from the rooftops along the roadside sported an additional blue triangle dotted with a single red star. The flags, a remnant of the south's independent past, are a symbol of defiance; the checkpoints, manned by soldiers from Yemen's north, a source of simmering tension.
"See," said Fatima, an Adeni college professor, as the car stopped at yet another checkpoint so that a uniformed youth, his cheek bulging with the narcotic qat leaf and an AK-47 casually slung across his shoulder, could take a look inside. "How can they say that this is not an occupation?"
On the outskirts of Dhale, the military checkpoints came to a sudden halt. The government had no jurisdiction beyond the town's borders. At the top of a hill in the center of Dhale, Shalal Ali Shaye'a, a top leader in Dhale of Hirak, squinted into the sun. "Look," he said, pointing to another blue-triangled flag painted onto the mountainside opposite him. "This is the free south."
Shaye'a is a leading member of one of the more radical factions of Hirak al-Janoubi ("the southern movement," better known in Yemen as Hirak), a loose coalition of southern rights groups formed in Yemen in 2007. Since a popular uprising unseated former President Ali Abdullah Saleh -- a hated figure for many southerners -- in 2011, secessionist sentiment has been on the rise in the south and the pro-independence wing of Hirak has been gaining confidence. While politicians and diplomats in the northern capital of Sanaa have been focused on the peace plan that led to Saleh's ouster, Shaye'a and his cohort have been planning their "peaceful intifada" which they hope will end with talks in Geneva, an end to the checkpoints, and the arrival of U.N. peacekeepers.
But if recent events are anything to go by, southerners' attempts to extricate themselves from their two decade-old union with the north could prove to be a messy affair. Tensions between Hirak and the government had been rising for months when, on February 20, security forces raided the Aden home of Qasem Asker Jubran, Yemen's onetime ambassador to Mauritania, now a committed secessionist. Juran was arrested, accused of planning to disrupt "by any means possible" a rally planned for the next day by Islah (Yemen's biggest Islamist party) to celebrate the first anniversary of the man who replaced Saleh as president, Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi. Over the next week, Hiraki protesters clashed again and again with security forces. By the end of February, members of the southern movement estimated that up to 20 of their number had died in the violence, while the Islah's party headquarters in the southern city of Mukalla had been set on fire in just one of a series of attacks on northern political parties and businesses.
Dhale and nearby Radfan hold an important place in Hiraki and southern mythology. It was in Habilayn, a village in Radfan, that British troops shot and killed seven men in October 1963, sparking the uprising that ended British rule in the south. The revolt was launched from the craggy, volcanic mountains of Dhale, and the People's Democratic Republic of Yemen (PDRY), the socialist state that succeeded the British, populated its military with men from the area.
In 1990, bankrupted by the fall of the Soviet Union and a bloody 1986 civil war, the PDRY merged with its northern neighbor, the Yemen Arab Republic (YAR), led by Saleh. But four years later Ali Salem al-Beidh, the PDRY leader who took the south into the unity deal, declared the foundation of a new state, the Democratic Republic of Yemen. Southerners had complained of an unequal partnership and of a campaign of assassinations targeting their leaders since the north-south merger. Fed up after a series of inconsequential talks, they had decided to quit the union.
The militaries of the PDRY and YAR, which were not integrated after unity, went to war. Dhale was a key battleground during the fighting, which the northerners won, backed by tribal militias, mujahedeen recently returned from Afghanistan, and even former PDRY soldiers who defected after a bloody civil war in the south in 1986.
Many southern officers and civil servants, including Shaye'a, were forced into early retirement after the war, and most accounts of the life in the south after1994 run down similar lines: of northern tribal, military, and economic interests taking over vast swathes of land and businesses; of soaring unemployment among southerners while northerners arrived to take juicy government jobs; and of brutal repression of any kind of secessionist sentiment or expression of southern identity.
"Before unity," Shaye'a said, "I was a student at military college. I graduated in 1990, into unity. I practiced for a few years and then the war started. They kicked all our soldiers out, and I fled. I came back six months later. After they kicked us out, we lived in a miserable situation."
In 2006, former military officers from the region began to organize protests at home and in Aden over low pensions and lack of jobs. A year later, Hirak was formed as an umbrella organization to bring together the plethora of southern rights movements that had sprung up since 1994. Today, it is made up of around seven major groups and many more splinter organizations, loosely formed around the Supreme Council of the Southern Movement, led by Hassan Baoum, a popular pro-independence activist.
Hirakis are not just disappointed former government workers. Many of the group's most vocal supporters are so young that they cannot remember life before unity. At one of the weekly marches the group holds in Crater, a volcanic outcrop of the Shamsan mountain which towers over Aden, Nour, 20, tried to explain her involvement in the movement.
"I was born inside unity; I don't like it. I want separation," she said. "It is unfair. I don't like the poverty. I want to get back the country. We need to support the demonstrations."
Unemployment is a big issue for young southerners like Nour. Even those who do not actively support Hirak believe that the best state jobs go to the friends and families of Sanaa's political elite. This is frustrating and baffling to those who believe that most of the country's resources are located in the south -- two of Yemen's biggest oil fields are to be found in the former PDRY, while Aden was once one of the busiest ports in the world.
Other Hirakis have only recently come around to the secessionists' way of thinking. "I am from those who wanted to correct the road of the unity," said Nasser Mohamed Al-Khubaji, one of Hirak's top leaders in Lahj, as he reclined in the cushioned mafraj of his simple home in Radfan in mid-February. "I thought we could do something through parliament. But when we took up the case of the south, we faced aggression. People became angry with us."
Al-Khubaji quit parliament after the 2007 shooting of southerners preparing for a rally to celebrate the anniversary of the revolt against the British by the central security forces. As a member of parliament for Lahj governorate, he had taken part in the preparations. "When we were preparing for our revolutionary activities, the military from the north came. They killed four and injured 20," he said. The opportunity for negotiation with the north died then, he said: "The time was over for talk."
If Nour had been born to the north, she would probably have taken part in the protest movement that unseated Ali Abdullah Saleh in 2011, voicing frustrations about Yemen's northern elite similar to those heard across the south. But like many Hirakis, after initially supporting the revolution she came to see it as a largely northern affair.
Yemen's 2011 uprising started as a nonviolent movement in the big northern cities of Taiz and Sanaa. But it soon descended into a violent elite power struggle, fought between military units loyal to Saleh and his son Ahmed Ali; those with ties to the powerful general and former Saleh ally Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar, and militias loyal to the tribal leaders and brothers Hamid and Sadeq al-Ahmar.
The deal brokered by members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) to end the fighting in November 2011 was an elite peace accord, Nour said, not a solution to southerners' problems -- the GCC deal explicitly references the problems in the south, but does not go far enough toward addressing southern grievances for many Hirakis. "I don't care about 2011; that was just a fight between Ali Abdullah Saleh and Hamid al-Ahmar," she said. "It has nothing to do with the south."
Yet if foreign diplomats involved in brokering the accord are to be believed, the GCC deal presents a unique opportunity for southerners, in the form of a much-vaunted national dialogue conference. The deal's brokers have effectively staked Yemen's future on the dialogue's success and President Hadi has said that the country could descend into civil war if it fails.
During six months of talks, which are due to start on March 18, the conference's organizers hope that working groups will be able to draft a new constitution and discuss solutions to the country's many problems, including the "southern question" as it is often described in Sanaa. Delegations from Yemen's many fissiparous factions have been invited to the conference and Hirak has been offered the second-biggest allotment of seats, 85 in total. Yet for many Hirakis, the conference is a non-starter.
Despite diplomats' best efforts to convince them that attending the talks is in their best interests, a number of Hiraki groups have said that they will not go to the dialogue. Most vocal in rejecting the talks have been factions linked to Baoum and al-Beidh, one of the main architects of unity in 1990 and, since 1994, one of its biggest critics. They want bilateral negotiations between the north and the south over separation, not to discuss the shape of the unified state.
Other southern movement leaders are more open to the idea of the talks. In March 2012 Mohamed Ali Ahmed, the former governor of Abyan governorate, returned to Aden after nearly two decades in exile in Britain. Diplomats overseeing the GCC deal, who describe him as a moderate, say that he has become a key point of contact in Hirak. Speaking at his home in Aden in February, he told Foreign Policy that he would go to the dialogue even though Hadi is yet to meet a series of demands that he helped southerners to formulate in 2012 as a precondition to taking part in the conference.
"We will go so that the international community does not say that southerners do not cooperate," he said. "We cannot ignore the international community. We will [get our demands] from the inside. We cannot ignore the will of the people, but we want to use peaceful means."
Ali Ahmed believes the creation of a two-state federal union between the north and south followed by a referendum after five years could be the best path to independence, an idea first floated by Hirakis in 2009. But the al-Beidh factions of Hirak, many who mutter that Ali Ahmed is working for Hadi to maintain rather than end unity, has become increasingly hard line.
The differences between al-Beidh and Ali Ahmed run deep -- much deeper than mere strategy. On January 13, 1986, the bodyguards of then-President Ali Nasser Mohammed opened fire on a meeting of the PDRY's politburo. Former associates say that he hoped to consolidate his power by assassinating the leaders of a faction loyal to his predecessor, Abdul Fattah Ismail, who was killed soon after the fighting started. But Ismail loyalists led by al-Beidh gained the upper hand in the ensuing civil war and after a month of fighting Mohammed fled to the north along with tens of thousands of his followers. Among those who fled north with him were Ali Ahmed and Hadi -- Yemen's current president.
Hirak's leadership has worked in recent years to reconcile the differences between the Toghma -- the winners of the 1986 war -- and the Zomra -- Nasser Mohammed's "desperate band" of followers -- hoping that the common goal of independence will be enough to patch over past rivalries and resentments. Since 2009, Hirak has held reconciliation marches every January 13 to mark the anniversary of the civil war. The 2013 rally was the biggest ever, according to the local Yemen Post. A number of Hirakis, who see the march as a watershed moment for the independence movement, claim that one million people attended (more reliable estimates run to the tens of thousands). But many Toghma still view their Zomra counterparts with suspicion. Some of the bloodiest fighting during the 1986 war occurred between militias loyal to Ali Ahmed and Baoum in Abyan; Shaye'a still recalls how his father, ministry of interior at the time, was killed by Nasser Mohammed's men at the January 1986 politburo meeting.
Hirak is unified in its quest for independence, said Jubran, who is widely seen as al-Beidh's man in Aden (the former president lives in exile in Beirut) during an interview at his home in the southern capital a week before he was arrested. "There are a lot of disputes between the different parties of Hirak," he said. "But the main goal is freedom. We are unified. In some other parties they want five years and a referendum but they will not prevail. When we got independence in 1967 no one told us to make freedom or a referendum and we don't need a referendum now."
"Ninety-nine percent" of southerners are behind the al-Beidh faction of Hirak, Jubran argued. While this figure is likely some way off -- and a of number Hirakis say that they support the equally pro-independence Baoum, who is based in Yemen, rather than Beirut-bound al-Beidh -- it is fair to say that a growing number of southerners are falling in behind the two men's uncompromising approach. And at rallies across the country, it is al-Beidh's image that is most visible on placards and banners. In Dhale and Lahj it is not uncommon to hear him described as "the president," a title he still bestows upon himself. Analysts estimate that support for the al-Beidh and Ahmed factions is split about 70 to 30 among Hirakis.
Some southerners had hoped that the northern revolution would lead to improvements in life in the former PDRY, and worried that independence would require a long, potentially bloody, and hugely costly struggle. Others thought that having Hadi, a southerner, as president might see Hirak treated with more leniency and were encouraged when the huge reconciliation march in January was allowed to pass unmolested. But the violence in February proved a tipping point for even more moderate southerners.
"I don't support Hirak, I am not a Hiraki," said Anas, a young southern woman who lives in Aden, in March. "But I no longer support unity either."
Perhaps sensing the direction in which popular opinion is going, southern movement leaders who had previously expressed willingness to compromise have also been taking a more combative stance of late. In February, Haydar al-Attas, prime minister of Yemen's first unity government, said that he would reject an invitation to the dialogue and demanded that Jamal Benomar, the U.N. envoy to Yemen, oversee a referendum on independence.
"In the end, they will all come around to our way of thinking or they will not matter," said one al-Beidh aligned Hiraki leader in response to the news. Ali Ahmed, who is not as widely popular as Baoum and al-Beidh, could lose the chance of a future role in the south if he attends the talks, he added.
Many southerners are skeptical of the international community's intentions meanwhile. At the Crater march, Mohamed, a pro-independence activist, could barely contain himself. "Where is the international community in all of this?" he asked, an often-repeated refrain at the march. "Where are our rights? In the north, they fought for one year, people were killed, and the international community gave them their peace. The northerners have dominated us, killed us, stolen from us since unity. Where is our dialogue with the north? We have been fighting for 20 years, but still they ignore us."
Thus far, the southern movement has been largely peaceful -- surprisingly so, given the availability of arms in Yemen and the number of disaffected, unemployed young men in the south. The leaders of even its more radical factions say that they are committed to peaceful protest, and while violence flared up in February, it did not boil over into the kind of devastating armed conflict seen in the north during 2011.
But a number of questions about Hirak's more extreme wing remain to be answered, not least its commitment to a nonviolent struggle. While Hiraki activists at marches like those in Crater are unarmed, and it is easy to believe people like Nour when she expresses her commitment to a peaceful uprising, al-Beidh's arm of Hirak has been accused on a number of occasions of building its own militia, and has recently been linked with arms shipments from Iran. Clashes have broken out between Hirak-aligned armed groups and government troops in recent years, many of them in Dhale and Lahj, a stronghold for the al-Beidh faction.
It is particularly hard to reconcile Shaye'a with the idea of Hirak's peaceful intifada. A number of Yemeni analysts say that he is one of the leaders of "The Movement for Self Determination," or Hatam, a militia formed after the civil war which has fought with the Yemeni military on a number of occasions in the past. In October 2010, a bomb placed outside of Al-Wahda Sports Club in Aden killed four people. The attack was blamed on Hatam, which planned to disrupt an upcoming football tournament, and Hirak. The government named Shaye'a as the ringleader of the group that planned the blast -- a charge he denies. "They are willing to say anything about the southern people," he said. "It is far from my peaceful revolution. I love sports."
Shaye'a remained tightlipped as to whether Hirak has armed militias in and around Dhale, but when he left his home, he clambered into a battered Toyota pickup, armed gunmen -- one man wielding a rocket-propelled grenade launcher -- bouncing in the back as the truck wound its way along the dirt road. Earlier, he had explained why he lived in Dhale rather than Aden.
"We started here, in Dhale and in Radfan, because we were safe here," Shaye'a said. "Here, all the people are active with Hirak. Most of our army who were kicked out of their jobs came from here. Most of the military forces who were retired came from here. Here, the community helped us to start out activities. They were ready. The occupation forces were here -- there was action and there was reaction."
Al-Khubaji, Hirak's man in Lahj, agreed that his area was under Hiraki control but disagreed that the movement's success in the area had been achieved through force. Hirak has spent much of the past six years building a parallel state structure, providing public goods to residents of the area, he said. "Most of our work is in enhancing administrative and regulatory capacities," he said. "Politically the governorate is under the rule of Hirak. But we are under occupation. Before us, the courts were full of cases. Now, we have the councils of Hirak to solve problems. We even solve security problems. I would say that 90 percent of Lahj is under Hirak control. The occupation forces are still here; here, but not in control."
But few moments later, he added a familiar caveat. "Our movement is to get separation peacefully," he said. "But I cannot guarantee that other interests and movements will not take action. We insist on a peaceful movement. But we will not discourage anyone who wants to take this path."
It might not be long before it becomes apparent how, exactly, Shaye'a, Jubran, and others plan to move forward. Jubran -- who was freed in late February having declared his commitment to peaceful protest -- ended his interview with the promise that by the 20th anniversary of the south's last attempt at separation, it would be an independent state once again. "On 21 May 2013, you will see," he said. "The peaceful intifada will begin."
Within a year, he said, it would all be over.
Peter Salisbury is an independent journalist and analyst.