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The World | COLUMN ONE

Rules in Mideast's Wild West

Yemen's tradition-bound tribes have codes of conduct that allow them to take hostages as collateral in disputes.

April 05, 2002|MICHAEL SLACKMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

MARIB, Yemen — When a German engineer was taken hostage in Yemen last November, it made headlines around the world, reinforcing this nation's image as the Wild West of the Middle East, a place where gangs of armed tribesmen prey on foreigners. It took days of intense negotiations to free him.

But 43 Yemeni hostages held here for months haven't been so lucky: no international outrage, no local angst, not even a whimper of protest over their captivity. One reason, it seems, for the muted response: The government took its own citizens captive.

That Yemen's elected leaders resorted to hostage-taking tells much about the obstacles to transforming this battered, fractured and largely tribal society of 18 million people into a modern nation. Taking the law into one's own hands--even if it's the government that is doing the taking--has long been a prominent element in Yemen's tribal-dominated culture.

Tribes thrive in a vast network that spreads north and east of Sana, the capital, and into the barren mountains and golden deserts of the Arabian Peninsula. Much of this region is governed by centuries-old traditions in which tribal sheiks divine justice and routinely take "collateral"--cars, weapons or family members--during negotiations to settle disputes or to force the government to address their needs.

The tribes have become a significant concern for the U.S. government in the wake of an October 2000 attack in Yemen on a U.S. Navy destroyer and the Sept. 11 terrorist assaults. Al Qaeda network operatives have found refuge and support among some Yemeni tribes, offering gifts of cash and cars and playing on tribal codes of honor and vengeance. In some cases, Yemenis became eager recruits to the cause of Islamic fundamentalism, bringing to it their deeply rooted tribalism.

"It is very important to understand the tribal culture," U.S. Ambassador Edmund Hull said. "We will not succeed unless we do."

For Westerners, the word tribe conjures up images of a savage and backward people. But the reality is far more complex and subtle.

Tribes here are part of an elaborate social structure that has endured through generations, a system with precise codes of conduct and its own caste-like hierarchy. Tribes flourish where the government is barely a presence and there is often no electricity, no running water, no hospitals and no schools. It is in these desolate rural communities that people learned the tribe is Yemen and Yemen is the tribe.

Most Yemenis trace their lineage to four main tribes. Over centuries, these have fractured into hundreds of minor tribes and clans, each defined as much by geography as by family lines. The tribal structure in southern Yemen, which was a separate country until 12 years ago, was essentially dismantled by that region's former communist regime.

"The tribal system is a civilized one," said Sheik Abdelkarim bin Ali Murshed, who leads a minor tribe of about 100,000 centered on the village of Asnaf in the Kholan region of northern Yemen. "It contains noble rules. The vulnerable are protected by the strong. The poor are aided by the rich. The system maintains and preserves human rights."

Although the government would like to tame the tribes, it recognizes their importance in maintaining stability. Sheiks often are given government positions that allow them access to gratuities and bribes they use to support their communities, several Yemenis said. The tribal system serves as a substitute where few government services, from courts to running water, are provided.

Seven months ago, for example, a fight in the Kholan region over a piece of land led a member of one clan to kill someone from another clan. Hoping to head off growing violence, Sheik Abdel Aziz Ghadir, a local elder, and other regional dignitaries visited the victim's family, bringing as offerings an ox, goat, sheep and other livestock.

By accepting the animals, the family also accepted that the elders would mediate the dispute. Then Aziz said he took from each family two cars and 20 machine guns as insurance that they would abide by a ruling. Once the verdict is rendered, the cars and guns will be returned.

As this was considered an acceptable killing because both men were armed, the final verdict should require the family of the accused to pay about $4,300, with half going to the victim's tribe and half to his family. If all sides agree, justice is quickly served, no one goes to jail and the government abides by the outcome.

Sometimes family feuds can drag on for years. In Al Jawf, an impoverished province neighboring Marib, it took 48 years to end a conflict between two tribes that began with the killing of a dog and a camel. Sheik Arfag bin Hathban, a top tribal leader, said that by the time he ended the feud, 32 people had been killed.

"The government doesn't give us any support," Bin Hathban said. "People have to depend on the tribe. Most of the problems are handled in the tribe."

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