Life returns to Yemen's Mukalla after al-Qaeda's withdrawal

Life returns to Yemen's Mukalla after al-Qaeda's withdrawal
Almost a year after al-Qaeda militants captured the port city, life is slowly returning to the southern Yemeni city of Mukalla as residents attempt to regain a sense of normalcy.
3 min read
05 May, 2016


Just days after al-Qaeda forces were driven out of the Yemeni port city of Mukalla, the signs of their harsh year-long rule remain apparent as relieved residents attempt to rebuild their lives.

Security forces now stand in place of the group's militants, while flags praising Saudi Arabia, Emirates and Yemen decorate the once bleak scenes of Mukalla.

Thousands of residents that have lived behind closed doors for the most part of a year now roam the streets and reopen their shops with a sigh of relief.

But just ten days ago, the scene was almost unrecognisable.

Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) - the militant group's most dangerous Yemen-based branch - seized the strategic coastal city as the rest of the world focused on a year-long-conflict between pro-government forces and Houthi rebels in other parts of the country.

The militants overran the city of more than 200,000 in April last year, taking advantage of a political vacuum caused by months of instability and political turmoil.

"We lived in terror," said Mujahid al-Qaiqi, a resident of the central neighbourhood of Dis who had feared being detained or forced to join al-Qaeda's ranks before the city was freed of the militants.

Thousands of locals were forced to abide by strict Islamic rules as the group's newly-established religious police occupied the streets to supervise the implementation of their conservative interpretation of Sharia law.

Women were forced to fully cover themselves in public, free-mixing between sexes was forbidden and music in all its forms was outlawed in the city proud of its traditional sounds.

"They even banned songs and dances at weddings," said resident Alawia Sakkaf.

We feared the consequences of their deviant ideology.
- Local resident

In one case, Issa Ghaleb a shop owner who sold music CDs said militants barged in and forced him to erase all recorded music and films.

"Instead, they offered videos of al-Qaeda operations in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria," he said.

In early January, a woman who violated the laws instated by AQAP was stoned to death. Couples seen together were detained and punishments were regularly meted out in public.

"Faithful woman: protect your pure body from prying eyes," declares an AQAP sign still hanging in a street now free of militancy.

Ancient tombs and mausoleums, once revered and praised by the local Hadramawt residents, were deemed idolatrous and destroyed by militants - a move almost identical to Islamic State militants in Syria and Iraq who destroyed Islamic heritage sites.

"We feared the consequences of their deviant ideology," said Bajbir, who fled Shihr when al-Qaeda militants threatened him for criticising them on Facebook.

Mukalla was recaptured by the Arab-coalition backed government forces on April 24 this year, more than a year after the city was seized by AQAP.

The victory came as part of an operation to free southern provinces of the militants earlier last month.

AQAP militants allegedly withdrew from the city to save it from destruction and bloodshed, debunking claims by the Saudi-led coalition suggesting a fierce battle killed 800 militants