In Yemen, a Controversial Memorial Makes an Important Point

The site where over 100 Yemeni soldiers were killed by a suicide bomber is now home to a lurid, stirring memorial. But not all Yemenis think it's appropriate

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Yuri Kozyrev / Noor for TIME

Visitors observe a makeshift memorial for the more than 100 soldiers killed in May by a suicide bomber in Yemen's capital, Sana‘a, on July 10, 2012

When soldiers are killed by a suicide bomber, commanders face a quandary: the fallen deserve to be mourned, but to make a public show of grief could give the terrorists the propaganda victory they crave. Most militaries quickly clean up the scene of the attack, issue a statement of condemnation and draw a curtain of silence over the mourning process.

Not Yemen’s Central Security Force (CSF). Nearly two months after the May 21 suicide bombing that killed over 100 graduating CSF cadets during a parade in Sana‘a, the attack is relived over and over where it happened, in Sabaeen Square. Giant billboards bear portraits of the dead and over 300 wounded. In a geodesic tent, a large TV screen plays a continuous loop of video of the attack’s grisly aftermath: body parts and blood everywhere, the screams of the dying and the maimed, the horror and rage of their comrades-in-arms.

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Residents of Sana‘a are being welcomed to stop by this impromptu memorial, take a close look at the portraits and the video and sign a visitor’s log. If there is any concern among the CSF’s leadership that this public display gives al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) free publicity, it is overruled by a desire to show Yemenis that the local franchise of Osama bin Laden’s global jihad is not merely a threat to U.S. and the West.

“We want people to remember what happened here,” says Brigadier General Yahya Saleh, the CSF’s chief of staff. “There must be no doubt in their minds that al-Qaeda is an enemy of Yemen.”

The message seems to be getting through. The visitors’ log is filled with expressions of rage and loathing against the jihadists, as well as calls for vengeance. In the geodesic tent, there are gasps of horror from those who watch the video, as well as tears of sorrow. Many visitors welcome the CSF’s plan to build a permanent memorial on the site. “This is a national tragedy and should never be forgotten,” says Nasser Mohammed, whose nephew Shaami Abdelazziz Shaami was among the soldiers killed.

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But there has been criticism from some quarters. Radical Islamist politicians have called for the billboards to be taken down, the tent to be folded up: they find the whole show unseemly. Others have suggested it is a crude attempt by General Saleh to buy himself and the CSF some public sympathy. “He’d like the tears [of mourners] to wash away his sins,” a prominent Sana‘a businessman tells me.

Saleh is a controversial figure in Yemen: he is the nephew of Ali Abdullah Saleh, the dictator forced to step down in late February after more than a year of popular protests against his 44-year rule. During those protests, General Saleh’s soldiers cracked down brutally against those opposed to his uncle, and many Yemenis now want a reckoning. Tawakul Karman, the Nobel Peace laureate who has come to represent the revolution, has called repeatedly for the dismissal of the dictator’s son Ahmed (who leads the powerful Republican Guard) and his nephew Yahya.

(MORE: Why Tawakul Karman’s Revolution Is Far from Over)

The general brushes off critics of his plans for a memorial, saying he’s seeking support not for himself but for the fight against AQAP. Certainly, that support is vital. For too long, Yemenis have regarded the jihadists as a minor issue, exaggerated by paranoid Americans. Others suggested President Saleh hyped up AQAP’s abilities in order to extract military aid from the U.S. — aid he funneled into the forces controlled by his son and nephew.

Denial about AQAP’s threat to Yemen was severely dented last year, when the jihadists took advantage of political chaos in Sana‘a to seize a large swath of the southern province Abyan and establish Taliban-style rule there. Stories of their brutalities quickly spread — summary executions, harsh interpretation of Shari‘a, the whole nine yards — and it began to dawn on many Yemenis that AQAP was not merely targeting the U.S. with underwear bombers. “Abyan showed everyone that these guys want to rule Yemen as well as carry out jihad against the West,” says political analyst Naqib Ghallab. “The message is clear: if we don’t defeat these people, they will create an Afghanistan here.”

Whether or not it would also advance Yahya Saleh’s personal agenda, the display in Sabaeen Square is underlining that message. And it has the endorsement of many soldiers who lost comrades on May 21. Mahdi al-Jarbani was the drill major who trained the graduating batch from the military academy that made up the 2nd Battalion of the CSF’s 14th Brigade — the battalion devastated by one of the most deadly suicide attacks against any military. “Let people recognize our enemy,” says Jarbani, who suffered shrapnel wounds and trauma. “Let the world see. Then let them give us the support we need to get revenge for our men.”

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