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Arrested by the Yemenese Army

Frank Robben - August 1993

While in Sanaa to replace my expired passport I had a new experience - one that in a way I actually enjoyed, perversely, because it is the sort of thing one usually only reads about, and perhaps also because it ended without any problems.

In the early morning I decided to go out for a jog and sightseeing from the hotel where I had spent the night, a medium-sized Yemenese hotel on the outskirts of Sanaa. Heading in the direction of the hills, the buildings ended after a few blocks, replaced by barren red earth, mounded in places where either old structures had stood or new ones were planned, with some low barren peaks a couple of kilometers away. As I worked my way along, jogging and walking, I decided to continue to the peak of one of the nearest hills to see the view. At one point someone in the distance shouted at me, and I had the sense that I was trespassing and should turn around. But being an inveterate jogger and somewhat used to this, I persisted and began climbing uphill. Suddenly an order was barked at me and I turned to see a soldier with an automatic rifle. I was surprised and simply stood there, and he said some more and I could hear the unmistakable clunk of a round being loaded into the barrel. I then raised my arms a bit, reluctantly, and he lowered the rifle somewhat and came forward to apprehend me.

This was the first time I had ever been apprehended at gunpoint and I had an interesting string of thoughts. I felt no fear, since I really was not doing anything unusual, for me, but I understood that I had no choice but to cooperate as best as I could and then simply observe what would happen. Arguing would not be of much use. What was the Yemenese army like, what was the attitude of these soldiers, how did they live, and why were they here? And how would they deal with me, an American with no passport or papers of any kind on me?

No one spoke English. I believe they tried to impress me with the seriousness of my offense, perhaps suggesting that I may be some sort of guerilla (a 59 year old, bald and white haired American jogger?) . But I suspect mostly they were simply enjoying exerting their limited but well understood physical power to order a trespasser around. Anyway, I was politely led by the hand (male Yemenites often are seen in public holding hands, leading each other and enjoying each other's company) through some fields and past the camps and cooking fires of the curious soldiers to what must have been the officers barracks and headquarters, simply some shabby adobe and stone huts. I was ordered inside one of these, which contained 4 beds, and simply sat on a bed while being watched by one or more soldiers. Some questions were asked but no one seemed to know English, and it was apparent they were simply waiting for someone else to come or give some order for what to do.

I had a small repair tool on my belt in a leather sheath, which maybe looked like a knife but was basically a sturdy pair of folding pliers, with a knife blade folded into one of the handles along with the other tools. It had been examined cursorily a couple of times during their searches of me, and then returned. One of the soldiers, or officers, in the hut who had kept looking intently at me with his piercing black eyes, perhaps trying to make me feel uneasy, again looked at this tool and fully examined all of its parts. When he found the knife blade he seemed to think this was quite serious. I shrugged my shoulders and indicated I thought it was trivial. He then made the gesture of cutting a throat with it, and pocketed it. I considered that I may not get it back .

After about 2 hours a somewhat heavy senior officer arrived, I will call him the Commandant. He spoke fluent English and questioned me briefly, then apologized for the inconvenience of detaining me and disappeared. I was relieved of the concern of any longer-term inconveniences. After another half hour or so I was taken out and into his car, a 4-wheel drive standard Toyota which had a driver and another fellow, and a young boy, maybe 10 or so, none in uniform. The Commandant again apologized a bit and asked if I had eaten, then gave me a couple of small packets of fresh milk to drink. He was not a man of many words and obviously with much authority; I felt it was best not to question him very much about things.

Just before we left the officer who had taken my knife came up and showed it to the Commandant. He looked at it briefly and returned it to me. I had forgotten about it and was glad to have it back, as it was at times quite useful. We then drove out to the main road, turning so as to pass the hotel where I had stayed. I pointed this out to the Commandant, but he simply grunted and the car continued. Then he changed his mind and had the car do a U-turn, again passing my hotel without slowing, continuing a couple of miles, then turning left into a fairly large military compound. At the gate the commandant was smartly saluted, there was some conversation, and the car pulled to the side and he got out. A few troops had marched up, perhaps new recruits, some in uniform and some not, and he went over and began reviewing them.

Everything seemed very informal, and the commandant did not appear to plan his activities but simply did as he pleased and when he pleased with everyone cooperating fully. After a bit he returned and asked me my name, then grunted to a soldier and I was taken from the car and to another barracks room. As before this was a bare, dirty room with 4 beds, with the soldiers' (officers, I am sure) belongings in worn suitcases or locked boxes either under the beds or at the foot. Several soldiers came and went, perhaps to see me and then to chat with their friends. Only some were in uniform. As I suspected, the young boy was the commandant's son, he played with the soldiers and also questioned me a bit in English. A couple of the soldiers spoke fair English; we all loosened up a bit and exchanged various bits of information.

After probably an hour the commandant returned, again apologized for the detention, and said I could go. I wondered if I would have to walk to the hotel, but he ordered his staff car to take me there. And that was the end, I was simply driven to the hotel and let off. No one ever looked at any papers of mine or questioned me in any detail. At the hotel I immediately met my driver, who had been looking for me and had become worried. But nothing had really happened and we left to go to the American Embassy to get my passport.

In some perverse way I wish it had been more difficult, it would have made a better story to tell and I would have seen more of things little known to me. Even more, I wished I could have made the acquaintance of the Commandant, sat down with him and chatted, hearing stories about life in Yemen, the fighting that had gone on, and the old government and the new, supposedly democratic, government.

Copyright 1996 by Frank Robben