In bid to revive protests, Yemenis rush to martyrdom

Reuters News
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Posted: Sep 21, 2011 12:03 AM
In bid to revive protests, Yemenis rush to martyrdom

By Erika Solomon

SANAA (Reuters) - As trucks screech past carrying bloody bodies and gunfire erupts up ahead, cheerful revolutionary songs blare out of loudspeakers -- and throngs of Yemeni protesters start marching toward to an unknown fate.

"Goodbye friends, I'm headed for martyrdom," shouts one man as he slips into a crowd holding up peace signs and shouting, "God is great! Freedom!"

In the capital Sanaa's "Change Square," where thousands have camped out in ramshackle tents to demand an end to President Ali Abdullah Saleh's 33-year rule, protesters are determined to rebuild momentum lost after eight months of demonstrations. Many say they are ready to die for it.

Scores of protesters have already died in three days of gunfire, sniper attacks and mortar fire.

The latest violence started on Sunday as police tried to stop the protesters' advance. It soon deteriorated into fierce clashes between pro-opposition forces and loyalist troops that now divide this battle-scarred city between them.

Any further escalation in the protests in the days ahead could throw a wrench into plans for a power transfer deal between opposition groups and the ruling party. . "We aren't afraid. Death is better than a humiliating life," shouts Abdelrahman Mawthaf, a lawyer, eliciting cheers from the protesters around him.

"God willing, you will return a martyr," one replies.

Yemeni activists are eager to end a political stalemate they feel sent the Arab Spring's longest-running protest movement to the bottom of the global news agenda.

Protesters here say they are fighting for a democracy that will topple government leaders they feel are corrupt and offer them little opportunity. Unemployment has sky-rocketed above 35 percent, 40 percent scrape by on two dollars a day or less, while a third suffer malnutrition.

"Before, we were on a path to nowhere. You study for years and there is no job. Your family's villages don't have water," said student protester Rami, 23, watching crowds of protesters flood past.

"You don't have much to lose when you have no future."

DEFEND HONOR

That mood is encouraged by protest organizers, who in recent days have used their loudspeakers to scold protesters if they stay in their tents.

As explosions rock the area near the protest camp, many men stretch out on floor cushions and chew qat--a mild green narcotic leaf that most Yemeni men stuff their cheeks with and while away the afternoon.

"Come on everyone get moving! Defend the honor of the martyrs... Where are the free men? Our women are more honorable than you," blares one organizer. A group of women, swathed in black veils, march down the rows of tents encouraging men to spit out their qat and march.

Organizers here have not glossed over the risks of escalating the protests. They say protesters know they must confront the government at any price.

"We have always known the regime is ready to kill, but this cannot deter our plans.... Let our blood spill until the world realizes Yemenis want their freedom," says youth organizer Manea al-Mattari.

Many observers say the new protests will subside if a transition deal is reached between the ruling party and leading opposition groups. Islah, an Islamist party, is believed to have brought the most followers into Change Square.

They have fed demonstrators twice a day and analysts say if Islah accepted a deal, most protesters would retreat with them.

But youth protest groups, like Manea al-Mattari's, say they will push on until all the political elite are out -- including some members of older opposition groups, like Islah, which once served in the government.

In a mosque that protesters have turned into a makeshift hospital, the mutilated bodies of the dead lie out on blankets in a corner, their hands folded serenely on their chest.

"Stop crying, why would you cry?" asks one protest organizer, shaking a young man sobbing over the body of his cousin. "He has become a martyr, there is no better end."

Some are not so sure.

"I don't know if this is worth it or not," says student protester Rami, as he jumps to allow motorbikes carrying mangled bodies to zip past.

"On the other hand, I don't see what other options there are."

(Editing by Andrew Heavens)