We regret driving out the British,’ say Aden’s former rebels
It is rare to hear former Marxist revolutionaries apologise for having successfully driven out an imperialist power decades before. In the rundown former British colony of Aden, a backwater that was once one of the world’s key shipping hubs, such regrets are not uncommon.
“I am sorry about what happened,” said Ahmed Mighali Said, 77, who fought the British Army in the bloody four-year uprising known as the Aden Emergency, which ended with Britain’s withdrawal in 1967. “Under the British we had peace. The Yemeni fighters were ignorant. I hope the British come back.”
The rueful attitude of many former fighters is less a nostalgia for British colonial rulers than a reaction to southern Yemen’s disastrous history since they left.
Civil wars, an unpopular union with the Islamic north and the subsequent neglect of the south by the Sanaa Government — which is accused of hogging the profit from its oil and gas — are again fuelling a desire to break away, adding to the chaos in a country targeted by al-Qaeda as a new sanctuary.
There are still many signs of the 130-year British occupation in this strategic port sheltered by the spectacular dark cliffs of a volcano. Its Crater district — the old city is built within the caldera — was the centre of the last war fought by the dying British Empire.
The Crescent Hotel, where the Queen stayed in 1954, is closed but standing, and neat little Anglican churches still serve dwindling congregations. The old bookstore, Aziz’s, barely survives, selling yellowed tomes on Boy Scouting and London guidebooks with photos of Britain’s thriving manufacturing industry.
The occasional Morris Minor or Austin has been kept on the road, in mint condition, weaving among the battered Toyotas past former barracks that are now teeming tenements.
In the Crater area, the Yemen military museum has lurid oil paintings, produced with more bloodlust than talent, that depict ambushed British soldiers bleeding and dying in their vehicles. Black-and-white photos show British soldiers on rooftops, hauling off suspects and jumping out of Land Rovers.
There are also photos of men being publicly beheaded with the sword during a 1955 coup in the Islamic north. The scenes are chillingly reminiscent of Iraq or Afghanistan today, and may be a taste of what lies ahead for Yemen.
Britain’s dirty war, in which it sent mercenaries to the north to support the deposed royalists against the Egyptian-backed nationalists, while launching RAF air raids on villages in the south that killed scores of civilians, has echoes in today’s Yemen.
In this deeply divided country the President of 32 years, Ali Abdullah Saleh, is fighting a Shia rebellion in the far north in part through airstrikes. He is also trying to crush a re-emerging secessionist movement in the south and is under pressure to fight al-Qaeda, which trained the man accused of attempting to bomb a US airliner on Christmas Day in Yemen.
So far, Britain has limited itself to helping to develop a Yemeni counter-terrorism unit, while the US has pledged to double its $70 million (£45 million) military aid budget this year.
In the craggy hills just outside Aden there is a stark reminder of the price to be paid for any deeper involvement in the country’s turbulent affairs.
Line after line of graves stand in the almost treeless British military cemetery at Salahedin, a cluster of them marked June 20, 1967 — the day a military convoy was ambushed in the Crater by British-trained Yemeni police. Eight soldiers were killed in the mutiny, which triggered a full-scale invasion of the rebel stronghold by the British Army.
The force of Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders was led by Lieutenant-Colonel Colin Campbell “Mad Mitch” Mitchell, who fought his way into the overcrowded ancient streets with Saracen armoured cars accompanied by the skirl of regimental bagpipers.
It was a bloody but short fight, described by the force’s end-of-empire commander as “like shooting grouse; a brace here and a brace there”.
Despite crushing the revolt, it was clear to Whitehall’s politicians that the end was nigh, and the British moved out of Aden that year. In 1967, Aden was the second-biggest port in the world on the main sea route from east to west. Dubai, hundreds of miles off the shipping lanes, was an insignificant fishing port. Forty-two years later the roles are reversed.
“Now we are under the occupation of Zayidism,” said a retired major-general who secretly fought the British after returning from officer training in Aldershot in 1966, referring to the minority Shia faith of the President and his family. “They took everything, erased our history, culture and civilisation, and undermined the rule of law.”
Underscoring his words, three policemen were shot dead in Aden this week in tribal revenge for the death of a man who was killed by officers after failing to stop at a checkpoint. The general’s friends bemoan the Islamisation and militarisation of the once-secular south, which reluctantly joined the north in 1990 and failed to break away four years later in a civil war. A key role was played in that conflict by Yemeni Mujahidin, who had fought against the Russians in Afghanistan and were deployed to great effect, and handsomely rewarded, by President Saleh.
In Aden, the cosmopolitan way of life left behind by Britain has all but disappeared. “The cinemas, bars, shops, are all closed, the girls were separated from the boys and the schools provide a religious education,” said one businessman, who added that even though Aden fought against the despised occupation, the British “taught us how to live”.
“Our people hate unification day, 22 May 1990,” said a professor. “They feel they were thrown into hell.”
Most people here want independence again, this time from the north. The country’s most popular newspaper, al-Ayyam, has been closed by the authorities and its editor arrested on shooting charges which supporters say are false.
At a recent demonstration outside the newspaper’s offices, protesters said that the police started shooting at a crowd, accidentally killing one of their own officers and a building guard. The advocates of secession insist that they want a peaceful separation but point to the repressive attitude of the Government, which ignores their voice and takes their resources without reinvesting in the south.
“People are ready to use weapons but it hasn’t come to that yet,” one professor said.
Should the south rise again, it will face a tough enemy in the government forces — now being trained and equipped by the new global power, America, and by Aden’s sorely missed former foes, the British.
Mutiny and mutilation
The port of Aden was visited by Marco Polo and Ibn Battuta in the 13th and 14th centuries, before growing into a ship-fuelling centre in the 1800s
In 1839 Britain took the area from Sultan Muhsin bin Fadl and established the Aden Settlement. It was to hold the territory for more than 100 years
Aden became the world’s third-busiest port after the Suez Canal opened in 1869 — a stopping point for cargo ships and millions of migrants to the colonies of the British Empire
In the 1950s Britain faced pressure from the National Liberation Front, a communist group that formed part of Gamal Abdel Nasser’s pan-Arab movement
Armed resistance began with a grenade thrown at the British High Commissioner in 1963, triggering the “Aden Emergency”. The British Government said it would give the area independence, but keep a troop presence
In 1967 the local police mutinied and killed 24 British troops. Their corpses were dragged through the streets and mutilated. The order came to withdraw but Lieutenant-Colonel Colin Mitchell of the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders — known as “Mad Mitch” — refused
On July 3, 1967, he charged into Crater with 15 regimental bagpipers playing Scotland the Brave. He held the town until the British withdrew completely in November