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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Civil War Turns Life in Yemen Upside Down

ADEN -- Northern and southern Yemen are fighting a chaotic civil war in which the price of a mildly narcotic leaf Yemenis love to chew has skyrocketed but that of assault rifles has plummeted. It is a war where southern soldiers on the front lines do not know that the leaders they are dying for have declared southern independence from a united Yemen and remain hopelessly ill-informed of the latest cease-fires and truces. War broke out on May 4 between the two halves of a Yemen that for only four years had been united in an uneasy merger between two of the least-developed countries in the Arab world. Yemen's Sanaa-based President Ali Abdullah Saleh vowed to capture Aden and overthrow its rulers who declared a separate republic last Saturday. Northern forces continued to push toward the southern capital Wednesday, and although advances were checked on the western and eastern fronts, inroads were made on the third, northern front. All three fronts saw northern shells slamming closer to the city than on previous days but life in Aden retained its outward calm. The fighting has, however, thrown out a series of anomalies and difficulties. From Yemen some 300,000 barrels of oil continues to be exported each day -- more than the output of some OPEC countries -- but simple phone calls are virtually impossible to make. With supply lines disrupted by war, the price of qat, the locally grown leaf that Yemenis on both sides of the conflict chew for hours every day, has risen four-fold in the south. At the front, almost every soldier had a bag of the popular leaf before the shortage began. Soldiers take qat breaks in bunkers while rockets fly overhead. They say qat has made their enemies fearless, charging into battle oblivious of the danger. The price of vehicles has also soared. Taxi drivers in Aden, the newly declared southern capital, charge $200 to take journalists to the front. A good four-wheel-drive costs $3,000 a day, with a $15,000 deposit. Yet Kalashnikov assault rifles and bullets have lost half their value in Aden. Bullets are down to about 20 cents a piece, and the rifle goes for $250 after the southern authorities opened the Aden arsenal and began to arm civilians. Boys in their early teens commonly walk around the streets with Kalashnikovs on their shoulders. The corridors of the Aden hotel where some 25 foreign journalists and relief workers are staying are littered with dozens of armed men. Many soldiers are volunteers. Some are snatched from passing cars and sent to the front in slippers, traditional wrap-around foutas like an Asian sarong, with no helmets or military gear except for a Kalashnikovs and a fewclips of bullets. It is often not clear who is in command in some positions. "I do not even know that there is a state," said Abdullah Abdul-Galeel, 32, when he was informed that southern Yemen seceded on Saturday from the north. "But secession is better because this is a northern occupation," he said at a southern checkpoint 20 kilometers east of Aden of the northern drive to capture the southern capital. At another checkpoint one man said he had received orders for a cease-fire during a Moslem feast. The man next to him said it was news to him. A third said he heard of it on Kuwait radio. On the way to the front, soldiers at checkpoints make outrageous claims of victory or say they are at the southern al-Anad base while actually a few kilometers south of it. On meeting reporters returning from the front, they eagerly ask for the truth of the situation and where loyal units are deployed. Few of the soldiers know their real age and usually answer by saying "between" or "about." One gave his age as 40 but at a later visit to the same front he said he was 35.