29-Mar-2006 -- Abyan is a rural and very poor governorate in the South of Yemen. Southerners are an extremely friendly and helpful bunch - and often very well disposed towards the British in particular - but Yemenis often consider Abyan to be a wild and backward area. This reputation was not helped by it being the birthplace of the `Adan-Abyan Islamic Army (AAIA), a violent Islamic extremist organisation affiliated to al-Qā`ida. The AAIA was established by Abū Ḥasan, apparently on the basis of a prediction by the Prophet Muḥammad that '12,000 men will come out of `Adan's Abyan to aid the cause of God and His messenger'. In 1998, 16 tourists were taken hostage by the AAIA and four of them were killed in the resulting rescue attempt. It was this incident more than any other that led to the collapse of the tourism industry in Yemen.
I had spent the previous day visiting water projects in villages close to Zinjibār, the capital of Abyan. These projects were financed by the British Embassy Ṣan`ā' and implemented by Care International. They aim to provide a source of clean drinking water to villages in which the women previously had to walk for hours each day to access water supplies. I thought that a visit to a confluence point might be a good way of seeing a bit more of Abyan, and set off early on 29 March from `Adan (Aden) towards 14N 47E.
This point lies in precisely the same area as that in which the tourists were seized and held in 1998, so a police escort was necessary. The drive from Lawdar to al-Maḥfīd was long and dusty, through desert scrubland dotted with dark hills. I stopped briefly in al-Maḥfīd to buy qāt for the police - experience has taught me that it's much easier to get permission to go off into strange areas if the escort is comfortably chewing away. The town itself is utterly typical of a small Yemeni outpost - scruffy, noisy and friendly.
Using a picture from © Google Earth, I had noticed that the point was located some way down a wādiy near to al-Maḥfīd. Wādiys are seasonally dry river beds, found all over the Arabian peninsula, and, in Yemen, are often inhabited by tribal villages. A famous Yemeni example is Wādiy Ḥaḍramawt (cf. visit to 16N 49E), a very fertile, wealthy area, reputed to be the birthplace of the Queen of Sheba. Most importantly (for the DCP), wādiys are usually flat and navigable by 4WD vehicles.
After a few false starts led us into a series of villages at the base of impenetrable hills, and after the taking of much local advice, we eventually found the entrance to Wādiy Ḥamāra at around 14 km from the point, very close to the centre of al-Maḥfīd. The track was sandy and windy, but easy to drive on, and we made good progress down the wādiy, passing some beautiful villages consisting of tall mud-brick houses built in the traditional way. After about 30 minutes we got to a tiny village made up of a few houses about 1 km from the point, which belonged to members of the Khawl tribe. The village appeared to be nameless, but the tribesmen referred to the general area as 'Milāḥ' - very similar to the Arabic word for salt, although I had to admit I couldn't see the connection.
We drove to about 500 m from the point, and I walked over with one of the policemen, Gamāl Sayf Aḥmad, who is originally from Laḥij (cf. visit to 13N 45E). We found 14N 47E in the middle of sandy, rocky terrain, flanked by mountain ridges on all sides. The area is not totally barren, however, as some relatively green shrubs and short trees are present, including a fairly prominent tree immediately next to the point.
After the photographs, we wandered back to the cars and drove back out of the wādiy, stopping briefly to say goodbye to the Khawliyys. Back in al-Maḥfīd, we continued along the asphalt road towards the town of `Aram, which is near the border between the governorates of Abyan and Šabwa, before switching to a more robust, military-style, escort on the way to the next point at 15N 46E.
Notes: More information about this region and the kidnappings can be found in Kidnapped in Yemen by Mary Quin, an excellent personal account of her ordeal at the hands of the AAIA in December 1998.
For more information about confluence-hunting in Yemen, or the involvement of the British Embassy Ṣan`ā' in the DCP, please see the visit to 15N 49E.