Accidental Attempt to Visit Military Base

21 07 2008

This entry is out of date because I have been very slow to actually write down the events that occurred. It was on the 23rd of June that Mohammad (Majnoon) took Milushka and I and several other students on a trip to Jabal an-Nubi Shu’ayb (Mountain of the Prophet Shu’ayb). (Though I didn’t know it at the time, this is the highest mountain in the Arabian Peninsula at 12,333 feet.) We left around 14:30 and drove nearly an hour and a half to get there.

We had to go through two police or military checkpoints to get there. When we were nearly at the top of the mountain we came to a third checkpoint. I thought it was a bit odd to have another checkpoint on such a small road, especially nearly at its end. The stop began to take longer than usually, and I thought the conversation was about Alia filming with her video camera as we drove up. (She is making a documentary about Yemen and is often filming.) A moment later, they told us no cameras are allowed at the top of the mountain because of some problem in the past and we had to leave all our cameras at the checkpoint. This seemed a bit strange and none of us were too thrilled with the idea. However, Alia was not going to leave her movie cameras (real movie cameras) behind so she decided she would wait at the checkpoint with our cameras. We gave her all our cameras, and she and Mohammad waited there while the rest of us continued on our way. (We still had two Yemeni men with us, Hani and one whose name I didn’t hear.)

When we got to the top of the mountain a few minutes later, we all piled out of the van but a soldier came and asked for our passports and told us to wait by the van. A bit later, another guy came and spoke to another girl in our group. It sounded like he said we had to wait for a guide. Though things seemed a bit strange, none of us were very concerned because there are soldiers and paramilitary everywhere in Yemen, so it was not odd to see them at the top of a mountain that was supposed to be a tourist spot. While we waited, Milushka expressed a hope that the guards at the checkpoint would not decide to check out cameras while they had them since we both had pictures of us in swimsuits in Aden on our cameras. I assured her that they wouldn’t have any reason to check our cameras, and Alia was there watching over them, so it would not possibly be a problem.

Eventually the soldiers told us to get back in the van. Several people did, but I was not about to leave without my passport so I stood by the door. A minute or so later, they told us to get back out of the van so they could give us back our passports. One man held them, and he would call out a name then look us over to be sure that the picture matched the person before giving the passports back. This was a very strange procedure, which really made me wonder what was going on.

Once we all had our passports back, we got in the van and returned to the previous checkpoint, with a soldier on a motorcycle for escort. There Mohammad and Alia rejoined us, and we began to ask Alia (who spoke the best Arabic of us all) what was going on. She informed us that there is now a military instillation at the top of the mountain and only Yemeni pilgrims are supposed to be allowed past the checkpoint to worship in the prophet’s mosque at the top.

As we all settled back into the van, Alia began passing out our cameras that she had. When she handed me my camera case I immediately felt that it was empty! When she saw my panicked expression, she quickly found my camera and handed it to me. Then she explained that as she and Mohammad waited, the guards told her they needed to check the cameras she had with her and erase inappropriate pictures (of the military instillation, presumably) that we might have taken coming up the mountain. They had started with my camera. Alia and Mohammad had protested that the only pictures anyone took were of the terraced fields on the mountain. In the end, Alia had lied and said she didn’t know how to turn on the cameras so that the soldiers could not look at the pictures. (I bet that if we had been much longer at the top, one of the soldiers would have figured out how to turn my camera on. It really is obvious. Who knows if they would have deleted any pictures.)

As we drove way from the mountain, Alia received and then explained more details of the experience to the rest of us. It turned out that the soldiers at the top of the mountain wanted to detain Hani and the other Yemeni man because they had brought us up there without a travel permit (which Mohammad still had with him down at the checkpoint.) They would have detained them except none of the soldiers spoke any English and they couldn’t ask us if any of us could drive the van without Hani or the other man. Eventually they had believed that the permit had been inadvertently left at the checkpoint, and they allowed them to drive us that far, but the soldier came on the motorcycle to ensure that there was a valid travel permit before they would be allowed to go any farther.

Despite this disappointment and near-disastrous adventure, the rest of the afternoon passed pleasantly, driving through the mountains to see the amazing terraced fields of qat and almonds, among other things.

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