Yemen's Uprising: The Families on the Front Lines

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Yuri Kozyrev / NOOR for TIME

Tariq Noman and his son Anas, 20, work in an improvised field hospital set up on the grounds of a mosque in Sana'a, Yemen

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Saleh said he is firmly committed to combatting al-Qaeda, but the protests have distracted his government's attention from the growing threat. Even though al-Qaeda suffered a significant blow when missiles from a U.S. Predator drone killed the group's prominent propagandist Anwar al-Awlaki, a Yemeni American living in Yemen's ungoverned tribal areas, the terrorism organization's Yemeni affiliate is still strong. Just a few days prior to the attack, another al-Qaeda-linked group that had taken over a major southern town chopped off the hands of two men charged with stealing. If Saleh were truly concerned about the al-Qaeda threat, argues Noman, he would send troops to the south of the country instead of deploying them to battle peaceful protesters in Change Square and in other demonstrations throughout the country.

On Sept. 18, Noman's makeshift hospital at the square was a scene of unprecedented carnage. On that day protesters surged beyond their usual boundaries, provoking a pro-government military barrage of machine-gun fire, sniper bullets and RPGs. At least 56 people were killed in the deadliest crackdown the protest had seen; in the ensuing week, scores more bodies flooded the hospital, victims of ongoing urban fighting that ended only with Saleh's return on the 23rd. More recently, the days have been marked by a wary calm as the opposing sides watch the course of Gulf Cooperation Council–brokered negotiations between opposition leaders and Saleh. In case the violence flares again, volunteer doctors and medical students have prepared trolleys of new IV drips, bandages, sterilized scalpels and sutures. The floors have been freshly swabbed and reek of harsh disinfectants.

Noman's 20-year-old son Anas tends to patients wounded in early conflagrations, changing bandages and checking stitches. With his carefully sculpted goatee, jeans and Kangol cap, he looks like he would be more at home with the revolutionaries composing antiregime hip-hop than in the clinic. But the fourth-year medical student says the revolution needs doctors just as much as it needs slogans. Having worked at his father's side during operations for the past three years, he is no stranger to blood and gore. Still, the extent of the violence has taken its toll. He is haunted by the memory of a life he didn't save: a TV cameraman who had been shot in the head. As a doctor, he finds quiet days a relief. But as a revolutionary, he admits that he is conflicted. "The youth are not happy when the protests are quiet," he says. "It means that the revolution will go more slowly. When we see dead people, we feel that the whole world will support us."

The Saleh regime accuses its tribal and military opponents of exploiting the protesters' willingness to martyr themselves. "They push [the protesters] to be killed. They push them into a situation where they know that they will be killed so they can sell the blood to the media," Yahya Saleh says. He maintains that neither his security forces nor the Republican Guard are responsible for any of the deaths, a statement directly contravened by eyewitness reports and human-rights monitors.

That said, the revolution has attracted some pretty odious backers. For decades, General Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar, who defected with his army division in support of the protest movement, was President Saleh's principal enforcer. A U.S. embassy cable leaked by WikiLeaks before his defection describes him as the "second most powerful man in Yemen" and a closet Islamist with ties to terrorists, extremists, arms dealers and smugglers. Were he to become President, he "would be unwelcome to the U.S. and others in the international community." Hamid al-Ahmar and his brother Sadiq, head of one of Yemen's most powerful tribes, were important Saleh allies as well (both Saleh and Mohsen belong to the Ahmar tribe) and are infamous for their rapacious corruption. They too are now on the side of the opposition. The protesters say the support of these powerful men is too valuable to turn down. "General Mohsen was the right-hand man of Saleh, so it meant a lot when he joined us," says Anas Noman. "He sacrificed for us. If we find out afterward that he is corrupt, we will put him in jail. But for the moment, we appreciate support from wherever it comes." The opposition may indeed include opportunists who have historically shown no more interest in democracy than Saleh, but accusations that the revolution has been hijacked deflect attention away from the fact that the revolution started as a national, popular uprising against the regime. Elsewhere in the country, far removed from the protection of the al-Ahmars and Mohsen's troops, demonstrators are taking on the regime in their own peaceful protests. And the government crackdown has been just as hard as it is in Sana'a.

In a daily ritual that has come to define Yemen's popular uprising, young men line up by the thousands behind an imaginary starting line at the edge of Change Square. They link arms and chant for the fall of the regime, and then, at some inaudible signal, they charge, armed with little more than ceremonial daggers and sun-shielding umbrellas, down the road toward the armed government soldiers standing at the street that marks the limits of permissible protest. Most of the time, the group veers away at the last minute, a taunting demonstration of defiance. But every once in a while a signal is given, the routine breaks and the young men surge over the invisible red line and into mortal danger. It is on days like that that Tariq Noman holds his breath. Ahmed, his youngest son, makes it a point to be out front. Unlike his father or his brothers, who have other skills to dedicate to the revolution, he has only his thin, adolescent body. "I want to be a martyr," he says. "If this is the price of dignity for our nation, then I am willing to pay it."

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