In Yemen's Confused Capital: The City of the Invisible President

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Yuri Kozyrev / NOOR for the Magnum Foundation Emergency Fund

A poster of Yemen's President Ali Abdullah Saleh is seen at the roof of a house at the old town of Sana'a, May 18, 2011.

As dawn broke over Yemen's capital on Saturday morning, confusion over the condition of President Ali Abdullah Saleh after a mortar attack on his presidential compound convinced most Sana'a denizens to remain in their homes following a night filled with the sound of gunfire and shelling. Makeshift roadblocks controlled by armed neighborhood residents were put in place across major highways as well as small surface roads in an effort to contain the intense violence that Sana'a has been witness to for 11 days.

In one of the last remaining minibuses in operation in the capital, men argued over the president's condition, some even insisting that he was dead. "Just because we heard a voice on state television that sounded like Saleh's doesn't mean he's alive," said one man, referring the president's failure to appear before cameras, releasing a recorded statement instead.

While the streets remained mostly empty, trucks packed down with furniture and luggage would be seen occasionally racing out of the capital. Since fighting began, thousands of families have fled Sana'a for their ancestral villages, seeking refuge from the sometimes indiscriminate shelling. As fear and confusion tightened its grip on the city, more residents followed suit.

Later in the day, Saudi sources confirmed that president Saleh had accepted an invitation for medical treatment in the Kingdom, starkly contradicting reports that his wounds were "light." The full extent of Saleh's injuries is still unclear. He is reported to have a shrapnel wound 3 inches below his heart and to have second degree burns on his face and chest, according to the BBC. Six other top officials are going to Saudi Arabia for treatment, according to Yemen's official news agency on Saturday, including the prime minister and other high-ranking members of the ruling party.

"Should the president be incapacitated, his vice president Abd al-Rabi Mansur al-Hadi will take the reins of government. While the president remains in Sana'a, he may accept an invitation to travel to the Kingdom for medical treatment," said one Yemeni government official not authorized to speak to the press. Nevertheless, by seeking treatment in Saudi, Saleh has inadvertently caved to the pleas of millions of Yemenis who have demanded that he "get out" for more than four months of protests and violent government crackdowns.

Indeed, Sana'a seemed to catch some relief even as the rumors of Saleh's departure circulated. As night fell over the city on Saturday, a welcome silence fell on the capital. Absent were the booming artillery shells that had pounded the positions of tribal fighters opposed to Saleh government. The din had echoed through the city for the last 11 days. Residents of the Old City, enjoying consistent electricity for the first time in months, left their homes to sit in their favorite restaurants for dinner and some even felt calm even to do a bit of shopping. Old men sipping tea were discussing the success of a Saudi brokered ceasefire accept by Saleh's remaining loyalist military forces and tribesmen. They seemed to be enjoying the first quiet night in over a week.

It would not last. By 9:00 PM local time, the first explosion of several to come rang out across the capital, a dramatic announcement to the entire city that the ceasefire did not hold. "I've had enough, I've had enough," said one elderly man, hobbling home on his cane and shaking his head.

Members of Yemen's pro-democracy movement continue to remain skeptical about Saleh's whereabouts and the Saudis' motives. "This is absolutely despicable," said Jamal Nasser, spokesman for the Coordinating Council of the Youth Revolution of Change, Yemen's largest protest organization. "After all we have sacrificed, after all the lives that were lost, Saudi and Saleh are trying to dupe us again. This isn't the end. There will be more violence. Saleh isn't done yet." The president has reneged again and again on supposed deals for his departure.

Meanwhile the protesters who have taken up residence in Sana'a's Change Square have been quietly huddled in their tents in recent days, in stark contrast to the usual boisterous and jovial atmosphere of the camp. Amid the fighting between tribal warriors and Saleh's loyalists, they have been watching the mountains that surround the valley in which the capital lies. At the peaks of these mountains are artillery batteries, the same batteries that, for the last 11 days, have pounded Sana'a and the positions taken up in the city by the tribesmen. As these mountaintop guns fire on their targets, just before the boom of the shell's impact, residents of Change Square say that they can sometimes hear the hiss of shells as they fly over. "We aren't going anywhere," said Mohammed al-Hindi, a former soldier now living in the square. "But we still pray for peace," he added, nervously watching the sky.