Ansar al-Sharia, the al-Qaeda affiliate in Yemen, last week called on the displaced residents of Zinjibar to return to the city and remain under its rule.
The move was seen by politicians and residents as an attempt to use those who remain as human shields in al-Qaeda's ongoing battles with the army in Zinjibar, the capital of Abyan province.
The group had allowed displaced Abyan residents in Aden to return to Zinjibar, and distributed leaflets in refugee camps and other areas of Aden on Wednesday (January 11th) stipulating that returnees cannot commit any act that violates Sharia.
Nearly two thousand people visited the city last Saturday. Their emotional reactions varied between joy and sadness, and some wept upon seeing their homes destroyed as a result of the clashes between the army and al-Qaeda, which seized control of the city in late May. Residents were forced to leave their homes at the outbreak of fighting.
Mohammed Abdullah, a graduate student, told Al Shorfa that the displaced residents' visit lasted no more than five hours.
"We started our journey from Aden at six in the morning," he said. "Everyone assembled in the Sheikh Othman area, and we were then transported by car to the al-Kod area near Zinjibar."
Abdullah said al-Qaeda fighters stopped them for inspection at three checkpoints before they entered Zinjibar, adding that the organisation specified areas for them to visit and placed red tape as a warning against approaching other areas of the city that "are not safe because of mines and improvised explosive devices".
Abdullah said he came out of the visit with a sense of sadness since he was not able to inspect his family home, which was in a neighbourhood that was marked off limit by the militants. He said that at 3:30 pm, everyone returned to the province of Aden.
"I think al-Qaeda called on the displaced to return to Zinjibar and live in it because they would provide the militants with some degree of protection in their confrontations with the army. It is also a move to entrench their control and make things very complicated for the army," he said.
Ahmed al-Rahwi, deputy governor of Abyan province, told Al-Shorfa that the organisation asked the displaced to designate 10 representatives before entering Zinjibar. The representatives were then informed of al-Qaeda's conditions for anyone who wishes to enter and remain in the city: accepting al-Qaeda's de facto authority over the city, the prohibition of entry of any person connected to the government, a commitment by the army not to shell the city, and the formation of local committees to look after the residents and their interests.
Al-Rahwi said "al-Qaeda intends to use the residents as human shields in order to turn the battle of Zinjibar in its favour."
"Some of the displaced were shocked by the enormity of the destruction and devastation that befell the city," al-Rahwi said.
He said al-Qaeda named local resident Jalal al-Balhidi, also known as Abu Hamza, as the organisation's emir in Zinjibar under the expectation that local residents would rally around him more than they would around a non-Yemeni.
Anis Yahya, 30, a fisherman, told Al-Shorfa that when they arrived at the entrance of Zinjibar, joy was apparent on everyone's face. "But when I arrived at my house, I was shocked to see it almost in ruins. Then we went to the government complex square, where we were addressed by the organization's emir in Zinjibar known as Abu Hamza who proposed that we stay and return to our homes, and expressed his group's willingness to provide generators for electricity, as well as let those whose homes have been completely destroyed live in government facilities."
On the displaced residents' response to that request, Yahya said, "Ansar al-Sharia is the reason why we are displaced and our homes and city are destroyed, and they want us to put our fates in their hands. If there were any good in al-Qaeda at all, they would have left us alone and not have spilled all that blood and caused all this destruction."