Then and Now. Jules Azzopardi

Aden January 2016.

Needless to say, Aden today is a far cry from the good old Aden of old, the “barren rocks”, sweltering heat, the “making do” with what best we could.

Suffice if to say “the best” was as much as would put the world to shame; the jewel embedded spirits in the hearts of those that lived there, the character created, invisible to the eye, but the pervasive in our spirit; we did not see it strife – it was just play and getting on with the matter-of-fact day to daily life; we diced with life and we diced with death and each day we must have won and now live to tell the tale.

We, for the most part, were civilians. We were not at war with anyone. We forgave those who were at war with us. We strove to make the best of every day, which is more than can be said of the ‘civilised’ world.
I left it in April 1967, I was then aged 20 years. In the preceding 3 years I would be shot at  3 times, closely avoid 2 grenade attacks, and witness the immediate aftermath of 4 other grenade incidents (the bazooka attack on the flat in Maalla that flew over my head, the killing of the officer from the ordinance depot, the bomb at the dinner party in the block next to the Ethiopian embassy (I was across in a block in dolphin Square – and the grenade attack in the bar in Maalla strait that killed Cpl Slater, a passer-by).  It was all in part of a normal day.

Day in, day out, the crows cawed, the tamarind tree was abundant fruit, the Bougainvillea purple flowers abounded scentless while the White Oleander profuse its aroma competed in fragrance with the Jasmine. The crab apple was neither apple nor crab. The blue speckled crab was larger than an adult hand. Whatever else there was, was mostly arid, dust-ridden save for the respite of the sea a deep blue scintillating surface and our bleached tanned bodies wading the beach, within shark nets.

They were glory days of which there will be much to tell. In better days I would meet the dawn in the isolated bay beyond Gold Mohur and beyond Conquest Bay, in the bay today they call UM al HAGGAR (Mother of the Rock bay) where I would go spear fishing with a couple of hand-made spears adapted from iron railings and caught many a cuttlefish and the sit with the fishermen round their fire sharing their tea brewed on the wood fire.

There is much to say about those days and there will be much to tell.


In 1997, I stepped on a Yemenia Flight at Heathrow bound for Sana’a  to connect  a local flight to Aden.  For all these years there has been great investment to diminish the significance of Aden – which from a commercial standpoint made little sense to me.

I went out on a whim. Throughout the flight I wondered if I was completely mad. The aircraft was not full and a few seats down, sat a Rabbi. I was given a complimentary pack of ground coffee – I did not appreciate it then – the coffee was the last of a quality of coffee that is now rare. Much of the coffee cultivation has been replaced by khat plantations. They use to say that coffee was discovered in Yemen and that is why the name ‘Arabica’ attaches to the best coffee. Others say that coffee was discovered in Ethiopia. So anything that is anything is discovered anywhere that chooses to claim it. Even Cain was buried in Aden, we were told at primary school.

The airport at Aden, war-damaged days of the civil war in 1994, had its complexion of craters and bullet holes about the walls. The inside large and scant airport building.

The arrivals hall was vacuous. The early morning sun peered through the high level windows, its dust filled rays silent and motionless. On an old metal table in the baggage collection room, unmanned and unguarded displayed a selection of hand guns with tags – awaiting collection by passengers. Nobody seemed to mind.

I cannot recall whether the conveyor worked or whether the luggage was simply brought it and left on the belt or on the floor. I collected my one suitcase and left the building to be met by an array of men calling out to take their taxi. From what little Arabic I recalled, I bargained somewhat and was soon on my way to Tawahi, to a hotel about 100 yards beyond the Prince of Wales pier, not far from where the union club used to be, on a portion of reclaimed land.

The taxi had no i marking but almost every vehicle the windscreen was cracked, or perhaps a door was missing, or suspension gone, driven precariously close to the ground.

As we drove, war-damage and conflict was evident here and there. The Bougainvillea still flowered, and the crows still cawed.

The Church at St Francis Assisi in Steamer Point was still there, but the school at the rear, now girl school,  was walled off and separated from the church and compound at the front, and the fenced high, but you could peer through gaps, not that there was much to see.  A single priest from India occupied the place – the Italian nuns and the priests had long gone.

I soon learned to use the sharing taxi, when in Rome, doing as Adenis do.

The shops around the Crescent in Steamer Point no longer bustled with shops. I had a sad sense of isolation.  Doors and windows were closed throughout. Most trade buildings were shut, keeping secret whether there was any life within.

No more the Marina Hotel and the Police Station – these are flattened sites and is now rough ground used as a wide area for taxi parking – a taxi rank of over 30 or 40 vehicles queuing and approaching the loading up point, filling passengers and being vetted and waved on by a police official giving the driver a permit or voucher so that he would later produce at a check point.

Use of taxi was rationed. I took a sharing taxi to crate for the cost of 25p equivalent to crater or Maalla or Khormaksar as the case may be.  Each time, the taxi stopped at a check point next the previous British and Colonial Stores, before the Rock Hotel. The drivers voucher examined and the passengers looked at.  Occasionally, questions were asked as to who I was.

This was the new generation of Aden, reticent and more reserved and less talkative.  In the old days conversation with the Arabic population was extensive.  Very, very few asked questions who I was and what I was doing there. I had sufficient Arabic to tell them that I been in aden30 years previous and was just visiting.  They seemed to have no memory, reported or otherwise, of what it was like in the old days. The present day was more than they could cope in some cases.

One young lady at a hotel told me that her fiancé was killed along with 11,000 other on a refugee ship sailing to Djibouti from the last war.  It was bombed from the air, gratuitously. There were many scars from conflict.

These were the easy check points. Those on the Abyan road are more strict.

The Dolphin Square buildings stood in some decay. Drainpipes leaked down walls and much of the plasterwork and rendering off the external walls. A block of flats was in recent years erected at the edge of the gardens of the square.

Crater was populated as always but the markets were not so filled with produce. Scarcity was evident in the supply as compared to the old days.

The Shenaz cinema still stood and showed films, I think and the causeway to little Aden stands except now the landside of the causeway is no longer water and a new hotel stands on part of the site, the Movenpick.  At 6 pm the hotel had a happy hour and the 12 ex patriates then in Aden met each night, there being little else to do.  Within the hour I met them too. That was Aden of old, where the ex-patriate social life elevates  sans frontiers.

Tarhsyne is closed to public and the former Governor’s residence is the presidential palace.

A Bulgarian built hotel stood in Gold Mohur – but was out of use due to bomb damage. I never got to see inside it.

The elephant bay was since converted into a luxury hotel with chalets in the grounds and well maintained vegetation.


Little news emerges of the situation in Aden today.

From reports in news media and lecture and panel discussions the following is a summary.

In early 2015, Saudi Aria led a coalition of other 10 countries (Kuwait, Qatar, Bahrain, U.A.E., Jordan, Egypt, Morocco, Senegal, Sudan and Malaysia) (“coalition forces”) invaded Yemen by air strikes to assist the new president Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi (“Hadi”) who replaced the former president Ali Abdulla Saleh (“Saleh”). The coalition have non-military the support of US, UK, France, Turkey and Belgium.

Iran, Russia and China oppose the coalition (although there some suggestion that Eritrea also supports them.

The coalition are Sunni Muslims.  Iran is Shia. The division between Shia and Sunni dates back over 1500 years. Some argue the division is political or commercial rather than religious. I cannot say one way or another.

The Houthis are a family based in the north of Yemen and had a religious following which the former President Ali Abdulla Saleh saw as a threat and there were conflicts in which one of the Al Houthi family members was killed.  Following the “Arab Spring” and succession to presidency by Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi (“Hadi”), the Houthi south to unseat him and the invasion by Saudi Arabia ensued.

The Iran backed Houthi’s and former President Saleh, previous sworn enemies, had since joined forces against Saudi coalition forces supporting Saleh.

Talks in Geneva in July 2015 proved inconclusive and when resumed in December 2015, a ceasefire was agreed, only to be broken within a day or so, but by and large appears to hold amid sporadic targeted violence.
BP refinery was bombed in July 2015 and was in flames again in January 2016 from suspected bomb sabotage.


Natalie Roberts gave a talk at a London university about MSF helping in Aden. There is no commercial transport to or from Yemen.  Any vessel or aircraft travelling to or from Yemen runs gauntlet and risk bombing by Saudi coalition jets.

No electricity or fuel to power pumps and therefore no water supply.

Lorry tankers carrying water risk being bombed by coalition military aircraft.

MSF hospital was bombed despite they having given coordinated to the Saudis no to bomb. Very scarce medical supplies to treat sick or injured, and non-sterile needles being re-used.

UNIFIED 1990 – CIVIL WAR 1994.

The former South Yemen  was unified in 1990 but a civil war followed in 1994. There remains a strong imperative from the West to maintained the entire Yemen unified though there is a Separationist  AL HIRAK movement  seeking a return to South Yemen.

According to Dr Behrony, former diplomat, ISIL is not strong in Yemen, but Al Queda is the real threat.
In the recent panel discussion, there was a suggestion 9from the audience) that President Hadi was eager for the war to prolong  for reasons not made clear to me.

I gained an impression that the warring factions in Yemen still feel they have ground to gain which makes for a very volatile situation.  One can hoe the cease fire holds and things improve.

For the present there is not much that can be said about the situation of Aden. We know that the Maalla cemetery was flattened by Houthi vandalism, and that Prince of wales pier was bombed, but  if truth were known, much greater damage might come to light.

Jules Azzopardi – 18/1/16

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