Taiz stands alone: Protesters raise flag of independence from Yemen
Taiz, YEMEN - The national tricolour of Yemen could not be seen in Taiz on this year's unity day, and its people did not celebrate. The government-in-exile cancelled Sunday's events in answer to those planned by their Houthi enemies in the capital, Sanaa.
Instead, new flags were flying for a growing movement - the Republic of Taiz - and traditional celebrations were replaced by local protests calling for independence.
Such is the mood in Taiz, scarred by a year of war, neglected by the government and its Saudi backers, shunned by southern separatists and under siege by the Houthis, that many feel their only answer is to go it alone.
The republican movement has taken root among residents and those fighting the Houthis - the local "Popular Resistance" and regular army troops who ostensibly back the government-in-exile of President Abd Rabbuh Hadi.
And their feelings have been made known. Their red, blue and yellow flag can now be seen fluttering from many military vehicles in the city of Taiz, and protests are regularly held by civilians.
Farouq al-Samei, an independence activist in Taiz, told Middle East Eye: "When I saw the Houthis killing the civilians of my city and no one helped, I decided to demand independence.
"All sides had disappointed Taiz - even those injured in the war have been denied help. We demand independence, and then we can develop our country."
Samei said resistance fighters and the military were at the forefront of the movement, which would push their plan after the Houthis were defeated.
"In 2011 we supported Hadi, and he did not help us. In 2015 we fought for Hadi, and again he did not help us. We will not fight for Hadi again, we are fighting for liberation, and then we will build our own country."
"We changed our loyalty, we are loyalists to the Republic of Taiz and not Yemen, and we do not care about the north or the south, we only care about Taiz."
Taiz faces isolation despite being caught in the nexus of Yemen's year-long civil war. It has been besieged by Houthi fighters for months, and reinforcements from the Saudi-led coalition have never arrived.
The secessionist Southern Movement, based in Aden, has refused aid to Taiz and continues to send undocumented "northerners" back to a war zone if they are found in its territory.
On Thursday, independence activists staged their first public demonstration in Jamal Street, in the centre of Taiz city. Although the protest was small, military vehicles were decked with the new standard, suggesting tacit if not outright support from military leaders.
A soldier in Taiz city told MEE: "I have been fighting the Houthis for more than one year. The Yemeni government and the coalition forces did not send enough military reinforcements for us.
"Meanwhile, the southern authorities did not allow our injured friends to recover in Aden's hospitals. I will not fight for the sake of Hadi or his government any more, but I will fight for Taiz."
He could not give his name for fear his leadership would revoke his pay.
Activists say the new republic would encompass "al-Ganad" - Taiz province and surrounding areas such as Ibb, and some areas from al-Dhale and Lahj provinces.
Their plan mirrors agreements made in the national transition period after the fall of former president Ali Abdullah Saleh in 2011, which envisaged the division of Yemen into six regions as a solution to growing calls for independence in the former South Yemen.
The Houthis cancelled the plan, agreed by the National Dialogue Conference, when they took over Sanaa and kicked out President Hadi, Saleh's replacement.
The Houthis and Hadi government are currently locked in UN-sponsored peace talks in Kuwait, which special envoy Ahmed Ould-Sheikh on Wednesday said was "closer" to an agreement to end more than a year of full-blown war.
"We are in a stage where the parties have to make hard choices and compromises," the diplomat said, adding that he was "very optimistic" that a deal could be reached.
However, a report released by the London-based Chatham House think tank warned on Wednesday that Yemen faces dissolving into a "chaos state" of small wars over local issues and grievances that would be unresolved by "elite-level" talks in Kuwait.
“In the event of an end to the ‘big war’, a replication of past patterns of behaviour – focusing on the dynamics and ignoring localised issues – will most likely result in Yemen collapsing into a multitude of small wars,” the report said.
Taiz is one such localised issue.
Fadhl al-Rabei, a political analyst, said while independence for Taiz was not likely, the demand would nevertheless send a message to the world that Taiz was fighting alone.
Division was "the best solution" for war-torn Yemen, he added, noting Taiz was not the only area calling for independence.
The Tehama movement has grown in popularity in Hodeida province and its surrounding areas in recent years, with grievances similar to Taiz such as neglect by the government.
"The Southern Movement demands independence, the Tehama movement demands independence for Tehama, as does Taiz. These parts of Yemen can be divided into regions, and this will be the best solution," he added.
However, the movement in Taiz is still only grassroots. Many of the province's political parties support the Hadi government, meaning their hands are tied.
The leaders of the Popular Resistance, meanwhile, are publicly against the movement. Nael al-Adimi, a leader in Taiz city, called those involved "traitors" and a threat to the common defence of the province.
He stated that all Taiz residents must first expel the Houthis, before any other project can be discussed.
"We will not support such a ridiculous project," he said.
"There are some traitors in Taiz trying to divide the Popular Resistance with their new projects, which are not in the interests of Taiz, and the Republic of Taiz is one of them."