Lines in the sand – day three

Northern Mahra, Yemen, 1964

The sun was climbing behind a bank of low clouds. Our soldiers were huddling about their fires, shivering in the chill wind and checking and rechecking their equipment. I dressed hurriedly, then stepped over to our fire, where Martin was already warming his hands.

“Let’s have breakfast before those clouds break. As soon as it gets warmer, the flies will be all over us. I don’t mind eggs and sand, but I detest eggs and flies and sand.”

Suleim was not happy about this morning’s trip. He stalked nervously about the camp until, finally, he was bundled almost forcibly into my Land Rover, where he was firmly wedged between the mullazim and me. Young Amri and two other legionnaires climbed into the back. We set off down Wadi Armah, escorted by a second vehicle bristling with rifles, the long black snout of a Bren gun protruding from beneath the canvas roof. The radio vehicle followed at a respectful distance.

Perhaps half an hour later Suleim spoke for the first time, “There!” – he pointed – “are the ones we seek. Stop here and I shall go on foot to speak with them.”

We stopped in the shade of a big rectangular boulder – the heat was already becoming oppressive – and Suleim set off with such dignity as he could muster toward a shallow low-roofed cave in the wadi wall. We could see figures moving about near the cave and a small fire flickering inside. As Suleim vanished among the scrub, I turned to the mullazim.

“Now what do we do?”

“We wait!”

So we waited. We were perhaps 500 yards from the cave and I couldn’t see the conference in progress. Neither could I catch any sight of the radio vehicle, but I assumed it was well within hearing of any gunfire.

As the clouds gradually dissipated, the long slanting bars of sunlight filled with flies. They were everywhere – tenacious and sluggish – crawling across eyelids, lips, cheeks. Finally, driven beyond passive resistance, I got a dog-eared copy of Time from the glove box and amused myself by mashing them against my legs.

My count had reached 67 when my attention was diverted by the sound of shouts from the little cave. The mullazim was already on his feet. “Get into the Land Rover!” He said quietly. “When a Mahri shouts he is about to shoot!”

He got that one right. Almost immediately, there was a shot, then two more – close together.

“Let’s get Suleim,” he hissed, “before somebody gets killed!”

In low gear we crawled across the wadi toward the cave, where the shouting continued; at least we had heard no more shots.

“Have they got him, do you think?” I asked the mullazim.

“No, I…” His words were cut off. A bullet whined past the Land Rover, followed by the flat sound of the report of a heavy rifle. “Get out,” he hissed, “they’re after us now. And we’re sitting ducks in here!”

As we piled out, two more bullets sang over our heads. A third struck the vehicle. The right windscreen suddenly imploded, blowing pellets of safety-glass into the cab, and a cloud of kapok from the back of the mullazim’s seat.

“There, behind those rocks!” Then to his men: “Cover the hillside! The Beit Sumada are all in the wadi floor! Keep them there!”

We wormed our way into a litter of boulders, his men peering warily out through crevasses. “Shoot not to kill!” he ordered, “It is better for all if none die.”

A bullet slammed into a nearby boulder, showering us with bits of rock and dust.

“We are in no immediate danger here,” he said, “As long as we can keep the Beit Sumada from the hills. Once they get to the hills, they can shoot down on us, and…fire!!”

Two soldiers fired simultaneously, and a Mahri scuttled back down the hill he was attempting to scale as the dust around him erupted.

“Fire at will,” the mullazim ordered, “But shoot high – not to kill!” He turned to me, “If we can just keep them disorganised, they will be unable to mount a big attack. We could probably stop them, but only by killing several. I do not wish to do that!”

Shots rang out at intervals from both sides. The Beit Sumada made several attempts to climb the hills flanking the wadi, but were turned back each time by a few well-placed shots. Bullets whined overhead, occasionally splattering against the rocks. Amri was crouched near a narrow crack between two boulders, firing at regular intervals. Too regular, I thought. I wormed my way to his side. “At what do you fire, Amri?”

“At nothing, ya Rais,” he grinned, but his smile was uncertain, and I thought he looked scared. I would have offered consolation, but I had none to spare. This time it wasn’t my back that itched. I itched all over!

Since neither we nor the Mahris had any real targets to shoot at, the firing soon settled down to a monotonous regularity. They couldn’t hit us and our soldiers had orders not to hit them. They couldn’t climb the hills and we couldn’t get out. It struck me that, so far, coercion hadn’t worked any better than negotiation. It had managed to get the adrenalin pumping – that was for sure – but we still weren’t getting anywhere.

Under siege at Bir Maksa in South Mahra. We were actually under fire when this photo was taken. The Bedu were firing at us from the distant ledge of rock. It took us – and two Shackleton bombers – nine days to get us extricated from this ambush.

There was a sudden burst of fire from our left and dust spurted from the hillside behind the Mahris. The crew of the radio car had left their post and come to help. I assumed – correctly in the event – that the crew had radioed for reinforcements before joining the fray. Their flank attack really seemed to upset the Beit Sumada. I guess it should have done, since it made their position nearly as precarious as ours had been. Now they were pretty much pinned in their cave. They could neither climb the wadi walls nor scatter into the rocks without exposing themselves to fire from two directions.

After a few minutes, the Beit Sumada virtually stopped shooting. Our own men were firing only to make certain that the tribesmen didn’t escape. I dunno what the Beit Sumada were waiting for, but we were waiting for our reinforcements. So we waited. They were due, the mullazim had said, within an hour or so. I watched the minutes tick by on my watch. Ten, 13, 19. The flies had become unbearable, and we swatted ineffectually, trying to free ourselves of their maddening attentions. Sweat trickled down my neck, mixing with dust to produce sticky rivulets of mud inside my shirt. Thirty-two minutes, 40, 55.

Then there was movement atop the hills overlooking the cave. Right on schedule, I thought. “Look!” I grabbed the mullazim by the arm and wheeled him to face the hills, “There!”  I pointed up. “I guess they’re ours?”

He scanned the hills through binoculars, then smiled. “Yep. It is nearly over. They made good time. Alhamdullilah!”

He handed the binoculars to me. They were our soldiers sure enough, setting up the mortar on the hilltop. On the hillside behind us there were more brown and red figures, hunkering down behind their rifles and Bren guns.

The mast of another radio vehicle appeared behind the mortar, and figures scuttled about the ridge carrying boxes of ammunition. A soldier boldly descended the hill behind us to join the mullazim. Stunned, the Beit Sumada made no attempt to stop him.

“What are your instructions, mullazim?” He asked.

“First we will parley. If they will not surrender, you will have the mortar drop three shells in front of the cave. Not in the cave – we want to kill none if we can – but perhaps fifty yards in front. Have your Bren guns hold their fire until I give the order.”

Hamid was dispatched to speak – again – with the tribesmen. He darted nervously from rock to rock, often crouching for some minutes in shelter, as though nerving himself to go on – At any rate, I thought, that’s what I would have been doing if I were him – but at length he reached the cave and entered. After a time it became obvious that some sort of altercation was going inside, for we could hear shouts and angry voices.

“More shooting?” I asked the mullazim.

“Not this time, I think,” he replied. “The Beit Sumada are proud and stubborn, but they are not stupid.”

Amri was squirming with impatience behind his rock. His fear had given way to excitement, and his eyes were shining. He had survived his baptism of fire! So, for that matter, had I!

Hamid returned after perhaps twenty minutes. “They will not surrender,” he stated flatly. “They say that you may kill them, but the tribe will muster and tear you to pieces.”

“What happened to Suleim? Is he with them?”
“No, he has fled. The firing we first heard was when they tried to bring him down. They don’t think he was hit.”

The mullazim turned and waved to the hilltop mortar. “Hamid is right,” he said thoughtfully, “If we kill these people, the tribe, now scattered, will gather their full strength and we could never penetrate. There are barely enough troops in the HBL to maintain control as it is. Let us hope the mortar convinces them.”

Atop the hill there was a muffled thump as the mortar fired. The shell burst about fifty yards from the cave with a sharp ‘bang’ that echoed and re-echoed from the wadi walls. I was surprised at the smallness of the burst. The second shell followed close behind, then the third! They hardly seemed like awesome weapons to me. One shell had landed squarely on a bush and had demolished it, but seemed to have done little other damage. Then I thought of the effect of those shells bursting in a cave, with shrapnel ricocheting from the walls. Surely the Beit Sumada would surrender now!

Well, maybe not just yet. One man stepped from the cave. He brandished his rifle and shouted defiantly, “Kill us and the tribe will gather. We are prepared to die!  We…….”

Now, I wondered, what do we do for our next trick?

There was a sudden thunder in the sky. Everyone, I think, was startled, and every face turned upward. At first there was nothing, only the growing roar. Then it appeared over a hill – a huge Shackleton bomber, dispatched from Khormaksar Airfield in Aden to support us. It roared low over the wadi – its nose cannons depressed, bomb-bay doors open – then circled and made another pass. It was bloody impressive. I knew the Brits had a couple of them in Khormaksar – left over from WWII – but I’d never seen one in the air before. The massive four-engine plane then settled into a circular course that kept it constantly in sight. Shackletons were often used in the Western Aden Protectorates to keep the bedu in line. They methodically pursued and destroyed their flocks – the only real asset the bedu had – leaving them absolutely destitute. I know if I’d been a bedu, it would have scared the bejesus out of me. We knew it had enough fuel to circle overhead for eight hours, firing at anything that moved – that was what it did best. The Beit Sumada knew that, too.

“They will surrender now,” the mullazim grinned. “They know what such a machine could do to their tribe. Even if no one were killed by it, it could destroy their flocks and they would probably starve. They will surrender now!”

Much to the discomfiture of the RAF, their jet fighter-bombers were virtually ignored by the bedu. There were, I found, two reasons for this: (1) they were so fast that they came and went before the bedu had had time to become afraid, and (2) after releasing their pair of rockets (which seldom caused much damage) they had to return to Khormaksar – up to two flying hours away – to refuel.

Yesterday I had wondered how the Beit Sumada had known we were going to Wadi Ma’abur. Now I wondered how the RAF in Aden knew we were there again today. Not that I was complaining: but it was very curious. Phil Alfree later confessed. When he’d seen that neither his counsel nor that of the HBL was going to dissuade us, he thought it incumbent on the Brits to make sure our coercion succeeded. So, correctly assuming we’d get ourselves into some sort of pickle, he’d got on the radio and relayed word of our activities to Khormaksar, requesting the overflight. The timing of its arrival, however perfect it was, turned out to be strictly fortuitous.

Bless him!

The gesticulating Mahri turned briefly toward his companions in the cave. Then, turning back, he walked toward us, gripping his rifle by its muzzle. “We will surrender! We are beaten!” One by one the Mahris stepped from the cave. There were twenty-seven men and five women. Our troops closed in, guns at the ready, and the mullazim stepped out to face the leader, a grizzled old patriarch – all smiles – his two yellow teeth prominent between beard and moustache.

“Disarm them,” The mulazzim snapped, “And pack their rifles in the Land Rovers.”

“But,” the old man whined, “What will the Beit Sumada do without their rifles? We are warriors!”

“I know what you will not do without them!” the mullazim retorted.

“What?”

“Shoot at us! You,” he added, singling out the old man, “will be sent to Thamud. You will be kept there until the Hukuma sees fit to release you. You three,” he indicated three young men, “will remain in our camp as hostages until our work in your land is finished!”

Our hostages and the rifles were stowed in a Land Rover and we set out for camp. “I think,” the mullazim mused, “That active opposition is now over. We may be fired upon from time to time, but nothing like this. It was the bomber that convinced the Beit Sumada. I say…..What’s this?”

We had overtaken a bedu running across the wadi. He was staggering, apparently on the verge of exhaustion. As we approached he looked up, noticing us for the first time, then dropped to his knees. It was Suleim!

“Thanks to Allah you have come,” he gasped as we came up to him, “They fired upon me – my own people – tried to kill me! Thanks to the one true God you have rescued me. Have you water? I thirst!”

We took Suleim, still gushing thanks, with us to camp, where he wondered disconsolate, apologetically among our soldiers. As the truck taking the old Mahri to his temporary exile in Thamud was about to leave, he broke free from the soldiers and approached the mullazim and me.

“Oh excellent ones”, he began, (the phrase sounds stuffy in English, but it is an accurate rendition of the Arabic ‘Ya Sidi”, a common honorific). holding his hands apart, at elbow height, palms forward, ‘Welcome to the land of the Beit Sumada. May your stay be a happy one!”

“What the hell are you talking about? Three hours ago you were trying to kill us!”

“Ah, yes, but that was when we thought we could prevent you. But if we cannot keep a man from entering our land, our custom is to welcome him!” He turned away, then looked back over his shoulder and added, “So be welcome!” And then he was gone.

“Well what do you know about that?” Martin asked. “What do we do now?”

“With an invitation like that, what else can we do? We go back tomorrow. And maybe this time we’ll actually get some work done.”

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