Yemeni street artists paint to remember


Yemenis have been lobbying their government to release information on disappeared political activists via the medium of street art in recent weeks.

The campaign, entitled “The Walls Remember,” was initiated by 24-year-old artist Murad Subai, a resident of the Yemeni capital Sana’a.

Subai wants Yemenis to remember activists who, he believes, have disappeared at the hands of the government.

“Society has forgotten about the forced disappearances but we are painting pictures of them on walls, with notes in English and Arabic on who they are and when they disappeared,” he told Reuters news agency.

These images, drawn as graffiti across the capital’s walls, have troubled powerful political figures who seek to remove all such forms of political art.

The country is undergoing a tricky transition after a popular uprising last year forced longtime president Ali Abdullah Saleh from office, lifting the lid on a host of social, economic and political problems in the Arabian Peninsula state.

Many of the protested disappearances have been attributed to the political unrest that shook the country last year. Some even date back to the turbulent 33 years of Saleh’s rule that saw a civil war in 1994.

A government official said most of those who vanished last year were youth protesters while those from previous years were mainly political figures or military officers viewed as a threat to the regime. Many were taken from home or work and have never been heard from since.

Street artist Subai claims that the “drawings were scrubbed off,” adding that “people believe it’s because some army leaders were responsible for disappearances. But we go on drawing. When the images are removed, it’s like the person is being disappeared again.”

Many of the disappeared are assumed, by activists, to be dead

“We don’t know where many people are buried, there was no announcement on whether they were killed and no one received the bodies,” said Zebn al-Matari, a youth activist in last year’s revolt.

Activists say at least 129 people disappeared during last year’s uprising in which more than 2,000 people died, according to media reports citing activists groups.

“Every few days we receive new cases,” said an official from the Human Rights Ministry, which this month ran advertisements on state television and in newspapers calling on families to come forward with cases of missing relatives from last year.

Painting over the Yemeni capital’s painful past

The capital stills bears signs of last year’s bloody confrontation. Pock-marked and destroyed buildings dot the Hasaba area of town where tribesmen of the powerful al-Ahmar clan fought Saleh’s forces.

Subai and other street artists have covered walls in the area with colorful murals, signaling their hopes for a better future. The designs purposefully avoid slogans in an effort to escape the partisanship that has plagued Yemen.

“It’s all about presence of color. This was the most ruined part of the city, covered in bullets, with bodies in the streets,” Subai said. “So the idea of color was to give hope. Everyone got involved, from students to street cleaners.”