Aid flows to N. Yemen in wake of earthquake

The writer has just returned from North Yemen.

The earthquake that rocked North Yemen this week will add additional obstacles to a traditionally isolated country at the southwest corner of the Arabian Peninsula that is only just beginning to emerge into the modern world.

Updated reports say that more than 2,000 persons were killed and another 1, 200 injured Dec. 13 when the 40-second tremor, measuring 6 on the Richter scale, sent shock waves across the country's central plateau.

Relief workers, hindered by the lack of roads in the rugged, mountainous country, are continuing to search for survivors believed trapped in collapsed houses. Meanwhile, a major international aid effort has been launched by the International Red Cross and backed in particular by neighboring Saudi Arabia.

The Saudis are reported to be sending 20 transport planes loaded with medical supplies, food, and tents. Kuwait, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, and South Yemen have also sent supplies and relief workers. In addition, help is expected from West Germany, Switzerland, and the Netherlands.

During the initial earthquake and three aftershocks, 11 villages were destroyed and 142 were damaged. Most houses in that region are constructed of a combination of sun-baked mud bricks and stone blocks or completely of stone blocks. Since Yemeni architecture is traditionally three or four stories high and many of the villages are built on the tops of hills or on steep slopes to facilitate defense, the area is extremely susceptible to such tremors.

The region of the tremor was the scene last month of tension between local residents believed to be linked to the guerrilla group, the National Democratic Front (NDF), and government troops. Shooting was reported to have broken out in the central Dhamar Province in November after a request by residents for additional government assistance was denied.

Earlier this year the government launched a major offensive against NDF-held villages near the South Yemen border. Government troops are said to have dealt the guerrilla group of Marxists and Yemeni dissidents a significant blow. Some pockets of NDF activity, including the Dhamar region, were known to have survived the push.

A land of 7 million tribesmen and subsistence farmers, North Yemen has a rich 6,000 year history. The country served as a vital overland link in the caravan trade in spices, jewels, and aromatics between Asia and the Mediterranean. Marib , believed to have been the center of the earthquake, was the site of the ancient kingdom of the Queen of Sheba of biblical times.

Today, although North Yemen is the most populous country in Arabia, 80 percent of its people cannot read or write. In addition, Yemeni leaders have watched enviously for the past 50 years as their Arab neighbors in the Gulf have reaped the rewards of oil wealth.

Though the country is endowed with a cool climate and seasonal rains, its steep, rocky mountains confine agriculture to narrow, terraced fields carved into mountainsides. North Yemen was once a significant exporter of coffee and cotton, but world prices for both crops have fallen in the past 30 years to levels that priced Yemeni farmers out of the market.

Because of its large population the country benefited during the boom years of the 1970s by providing much of the construction labor needed in the wealthy Gulf oil-producing states. Some 1 million Yemenis continue to work in the Gulf - primarily in Saudi Arabia - and send an estimated $1 billion a year home to Yemen. The remittances have provided a vital boost to the Yemeni economy, facilitating a boom in the construction of houses and the purchase of consumer items such as radios, appliances, and cars.

North Yemen over the years was ruled by a series of imams, Muslim religious leaders said to have been descended from the prophet Muhammad. The imams resisted modernization and maintained the country's isolation. In 1962, the ruling imam was ousted during an Egyptian-inspired coup. Eight years of civil war resulted.

Observers say that it wasn't until the 1962 coup that the modernization of North Yemen began. ''The Middle Ages ended here just 20 years ago - not a year more,'' says a Western diplomat in Sana, the capital.

In their push for modernization, the Yemenis have attempted to remain as nonaligned and independent as possible. The Yemeni Army is primarily armed by the Soviet Union, but the Yemeni economy is being aided by an array of economic assistance programs and grants from primarily Western nations. Almost half of the cost of the current $7 billion five-year plan is expected to be funded through foreign sources. Saudi Arabia provides by far the largest amount of economic aid.

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