By Nic Robertson, CNN senior international correspondent
Outside al Naqib hospital empty gurneys sit where cars normally park. Al Qaeda’s foot soldiers are less than an hour's drive away. Soon the wounded will arrive.
They are likely to be children, women and old men, caught in the crossfire between government forces and Islamist militants closing in on the city of Aden, the second largest in Yemen.
Like dozens before them, the new casualties will be lifted gingerly from shabby cars, laid flat on the waiting trolleys, rushed to surgery.
With medical students helping them, doctors new to injuries caused by explosives, tank shells, bombs and bullets will struggle to staunch the flow of blood, reconstruct fragmented bones, console the inconsolable.
It’s the waiting in this war that hurts the most.
Most everyone except those responsible can see it coming. A train wreck born out intransigence and political paralysis. A president who after 33 years refuses to step down and a political elite that refuses to stop bickering and step up to save their nation.
As the gurneys bake in the stifling sun, sweaty men crouch in the shade, right cheeks bulging with the leafy stimulant called qat. Little moves save a few beaten cars bumping along slowly, bouncing over the broken hospital road.
Poverty is a byword for life here. Chewing qat passes the time and distances the mind from the numbing reality that Yemen is slipping into chaos.
Half-a-mile away, government tanks sit half-hidden behind piles of boulders, gun barrels protruding like angry antenna bristling at the cars driving nearby.
They’re protecting themselves not from al Qaeda but from the citizens themselves. Every few days the people here, like Yemenis in other cities, rise up in anger, demand a new leader, call for democratic change.
The tanks rumble out, menace the crowd. The heavy machine guns atop their turrets spit out hot rounds in an effort to disperse the protesters.
It’s an ugly stalemate made more complicated by the longings of some to separate South Yemen from the North, like it was before President Ali Abdullah Saleh brought about a forced unification in 1994.
The reasons are many: bitterness over rifled resources, perceptions the north profits from the south’s oil fields fuels, longstanding tribal rivalries. Then there’s the young who just want a better government. And the government, such as it is, stifles them all.
Al Qaeda are nimbly capitalizing on the confusion. Tanks pointing at the people in a high stakes game of crowd control aren’t free to stop the Islamist zealots driving thousands of innocents from their homes as they advance through the surrounding towns.
On the tarmac road that runs along the beach’s edge – snaking up the coast from Aden to Zinjabar – little moves save waves of windborne sand, scattering, drifting, piling. The normally bustling highway is forlorn, almost ghostly. It’s the road to the front line. Ten kilometers out of town and two rusty tanks come in to view.
Anywhere else you’d think they were dead, hulks abandoned, rotting in the corrosive sea breeze.
A couple of soldiers, guns slung haplessly over their shoulders, accost us. What are we doing, don’t we know there is a war up there? We are the only journalists they’ve seen. The government is shelling, they tell us, we’ll be killed if we drive further.
Our conversation is surreal, their red teeth chewing on the livid green qat as they talk. "It lets me stand back from the world," one of the soldiers says.
To drive further is to enter a world where the only certainty is uncertainty, uncharted territory where the world's most feared terror group has progressed from hit and run tactics, ambushes in the middle of nowhere, to taking towns and cities, even setting up their own administration.
Perhaps more people should care about this war on the tip of the Arabian Peninsula. After all this is the country from which the last two serious attempts to export terrorism to the United States originated. Both came close to blowing up planes bound for the United States, one of them minutes from landing in Detroit.
The al Qaeda bomb maker behind those attacks is still on the loose here, although it's unlikely he's down here close to the front-line. But he and al Qaeda can operate with impunity in wide swathes of southern Yemen, among the mountains and ravines. And to some Yemenis, they are fighting a just war; they are men to be honored and protected. This – after all – is Osama bin Laden's ancestral homeland.
As we push our luck, and the soldiers' patience, to be allowed closer, cars, even a bus jammed with people, boxes and household goods lurch through the checkpoint, disappear into the swirling sand and the road to Aden and relative safety.
Tens of thousands have made that journey already. One woman we met as she sought refuge in a dilapidated school in Aden told us her son had gone back to their home in Zinjabar to rescue their last possessions. Young al Qaeda fighters calling themselves Ansar al Sharia or supporters of Islamic law caught him, she said, telling him to go back to Aden and warning him they’ll be there in a few days.
By the accounts of families we met in al Naqib hospital almost no one is left in Zinjabar.
Even the foolhardy and brave who had remained are getting out, as the battles intensify and the causalities mount.
Dozens of government soldiers have been killed and Yemen’s air force is dropping bombs with an apparent callous abandon that’s killing and maiming the very civilians it can only be assumed they are aiming to protect.
The train wreck has arrived. The only problem, very few people know it because access to this remote corner of a remote country is so hazardous. This is a government that has imploded and al Qaeda is filling an ever growing vacuum.