A picture I took on Thursday of Yemeni soldiers walking alongside protesters after they’d stepped aside and allowed them through the security cordon outside the US Embassy in Sana’a on September 13.
Was the security lapse at the US embassy in Sana’a a move by Yemen’s former president to show America who still calls the shots?
As journalists we’re not supposed to get too attached to the subjects of our reporting, let alone be emotional about them. That theory is a nice one. But most of us were normal human beings before we were journalists.
Witnessing 12-year-old Saleem al-Harazi’s story was one of those occasions when remaining detached became completely impossible.
On March 18 last year I looked on as rooftop gunmen began slaughtering tens of unarmed protesters in Change Square, Sana’a. Amongst the chaos and flying bullets I was at one point bundled into a tent. As I rummaged around to pick up the pieces of my mobile phone which had fallen apart as I’d been thrown to the ground, three young boys sat around me.
Apparently unaware of the danger of the situation, shielded from the brutality of what was happening just a few feet from them by a thin white sheet of material, the boys joked and laughed. Two of them wore plastic builders helmets that had been distributed around the protest camp as protection from flying rocks, which had become a common weapon in the street battles of recent days.
I tried in vain, in my non-existent Arabic, to communicate with the three boys who were still trying to work out if I - with my short uncovered hair- was male or female.
After gathering myself and bits of phone it was glaringly obvious that the now partialy collapsed tent was going to offer little protection from the AK-47 bullets flying through the air. Unable to express my concern to the giggling boys I motioned for them to leave the tent, as I was about to. They declined. Instead I left them with a bottle of water.
Almost as soon I scrambled back out onto the street and beyond the protective shadow of the bulidings the bullets hissed dangerously close around my ears. I made it out with nothing more than a bleeding shoulder after a rock caught me on the back as I fled.
Young Saleem, as I later knew him, was not so fortunate. A bullet fired from the rooftop entered the side of his head, just behind his left eye, passing through the front of his skull before tearing out of the right side of his forehead.
On March 23, four days after doctors removed his eyes, I visited him in hospital. For most of the near two hours I was there Saleem (whose name means peace) slept and murmered during dreams that I could only imagine the horrors of. His mother was inconsolable.
Saleem al-Harazi, blinded by a bullet on March 18 2011, lies in hospital after doctors removed his eyes.
Every time I felt my eyes well up I picked up my camera and started taking pictures. When he finally woke he was disorientated and confused by the sound of strangers. From the vibration in his voice you could tell he was crying, but there were no tears. Never again would Saleem feel drops of salty water flow down his cheeks.
He muttered to his mother, concerned he might be in to trouble for missing school and asked if he’d be able to ride his bicycle when he got home. Saleem still thought that once the stitches were removed from his eye sockets he’d be able to see again.
Last Thursday, nearly 18 months on, I went to visit him at his family home. Since last March Saleem has become something of a celebrity of Yemen’s revolution. I’d watched, with extreme discomfort, as he was paraded on men’s shoulders in the heart of Change Square on numerous occasions since March 18 2011. More recently his family became central characters in Sara Ishaq’s chilling film about that events of that day: Karama Has No Walls.
But two days ago I smiled rather than cried, as we watched in amazement, Saleem set off down the bumpy track outside his home on his bicycle. His younger brother, Saif, stood up behind him guiding him through hands resting on his shoulders. No longer the frail boy I’d visited in hospital, Saleem now studies at al-Noor Institute for the blind and is turning into a bright, confident teenager.
Saleem rides his bike, guided by his younger brother Saif.
As a human being first and journalist second it’s impossible not to feel emotional about Saleem’s story. But as he progresses in life and Yemen’s revolution becomes a distant memory for most, I hope I can continue to witness Saleem’s bravery and his life unfold with no more tears.
Representing Yemen in the London Olympics, Ali Khousrof probably has one of the most remarkable back stories of any athlete competing in this year’s games.
I was there the night Ali was shot on April 27th 2011 outside Sana’a’s sport stadium during one of the many violent episodes of Yemen’s uprising. Ten activists were killed and two later died from their injuries that day.
One of more than a hundred demonstrators injured on Apri 27, 2011.
Earlier this year I watched Ali training in the warehouse next to the tents of Change Square in Sana’a. Today, fifteen months on from when 11 bullet fragments shattered through his abdomen, I shook his hand and wished him luck before he heads for London tonight.
Ali’s determination is a testament to all those who took part and died in Yemen’s revolution and continue to camp out in squares across the country, as well as to the president of Yemen’s judo committee, Noman Shahir, who paid for Ali’s medical care.
So, good luck to Ali and all of Yemen’s Olympic team heading to London.
Joe Sheffer made this video about Ali last month. My small contribution was the mobile phone footage I captured during last year’s protests.
Yemen’s children caught in food crisis
‘The crisis is testing the West’s commitment to Yemen, whose leaders have been fighting an al-Qaeda faction here in cooperation with the U.S. military. Al-Qaeda has tried to win the loyalties of villagers by providing them food and improving living conditions.’
Read the full story at USA Today
Little sympathy for crucified ‘spy’ as Islamists flee town The Times, June 20th 2012
Reporting on my second trip to Abyan this year.
Read the full story here (£)
The Times paywall is down today, for 24 hours only, in celebration of The Queen’s Jubilee.
[You have to register but no fee]
Now as much as I’d like to think everyone will be sitting in front of their computers on a Sunday just to read more than 73 reports I’ve written on Yemen since 2010, someone came up with the sensible suggestion that I select three pieces. Not easy but here we go:
US secretly supplied weapons to help Saudi Arabia fight Yemen rebels
Not exactly a fine piece of prose but this was related to the Wikileaks cable releases at the time. This particular find was, in my view, under reported, or not picked-up on at all in the US media: American assistance in the war against the Houthis. I wrote a short post about it at the time.
Death in the darkness: how Yemeni leader deals with Arab Spring
From all of last year’s reports this one stood out. I didn’t want to write a first person dispatch at the time when my editor requested it. I remember strongly protesting at the idea whilst on the phone, standing in the mosque turned field hospital in change square, surrounded by hundreds of casualties. Despite him being unaware of the events of that night at the time of his request, he was right. This single piece got more attention then anything else I’ve written before or since, in turn raising awareness of what was really happening in Yemen.
Beheadings, mutilations, scalping: the savage legacy of al-Qaeda in retreat in Yemen
From my recent trip to Abyan two weeks ago.
God Save the Queen! (For one day only)
Overlooking the province of Abyan: Lawder, Ja’ar, Zinjibar, Shaqra and all the way to the Arabian Sea.
The ‘frontline of the war on terror’ looks innocuous from here. Perched on the 1,000 meter-high ledge it’s hard to comprehend how this patch of land that stretches just 35 miles to the Arabian Sea is responsible for generating such fear and loathing in Washington.
It’s easy to imagine this place at the edge of the ancient incense trail as hundreds of camels carried frankincense from India to the Mediterranean. It’s just as you start to romanticise about this beautiful country and the wonderful people that the reality hits. Whether it’s a bomb blast like the one that killed 96 people last week, or the phone call we received an hour later whilst driving through Abyan, relaying information that the road ahead in a steep-sided valley was being held by al-Qaeda, prompting our minders to load their rocket propelled grenades, wistful thinking goes out of the window rather rapidly here.
Veracity is something easily lost in Yemen and nowhere more so than in Abyan.
It just doesn’t add up
Since this latest offensive against Ansar al-Sharia, which began nearly three weeks ago, we’ve all been relying on government and military officials for casualty figures. Everyday new military advances are relayed and deaths reported: 22 militants here, six soldiers there.
“At least 353 people have been killed, according to a tally compiled by AFP, including 259 al-Qaeda fighters, 58 military personnel, 18 local militiamen and 18 civilians.” (May 30)
From speaking to civilian casualties, injured soldiers, hospital doctors, resistance fighters in Lawder and the governor of Abyan, I can tell you these figures are far, far removed from the reality on the ground.
In Lawder alone 93 fighters and soldiers died battling for the town (a figure given by a commander of the people’s committee of resistance fighters and backed up by Abyan’s governor Jamal Nasser al-Aqel).
One civilian casualty of a double air (possible drone) strike on May 15 in Ja’ar told me a day after the attack that 26 people – all civilians - were killed. Official figures on the day put civilian deaths at eight.
If I took these official numbers with a large pinch of salt before, I now know they’re absolutely worthless. All I can be sure of is many more people are dying than we know of, or are being told about.
Less anticipated was the strong secessionist presence and sentiment in the south beyond Aden.
Anti-government protests last year changed the face of Aden. The town was festooned with southern flags. From the mountain side of Crater to almost every wall, advertising billboard and car dashboard the flag of the former People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen became ubiquitous.
On a more than five-hour drive through the south the feeling of being in another country grows. Southern Movement checkpoints dot the roads, outnumbering the government-controlled barricades. Switching back and forth between the old southern and Yemen national flag protruding from old rusting oil drums it’s hard to tell who controls what and that’s before you get to the black flags of Ansar al-Sharia. At night some roads change hands for 12 hours or so as Ansar al-Sharia set up roadblocks before vanishing after sunrise.
Lawder as a blueprint
Southerner’s feelings towards the military are palpable in Abyan. From light-hearted jeering from the resident militias at their military counterparts, to subtle attempts to prevent us showing government troops in a good light, the underlying tension between the two recent allies is ever present.
The resistance fighters of Lawder, backed by leading Southern Movement figure Mohammed Ali Ahmed (a native of the town), in turn supported by President Hadi, are the first signs of southerners becoming militarily organised – admittedly very loosely - since being defeated in the 1994 civil war.
There’s much talk of Lawder and its resistance force being the ‘blue print’ for the fight against Ansar al-Sharia and as a long-term solution to keep al-Qaeda out of southern towns.
Certainly the local fighters appear to have been crucial in the battle to oust the insurgents from Lawder. They took nearly twice as many casualties as the soldiers.
What also appears glaringly obvious on the ground is the long-term consequences of expanding this model across the south.
The men of Lawder and the surrounding villages are revelling in their victory and now consider themselves a credible fighting force. A force who’ve defeated one enemy and is now bullish enough, should they wish to, to take on (note: I don’t say defeat) another: their northern suppressors, as they see them.
The call for arming and supporting the south in the fight against al-Qaeda is widespread. From Yemen’s government to Western diplomats, they’re all pressing to get the southern tribes involved. But have they overlooked, or are they just choosing to ignore, the long-term impact of such a strategy? Perhaps those in the higher echelons understand and accept the risk of building this rag-tag force that may eventually turn on its creators. Those I’ve spoken to so far about this are in denial and refuse to see it as an issue.
I should stress that Mohammed Ali Ahmed expressed to me his ultimate desire for separatism, with federalism as the catalyst, but he says he’ll pursue these changes through political channels, not by force or the creation of a southern army.
But if this tribal army expands, what happens next is likely to be beyond his or any other individual’s control. Encouraging and arming men to fight is the simple part. Choosing their enemies for them is likely to be rather more problematic.
Travelling from Sana’a to the Tihama, Abyan to Hajjah, the one thing every Yemeni (and one grumbling foreign journalist) has repeatedly demanded is water and electricity. These two most basic services are severely lacking across most of the country, something Ansar al-Sharia benefited from as they set out to provide electricity, water and food for residents in towns across Abyan, where out-governing the state isn’t a tough challenge.
In Lawder the local power station was destroyed in the fighting. When asked what they’d do for electricity one of the commanders gave me a knowing look and smirked: “we wait for the government?”
As most of the country continues to ‘wait’ for regular electricity he and I joked about how ‘the men down the road’ [Ansar al-Sharia] could solve the problem, probably in a matter of days. But really this is no joke.
If Lawder is going to be held up as a shinning example of how to crush the insurgency then the state has to step in immediately and provide or renew basic services in order to convince people government rule is the better option. At the moment for many people across Yemen it’s not.
See all reports from Abyan trip