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.