In 2011, tribesmen and fighters left their guns at home to join peaceful protests against the then president, Ali Abdullah Saleh. Today, Yemen’s writers, poets and painters are putting down the tools of their creativity and instead picking up steel with which to fight.
Farea al-Muslimi, a Yemeni academic and writer, explains how the one-year war has changed the lives of many Yemenis.
On the afternoon of March 25, 2015, the three of us, Yahia, Hashem and I, met, as we often do, at my home in the Haddah district in central Sana’a, Yemen’s capital. Around us, the country was coming apart: Houthi forces, allied with former President Ali Abdullah Saleh, had overrun the capital months earlier, suspended the constitution, instituted martial law and were bombing the presidential palace in the southern city of Aden, where President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi had taken refuge.
We debated ways to keep international attention on Yemen, until we saw the sun begin to set on Attan Mountain (the area would witness the heaviest air strikes later on for a year) through my living-room window.
Before they left, we settled on the basics: Yahia would use his camera to document what the world most needed to know, Hashem would flood social media with the footage and with stories we co-produced, and I would work my media contacts around the globe to keep our coverage in the news cycle.
The three of us parted ways, agreeing to meet again to finalise our plans. We never met again, since then.
Later in the evening, however, I received a warning, and then another. Well-connected people in the Western media were hearing that something massive was coming, and looking for the very few journalists who remained in the country to hire. “It seems you are right, Yemen has run out of miracles,” wrote one Western editor, throwing back at me words I’d said just days earlier to Reuters.
But one year later, it is at least time to admit it, we actually have failed it [Yemen]. And we did so, terribly. Unless, we succeed in stopping this insane war.
It felt surreal, too much to suddenly believe. Perhaps I entered a state of denial, but there seemed nothing else to do but to continue acting like it was another normal night.
My older sister and I were in the living room making plans. The first explosion struck at exactly midnight.
Before I could finish a sentence there was a second. I leapt across the room. I heard shattered glass falling from windows around the neighbourhood.
This was war. I knew almost without thinking. I couldn’t hide my fear, even as my sister laughed at me.
Violence escalated across Yemen with renewed savagery. Yahia left for the frontlines to cover the fighting for a local TV news channel.
The Houthis began a sweeping wave of arrests in Sana’a, imprisoning Hashem and many others.
The Saudi-led Arab coalition bombed the city around my flat regularly. To avoid the shards of glass that blasted in from the windows, I took to sleeping in the small hallway between the bathroom and the kitchen.
Everyone was scared. I heard women asking their daughters to wear jeans to bed in case the building fell on them while they slept.
It was a war, and it brought out the ugliest in everything and everyone. When, after weeks of bombing, my boss called to ask me to evacuate, I didn’t offer any heroic resistance.
I, too, by then, had my own reasons to leave. I actually just spent the last few days and nights negotiating the release of friends and relatives who were imprisoned randomly by the Houthis.
I remember my last night well.
A first, my mind was a fog in which time seemed to lose all meaning.
But as the fog lifted and some focus returned, I remembered that I had to pack.
The rule was simple: I could have just one bag and it had to be small and lift enough for me to walk and, if necessary, run with it.
I quickly selected the belongings I’d take with me: my old Yemeni necklace hand-made by Yemeni Jews, my notebook, my medicine, a change of clothes.
That was all.
It was among the most painful things I have ever done. I was being forced out, amputated from my home.
How long would it be before I could return – a week, a month, years?
I slept little in the breaks between air strikes. In the early morning I toured every room of my home, imprinting those last glimpses on to my memory and discovering previously unnoticed details.
I suddenly found a new appreciation for my library, the paintings and photographs on the wall, the papers on my desk, the still packed suitcases from my last trip, the dusty kitchen shelves, the fresh fruit mum had sent from our farm in the village.
Too many questions flew through my head. But there was no time for questions and I didn’t care to hear the answers anyway. I was just one among many of my friends who fled – some across the Gulf of Aden to Africa, others to Europe or elsewhere in the Middle East.
We were the lucky ones. Almost a dozen friends and colleagues I left behind have been seriously injured or killed in Houthi shellings or coalition air strikes over the past year. Others are still breathing but rotting in the hell of Houthi prisons.
Last week, a member of the Houthi Revolutionary Committee threatened Hashem publicly on Facebook if he didn’t stop criticising the group.
Throughout the year, Yahia travelled with his camera across the country, filming battles, capturing the death and destruction of the war in horrifying footage. We would message back and forth, and I saw how frustrated he had become – “the violence was spreading, the country was collapsing and the government was doing nothing to stop it”.
At one point he texted me from Hadhramout, almost screaming at me through the screen that al-Qaeda was taking over, running the TV stations and newspapers, trying to reshape society in their mould.
In the past year, thousands of Yemenis have been killed, tens of thousands wounded, millions pushed to the brink of starvation, our homes, schools, hospitals, bridges, roads, power plants, and all manner of development destroyed.
But it was when a Houthi sniper killed Muhammed al-Yemeni, a journalist and colleague, in the city of Taiz earlier this year, that I felt something in Yahia break. His faith in what he was doing – in “The Media” – collapsed.
He could see no purpose in continuing to film. Several weeks ago, Yahia announced on Facebook that he was quitting and had formed a fighting unit to join the battle against the Houthis. Yahia soon began using his Facebook page, once a main source of news from Yemen, as a platform for recruiting frustrated young people who wanted to fight. He quickly enrolled the unit in the army and started recruiting young pharmacists, engineers, writers and so on.
This week, the first unit graduated and is getting ready to join the battlefield.
It tore me to pieces, turned my heart to ash, like the future had suddenly been robbed of its light. It was not just that Yahia, a promising and dedicated journalist, would lose hope for peace and instead join the violence, but it also brought home to me just how few options are left for Yemeni youth after one year of this war.
In 2011, tribesmen and fighters left their guns at home to join the peaceful protests against the then president, Ali Abdullah Saleh.
Today, Yemen’s writers, poets and painters are putting down the tools of their creativity, and instead picking up steel with which to fight. I remember texting a dear friend an hour after the air strikes started raining on Sana’a, asking: “If we, as a new generation, have failed Yemen?”
Perhaps aiming not to make a friend feel worse, he replied: “Maybe. But let’s remember there was nothing that could have been done.” In my optimism, I refused to accept his answer then.
But one year later, it is time to admit that we have failed. And we will have failed terribly unless we succeed in stopping this insane war.