Events have unfolded rapidly in Yemen over the last few days. Former President Ali Abdullah Saleh was killed by Houthi forces on Monday, following news he was moving away from his previous alliance with the Houthis toward new ties with the Saudi-led coalition that has been fighting them, and spurring an increase in violence in the Yemeni capital Sanaa.
Mada Masr spoke to Yemeni journalist Afrah Nasser about Saleh’s death, the deteriorating humanitarian situation, and the dynamics of living outside Yemen and speaking and writing about what is happening there.
Laura Bird: Were you surprised by the news of Saleh’s death? It must have been strange to see graphic images of the leader you grew up under and opposed in 2011 posted online. How did you feel when the news broke?
Afrah Nasser: I was shocked. I always believed Saleh’s alliance with the Houthis was very temporary. He was not only an influential man, he waged about six wars against the Houthis over the past decade and he always won — he even killed the leader of the Houthis. So I expected that he was going to win, but I underestimated the military power the Houthis had, thanks to Saleh. He also miscalculated this temporary alliance and I don’t think he ever thought they would turn the tables against him.
When I met Saleh in 2011, I understood how much this man was clinched to power. He thought he was irreplaceable, unmovable, untoppleable. His death must have even been a shock to him. He never thought that a youth movement on the ground, nor the Houthis, nor the Saudis, would take him away from power. So in that sense, as someone who was affiliated with the revolution, yes, the Houthis did what we couldn’t. But at the same time, they are another face of evil, another face of dictatorship — actually, one that is more brutal and based on sectarian ideology and extreme religious views.
LB: Why do you think Saleh made the decision to switch his allegiance at this point in the conflict? Was this a strategic political move, or one made out of “concern for the worsening humanitarian situation,” as Saleh claimed?
AN: It did look like Saleh was more concerned about the humanitarian situation than the Houthis, especially the looting and corruption within Houthi circles, but I think he felt they were after him and wanted to obtain a victory over them before this happened. They were never on the same page though; the only alliance they had was a temporary one against the Saudis. We’re dealing with two gangs, basically. Neither of them have any ethics or follow any political principles. They only want to survive and are thirsty for power and will crush anyone in their way until they get power. So Saleh realised that these guys were going to take him out so they could have an absolute grip over power and tried to make his move first.
LB: What do you think the ramifications of Saleh’s death are likely to be?
AN: I’m very worried about how the Saudis will scale up their military operation. Right now the Houthis are targeting every presidential building Saleh used to have, because they want to take control of all institutions. I am expecting a major military operation to hit the whole of the north of Yemen, not just Sanaa. This is a new chapter, more bloody than what has already come. I mean, if the war has killed 10,000 people already, this will multiply that number in the coming, not only weeks, but days, hours.
Maybe the Saudis will try to invest in Saleh’s son, Ahmed Ali Abdullah Saleh. I mean, even the name will garner sympathy on the ground in Yemen. The Houthis have force, but they don’t have popularity among many people in Yemen. And this will be the defining clash, if they win through military force. We will see, nobody knows.
The next round totally depends on how Yemenis react — the politicians, President Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi, it’s really up to all of these actors in the south, whether state or non-state, and how they respond. The Saudis, the Emiratis, they can only give them the tools, but it’s up to them how they orchestrate a response against the Houthis. It will be a darker scenario. Who will lead the country? Now Saleh is gone, the state is gone, nobody is ruling.
LB: Have you been able to reach friends and relatives in Yemen? What is daily life like for them, and what have some of their reactions been to events of the last week?
AN: Interestingly enough, the internet is working fine. People are terrified. They are not only in shock, they are scared, and many of them are censoring themselves. They don’t want to talk on the phone, they know that phones are tapped. The Houthis are storming into houses affiliated with Saleh and taking young men. Prisons are full, we don’t know the numbers, but I am estimating that thousands of young men have been arrested by Houthi forces.
I can’t reveal a lot of what my family is telling me on the ground, because that would risk their lives. People are being stopped on the streets in Sanaa and their phones searched and their last calls and social media checked. I can’t even use my privilege of being outside the country to talk explicitly about it anymore.
LB: Can you give us some context on the various players, coalitions and factions in Yemen?
AN: It’s very important to explain that Yemen was under three different authorities. In the north, there was the Saleh and Houthi coalition, which had been ruling the north since the start of the conflict. And then, in the south, for two or more years, there was a coalition between the Southern secession movement, the Saudi-led coalition, with the upper hand given to the Emiratis in the south, and forces of Hadi, the “legitimate government,” though he doesn’t have much power. Most of the power was held by the coalition between the secessionist movement, or leaders, and the Emiratis.
And then there are a number of flourishing armed groups — Al-Qaeda, the Islamic State, you name it. In fact, the conflict produced more armed groups than existed before because there are growing divisions and different interests between the Saudis and the Emiratis, so each is funding different militant groups. I know this even though I’m not there, because some of my colleagues and journalists have been abducted by armed groups, and tortured while being interrogated about their social media activities. A close journalist friend of mine was questioned by an extremist group. And it’s not just journalists, even social activists are victims of the chaos in the south. One activist, his father just wrote to me, because I tried to raise his issue at the UN Human Rights Council; he was assassinated by one of the leaders of these armed groups. I mean, we already had Al-Qaeda as a stronghold in Yemen, but today there are numerous Al-Qaedas, many groups, and we don’t know who funds them.
LB: I’m interested in your conversations with people back home, and how you talk about what’s been happening, about violence, particularly across generations. Do you have similar ways of speaking about things?
AN: Every time I call my mother in Sanaa, especially recently, she’s busy going to a funeral or coming back from a funeral; of relatives and distant relatives, and relatives of friends. People are dying. Death is in every house, and my mother — she’s not really politically engaged, she doesn’t care so much about the politics of the conflict — said to me, “the media keeps saying, ‘Saudis want to fight Iran,’ so go ahead and bomb them. We’re not Iran. Why not bomb them? It’s their proxy war. It’s not our fault. Did we do something wrong here?”
At the beginning of the conflict, people somehow normalized and rationalized things. But it got much worse — When Houthis attacked close to Riyadh airport on November 4, the Saudis freaked out and blocked all entries to Yemen. I remember the morning I was traveling to the US to attend the Committee to Protect Journalists award ceremony, my mother texted me and said, “All entries to Yemen are closed, we will die, we will die,” and I felt just helpless. And this is my mother, what about people who really don’t know more about the blockade? Life is just hell and people will die in silence and the world won’t know about them. I can’t imagine another place where 25-27 million people are trapped with no way to leave or for others to come, while neighboring countries that are some of the world’s richest are part of a coalition that’s bombing them. The cruelty of this war is multilayered.
On the ground life is very, very harsh. Electricity is sparse and the country is paralyzed on many levels. Institutions aren’t working. Civil servants have not been paid their salaries for over a year. Some of my relatives have lost their jobs and are barely surviving with half of their salaries and donations. Plus, there is no trade. Yemen is off the map.
LB: What information is getting through to people in Yemen generally about what is happening nationally and internationally?
AN: On the ground, people are living under, I wouldn’t say a media blackout, but they get information from a media that is extremely controlled, whether from one side or another. The Houthis in the north control all media. Some of my colleagues in Sanaa are in jail. I see their pictures and hashtags. I remember telling my mother that I was going live at the CPJ award ceremony, and she asked me what I was planning to talk about. I told her, attacks against journalists, and she said to me, “Tell them if you were in Sanaa now, you would be in jail.” People understand that all critical journalists, or independent journalists, have vanished. Some of them are missing, half of them have been put on trial without any any charges. At the beginning of the war, the leader of the Houthis went on TV and said, “journalists are more of an enemy than those we fight on the battlefield.” Even in the south, the Saudis and Emiratis fund who they want to. There is no space for any other independent media. So if people watch TV in Yemen, they hear the narrative of this side or that side. And Arab media is also very polarized. The Saudis have bought the silence of a lot of media outlets. Wikileaks has documents that show bribes to Lebanese and Egyptian media — the big media in the Middle East. And international media is reluctant to send journalists, given how risky and expensive it is to get access to Yemen. It’s mainly independent journalists that try to go, and when they do, it’s extremely difficult. It’s impossible to get permission from the various authorities and to have free mobility inside. So you need patience and money and contacts to access Yemen and get the story. As a local Yemeni on the ground, when you turn on the TV, you don’t see the whole picture of what’s happening in your own country, but you know that your friends and your relatives are dying.
LB: Why do you think it had to get to this point before global media focused more on Yemen in recent months? What shifted or changed in your opinion?
AN: I think this is because of three main factors: Firstly, the Qatar crisis last year. After which Al Jazeera focused on Yemen and had greater freedom to say the Saudis are doing this and that, even Al Jazeera English. A story I wrote was rejected by Al Jazeera pre-Qatar crisis, in which I went after all warring sides, but was told, “A higher editorial order said this story can’t be published.” I was balanced, but I sensed this had something to do with Qatar being careful and not wanting to disturb the Saudi-led coalition. However, I believe that the best thing that happened for the situation in Yemen was the Qatar crisis. When you have a media outlet that’s so widely read in the Middle East and by international media focussing on Yemen more explicitly, it influences public opinion.
Secondly, the humanitarian situation is horrific. I think it’s a disgrace what’s happening in Yemen. There will be a time when we will talk about how the UN and international system failed. You know, Yemen will be one of those examples. And thirdly, the Houthi missiles and the Saudis saying we’re going to close everything. For them to scale this up was alarming and got the attention of a lot of world leaders.
LB: Watching the BBC’s coverage of Yemen recently, I was shocked by the absence of political analysis. Why do you think this is, and how can we amplify the voices of Yemenis in global media?
AN: I don’t know if you’ve seen the Sanaa Review. We’re trying to develop it. It’s independent and voluntarily based. I think the main reason there is no analysis about the exit of this war is because it’s an inconvenient war. It’s no longer a local conflict. The solution isn’t just in the hands of Yemenis anymore. It’s an international conflict, in my opinion, with international actors involved, and thus the solution also lies in their hands, and they don’t want to do their homework, or act. There are a number of people who could lead peace efforts. The UN special envoy should be doing his job, but it’s been more than a year since there were any peace talks that he led. I assume he’s not accessible to media. He’s much less present than the Syrian envoy, for example. On Twitter, the Yemen envoy blocked so many people who were critical. My suggestion, something I tried to push for during my recent advocacy trip to Washington DC and in meetings with international organizations, is that there has to be a new UN special envoy and conflict resolution has to be from the ground up, with a team of tribal leaders, politicians, Yemeni business people, etc. — together they can formulate some kind of “Yemen Peace Plan.” There should be a team alongside a UN mechanism that can find a way forward. The situation today is a different political reality to when the war started, and that should be considered.
Another possibility is that a world leader could step in without being invited, to formulate some kind of way out. This happened with John Kerry, the US secretary of state. He tried to propose a roadmap, but it failed. We need more. US President Donald Trump and his son-in-law Jared Kushner both seem to think that Saudi Arabia is doing the right thing and that they can just continue, so then we need someone else. Who can bring a better road map? The problem is the Houthis want a guarantee that they will have a share in whatever political system is going to come. And the Saudis want a guarantee that the Houthis won’t have a share in any political deal. The UN special envoy, whenever he goes to the Houthis, he only brings what the Saudis are trying to convey, and he never really represents what the Houthis want. We are lacking that person that could come and formulate a solution for all parties somehow.
LB: I remember in a recent conversation you had at the War Resisters League in the US, you were asked about your personal political opinion, and you said, “Neutrality doesn’t mean silence or inaction.” Does this present problems for you when speaking to people in Yemen and in the diaspora? Do you think violence entrenches beliefs and polarizes people more politically?
AN: The conflict reshuffled how people relate to each other and what Yemen represents to them. For me, I come from a mixed-race background. I’m Ethiopian and Yemeni. My grandfathers were Yemeni, and they left Yemen because of a similar situation of war and famine. They went to Ethiopia, settled down there and married and had children, and then there was conflict and they had to go back to Yemen. So, for me, the world doesn’t stop and end in Yemen. My identity is influenced by many cultures. So,if today I’m in Yemen and I want to position myself, it doesn’t matter if it’s Houthi, if it’s rebel, if it’s in the south. For me, it’s more about Yemen the concept. And I think that plays a huge role for many opinion leaders in Yemen. I would argue that most open and liberal (in the Arab sense) and pro-democracy opinion leaders in Yemen come from a different background, with a mother from the south or a father from the north. The priority is Yemen the concept, the nationality.
But for the Houthis in particular, I think it’s a matter of class. Today, the class differences in Yemen are based on race and regionalism. So the Houthis come from Sa’dah, and many of them are direct descendants of Prophet Mohamed. They don’t marry outside this bloodline. This is considered the highest class, and then you have the tribes and you have the judges’ families. That’s unfortunately how our racism, or discrimination, manifests itself. There is another class that includes people with jobs that are considered demeaning, and which includes musicians, butchers, hairdressers, etc. Then there is the factor of regional difference. If you’re in the south or north, or from this tribe or village. This is how the polarization usually is, but the war has split these camps along different lines — the Houthis, the Saudis, if you’re not with this, you’re against that. But, to be honest, as the war drags on, there are many people who are changing positions as well, whether they try to understand the atrocities committed by this or that camp, or they see more what is at stake for them. Also, depending on whether or not they want to go back to Yemen. I know some people who left and will never go back.
The diaspora is also split in similar ways to what is happening on the ground — certain camps and organizations are on social media. But, in my opinion, in the Yemen case, they’re doing more harm than good. Few diaspora groups or organizations are taking the side of neutrality with action — trying to advocate for peace or more humanitarian attention, or even getting politically active — they are a minority, and this is another contributing factor to why the war is continuing. I would love to do some research on this and prove how these groups are destroying discourse that could end the war. The diaspora is another camp to the war, because of their access and influence.
LB: What do you see your role as, living outside Yemen and working as a journalist?
AN: I remember watching [Mada Masr editor-in-chief] Lina Attalah posing a question during a seminar recently about how one can contribute to telling a story despite the distance. That question kept me thinking for some time. I see how the Yemeni diaspora is growing, with youth applying for asylum in different places or being displaced. However, now that I am a Swedish citizen and free to travel, I am thinking of moving to somewhere in the Middle East to be closer to events in Yemen and to join this new Yemeni diaspora in the Middle East. I want to answer Lina’s question of how to be in a collective even if you are away from your country, and how we are witnesses to tragedies in our homelands.
We work in exceptional circumstances. Life in Yemen has become unlivable, both on the humanitarian level and in terms of free expression. The Houthis were ranked last year by Reporters Without Borders as the second biggest abductor of journalists after the Islamic State. That’s how non-existent space is for critical independent journalists in Yemen. I believe that in such situations, one can step out for a while, but remain engaged in the debates and updates. I remember when the war broke out in Sanaa and the Saudi-led coalition began its airstrikes on March 26, 2015. I can’t forget how it was me who broke the news to my family in Sanaa in a phone call. Their response was, “We keep hearing bombs, but we have no idea what’s happening — the city is in a complete blackout.”
Afrah Nasser is a Yemeni independent reporter and blogger who reports from Sweden on human rights violations, women’s issues, and press freedom in Yemen. She was awarded the 2017 International Press Freedom Award.