Thursday, January 18, 2018

Despite Yemen War Devastation Toll for Children, a Yemeni Man Organises First Ever TED Talk for Kids

This piece was published on Aug. 2017 on my HuffPost blog. And as I received an email today that HuffPost blogs seem to shut down soon, I am reposting the article here on my blog to archive it. 


Ahmed Sayaghi, leader of coming TedxKids@Sanaa, “I hope we can learn from our children speakers’
stories the lust for life and resilience.”

It is not like I am ignoring the devastation of the war but it’s exactly because of the war we had to organise Yemen’s first ever TEDxKids@Sanaa conference. It’s important to amplify children’s stories and reflect on children’s innocence in the intense political polarisation in Yemen. In light of the war, I think children have a magical influence on grown-ups who are often with rigid points of views, boxing others in. These kids will voice out stronger messages for peace.

The idea came to my mind last year and I applied to get the license from TED Global and we had it. Then, I was so lucky to find a team of young men and ladies - who are as young as just newly-graduated from high school or just recently entered university - who are helping in organising the event. This team is doing marvellous work, despite all the hardships.

We are in the process of preparation and organisation. Against all the odds, we aim to officially conduct the event in the Universal Children’s Day coming November. At the beginning, it was not easy to find sponsorship. We were covering expenses from our own pockets until we eventually found sponsors who believed in our cause and were willing to support us. However, I would say that the main challenge we faced was the widening political polarisation I mentioned earlier. Given the failed state we are in, any activist is at risk in doing his/her activism. We are often harassed and interrogated: who is funding you? What is your agenda? We are told, “this is time of war and not time for you to invade our kids’ minds with western values. Kids should learn Jihad and not to speak at Ted talks.” The team has gone through lots of intimidation because we don’t have any political and influential party to rely on, as we aim to be nonpartisan. Still, we are determined to hold the event.

This is not my first participation in co-organising a Ted Talk in Yemen. I was also part of the team which organised TEDXSanaa in 2012, 2013 and 2014, as a volunteer or/and in charge of the fundraising and selection of speakers. Even though I work as a pharmacist, I’ve developed a great interest in social activism right after Yemen’s 2011 uprising. I was attracted to Ted Talks in Yemen because I wanted to establish events in Yemen with international standards.

For me, TedxKids is a continuation of the previous Ted Talks we had, but with a greater dose of resilience. The event goes with a theme and hashtag #صغار_كبار (Young but Mature) and we have three subcategories of the speakers’ presentations. A) Kids’ educational aspirations; like how they aspire to become pilots, doctors, etc. B) Kids’ untold talents; like singers, dancers, painters, etc, C) Kids’ stories of survival after being under the rubble - and this is the most heartbreaking but moving talks. The team is also keen to have inclusiveness in the type of children speakers. So; for instance, you will hear in TedxKids from kids from the internally displaced community in Yemen and from Yemen’s marginalized society (Muhamashin) too.

Until the official event happens, last month, we had our inaugural event titled, “The Ambassadors” in which we wanted the attending children to understand how they were the ambassadors of Yemen’s future. It was the phase when our team met with more than 500 applicants children and we are in the process of selecting the final list of speakers. We were fascinated to have about 1,700 audience attending that day. I’ve been pondering on, given the despair, suffering and pain we are going through in Yemen, I hope we can learn from our children speakers’ stories the lust for life and resilience.

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Hisham is free, but Yemen's 'disappeared' crisis continues

A Yemeni protester calls for the release of detainees held in a Sanaa prison [AFP].

The words of Martin Luther King, "Free, at last," come into their own, as one Yemen's top social media activists, Hisham al-Omeisy, 38, walks free from a Houthi jail in Sanaa, after five month's detention. 

The Houthis did not officially charge him, or allow him access to a lawyer or to his family. His arrest, however, was likely linked to his job at the US embassy in Sanaa. Hisham's case was so sensitive, that we - his friends - couldn't and still can't reveal much of our conversations with his family in Sanaa, without risking their safety.

Hisham doesn't need an introduction.

If you are on Twitter and following news on Yemen, you almost certainly follow Hisham.

Hisham's case attracted widespread attention from human rights groups, and local and international media, because of the significance of his online activism. He has been one of the few top English-speaking commentators inside the country providing almost daily updates on events in Sanaa for his followers and the #Yemen Twitter audience.

As war-torn Yemen faces a dearth of happy news, the Yemen Twitter community celebrated photos this week of Hisham hugging his children for the first time since his detention in August.

But as we celebrate Hisham's release, it must also serve as a reminder of Yemen's "disappeared crisis"; the thousands of forcibly disappeared young men across the country, who don't enjoy Hisham's high media profile, and whose names and faces we don't hear about.

With some 12,000 arrests and more than 3,000 men forcibly disappeared, mothers, sisters and daughters of these abducted men began showing up in front of the central prison or police stations across major Yemeni cities, searching for their kidnapped sons, fathers, brothers and other male relatives. They started to organise and formed a collective named, "Mothers of Abductees Association".

The Association works as a pressure-group, raising awareness of the missing men, and advocating for their release.

The collective's spokesperson told me in a phone interview that many young men are forcibly disappeared for their political activities, and some for no reason at all.

In many cases, the mothers have no information or access to their imprisoned relatives - only if they are lucky they might receive some information. The imprisoned young men are held in terrible conditions and exposed to severe torture.

Dozens have been killed under torture, or have to endure a lasting disability from their wounds. Some parents even risk assault if they question Houthi authorities. In this incident, a young forcibly disappeared man's father was assaulted and beaten to death in front of the prison when he went searching for his son.

Journalists face disappearance because of their work, as affirmed by the recently freed Yousef Al-Ajlan who was released from a Houthis prison in Sanaa after a year-long detention.

The Committee to Protect Journalists notes that, "if the Houthis were considered a governing authority, Yemen would have the fifth highest number of journalists in jail in the world".

As the Houthis took over the capital, Sanaa in September 2014, and started a crackdown the press, Yousef wanted to avoid trouble, so he quit journalism and took a taxi driver job instead.

Still, in October 2016, armed men kidnapped Yousef as he was in his taxi in front of his house. During his detention, he was severely tortured and threatened with rape, and barred from seeing his family for months.

During this time, Yousef was transferred to several prisons and saw dozens of other detained journalists, accused of the same charges; "working for the enemy (Saudi Arabia) as a journalist". After a year, Yousef was finally freed in November, thanks to a prisoners of war exchange deal between Houthi and anti-Houthi tribes.

The death of Ali Abdullah Saleh and the semi-collapse of his political party, the General Public Congress (GPC) have allowed the Houthis to target many of Saleh's supporters.

My family and friends in Sanaa told me of men being dragged out of cars or public transport at checkpoints, and being interrogated about links to the GPC. Later, they are detained and then vanish. The local press reports Houthi executions and the assassination of Saleh's loyalists.

In Aden, the disappearances crisis is no different from in Sanaa. Mothers and daughters of kidnapped men regularly hold sit-in demonstrations calling for information about their relatives' whereabouts and release.

Hisham's case typifies Yemen's disappearance crisis.

But amid the unspeakable human suffering in Yemen, the disappearances crisis lacks attention, let alone an effective investigation. Locally, the climate of fear is on the rise and international human rights groups lack constant and full access to Yemen.

Nonetheless, increased pressure and domestic and international condemnation are needed until all of Yemen's disappeared people are found, and freed.

*This article was originally written for and published in The New Arab, today. 

Monday, January 15, 2018

My Turned Down Article by a Major American Newspaper, On Yemen's Civil Society

Days after my attendance at the Committee to Protect Journalists' Awards Ceremony in November, I received an email from a major American newspaper -whose name I prefer not to reveal-, asking me to write a column in which I would reflect on receiving my award, my trip and meetings in the US. I gladly accepted their request. So, we discussed the theme of the column in an email or two; then, we agreed to it. So, I would begin writing and I would finish and send the article to them right away. I waited for few days with no reply. So, I sent a reminder email. Then, I was told very politely that my piece wouldn't be published.

I was very disappointed. I wanted to know why, but I was so busy in that week and the following weeks as I was in a transition, locating myself from Sweden to Egypt, and I never asked them why. Now that my days seem less hectic, I thought about the article last night and how it'd be useless to ask the newspaper for the reasons of why my article was turned down. However, I thought, "I could publish the article as it was, on my blog, anyhow, right?"

So, voila!


My award acceptance speech in November at the International Free Press Award ceremony in New York was one of the most difficult writings I have ever done. I didn’t know how it was even possible to summarize the massive atrocities committed in my country, Yemen, in a three-minute-long speech.

Understanding the gravity of these atrocities, the New York-based organization, Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) in fact decided to choose Yemen of all the countries in the turbulent Arab region this year to put a spotlight on the forgotten war in the country and the risks Yemeni journalists bear while reporting. Because three-minute-long speech was obviously not enough, CPJ arranged for me a two-week advocacy tour, one week in D.C. and another week in New York.

As I had meetings with policy advisor Christine Lawson at the Department of State, Senator Chris Murphy, other Senate staff, media and human rights organizations, I was thinking of how the Travel Ban (which I managed to defeat after being rejected for the US visa entry twice) could have barred me from actualizing this opportunity. If it wasn’t for the relentless support I had from CPJ, I would not have been able to have one-on-one meetings with these influential people and discuss the U.S. disastrous foreign policies in Yemen.

During our meeting, going beyond the Saudi-Iran-proxy-war-in-Yemen questions, Sen. Murphy’s first question to me was, “how is life like for your family in Yemen, Afrah?” For a moment I forgot that I was in the presence of a politician, but rather a friend. “Every time I call my mother in Sana’a, she’s busy going to a funeral or coming back from a funeral of relatives and friends,” I replied, “in fact, yesterday, she messaged me, ‘all entries to Yemen are closed. We will die, we will die.’”

Nov. - 2017 - Meeting Sen. Murphy at his office in DC, with CPJ's team. 

A couple of days before I met Sen. Murphy, the Saudi-led coalition announced closing all entry points to Yemen, in retaliation to a Houthi-fired missile hitting close to Riyadh airport –what Riyadh claims to be an Iranian-made missile and; thus, with the total blockade it aimed to stop arms transfers from Iran to the Houthis. Not long after my meeting with Sen. Murphy, I found out that he had made a strong testimony, condemning the Saudi-led coalition’s total blockade. I hope that my meeting with him and the Yemen suffering he heard about had something to do with his testimony.

Even though I am an independent Yemeni voice, I consider myself part of the collective Yemeni civil society that emerged in the wake of Yemen’s 2011 uprising – not the traditional organizationed civil society, but rather the space in which young people met, interacted, and voiced their grievances and demands. We are perhaps an extension of Yemen’s historic civil society, but we are certainly an untitled Yemeni political component which was tired of an old, undemocratic and corrupt regime whose energy sparked an uprising against the 30-year old rule of Ali Abdullah Saleh in 2011.

As heartbreaking photos of skeletal malnutritioned Yemeni kids and child soldiers fill news media outlets, it’s a reminder that about half of Yemen’s 28 million population are children, teenagers and young adults. That also means that 2011’s protesters who impressed the world with their peaceful movement and who first had taken to the streets, (including myself,) from Sana’a, to Taiz, to Hudaydah and other cities were mostly of young men and women.

While my generation was trying to make the impossible possible, the U.S. administration, along with the United Nations and Gulf Cooperation Council rushed to contain the youth uprising and disrupted what was naturally occurring on the ground replacing it with a power transfer deal. The U.S., in particular, failed to recognize Yemeni youth’s political aspirations and became trapped in what regional powers dictated and wanted to see in Yemen. During the ensuing years, the U.S. continued to approach Yemen through the eyes of Saudi-Iran rivalry geopolitics and dismissed the potential in the emerging alternative Yemeni civil society leadership.

Nonetheless, Yemen’s civil society of individuals and groups continued to be engaged. While I have always been passionate about documenting Yemeni stories, my fellows at Sana’a Center care about policy-analysis, Resonate Yemen focuses on youth’s civic empowerment, the Mwatana organization sets issues of human rights and justice as its priority, Basement organization promotes cultural empowerment and the list goes on.

Even though CPJ chose me as a face representing the struggle facing independent Yemeni journalists, I believe I am one drop in the ocean of the many stories of my Yemeni generation’s struggle and thirst for democracy, social justice and freedom of expression –which in many ways echo American values.

The value of Yemen’s civil society affirms itself as it was one of the key spaces in which people organized and mobilised each other to express Yemen’s 2011 uprising. Had I not joined this platform in 2011 and taken the action which I couldn’t find in Yemen’s political and tribal system, I wouldn’t have had the guts to find my voice. While I appreciate CPJ’s recognition, it’s crucial the U.S. recognizes the political agency among Yemen’s civil society and the constructive role they can play, importantly, in any potential peace process and post-war Yemen.

Current policies; such as, imposing a Travel Ban preventing voices from addressing the American political leadership and offering a blank cheque to the Saudi-led coalition in its war in Yemen would not get us anywhere except towards more destruction and instability in the region, which derails the war on terror. Yemen’s vibrant civil society, still persisting against all the odds. It’s never too late for the U.S. to support the rainbow in the midst of a storm, the Yemeni civil society.

Tuesday, January 9, 2018

Yemen: 2017 in Review

A displaced woman (Malkah Ahmed Saleh) with her daughters sitting at their
temporary home (camp). (Photo: UNICEF/Moohi Al-Zikri)

*A U.N. official warned days ago that, “Yemen could be the worst humanitarian crisis in 50 years.” As 2018 begins, these words reflect the increasingly deteriorating unspeakable human suffering in Yemen, after the UN had been calling Yemen throughout last year as the largest humanitarian crisis in the world.

The poorest Arab nation with a population of around 25 million has been sent into destitution after nearly four years of war. 2017 has been a year of utter despair in light of countless human rights atrocities committed on multi-fronts; from the Saudi-led coalition to Saleh-Houthis’ forces and the U.S. counter-terrorism military operation, all sharing responsibility for creating unspeakable human suffering in Yemen. However, the killing of Saleh at the end of 2017 marks a historical transition that’s going to drastically change Yemen’s political map for years to come.

Human Suffering

Saleh’s violent death gives a glimpse into the gruesomeness of this war. Both combatants and noncombatant innocent civilians are caught up in the violence. While Houthis’ (and Saleh’s for a certain time, until his death) forces in Taiz continued their indiscriminate shelling or, as described by the UN Human Rights Office, the “unrelenting shelling,” against civilian inhabited areas for about three years, resulting in a terrible death toll, the Saudi-led coalition airstrikes since 2015 did not cease to hit non-military populated areas across many parts of Yemen. In 2017, markets, a migrant boat, a local inhabited hotel, among many other non-military targets were hit. The glaring example last year, however, was the story of the five-year-old Bouthina who survived an attack in August by Saudi-led coalition airstrikes hitting an apartment building in Sana’a, killing all her family.

The Yemen Data Project reveals that since 2015 nearly one-third of Saudi air raids hit non-military sites in Yemen. To rub salt into the wound, 2017, in particular, was when more US strikes hit Yemen than the past four years combined, with 125 strikes, under the U.S. war-on-terror military operations. Another glaring example of that was the U.S. Special forces’ first raid in Yemen’s al-Baydah province under U.S. president, Donald Trump, end of January 2017, killing dozens of women and children.

In parallel, Yemenis face a humanitarian catastrophe as the country's infrastructure is almost totally destroyed and humanitarian operations don’t have full access to some of the hardest hit communities in Yemen, following the Saudi-led coalition imposing a siege, in retaliation to a Houthi-fired missile hitting close to Saudi Arabia’s Riyadh airport in November. Despite progress in Saudis promising to open Houdaidah port and letting Aden port open, the humanitarian situation seems to be only worsening, proven by the UN’s recent announcement of the largest-ever emergency relief allocation - $50 million for UN aid-operations to come forward in 2018. This doesn’t reflect a success but rather an indication of how desperate the humanitarian situation is.

The current number of reported civilian casualties seems illogical given the conflicting reports from the U.N. that are not matching the scale of human suffering on the ground. More than a year ago, a UN official revealed that 10,000 civilians have been killed in Yemen but another recent UN report claimed that only 5,000 civilians have been killed since March 2015. As widespread famine threatens millions of lives, there is a new outbreak of disease, diphtheria, in addition to cholera; that’s probably the worst outbreak the world has ever seen, ripping more than 2,000 lives and reaching one million suspect cases. Also, UNICEF has been reporting since the beginning of 2017 that every 10 minutes a child dies in Yemen. In a situation like this, looking like the apocalypse, reports failed to match the real death toll throughout 2017.

While Yemenis are still counting the dead, the only slight of progress ever made in September 2017 was the establishment of an independent investigation committee by the UN Human Rights Council into the war crimes, thanks to great pressure and advocacy work done by international and local Yemeni Human Rights organizations since 2015. This is significant because campaigning clearly pays off and local and international civil society efforts in Yemen do matter. Nonetheless, the committee is due to begin its work later this year.

Yemen without Saleh

By December 2017, a political earthquake was to hit Yemen. Saleh’s death at the hands of the Houthis marked a violent end for an era and a defining point in Yemen’s political map. As ensuing days warring parties’ military operations intensified, Saleh’s death posed two critical aspects. One is that, whether Saleh genuinely desired to initiate negotiations away from Houthis or him forseeing the deadly path of his alliance with the Houthis, it’s confirmed today that Houthis’ politics are driven by violence.

The other aspect is, in spite of Houthis’ violent politics, Saleh’s absence has created for the first time in the course of Yemen’s nearly four years of war, one single centralized power in the north part of Yemen; that’s in the hands of the Houthis. Now more than ever, there has to be a regional and international political will to face this centralized power, reinvent a political solution and resolve the conflict.

Unfortunately, this is unlikely to happen as in 2017 alone, both key international allies to Saudi Arabia; the US and the UK have found Yemen's war to be a lucrative business, profiting massively from the financial rewards of their arms sales to Saudi Arabia. With a tragic optimism, let us hope 2018 would bring the political will to end the Yemen war.

*This article was first written for and published in Open Democracy, January 8, 2018. 

Is a Political Solution Still Possible in Yemen?

Photo: Tribesmen loyal to the Houthi movement hold their weapons as they attend a gathering to mark 1000 days of the Saudi-led military intervention in the Yemeni conflict, in Sanaa, Yemen December 21, 2017.
REUTERS/Mohamed al-Sayaghi

*The end of Saleh-Houthi alliance marks a new chapter in Yemen’s intractable conflict. Two weeks after Saleh’s death, warring parties intensified their military escalation, increasing an already abominable human cost. Despite Saleh’s legacy of subversive tactics and coercion, his death undermines efforts to resolve the conflict. The Houthis, an irrational movement lacking in political experience, make for a highly emotional and unreliable party at the negotiating table. With the passing of Saleh, the ultimate pragmatist with longstanding political and diplomatic ties both locally and internationally, an opportunity has passed with him. In a post-Saleh Yemen, the question remains: is a political solution still feasible?

The most serious issue with the negotiation effort is its absence for more than a year. Days before his death, Saleh presented himself as a negotiator, expressing his readiness for talks with Saudi Arabia. Had he survived, those talks would have materialized through the UN framework, UNSC resolution 2216, which called on Saleh to change his destabilizing action, facilitate disarmament of the Houthis, and return to the National Dialogue Conference’s outcomes. Since his death, the UN Security Council has not passed an amended resolution in line with the recent developments; it instead had a closed-door meeting on the situation and simply called for de-escalation.

With the apparent lack of urgency in reinventing the political solution, on-the-ground fighting has only escalated and new emerging alliances appear to herald further military escalation. Despite its necessity, discussion about a new political solution to the conflict seems premature. Not only has the increased appetite for military competition undermined the prospects for a negotiated solution, but so does the Saudi-led coalition’s flawed tactical approach that aims to unify Yemen’s local factions against the Houthis.

While neither Saudi nor the Houthi camps can claim military superiority, the Houthis have gained significant military strength over the course of the war. After overtaking Sana’a in September 2014 with Saleh’s support, the Houthis captured valuable material from the disoriented national army. Emboldened by their initial victories, Iranian support, and lust for total control, the Houthis met any dissent with violence. Saleh’s betrayal in their eyes justified his undignified execution—and the subsequent crackdown on anyone allied with him. Local press reports also describe Houthi threats and shelling of dissident and pro-Saleh tribes.

Operating on a winner-take-all mentality, the Houthis’ lack of sophistication and nuance has consequently undermined local tribal diplomacy in resolving domestic conflicts. With little regard for even local negotiations, the chances they might engage with international negotiators in good faith appear unlikely.

On the opposing side, a key member in the Saudi-led coalition has taken advantage of the new normal. The United Arab Emirates (UAE) has taken steps to realign itself with an old enemy, the Islah political party (a Yemeni version of the Muslim Brotherhood), in the fight against Houthis. This marriage of convenience comes as a sequel to Saleh’s short-lived marriage of convenience with his old enemy, the Houthis. This latest shift suggests that the Saudi-led coalition aims to unify Saleh’s General People’s Conference (GPC) forces, Yemen President Abdrabbo Mansour Hadi’s forces, the Southern Hirak’s forces, and Islah to counter the Houthis. All these factions, however, hold deep historical animosities towards each other, which threatens the effectiveness of such mobilization.

Such marriages of convenience between Yemen’s different factions have allowed each to survive in a highly volatile political climate. Each party reorders its own interest, depending on the political and military dynamics. If any lesson is to be learned from Saleh’s death, however, it should be the eventual collapse of these loose alliances and their potential to backfire.

Given the current configuration, the conflict in Yemen will not likely end in a formal negotiated settlement through the same existing UN framework born out of the National Dialogue and previous UN resolutions. The nearly four years of civil war and Saudi-led military intervention have exacerbated unresolved animosities between Yemen’s different factions. Saleh had killed the godfather of the Houthi movement, Hussein Bader al-Din al-Houthi, which partly motivated his assassination. Islah is asked today to come to good terms with the remaining GPC forces, despite a desire to retaliate for GPC hostility against the party during Saleh’s alliance with Houthis. Southern forces are asked to be the backbone of the anti-Houthi fighting force but still harbour a separatist streak. Any peace effort that dismisses the growing divisions and historical grievances is doomed to fail. A political solution must prevail eventually, but only if it seriously considers these old and newly born challenges.

While warring parties are reluctant to lay down their weapons, people in Yemen face widespread famine and an unprecedented cholera outbreak. A tougher international approach to finding a political solution in Yemen could nevertheless still help avert even greater tragedy in Yemen. There is both a moral and strategic interest in stabilizing Yemen.

*This article was first written for and published in The Atlantic Council, January 3, 2018.