Friday, March 9, 2018

In Yemen, women bear the brunt of a merciless war

Women in #Yemen are celebrating #IWD2018 spending days &
nights at the gas stations queues! via

*While women around the world are today celebrating International Women's Day (IWD), Yemen's women hope simply that it will throw a spotlight on the unspeakable human suffering all genders are enduring across the country.

In fact, to celebrate women's rights today, in an apocalyptic situation like the one in Yemen, seems an extravagant thought. On the ground, women queue for hours in Sanaa to buy gas amid a fuel shortage, and in Taiz, women activists are a target of Houthi bullets. In Aden, women agonise over their missing male relatives, and in Hodeidah they are barely able to feed their starving little children.

Looking back, seven years ago, I wrote from Sanaa's focal point of the protests, dubbed "Change Square", on how women contributed to the anti-Saleh protests, celebrating IWD along with women across the world.

On that day, the women's protest was, to a large extent a political expression, reaffirming their political role in the uprising, and was not a specifically feminist expression.

Different political and anti-Saleh parties used women that day as a decorative tool to serve the parties' political agendas. However, many of the non-partisan and politically independent women, as I was myself, believed that bringing about a drastic political change would benefit women's rights in one way or another.

However, little did we know how the tide would turn, and how the brutal civil war to come would lead women to become this vulnerable.

Yemen has been ravaged by a vicious cycle of violence since mid-2014, impacting everyone, regardless of social class or gender, but the problems women, in particular, are facing continue to accumulate.

When I began working as a reporter at the Yemen Observer in Sanaa in 2008, I was assigned the women's issues beat. I was reporting on the high maternal mortality rate in the country, the epidemic of child marriage and the battle to legally ban it and violence against women.

The more I reported, the more I realised that - contrary to the stereotypes - the tribal culture in Yemen sees women as the backbone of the family and community across the country. That culture ensures their fair treatment.

Nonetheless, following Yemen's 1990 failed unification between the north and south, and the interference of political religious powers in the nation-building process, these factors have put women's rights at a disadvantage.

Women's biggest problems used to be the institutionalised gender discrimination and socioeconomic hardships as a result of Yemen's longstanding poor governance.

Today, however, their biggest problem is war. As Yemen has been ravaged by famine, cholera and bombardment, yesterday's problems seem like the good old days.

Nevertheless, most concerning to me is the vanishing state of justice in Yemen.

One UN report details how Yemen as a state has dissolved.

In Yemen before the war, in that relatively peaceful and stable country, gender equality was at the heart of the women's rights struggle.

Back then, Yemen's personal status law contained provisions that discriminate against women in relation to marriage, divorce, custody of children, and inheritance.

Today, in war-torn Yemen, the conflict has led the entire judicial system to collapse. There is no one solid, functioning judicial system in Yemen today. The country is on the verge of partition between north and south, and there is no coherent functioning judicial system ruling over both parts.

The Houthis in the north have forcefully and illegally controlled the judicial system and are committing serious human rights violations. Asmaa al-Omeissy, for example, was sentenced to death on charges of "terrorism". Meanwhile, in the south, extrajudicial killings have tragically become the norm in a climate of armed militiamen, with no justice ever being served to its victims.

In this grim situation, the country's women are one of the most neglected political groups. While they bear the brunt of the war, many are still manging political activism that needs our solidarity.

The "Mothers of Abductees Association", is doing great work, raising their voice against oppression and injustice. And to enhance Yemeni women's political representation in any potential peace talks, a group of Yemeni women under the name "Yemeni Women Peace Pact" supported by UN Women has been working since 2015 to enforce women's inclusion in peace talks.

With the recent appointment of a new UN special envoy Martin Griffiths, there's hope that international peace efforts in Yemen will take on a gender perspective, a demand Yemeni women peace activists outline in a letter to be sent to Griffiths today.

*This article was writtern for and firstly published on The New Arab website, March 8th 2018. 

Wednesday, February 28, 2018

From the Front Lines of Yemen’s Lawless Taiz

*With one hand holding the hose for hookah and the other his beeping cell phone, a conversation with Mohammed al-Qadhi is constantly interrupted. He swiftly takes a glance at his cell phone and says, “Excuse me, it’s breaking news I must send this to my editors.” He grabs his phone and he begins tapping.

As one of Yemen’s veteran journalists and rare war correspondents, al-Qadhi has a lot on his plate. Despite spending a short vacation in Cairo, he is busy following the news, receiving calls and updates from his contacts in Yemen, and reporting to his editors at UAE-based Sky News Arabia.

MENASource met with al-Qadhi last month at a cafe in Cairo only days after he left war-torn Yemen. “It’s been a tough time. I needed a short break from the violence, even though, as you see, I’m still working from here,” he admits, chuckling.

“I have covered major events in Yemen’s modern history over the past twenty years and yet I believe that this war has been the most challenging conflict to cover. I’ve had some traumatic experiences while reporting over the past four years.”

Al-Qadhi has been covering the conflict, travelling to different parts of Yemen such as Sana’a and Aden, with more extensive coverage of the bloody fighting in Taiz since early 2015. In the course of the ongoing conflict, al-Qadhi has cheated death several times, survived a serious eye injury while reporting on the frontlines, faced death threats, and was kidnapped twice.

Al-Qadhi reporting from Taiz, November 2016. 

“Of all the war-torn places I’ve been to, I think Taiz has been the most challenging to cover because of the extreme difficulty of accessing it, the immense scale of destruction, unbearable humanitarian plight, and how one’s life there is constantly at risk,” says al-Qadhi.

Al-Qadhi standing near a tank with government forces in an air defence base camp
which was seized by the Houthis. The tank was broken after a landmine planted by Houthis went off.
Al-Qadhi escaped after shells fired by Houthis. November 22, 2016.

Al-Qadhi’s observations betray vast experience in conflict zones. He began working as a journalist in 1998 with Yemen’s only English-speaking newspaper back then, The Yemen Times, where he did some first-hand reporting on some of Yemen’s most turbulent times. He has also worked with several international media organizations such as the Washington Post, The Associated Press, France24, The National, and he contributed to BBC and Aljazeera English, until he officially joined Sky News Arabia in 2012. He extensively covered the war between the Yemeni government forces and Houthi rebel group from 2004 until 2010, and has been covering the Southern Secessionist Movement (al-Hirak al-Januby) in South Yemen since it began in 2007.

“Despite the constraints against freedom of press during all those years, a journalist used to be able to find his or her way and report with relative safety,” reflects al-Qadhi. “Today, however, journalists are systematically targeted by all warring sides. In Taiz in particular, Houthis think if a journalist gets his or her camera out to shoot its as if they’re shooting with a weapon.”

In Taiz, the conflict has devastated all aspects of life in the city, including the press. The city has been a scene of never-ending brutal battles since 2015 between two sides: the national army forces under the control of the government of President Hadi and Popular Resistance (a local group affiliated with the Yemeni government), and the Houthis.

Al-Qadhi sneaking through a hole made on the wall of al-Hakimi school in al-Moroor zone in Taiz. It was difficult to move into the frontline there without having to go through such holes and allies to avoid Houthi snipers. September 19, 2015.
In its 2017 report, Freedom House noted that Yemen had become one of the world’s deadliest places for journalists with at least six journalists killed during 2016, and at least nine forcibly disappeared. As accurate statistics are difficult to obtain in war-torn Yemen, there is no exact estimation of how many journalists have been killed in Taiz alone since the beginning of the conflict. However, al-Qadhi says that seven photojournalists have been killed in Taiz in the course of the conflict. One of them was Yemeni photojournalist, Ahmed al-Shibani, whose death in 2016 was captured in a video clip showing him being shot dead while reporting. Last year, another two photojournalists were killed in Taiz and another one this year.

While sneaking through holes in houses to avoid being seen by Houthi snipers in al-Hasib zone, in Taiz city. Al-Qadhi reported on the scale damage in the area. Two days after this, photojournalist Ahmed al-Shibani was shot dead in the same area he passed through. February 14, 2016.

Nonetheless, al-Qadhi explains that the Houthis are not the only threat to media workers in Yemen and that it is rather the overall lawlessness and chaos in the country which puts everyone at risk. “While I am not dismissing how dangerous it was for me to dodge Houthi snipers a number of times, I also believe it was very dangerous when I was kidnapped twice by armed tribesmen and another group of gunmen,” recalls al-Qadhi, “once in Amran province during the Houthis’ takeover of Sana’a and the other time in Taiz when gunmen were pointing their AK47 guns at my head. I thought I would be executed right there.”

Al-Qadhi believes that Taiz could be the most dangerous place for journalists in Yemen at the moment. He has lost many colleagues who were killed by Houthi snipers or shelling. Hostilities are increasing as the security deterioration continues in Taiz and law and order are very much absent due to the plethora of armed groups and their unclear allegiances.

In some of al-Qadhi’s live reporting from the frontlines, the sound of guns and shelling can be heard—on several occasions, sniper bullets or rockets have interrupted his live reports.

“Now, when I watch my video reports while I was under shelling and sniper bullets, I realize how dangerous it was,” al-Qadhi says, “when I was there, I didn’t fully understand the danger I was exposed to. Only until I see it later on the screen I understand the kind of danger I was in.”

Besides reporting from the frontlines, al-Qadhi has done numerous reports in Taiz on the dire humanitarian situation as a result of the Houthi siege. “It was crucial to cover the impact of the blockade on Taiz, since my crew and I went through what the people in the city went, and still go, through,” Al-Qadhi tells MENASource.

“I have witnessed how patients faint and die helplessly at the door of hospitals that lack the needed medicine and staff. A tragic situation!”

Al-Qadhi has had to climb high mountains in Talwooq area with the locals because it was the only safe place away from Houthi snipers while smuggling food and medicine to the city. Al-Qadhi recalls how he saw men, women, and children carry heavy commodities on their shoulders, and with camel and donkeys up on the mountain to reach the city. “That was one of the telling signs of the tragedy in Taiz,” al-Qadhi describes.

Al-Qadhi chatting with a villager from Talouk mountainous area in Sabir, southern Taiz as he climbs with his donkey carrying bags of flour being smuggled into the city of Taiz under the siege of the Houthis. December 27, 2015.
War reporting is critical, in al-Qadhi’s view, despite all the risks. “As journalists, it’s our job to convey the voice of people trapped in such conflicts,” al-Qadhi says, “I have seen how some of my reporting has led philanthropists to send help to try and alleviate the suffering of people in Taiz. “That makes all the risks worthwhile.”

*This story was orginally written for/published in The Atlantic Council's #MENASource, 23rd Feb 2018. 

Thursday, February 22, 2018

Is Sweden complicit in war crimes in Yemen?

People stand at the site of a Saudi-led airstrike in Sanaa, Yemen, on November 2017. (AP Photo/Hani Mohammed)

*Despite Sweden leading a few special UN sessions in response to the acute humanitarian crisis in Yemen, it still has not demonstrated a political appetite to stop its arms sales to the most active warring parties in the Yemen war: Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. The Swedish parliament is due to discuss its governmental policies on Swedish arms exports, on the 28th of February – and anti-militarization Swedish groups are demanding that Sweden halts all its arms sales to both Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

In the course of the ongoing war in Yemen human rights groups have documented serious attacks committed by both the Saudi-led coalition and the Houthis against civilian sites. These attacks appear to have violated international humanitarian law and may constitute war crimes. While the Houthis grew their military power ever since they overtook Sana’a on September 2014, with the support of Ali Abdullah Saleh, the Saudi-led coalition’s military activities in Yemen were only possible because of their weapon supplies from several western countries - including Sweden.

The Yemen Data Project reveals that since 2015, nearly one-third of Saudi air raids hit non-military sites; such as schools, hospitals, weddings, funerals among many other civilian targets. Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have both documented dozens of unlawful coalition airstrikes, some of which may amount to war crimes. And yet, Sweden has not taken any steps to, at least, investigate how its weapons might be used in violating the international humanitarian law and hence continues risking its complicity in these war crimes.

Sweden is among the world's top 30th biggest arms producers and both Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates are some of its main customers. According to the Swedish prominent 135-years-old anti-militarization group, Svenska Freds, the Swedish arms trade to Saudi Arabia has been ongoing since 1998; with a quick suspension in 2015 following a brief diplomatic crisis between the two countries. The greater amount of the trade has occurred in the last seven years. Between 2010 and 2016, the arms sales to Saudi Arabia was worth almost 6 billion Swedish kronor.

Additionally, the United Arab Emirates was able to buy Swedish weapons in 2016 after the Swedish administrative authority, National Inspectorate of Strategic Products (Inspektionen för strategiska produkter) granted a permission for arms trade to the United Arab Emirates for an amount of nearly 11 billion Swedish kronor, which is one of the largest grants of all time.

Prior to that deal, between 2010 and 2016, Sweden exported arms to the UAE worth 2,12 billion kronor. Saab Group (the Swedish aerospace and defence company) recently opened its office in the capital Abu Dhabi end of 2017 – a clear sign of Sweden’s desire to expand its activities in the region.

The Swedish foreign minister, Margot Walltröm has faced criticism at the Swedish parliament in late 2016 by Sweden’s Left Party, over Sweden’s role in peace-building and arms sales to the Saudi-led coalition. During that hearing, questions were raised about Sweden’s role in investigating committed war crimes and what initiatives the minister intended to take to introduce a national arms embargo against Saudi Arabia.

In response to these questions, the Swedish government has been working on presenting a proposal to tighten arms exports that could come into effect as a law in April of this year. However, this proposition does not deliver an absolute prohibition on arms trade to countries involved in armed conflict with possible war crimes committed.

As both a Swedish-Yemeni citizen and an awardee of Svenska Freds’ Eldh-Ekblads Peace Prize for 2017, I take Sweden’s role in the war in Yemen very seriously. At the end of 2016, I urged Sweden to suspend its arms sales to the Saudi-led coalition and today I urge them again to do so. In the coming Swedish parliament debate on the arms exports, Svenska Freds group plans to demonstrate in front of the parliament to demand a halt on all arms trade related to the war in Yemen. And I raise that demand as well.

The ongoing war in Yemen has produced the worst humanitarian disaster since World War II and has the potential to get worse. A Recently published UN report shows how throughout 2017 alone there have been widespread violations of international humanitarian law and international human rights law by all parties involved in the conflict. Both Norway and Finland have reviewed or suspended their arms trade with members of the Saudi-led coalition. Sweden should do the same. Sweden has long stood for peace and conflict resolution and it should use its efforts to help find a solution, not add fuel to a burning fire.


Saturday, February 3, 2018

Thursday, February 1, 2018

Ten People to Follow in Aden

(c) Amr Gamal, Aden.

Aden has been witnessing dramatic events over the past few days with the situation changing by the hour. Yemen has always been a complicated story. For me, Yemen is only a complicated story because to a large extent media outlets, regionally and internationally, exert no effort to include reliable and relevant Yemeni voices in their reports. Social media is to be thanked for opening a new channel and for providing the space for Yemeni voices to narrate what's happening on the ground from their own local perspective.

A few years ago, I developed a list of Top 20 people to follow in Yemen. Things have since changed. Tweeps come and go. Some deactivate. Some change careers. Some remain active and constantly improve. But as all eyes are on Aden these days, we need a new special list on Aden coverage. The following accounts will bring Aden closer to you, as they have done for me.

There is no specific standard for coming up with this list - except that the people behind these accounts reside in Aden at the moment, bringing a meaningful take on events there.

So, here we go!

1. Osan @OsanBoairan  

I've been following Osan since Yemen's 2011 uprising. He's my top source for anything happening in Aden. His tweets are mainly commentary on the political developments with a large dose of cynicism. Commentary on regional events, both political and cultural are not exempt from Osan's timeline. He could be tweeting on serious political topics and next day tweet on, say, Egyptian celebrities' news. He tweets often about his family and beautiful daughters. And that's what I love about following him - he mixes it up and never bores me.

While working as an accountant, he blogs and tweets regularly during his free time. He only writes in Arabic and sometimes curses, which adds some color to his tweets.

His political stance is pro-Hirak but he's never that extremist or aggressive in expressing his political opinions.

2. Fathi Ben Lazrq @fathibnlazrq + @adenalghad  

Journalist and editor-in-chief of 'Aden Alghad' (Aden Tomorrow) news website, Fathi never distances himself from any story happening in Aden. While his newspaper covers Aden news extensively, he also makes sure to use his own Twitter account to update his followers on his take on events in Aden.

Fathi's political affiliation has not been clear or consistent over the years but that's totally understood given the great pressure and control he works under in Aden, as press freedom is almost zero. Fathi has received death threats several times, according to him unapologetically writing about them on twitter and facebook.

3. Nisma Mansour @NismaAlozebi   

The engineering student, Nisam came to prominence on Yemen-Twitter-community during the battle for Aden in March 2015 when fighting in the city began as Houthi and Saleh forces captured Aden International Airport.

Ever since I've been following Nisma's tweets that I find to be insightful and speak loads about the human side of political developments.

Her blog also reveals aspects of Aden that we don't usually hear about in the mainstream media. Nisma blogs and tweets in English but, sadly, she's not as active as one would like her to be. But we can also find her on Facebook.

4. Saleh al-Obaidi @mrsaleh20001  

Saleh is a photojournalist working with different media outlets. I have never conversed with him, so my comments here are only based on my observations. I've been following Saleh for a couple of years and I admire his passion for documenting how the Hirak's protests and events in Aden are developing.

His tweets and facebook posts are mainly visual; videos and photos - but it's clear he's deeply involved with the Hirak movement. He has been on the front lines of the battlefield taking telling photos which earned him serious injuries last year. After being hospitalized both in Aden and then in UAE, he recovered well and continues to work with his camera.

5. Huda al-Sarari @alsarare2013  

Huda is a hard-core human rights defender. I admire Huda so much that I wrote a long feature on her work, which you can read here on Middle East Eye. Huda tweets in Arabic and she focuses mainly on human rights issues in the city. 

I admire her impartiality, despite the very polarized environment she works in. You can find her on Facebook here.

6. Nashwan Al-Othmani @nalothmani  

Working as Radio Monte Carlo's Yemen correspondent, Nashwan's tweets are mainly about Aden news. His timeline shows reliable updates on developments on the ground. He often publishes posts on Facebook, reflecting on major events.

7. Amr Gamal @_AmrGamal  

Playwright and photographer, Amr Gamal could tweet about anything outside of politics. Despite how Aden is saturated by politics, Amr has managed to keep himself focused on the Arts, Theater, Cinema and Photography. 

His work archive has few plays written and directed by him for both local and international audiences in Yemen and Germany. I am lucky to call him a friend. Make sure to check his Facebook updates too.

8. Ahmed Shihab al-Qadi @ahmedalqadi001  

An engineering student who finds photography a hobby and a means of expressing his political opinions. Ahmed's camera is always with him as he participates in every protest and political event for the Hirak movement in Aden. 

He captures beautiful photos and I've always used his photos on my blog ever since I discovered him through Amr Gamal's suggestions to me. He's not super active on Twitter but he is definitely so on Facebook.

9. Vlogger Mazen al-Saqaf  

Mazen vlogs from Aden. Yes, that's right. He vlogs on social and cultural topics. His videos are interesting, funny and super local - meaning he's so chilled and not changing his Yemeni accent so "the other" could understand him. 

I love his simplicity and non-pretentious writing. His channel is in Arabic and you can find it here.

10. Ahmed Abdulaziz @_ahmedaziz  

Ahmed is a poet, I assume, but he's definitely a photographer capturing moments in Aden that your TV or newspaper won't show you. He has a unique style and his photos are about small details in Aden. Sadly, he's not active on Facebook or Twitter but he is active on Instagram.