Freelance Journalists Relay Stories From Yemen
Originally published on Fri March 9, 2012 9:51 am
RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
Yemen has changed its president, but has not come to the end of its trouble. Yesterday, militants overran a military base in south Yemen. Dozens of people were killed, and al-Qaida has claimed responsibility.
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Concern about al-Qaida was one of the reasons that Yemen's protest movement put the United States in a dilemma over the past year. The U.S. had an ally against a terror group in Yemen's former president, Ali Abdullah Saleh. Now it wants to be sure that militants do not gain ground under the new government.
MONTAGNE: Relatively few outsiders have been able to watch the drama of the past year. As protests mounted, Western journalists were only rarely allowed into the country. The rare exceptions include young freelance reporters who told their story to NPR's Kelly McEvers.
KELLY MCEVERS, BYLINE: If you think back to January and February of last year, it was a crazy time. Most journalists were busy covering uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Bahrain. Yemen's protests still weren't on the radar. There were just a handful of freelance journalists based in Yemen. Among them, Tom Finn - he now works for Reuters - Adam Barron with McClatchy Newspapers and Iona Craig with the Times of London. Not long ago, Tom and Adam were university students. Iona used to train racehorses. They came to Yemen to study Arabic and work at the local English-language newspaper. But on March 18th of last year, they became witnesses to the turning point in Yemen's uprising.
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MCEVERS: On that day, Iona was in the protest encampment in Yemen's capital, known as Change Square. There, a student-led movement calling for Yemen's president to step down had slowly gained momentum. Protestors discovered pro-government thugs congregating behind a makeshift wall that had been built at the end of the street. Protestors started running toward it.
IONA CRAIG: And as they gathered in front of this wall, there were tires burning on the other side. There was a lot of chanting and shouting going on. And as I approached, the snipers then started. So I then got out my mobile phone and started filming it.
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MCEVERS: Those shots are the sounds of sniper rifles raining bullets down on protestors from rooftops. It was the only footage that appeared on Western TV that day.
CRAIG: And at that point, as I was filming with my phone, I saw a guy, a Yemeni guy, directly opposite me on the other side of the street as I was doing that. He was doing the same, and he got his head blown off. And so I then thought, yeah, this is time to get out of here.
MCEVERS: In all, dozens of people were killed, many of them shot in the head. The next day, Iona went to the mass funeral in Change Square. Before then, the protests had numbered around 10 or 20,000 people.
CRAIG: And then that day at the funeral, I mean, it was immense, absolutely immense. And then you just knew. You just had this absolute feeling that there was no going back.
MCEVERS: The protests kept growing, and the snipers kept shooting. Protest encampments popped up in cities and towns around Yemen. By then, it was nearly impossible for journalists to enter Yemen from outside. Even if you managed to get a visa to get into the country, you'd be turned away at the airport. Tom Finn started filing for Al-Jazeera. The network posted him in a mosque in Change Square that had been converted into a field hospital.
TOM FINN: I remember one particular day I was in the field hospital, and a doctor ran in. And actually, at first, no one could see - I couldn't see what was in his hands. All I saw was the reaction of other people who looked at him and suddenly, you know, would start screaming or crying just at seeing him. And then I realized that he was holding a baby in his hands that had been shot in the head. A stray bullet had gone through a car window and killed this child. And he'd run in. And, I mean, I just - I couldn't report. I couldn't do anything. At that point, I was just paralyzed. I just sat down, and I couldn't really operate.
MCEVERS: At this point, Yemen started splitting in two: those who were with the protestors, and those who were with the government. An entire division of the army defected to join the protestors. Tribes once loyal to the government did the same. An all-out war started in one neighborhood in Yemen's capital. It was home to a prominent sheikh who'd aligned with the protest movement to fight against government soldiers. During some of the worst fighting, Tom managed to get into the sheikh's mansion.
FINN: Which was completely ruined, pocked with bullets, windows smashed, swimming pools filled with rubble, camels and peacocks wandering around in confusion, and the sounds of explosions and bullets flying above my head.
MCEVERS: Meanwhile, Yemen's president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, agreed to a deal that would hand power to his vice president in exchange with immunity. But he then refused to sign that deal three separate times. Then on June 3rd, a rocket-propelled grenade was fired into Saleh's compound, gravely wounding him and killing four of his bodyguards. Saleh was whisked to neighboring Saudi Arabia for medical treatment. After that, says Adam Barron, political stalemate set in.
ADAM BARRON: It's strange, because it felt like maybe for, I don't know, three or four months, perhaps, the entire situation, it's just as if someone pressed a pause button.
MCEVERS: And during that pause, there were massive shortages of fuel, water and electricity. Food prices went through the roof.
BARRON: The hardest part of that, in a way, is there's kind of disturbing things happening in Yemen - especially the humanitarian crisis, happening.
MCEVERS: And nobody cared.
BARRON: Well, I mean, I wrote, you know, I wrote a story on it.
MCEVERS: Well, he wrote five or six stories speculating on what Saleh was going to do next. After months of back and forth and another series of brutal crackdowns on protestors, Saleh did eventually come back to Yemen, and he did eventually sign the deal to transfer power to his vice president in exchange for full immunity from prosecution. Now, the reporters say, they want to stay on in Yemen and see if the experiment works, to see if all the Yemenis who lost their lives lost them for a good cause. So far, though, the situation in Yemen is shaky. Already, there have been more protests and some clashes between pro and government forces. Still, despite all the unpredictability, the reporters say it's the kind of place that gets under your skin.
CRAIG: It's all so complicated. That's what makes it kind of, you know, quite gripping, really, because you're never going sit back and say, yeah, I know everything about Yemen. And if you do, you're a complete fool.
MCEVERS: Kelly McEvers, NPR News.
INSKEEP: Let's talk about another country that outsiders struggle to understand. Iran held elections on Friday for parliament. In the midst of a confrontation with the West, the government called for heavy turnout to demonstrate public support, and the government reported heavy turnout - though Iranians who sent dispatches to Tehran Bureau, an independent website, said polling places were not so busy. Amidst simmering discontent, there had been talk of a boycott of this vote, though in the end, even a former president who spoke of boycotting cast a ballot. Reformist candidates never made it on the ballot Friday. Rival conservative factions did. And though final results are not in, candidates supporting President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad appear to have done poorly. Ahmadinejad has been losing ground against other conservatives loyal to the ayatollah, who is Iran's supreme leader.
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INSKEEP: This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.