Wednesday, August 1, 2018

Alone and Forgotten: Injured Yemeni Soldiers Persist in Egypt

*The past year has been agony for a group of war-wounded Yemeni soldiers. As part of national medical and financial assistance to wounded soldiers, many were flown out to Egypt to receive treatment. Most ended up stranded as financial assistance quickly dried up for the soldiers, including those interviewed, among others. Unable to leave due to the severity of their injuries and lack of funds, soldiers describe being forgotten by the government they fought for. Due to ongoing economic strains and instability in Yemen, wounded soldiers are not a priority for the current government as it is logistically and financially unable to meet its prior obligations to its soldiers.

Sami, 25, is one of a group of soldiers living in a shared apartment in Cairo. He came to Egypt several months ago after receiving initial medical care financed by the Yemeni government. In the shared apartment, he sits on a sofa, wearing dark sunglasses to cover his injuries. A bullet hit him across his eyes while fighting in Taiz, months ago. He lost both his eyes and the ability to taste and smell because he didn’t receive sufficient urgent medical care. I was told Sami is an only child and his mother doesn’t know the extent of his injuries.

Like many of the soldiers, once he finds out I am a journalist here to interview them all, he quickly stands up to leave and forces his friend to leave as well. He walks out of the room and says bitterly, “I don’t want to be interviewed.”

Sami—not his real name—like all the other injured Yemeni soldiers in that apartment were part of armed forces in the national army under the authority of exiled President Abdrabbo Mansour Hadi. Soldiers are promised medical care at the expense of the national army from on duty injuries. Health facilities in Yemen are collapsing, and soldiers are flown overseas to be treated.

Taiz has been the site of bloody fighting since 2015 between national army forces under the control of the government of President Hadi and national resistance group forces affiliated with the Yemeni government; and the Houthis. There is no comprehensive data of military casualties or injured Yemeni soldiers, however, Doctors Without Borders or Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) reports that since March 2015, “MSF has treated more than 72,000 patients wounded by violence in our medical facilities and MSF-supported clinics.”

There are currently about thirty injured soldiers in Cairo from the national army forces with serious wounds; some with decapitated legs or arms. Few receive limited financial support from the national army and some do not receive anything at all.

The soldiers say they have been forgotten, despite promises from the Yemeni government to provide them with ongoing medical and financial assistance. “My wounds are rotting while Yemeni officials refuse to answer my calls,” says Khatab Al-Ruaiani, 28, a soldier wounded twice at the battlefield in Taiz, in his back and his thigh. “I joined the army because I wanted to serve my country and I never imagined that my country would forget me like this.”

Interrupting Al-Ruaiani, the 25-years-old Emad Al-Fagieh explains, “we are slowly dying from the pain of our injuries without any relief (medical or financial).” Al-Fagieh suffers from serious injuries in his face and the loss of both his arms and his left eye due to a mine explosion while fighting. “There are urgent medical operations that we need to have, not only to survive, but also to go back to how we were before.”

Under the Yemeni government, soldiers with war injuries are classified into three categories: 1) Sahel soldiers that fight on the coastal line from al-Khawkhah to Aden, 2) Marib province soldiers and 3) Taiz city soldiers. The Sahel soldiers are usually medically treated in the UAE and the latter two groups in India or Egypt. Most wounded soldiers are left untreated. These soldiers managed to receive medical care from individual donations through social media posts by relatives or friends on their behalf.

If it wasn’t for an anonymous female philanthropist and her donation, Mohammed Dabwan, 22, wouldn’t be able to come to Egypt. Dabwan suffers from an injury in his back and belly that caused him bladder and bowel dysfunction. “I am registered in the armed forces’ list of whom they promised to cover medical expenses for while in Egypt, and yet it was the individual donor who covered my flight to Egypt,” explains Dabwan, while showing me in his mobile his name in the armed forces’ list. Dabwan believes he sacrificed a lot for Taiz and was not taken care of by the government in return. He has no other skillset except in fighting and sees no other future for himself except to go back to Taiz and fight.

Last year, the Yemeni embassy in Cairo hosted a music concert for two Yemeni singers, Ahmed Fathi and his daughter, Balqees Fathi, raising funds for cholera victims in Yemen—some wounded soldiers tried to use the event to cast a spotlight on the neglect they are facing. “We tried to protest at the concert, but we were forced by security to leave,” recalls Al-Ruaiani.

“Our message is not for the embassy, it is rather to President Hadi himself to intervene and end this slow death we are going through,” says Hamdi Najib, 27, with severe arm and thigh injures. Najib has been in Egypt for a year and a half undergoing several surgeries totaling $5,000, “I’m indebted and penniless; and I still need more surgeries—our government has to be held accountable.”

The Yemeni embassy established a medical committee assigned to handle soldiers’ medical issues—its head, Khaled Al-Sama’ai explains on a phone interview that Yemeni state workers have not received their salaries for about two years and that has negatively impacted financial support for wounded soldiers. “Presidential authorizations to transfer funds to the wounded soldiers often takes some time, but we are doing our best to address the soldiers’ cases,” says Al-Sama’ai. When asked why soldiers from Taiz believe they are more neglected than soldiers from other areas, Al-Sama’ai refused to give a clear answer except that, “it might be politically motivated—I can’t reveal much.”

Despite the poor medical care and financial assistance from the Yemeni government in Egypt, all of the soldiers interviewed prefer to stay. The poor quality and basic medical facilities in Yemen are ill-equipped to deal with their injuries long term and to return would mean being cut off from charitable donors and organizations sustaining them in Egypt. They have a long and slow journey to heal as they gather what medical and financial assistance they can while they question the government they fought for, but with little choice except to continue to fighting for them once they recover.

*Photography (C): Afrah Nasser
*This article was orginally published in the Atlantic Council website, July 30, 2018.

Tuesday, July 31, 2018

UAE abuses in Yemen are an extension of authoritarianism at home

(c) Reuters

*The recent report published by Amnesty on enforced disappearances in southern Yemen at the hand of UAE troops and the Yemeni security forces they back raise crucial questions about Abu Dhabi's motives in Yemen and the underlying causes for such gross human rights violations.

The issue has been raised over the past year by several media and rights groups including Human Rights Watch and Associated Press, but this latest report emphasises that UAE and Yemeni operations qualify as war crimes: "Due to the fact that [these violations] are being carried out in the context of the armed conflict in Yemen, the practices of enforced disappearance and torture documented in this report amount to war crimes."

Given the UAE's dark record of human rights violations; its jailing of dissidents, arbitrary detention, abuse of migrant workers' rights, and other rights, Abu Dhabi's practices in Yemen are consistent with its approach towards human rights at home. The UAE has been facing criticism for its domestic human rights abuses both by rights groups and the UN Human Rights Council - and it has always defended itself simply by denying such accusations outright.

UAE human rights abuses in Yemen seemingly come as an extension of Abu Dhabi's way of addressing human rights at home - and, again, it has defended itself by flatly denying the accusations in the recent Amnesty report.

The controversy over Emirati troops occupying Yemen's famous Socotra island, and the bold statement by Yemen's President Abd Rabbo Mansour Hadi saying, "[The] UAE acts as an occupier in Yemen" - as well as reports of the UAE banning Hadi's entry to Aden - have all revealed how Abu Dhabi's motives in Yemen are not exclusively limited to its military involvement within the Saudi Arabia-led Arab Coalition.

The UAE is more interested in exploiting the war in Yemen for economic and political gains.

To expand its maritime and trade sector, the UAE has aimed to seize Yemen's key ports - Socotra, Aden and Hodeidah - given their global economic strategic location for the world's major trade shipping routes.

If that doesn't come off, Abu Dhabi at least wants any political leadership at these key ports to be fully affiliated to the Emirates.

In order to secure its goals, the UAE has been creating its own security apparatus in southern Yemen. "Since joining the conflict in March 2015, the UAE has created, trained, equipped and financed various local security forces known as the Security Belt and Elite Forces," reads the Amnesty report. "It has also built alliances with Yemeni security officials, bypassing their leadership in the Yemeni government."

In my interviews with several young men and women from Aden who escaped the city to countries I can't mention for their own safety, I was told how their friends had been killed by UAE-backed Yemeni fighters after they were of being secular or atheists.

Amjad Abdulrahman, a young activist about whom I have previously written, was, according to his friends and family, one of the first to be killed by a militia group supported by UAE.

The UAE enjoys the freedom to support militia groups as it wishes in Yemen's south, given the absence of any strong or even competent governance by Hadi's Yemeni government - which faces countless accusations of corruption. Beside its security alliance with UAE troops, the Yemeni government's poor performance in improving living and security conditions has increased resentment among the people of the south.

Two days before the Amnesty report was released, Yemeni social media users extensively shared a video of a heated discussion between a southern woman activist and a southern politician. "There was no difference between Houthis' leadership style in the north and the southern leadership style in the south," the woman is heard saying in the video - referring to how both Houthis and the legitimate government in the south of Yemen have been corrupt, unjust and politically authoritarian.

Demands made by Amnesty to investigate these gross human rights violations are undermined by a fundamental lack of political will among all parties involved in the enforced disappearance and detentions. Yemeni victims' hope lies in efforts made by international human rights groups who may one day succeed in using international humanitarian laws to bring justice to Yemeni victims.

*This article was orginally published in the New Arab website, July 19, 2018. 

My Talks in Sweden's Political Week, Almedalen

Women of Yemen: making art in times of war


*It may not seem to be the right time to talk about the Yemeni art movement, particularly women’s art, while Yemen is going through this major humanitarian crisis. Over four years have passed since the war in Yemen broke out. The humanitarian catastrophe as a result of the war threatens the lives of more than 22 million people, men, women or children. Media coverage about Yemen is scarce and stories of people suffering from famine and disease are prioritized. So in the times of famine, cholera, destruction and social breakdown, what does it mean to talk about the Yemeni women’s art movement?

But how can it be avoided as Yemeni female artists and others in film, painting, and writing took it upon themselves to express the pain of their society and defend their human cause, far from the control of authorities.

In fact, contrary to what is commonly believed in the world that female artists work in a male-dominated world and that their work is marginalized compared to the huge interest taken in men’s art work, in Yemen the situation is different. In my ten year long experience in covering Yemen, I saw women and men equally represented in the Yemeni art movement. All are marginalized and do not get any media attention and their work and talent is not well or sufficiently documented. Yet, this article for Jeem is dedicated to Yemeni female artists.

Sara Ishaq is one of the most important Yemeni artists of the young generation who found their voice with the outbreak of the revolution in Yemen in 2011. The young film director, who is Yemeni on her father’s side and Scottish on her mother’s side, scored a historic accomplishment with her Yemeni film in cooperation with a Yemeni film crew “Karama has no Walls” (2012) that was nominated for the Oscar for short documentaries. The film is about the events of a bloody day at the beginning of the Yemeni revolution which marked a turning point in its future trajectory.

Since Sara’s return to Yemen in 2011 after ten years of absence in Scotland, she has been documenting daily life details about the political and social reality. She skillfully oscillates between documenting the experience of male and female Yemeni citizens as a result of political events and her personal experience. Her two short films, one about a woman demonstrating on Taghyeer square in Sanaa or her film “Stranded” about Yemenis stranded in Egypt in 2015, demonstrate the importance of Sara’s camera documenting critical moments in the memory of the Yemeni citizens. Her film “The Mulberry House” also garnered several international and Arab awards. It describes the Yemeni family through the narration of Sara Ishaq’s own life and that of her family.

Interviewing Sara Ishaq in 2013 after her Oscar nomination, I asked her about her artistic ambitions. She complained about the lack of institutions in Yemen to teach filmmaking. Her aim was to establish an academy to teach filmmaking in Yemen and it seems her dream has become a reality.

Talking to her over the telephone, Sara Ishaq tells enthusiastically about her preparation for a second workshop, supported by AFAC, the Arab Fund for Arts and Culture after a successful first workshop on film making for a group of young men and women in Sanaa. Following a short break after having her first baby, Sara today tries to juggle many projects. In addition to her workshop with her team at Comra Films she works behind the scenes in producing short films in cooperation with regional and international media. More importantly, she currently works on her first feature film and a documentary about women and war.

In war or peace, she says to me, filmmaking plays an important role for Yemen’s youth. It is an empowering tool and it enriches dialogue and public opinion. “Generally, the making of art in the times of war is therapeutic. Here, it is the same for the makers of film as well as for the audience. Movies help us to express ourselves and to enrich the views of others away from stereotypes.”

The young Yemeni painter Haya El Hammoumi experienced something similar. The 23-year-old tells me over the phone from Sanaa that painting to her is a way to adapt to reality and cope with the pressures. “I paint because this is how I best express myself and my surroundings. Some write articles or books or make movies to express themselves. I find painting to be the way of expression that is closest to me.”

Haya started exhibiting her paintings publicly in 2014 at the time when the civil war broke out in Yemen with the invasion of the capital Sanaa and public institutions by the Houthis. Since that time Haya has been drawing to express her emotions. Her works “The Victim” or “Cry of Anger” were painted in times when she wanted to depict the state of society as a victim of a raging war that wants to scream into her face. Her painting on verbal violence against women as part of the project of the Institute for the Development of Young Cadres in Yemen sums up the suffering of women in Yemen due to verbal violence.

Haya has participated in 16 art exhibitions in Sanaa and one in Kuwait. She praises the public interest in Sanaa as the numbers of visitors at openings are rising in recent years. However, her wish would be to grant more support to young talents.

Methal is a Yemeni singer and guitar player who has received a lot of support. Her star began to rise after her cooperation with ‘x ambassadors’ last year when they debuted a joint song called Cycles as part of the ‘I Am with the Banned’ campaign, in solidarity with the countries banned from entering the United States by President Donald Trump’s executive decision. Since the 2011 revolution in Yemen, Methal has been composing, singing and distributing her songs, especially the English language ones.

It was not easy for Methal to succeed. In an interview with her right after the debut of her song Cycles, she tells me how she had to face lots of deprecations and harassment in Yemen when she started in 2011. “I would get hate mail and people harassed me because I sing in open and mixed places. It kept increasing so I stopped singing in 2014 and disappeared from public life. When the war started in March 2015, I took my guitar and went on a refugee boat to Djibouti.”

“There I played for a while in hotels to make a living. During that time I worked on marketing my work on the internet. I received invitations to participate in events to represent Yemen in Germany and Canada. After that I settled in Canada.”

From her new home in Prague that she took since the war broke out, Rim Megahed’s words take you back to Yemen. The social researcher and writer expresses her nostalgia for Yemen in stories that amaze with their realism and expressive common meanings for every Yemeni man and woman. When I met Rim in Prague at the beginning of this year, she confessed to me how she tries through these stories to communicate once more with the little Rim that grew up in one of the villages of Taiz – the village girl.

On the pages of Lebanese Assafir newspaper, Rim has so far published 6 stories, one after the other with the titles: Blouse, Wedding, Escape, Theft, Displacement, and Road. Not much time passed until the editorial team of Assafir realized her talent. They offered her recently to publish her stories on one page: “The young Rim Megahed has amazed us. Each of her stories is a picture from a different angle of the Yemeni landscape today, or a script for a film that has all the ingredients to be made. She amazes us and we realize that we are discovering an amazing storyteller.”

These are four examples from a long list of names of Yemeni female artists facing war and displacement. They are armed with their creativity and passion for filmmaking, painting, singing and storytelling. Not much has been written about Yemen and the war yet and we are in constant need to document the work of male and female artists.


What has Happened to Pro-Saleh Media after his Death?

July 5 - 2018

I took a close look at what has happened to pro-Saleh media after Saleh's death and I examined the general state of media in Yemen. The article was first published in Daraj website, in Arabic.