Wednesday, September 5, 2018

My commentary on prospects for Yemen peace talks in Geneva

My commentary today on Al Jazeera English on prospects for Yemen peace talks in Geneva.
Video recorded by Jim Early.

Sunday, September 2, 2018

Do reports on atrocities in Yemen serve any purpose?

My Co-commentary on Al Jazeera's Inside Story program on the latest developments in Yemen.

Friday, August 24, 2018

Yemenis in Cairo: A life of despair

April 2018 - Tahrir Square, Cairo, Egypt.

*Very often I’m asked, “Where do Yemenis escape to? Syrians largely flee to Lebanon and Turkey, but where do Yemenis go?”

“The majority cannot afford to flee,” I respond. “For those who can afford it, their destination always depends on which country hasn’t closed its borders to Yemenis. Often, they head west, across the Red Sea, to Somalia, Djibouti, Ethiopia and Egypt — the latter having always been the closest escape and preferred getaway.”

Due to its proximity and the two countries’ historically close relations, Egypt has not only been a favored destination for many Yemenis, but is also an influential player in Yemen’s politics. Notably, Egypt played a significant role in the course of Yemen’s September 26 Revolution and the Civil War that followed (1962-1970). As part of Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser’s expansionist foreign policy, Egypt supported the creation of the Yemen Arab Republic (YAR), with thousands of Egyptian troops deployed and weapons supplied. Around 15,000 Egyptian soldiers were killed, some of whom were buried in a graveyard in the heart of Sanaa, later named the “Egyptian martyrs’ cemetery.” At that time, Egypt opened its doors to numerous Yemeni revolutionary republicans, writers and activists, such as, Abdel Rahman al-Baydani, who presented a radio talk show on Cairo radio titled, “The Secrets of Yemen,” Ahmad Noman and Mohamed al-Zubairi, who established Al-Jam’iyah al-Yamaneya al-Kubra (The Grand Yemeni Association) in Cairo.

Many Yemenis have completed their university education in Cairo and made use of Egypt’s healthcare system, with both education and health care in Yemen being strained. Moreover, it is not unusual to find mixed-nationality families, due to intermarriages over the years. Such is the case for my own family, as two of my relatives married Egyptians and had children.

Egypt continues to play a role in Yemen’s ongoing conflict today. Since March 2015, it has been one of the members in the Saudi-led coalition that is fighting Houthis. While the details of what this actually involves are scant, we know that Egypt deployed around 8,000 ground troops in Yemen in 2015.

Despite this military intervention, Yemenis are still fleeing to Egypt. For many years, Yemen and Egypt had a mutual visa-free entry agreement, but, in 2013, things began to change. Egypt started to enforce visa requirements for Yemeni citizens, asking them to apply at the Egyptian embassy in Sanaa. Then, in 2014, the Egyptian embassy, like all other embassies in the city, was evacuated and Yemenis had to face fast-changing and complicated visa requirements and customs regulations stipulated by Egyptian authorities. Today, Yemenis under 16 and over 50 still benefit from free-visa entry, but all others must apply for a visa at the nearest Egyptian embassy. Yemenis coming to Egypt for medical treatment are exempted, but they must show an Egyptian medical report confirming their condition.

These restrictions are still relatively fair, in comparison to other countries that have made it almost impossible for Yemenis to enter. Many countries have imposed complicated and difficult visa requirements on Yemeni citizens, especially after the war broke out. For instance, Turkey, which used to have a free-visa policy for Yemenis, today requires that applicants prove that they have been to Turkey previously, otherwise their visa applications will not be processed. Jordan, which also used to have visa-free entry for Yemenis, now requires applicants to provide proof they have 6,000 euros in order to obtain a visa upon arrival. It is difficult to imagine the average citizen of a nation known as the poorest in the Arab world being able to afford such an exorbitant fee. The United Arab Emirates and the United States have made it clear that Yemeni citizens are unwelcome, and have enforced a total travel ban on Yemeni nationals.

The discrimination Yemenis face while applying for visas worldwide is a long story that requires a separate article. Those I spoke to shared a great deal of anguish and heartache regarding the process. Having said that, many also highlighted the relative ease with which Egypt grants some Yemenis six-month residency permits, which are then reviewed, with the potential for renewal.

The number of Yemenis in Egypt is on the rise. An estimated 1,000 people registered with the UNHCR in 2016, and around 4,000 in 2017, although these numbers are not reflective of the actual influx of Yemenis to the country. Many people do not register for refugee status, or use Egypt as a temporary destination on route to other countries. Several of those I spoke to tell stories of staying in Egypt for longer than they initially planned.

I spent time in Cairo myself from December 2017 till May 2018, seeking to meet Yemenis and document their stories.

Dokki, Cairo’s ‘Yementown’

Walking around the bustling Dokki area in Cairo nowadays gives you the impression that you are walking down the street in one of Yemen’s large cities. Since the 1990s, Yemenis have created a “little-Yemen” in Dokki, with restaurants, shops and cafes springing up as a result of increasing migration and the building of communities.

The various Yemeni dialects can be casually heard on the streets in Dokki, but the signs of war are also visible on many of the faces of those I saw and met. Some have obvious injuries to their faces, bandages on their arms or walk with the aid of crutches. Others may not have visible injuries, but show signs or speak of other forms of psychological distress, including many of my journalist colleagues. Militias, both from the north and south of Yemen, are largely responsible for this trauma.

Fugitive Yemeni journalists

Reporters Without Borders’ (RWB) ranked Yemen 167 out of 180 countries in its 2018 report, reflecting the deteriorating conditions for many who work in the media. Systematic patterns of arbitrary arrest, forced disappearances, media center closures, unfair prosecutions and trials — one of which resulted in a death sentence that was overturned under international pressure — are among the many violations Yemeni journalists have faced from all warring parties, as documented by Yemen’s Muwatana organization.

The attacks on Yemeni journalists were initially waged by Houthis, when they took over Sanaa in 2014. The shelling of the state television headquarters kicked off a series of attacks against media workers in Yemen. Many journalists point to Houthi leader Abdelmalek al-Houthi’s statement in 2016, when he said, “Media workers are more dangerous to our country than the nationalist and warring mercenaries,” as evidence of a deliberate campaign against them.

“If the Houthis were considered a governing authority, Yemen would have the fifth highest number of journalists in jail in the world, after Eritrea, and ahead of Azerbaijan and Vietnam,” the Committee to Protect Journalists asserted in December 2017. But the Houthis are not alone in their responsibility for the abuse of journalists. As the RWB report suggests, “In the part of the country controlled by the so-called legitimate government, journalists are often the victims of abuses by militias backed by the United Arab Emirates.”

While such reports paint the bigger picture, as far as freedom of the press in Yemen is concerned, they do not provide details of the numbers of people affected by the war. The dozens of Yemeni journalists who reside in Cairo today are not just displaced, they are fugitives. Some have escaped captivity, torture, death threats, or assassination attempts and are in hiding. Many of them are reluctant to be interviewed for fear of exposure. Most are traumatized, and worried about the safety of their families and friends back home. Though they told their stories to me in private, the fear of a backlash from Egyptian authorities made them afraid to go public with any details.

As I write this from the safety of my own refuge in Sweden, I have been reflecting on how to share the plight of the Yemeni community in Cairo without risking their lives or jeopardizing my own chances of getting back into Egypt to see my relatives and continue reporting.

The situation of Yemeni refugees receives little media attention. One Yemeni young man in Cairo told me, “Yemenis here are waiting, either for the war to end so they might return home, or for some other unknown end.”

There doesn’t currently seem to be an end in sight for the Yemen conflict, which has only grown in size and complexity in recent months. In the meantime, the attention of international media and humanitarian organizations is desperately needed to help alleviate the suffering of Yemenis, both inside and outside of Yemen.

*This essay was first written for and published in Mada Masr website. 

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.