Thursday, December 13, 2018

Meet the journalists trying to give Yemenis the 'full picture'

Manal Qaed, a Yemeni journalist from the port city of Hodeidah, is one of several women
who are part of the initiative [Faisal Edroos/Al Jazeera]

The Yemen Peace Newsroom aims to offer objective reporting from talks in Sweden against a backdrop of partisan coverage.

Rimbo, Sweden - It was -3 degrees Celsius, snow was beginning to fall, and there was a strong wind battering those waiting in the freezing cold.

A representative from the Yemeni government had just left the latest round of closed-door discussions involving the United Nations and insisted on holding his press briefing outside.

As the 'big three' - the Associated Press, the AFP and Reuters - began jostling for position in the damp and slippery grass, up strolled Ahmed Baider, a burly Yemeni journalist from the war-ravaged country's capital, Sanaa, eager to grab an exclusive line from what he thought was the biggest story of the day.

Carrying just his camera and mobile phone, he managed to weave his way through the media melee to within inches from where the official was standing.

After 20-odd-minutes of questions and answers, he raced past into a neighbouring press room where 11 of his colleagues, the biggest media team on location, were preparing to file the story.

"We want to be in the middle, we want to produce news as we see it with our eyes," he told Al Jazeera, peppering every sentence with the colloquial English slang word, 'mate'.

"If we do lives [live interviews] with the Houthis, then we'll do lives with the Yemeni government.

"If we do an interview with this person, we'll do an interview with that person. We give both sides an opportunity to speak. We're balanced."

Ahmed Baider takes part in an interview with a Yemeni official at the Yemen Peace Newsroom's
temporary office [Faisal Edroos/Al Jazeera]

'Giving Yemenis the full picture'

Officials from the Yemeni government and Houthi rebels have been meeting in the Swedish town of Rimbo, around 60km north of the capital, Stockholm, since Thursday for talks discussing ways to end fighting that has killed more than 60,000 people.

After seven days of discussions, the two sides have made significant breakthroughs, including an agreement to swap a total of 16,000 prisoners within the next 30 days.

Despite this, they appear to be at a major loggerhead over Sanaa airport and Hodeidah port; the latter a major humanitarian lifeline for the country's 28 million hungry and dispirited population.

Since the talks started on December 4, 12 Yemeni journalists from across the country, including Baider, have been regularly filing stories for the 'Yemen Peace Newsroom', a new initiative that aims to give Yemenis a full and objective picture of the meetings.

Supported by the French media development agency (CFI) and the UN body UNESCO, they relay developments directly from the talks to potentially millions of Yemenis via Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube.

In the past few days, some of their content has gone viral, having been picked up by both local and international media.

"We send content to a long list of local news websites and I sense that we are the top source of information for dozens of media outlets," said Aseel Sariyah, an award-winning Yemeni journalist.

"The sponsors, [CFI and the UNESCO] understand that local [Yemeni] journalists are the best type of journalists to cover such an event.

"That's why they sponsored this initiative."

The Yemen Peace Newsroom is made up of 12 journalists from various backgrounds [Faisal Edroos/Al Jazeera]

World's fifth highest number of jailed journalists

While the war in Yemen has been raging for more than three years, the conflict has only begun to receive significant media attention since the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, a Washington Post columnist and critic of Saudi Arabia's foreign policy.

Western powers have expressed their outrage over the killing, with senators in the United States questioning Washington's strategic partnership with Riyadh.

Under the leadership of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the de-facto ruler of the kingdom and alleged architect of the war, the Saudi-led coalition has carried out more than 18,000 air raids with weddings, funerals, schools, and hospitals not spared from the bombardment.

Saudi Arabia intervened in the war after the Houthis overthrew President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi and were about to seize the last remaining government bastion of Aden.

Within a matter of weeks, the media became a major battleground between the opposing sides with the Houthis launching a crackdown on dissent, ransacking the offices of several TV channels, including Suhail TV, Yemen Shebab TV, and the offices of Al Jazeera.

Yemen used to have around 295 media publications, according to the country's National Information Center, with four official state-owned TV channels and 14 privately-owned TV channels, but within a matter of months, most were co-opted by the Houthis.

An unspecified number of journalists were arrested and are still languishing in Houthi prisons.

The Committee to Protect Journalists reported late last year: "If the Houthis were considered a governing authority, Yemen would have the fifth highest number of journalists in jail in the world."

The initiative has developed a strong following on Facebook and Twitter, with videos garnering thousands of views [Faisal Edroos/Al Jazeera]

'We interview everyone'

Saudi Arabia's intervention further worsened the media landscape with both sides investing vast sums of money in their propaganda operations.

In an attempt to control local and international narratives, the Houthis began detaining journalists without charge, while an army of pro-Saudi Twitter bots began pushing anti-Houthi propaganda and started stifling reports on social media, which documented the killings of civilians in air attacks.

As a result, the Yemeni public and its diaspora began receiving a distorted picture of the war, with both sides either focusing on the other side's atrocities or producing content glorifying their humanitarian work.

"Usually Yemenis say if you side with one party to the conflict, you have one enemy. But if you're neutral, you have two enemies," Baider said.

"Thankfully, the feedback we've received has been very positive. People are now aware of what's going on.

"[Yemenis] are being kept informed and updated and we're growing bigger and bigger on social media."

Members of the Yemen Peace Newsroom interview a delegate at the peace talks [Faisal Edroos/Al Jazeera]

*This piece was written by Faisal Edroos and I for Al Jazeera English, published yesterday 12 Dec. 2018.  

Wednesday, December 12, 2018

Yemen: Peace at last?

Image result for yemen peace talks

*Rimbo, Sweden - It is still too early to believe that peace in Yemen is in sight, but at the same time, one can’t say that there is no end in sight.

Covering the Yemen peace talks in Sweden from Rimbo since they started last week has not been easy. The discussions are closed-door sessions with the press working under several restrictions. Updates on the talks consistently change, and the freezing weather and dark days have made it a challenging mission to uncover the truth. The full agenda not been shared, but humanitarian issues have been the main focus so far.

A major prisoner swap deal presented a breakthrough, but without a ceasefire in place—and deep divisions between the two parties on a political framework that everyone can agree on—there are still enormous hurdles in bringing peace to Yemen.

Though proposals for a political framework have not been discussed yet, the warring sides have shown a gulf of difference over the UNSC 2216 resolution of 2015 that called for the disarmament of the Houthis and the restoration of Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi’s presidential legitimacy.

The prospects for peace, though, are promising – but only on one condition: if pressure from both the international community, especially the US, continues, and the warring parties show a deep interest in reaching a political solution.

Externally, these peace talks come after the global outcry over the killing of the Saudi journalist, Jamal Khashoggi, and the global reassessment of Saudi Arabia’s devastating war in Yemen, and serious calls by senior US officials to end the war.

Outside of bringing the warring parties to meet face to face for the first time in two years—an achievement in and of itself—the UN special envoy to Yemen, Martin Griffiths has succeeded in addressing the shortcomings in preparation, and conduct, of previous talks.

Griffiths established two independent consultative groups (on political and civil affairs) consisting of some of Yemen’s leading women and men politicians who have, and still will, contribute to executing the talks.

Trading leverage

Four years on, the war in Yemen has drastically changed both the political and military power of warring parties. The murder of former Yemeni president, Ali Abdullah Saleh has strengthened the Houthis’ political and military power. But the battle in Houdeidah could alter the balance of power and present a military advantage to one side. The battle isn’t over yet, and all possibilities remain on the table.

Nonetheless, there seems to be a firmer willingness to reach an agreement than in previous talks, as the Yemeni government realises that the international pressure on its backer, Saudi Arabia, is growing.

The Houthis also appear to recognise that Saudia Arabia needs to save some face in the aftermath of Saudi Arabia's global diplomatic isolation after the Khashoggi killing. They can use this to their advantage to extract compromises. Some observers believe that among the captives are dozens of Saudi captiveswhich the country is determined to get back.

One of the main, if not the key, problems, is who has final decision-making power in the talks.

Some might conclude that this process is a waste of time without direct talks between Abdul Malik al Houthi and Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi. Progress is slow as each delegation has to report back to its leader, and can move forward only after doing so.

When I raised this dilemma to members of the delegations, they gave a curt answer and refused to elaborate saying, “direct face-to-face peace talks between President Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi and Abdul Malik al Houthi would be impossible, and things are more complicated than they seem to be.”

Collective political will

For the talks to succeed, there is another element that needs to run parallel to the negotiations. External players (Saudi Arabia, UAE, Iran, US and UK) need to put diplomacy first and encourage Hadi to hold a national reconciliation drive where Yemen's warring parties can establish a new political roadmap.

Saudi Arabia, UAE and US must realise now after four years of fighting that military means alone will not end this conflict. Saudi and the UAE, in particular, must be on the same page in how they envision a post-war Yemen.

The fact that the UAE is supporting a secession movement in the south and executing unlawful killings of Yemeni political leaders undermines peace and stability in Yemen.

So far, these talks are not under threat of collapsing, and it’s crucial that talks end with an agreement on opening Sanaa Airport and establishing a ceasefire to mitigate the worsening humanitarian crisis.

The timing of the peace talks is crucial as international focus on Yemen is unprecedented. The talks come at a pivotal moment—politically and militarily—moment and it must be taken advantage of before the opportunity disappears and Yemen fades out of the public eye, again.

The peace talks are a step in the right direction, but it will be a long and challenging road.

*This article was firstly written for and published in TRT World website, today. 

Friday, December 7, 2018

My comments on the first day of the Yemen peace talks in Sweden, yesterday, on TRT World TV.

Is Peace in Yemen within Reach?

I'm both optimistic and not optimistic about the Yemen peace talks taking place in Sweden. Here on Inside Story, in Al Jazeera English, I co-discussed the topic, two days ago.

Wednesday, November 21, 2018

Yemen: Women Must be in the Peace Talks

Sana'a, Yemen - 2015: by Yahya Arhab / European Pressphoto Agency

The almost four-year-long conflict in Yemen has brought the country to its knees. Every time I call my family back home in Yemen, my mother seems busy going to or coming back from a funeral. Today in Yemen, if air-strikes and shellings don’t kill you, the lack of food, medicine and water will.

About twenty-two million people, that’s two-thirds of Yemen’s 29 million population are facing the world’s worst humanitarian crisis. In some parts of the country, people have turned to eating leaves to survive. Cholera and other infectious diseases continue to threaten millions of people amidst a collapsing health care system. More than ten thousand people have been killed or wounded (according to a UN report in 2016), and numerous human rights organizations and UN investigators have documented various war crimes committed in the country by all warring parties. As Yemen has turned into a ground of violations of International humanitarian, human rights and criminal laws, the state has ceased to exist.

In an apocalyptic situation like this one, women and children are the first casualties of the conflict. According to UNICEF, a child dies every 10 minutes in Yemen because of preventable causes. Latest estimates show three million women and girls in Yemen are in acute need of protection and medical care. Over one million women are affected by malnourishment. Looming widespread famine threatens everyone in Yemen and little girls tend to be the most vulnerable ones. The war has led to a rise in child marriage cases and to a 63 per cent increase in violence against women.

In a closer look into the death toll numbers in Yemen, these numbers seem contradictory as the UN itself estimated in 2016 that, “ten thousand people have been killed or wounded” and that, “a child dies every ten minutes”. The Washington Post explained once the obstacles against the UN counting the death toll, giving a clear hint that UN estimated numbers must have risen already.

I was told by UNOCHA working in Yemen that female kids tend to be the most vulnerable and most malnutritioned - and child marriage has hit high rates. All this reflects how war is a gender issue. As the war affects women and girls, Yemeni women have both politically and militarily played a notable role.


Back in 2011, when the revolution began in Yemen in light of the Arab Spring, women were the ones leading the uprising. Nobel laureate Tawakkol Karman is the most well-known example. The most significant achievement for women was in 2013 when the political transition process began, and women earned a quota of 30 percent representation in the National Dialogue Conference. But with the Houthi takeover in September 2014, and the Saudi-led coalition militarily intervention in 2015, the entire political progress in the country came to an end.

During the various stages of the conflict, though, women were told to step aside every time they aimed to participate politically. For instance, in the first peace talks for Yemen in 2015 women were excluded. As a response, Women’s Pact for Peace and Security was formed by a group of Yemeni politicians and activists, a body that is endorsed by the UN Women. The group has not achieved any significant progress for women’s political participation as they still face reluctance from the Yemeni government officials to include women members in any political or peace process.

Another important women’s grassroots group is "Mothers of Abductees Association", that was formed by female relatives of thousands of forcibly disappeared men in different parts of Yemen. The Association works as a pressure-group, raising awareness about the missing men, and advocating for their release.


In Yemen, women’s military experiences have been varied. In the Houthi rebels-held, capital city of Yemen, Sana’a, women were recruited into the military by the rebels. The Houthis have opened training camps for women, creating a women military unit, what’s known as “Zeinabeyyat.” These female forces have been used in Houthis’ crackdown against women in peaceful public protests and demonstrations over the past three years. Recently, the “Zeinabeyyat” assisted in detainting women student protesters at a rally in front of Sana’a University.

On the other opposite warring front, Taiz, a city in southwestern Yemen has been under siege by Houthi forces since the war began in 2015 and is today probably the most lawless and dangerous place in Yemen. Notably, women in Taiz have joined the resistance groups, periodically fighting the Houthis.

The number of female soldiers is unknown as there are no reliable reports and statistics on the subject. It’s, however, believed to be a high number, mainly because military work has become a great source of income for many families in Yemen as the country’s economy has been collapsing since the war began. All warring parties allocate salaries for their militants. These female soldiers are not forced to fight, they are rather motivated to fight whether because of their economic needs or their ideological beliefs in the fight. The remarkable aspect is how these woman soldiers are used to detain other women. Given the social norms in the northern parts of Yemen of having a separation between the sexes and men not being allowed to touch women in public spaces, the military system has recruited women soldiers to storm into protests and detain them.

The question remains why women in the course of Yemen’s war can play a military role but still can’t have a political say in how the conflict ends. Bearing in mind that even before the war began in Yemen, the country’s women had very poor political representation in the parliament even before the war (only two of 301 seats) while having a military role under the late former Yemeni president, Ali Abdullah Saleh. This skewed status of women has not changed with the war, even as their suffering has increased. However, women’s military role today occurs in the context of an oppressive system which recruits them specifically for oppressing other women. Given the collapse of Yemen’s economy and the fact that more than a million civil servants haven’t received their salaries, women and men alike have joined military factions as the war has become a source of income for fighters, as of course for those who keep the war going.

The future of Yemen and the future of women depend greatly on how Yemeni women, individuals and groups, will fight for their political participation, especially for their role in any peace process to end the war. Yemeni women peace and political activists have been facing countless obstacles by most Yemeni men politicians and intellectuals. Systematic media smearing campaigns, removing women political activists from peace talks, and undermining the work of Women’s Pact for Peace and Security, all these are some of the proof that Yemeni women advocates have no male allies. The current only solidarity with these women is the Women’s Pact that’s supported by the UN Women.

For that to happen, any and all forms of support and solidarity with these women from the international community matters to a great extent.

Sweden is going to host next Yemen peace talks. When I met the Swedish ambassador to the UN Security Council weeks ago, he confirmed to me that Sweden is very keen to see women in the Yemen peace negotiation table and Sweden will continue to support the UN Women’s Yemeni women’s pact for peace and security. 

*This article was firstly written and published in Omvä, today.