Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Yemeni woman activist refuses to give up following death threats

A demonstration in Aden demanding "Justice for the prisoners and justice for the innocent"
with pictures of those detained held up (Image courtesy of Huda al-Sarari)

*Human rights lawyer Huda al-Sarari says she fears for her life after denouncing torture in secret prisons in Aden.

Huda al-Sarari was called a liar, a mercenary and even a “whore” on social media, during a vicious online campaign against the Yemeni human rights lawyer. Her ordeal began in June after she spoke out against torture in secret prisons allegedly run by the United Arab Emirates in Aden.

Sarari, who documented the abuses during an investigation and spoke about it to the media, said that her phone was stolen from her home, her car was attacked and she received death threats following the campaign. “I was afraid to leave my house or speak to media for more than a month,” Sarari told Middle East Eye. “But now, I want the word out, at least, about the dreadful experience [human rights activists have to] bear."

The defamation campaign against Sarari started in June on social media, after Human Rights Watch and the Associated Press published two separate investigations accusing the UAE of running secret prisons in Yemen, where many people were reportedly tortured and abused. She is one of the rights lawyers who documented the testimonies of torture victims held in the secret prisons and delivered them to HRW. She also gave interviews regarding her findings on several prominent media outlets after the reports came out.

HRW documented the cases of 49 people, including four children, who were arbitrarily detained or forcibly disappeared in the Aden and Hadramawt governates over the last year. At least 38 appear to have been arrested or detained by UAE-backed security forces. Multiple sources, including Yemeni government officials, have reported the existence of a number of informal detention centers and prisons in Aden and Hadramawt, including at least two run by the UAE and others run by UAE-backed Yemeni security forces.

The UAE Foreign Ministry denied running any secret prisons in Yemen and called the accusations "an attempt to sully the reputation of the alliance that had intervened to save the Yemeni people". The UAE is a key member of the Saudi-led and US-backed military campaign to support Yemen’s toppled government against Shia Houthi rebels, which was launched in March 2015. 

A protest in Aden demanding rights for prisoners (courtesy of Huda al-Sarari)

According to a draft United Nations report seen by Reuters on Thursday, the Saudi-led military coalition was responsible for an "unacceptably high" 51 percent of child deaths and injuries in Yemen last year. In January, the UN said that since the Saudi-led coalition intervened in 2015, the death toll has risen to at least 10,000 civilians.

One of the posts attacking Sarari stated that “the so-called Huda al-Sarari works in disguise with human rights groups, while she actually reports to political and security foreign parties, jeopardising [the] South’s interests and its goal for liberation." The Emergency Committee for Civil Society Organisations in Aden condemned the acts of defamation against Sarari and her family in a statement which spread on social media following the smear campaign. “The objective of this [campaign] is to reduce any efforts to defend human rights,” the statement said.

One day after the online attacks started on 23 June, Sarari and her family said they began to receive death threats. Sarari said that her phone was stolen from inside her home in Aden. Nothing else was taken from her house. The same day, her car windows were smashed. She added that her internet connection at home was deliberately cut off by an unknown person. Shortly after that, an acquaintance paid her a visit at her office to deliver her a "message" telling her that she should "be careful of your coming steps, otherwise you will risk your life", according to Sarari.

Family targeted

Sarari graduated in Sharia and Law from Aden University in 2011. She also holds a master's degree in Women's Studies and Development from the Women's Centre at Aden University.

She has been working in human rights activism for almost 10 years, gaining experience at numerous local organisations such as the Yemeni Women's Union, the Adala Foundation for Rights and Freedoms and the National Committee to Investigate Allegations of Human Rights Violations. She has also volunteered to work with Amnesty International and HRW.

With this experience, Sarari is accustomed to criticism. But this latest attack was something she has never experienced before. Sarari was disturbed by the posts, which she said were very personal and attacked her husband and children while identifying where they lived and even the car she drove. Her family was terrified when the social media campaign gained momentum. Huda’s mother, who preferred not to disclose her name, told MEE that, “if Huda is not fearful for her life, she must be fearful for the safety of her children," she said. "And because Huda is a woman, they go after her honour and this is unacceptable in our society.”

Sarari agrees that the worst part of the campaign launched against her is the libel and slander, which could bring shame to her whole family in the conservative society of Yemen. “As you may know, Yemen is a conservative society, in which women’s honour is perceived as sacred,” Sarari said. “Calling me degrading words like a whore has a stronger negative impact on me than it does if it were directed against a male activist.”

But others have also come to her defence. One Facebook post stated: "She said a word of truth against injustice, while you cheer for injustice, you who defame her honour should get whipped as a punishment according to our Sharia - that’s if there is any sharia in our land."

Human rights lawyer Huda al-Sarari working at the headquarters of the Yemeni Women's
Union in Aden (Photo courtesy of Huda al-Sarari)

"Quit your activism"

According to the HRW report, the court system in Aden is largely not functioning because of the war. Although the prosecutor’s office continues to issue release orders for people, these orders are ignored by security forces controlling the area. As a result, Sarari has found it futile to report threats against her to the prosecution and seek protection. "There is no chance to report threats today to the attorney general like we used to before, as it has been out of commission, impacted by the general instability," she said.

Aden is under the control of the Security Belt, a southern force taking part in the war. According to the HRW report issued in June, the "Security Belt" forces, are backed by the UAE. They have been accused of many abuses including excessive force during arrests and raids, detaining children, causing forcible disappearances and detaining family members of wanted suspects to pressure them to “voluntarily” turn themselves in, according to HRW. Sarari avoided approaching the "Security Belt" forces, given their links to the UAE. Instead, she contacted influential Yemeni political leaders.

"They couldn’t promise me much protection,” Sarari laughs and continues: “One [political leader] literally told me, 'how about you quit your activism and avoid facing risks?'”  For now, Sarari is taking basic safety measures such as limiting her movement, especially at night.

Kristine Beckerle, Yemen and UAE researcher at HRW told MEE: “Female activists like Huda al-Sarari are fighting every day for more rights protections, yet instead of addressing the important issues these [activists] are rising, many instead have faced smear campaigns, death threats, or a myriad of other challenges." "This is not only incredibly unfair to, and often very dangerous for, the women and men who have dedicated their lives to pushing for a more justice-oriented Yemen, but damaging to any future hope for a stable, rights-respecting state," she added.

According to local reports, there have been other instances where female activists have been subjected to similar online campaigns, like Radhya al-Mutawakel, who heads Mwatana, a human rights group based in Sanaa. In March, she was one of the speakers who addressed human rights violations in Yemen at the Dirksen Senate Office Building in Washington. She said that all parties in Yemen were committing human rights violations including the Houthi rebel group and the Saudi-led coalition.

The Yemeni embassy in Washington sent a letter trying to discourage congressional aides from attending the briefing in Washington. The embassy accused local speakers, including al-Mutawakel, of having a political “agenda” tied to Houthi rebels fighting against the government of President Abdu Rabbuh Mansour Hadi. The claim was denied by the event's organisers. Sarari said it was up to the main parties in the war, including the Yemeni government and the UAE, to restrain the armed groups and protect rights workers, especially women.

“I wish I had better advice for women activists in terms of how to protect themselves or could give clear answers on what human rights organisations could do to protect them," said Beckerle , "but, it really comes down to the authorities - to the Yemeni government and other actors like the UAE exercising influence over armed groups and fighting forces in Aden to be doing far more to ensure that there is space for men and women to speak out, advocate and do the work crucial to Yemen’s future."

'They depend on me'
Even though Sarari admits to being scared, she is determined to continue her work and has never considered quitting. Although it has been a difficult time for them, her family and husband offer their unconditional support and simply ask that she is careful. Part of Sarari’s many commitments are her assignments within the legal team of the Yemeni Women's Union. Its work includes offering legal protection for women in personal status cases and protecting the rights of female prisoners.

“Working with these women is like a driving force for me,” Sarari concluded. “Many abused women’s cases depend on me, so I have to ignore the threats and get up again and continue working.”

*My latest article published at Middle East Eye, on 21st of August.

Sunday, August 6, 2017

Satirical Shows Lighten the Mood Amid Yemen's War

My latest on Aljazeera English.

Satirists use their platform not only to entertain the Yemeni public but also to subvert rival media narratives.

As the war grinds on, satire 'embodies the only fulfilling means of venting', says Yemeni TV host Mohammed al-Rabaa [Photo courtesy of Mohammed al-Rabaa]

Satire has become an oasis for war-fatigued Yemenis - a temporary escape from the gruelling realities of life in a combat zone. "I think things have been so suffocating in Yemen that satire today embodies the only fulfilling means of venting," Yemeni TV host Mohammed al-Rabaa told Al Jazeera.

Rabaa is one of the most popular political satirists in Yemen, having made his breakthrough during Yemen's 2011 uprising with an amateur video (see below) satirising a local politician. He attributes the popularity of satire to "its ability to speak far more to the Yemeni audience than traditional news media".

Even though the uprising presented new opportunities for political satire in Yemen, the genre is not new in the country. In the 1950s, Abdullah Abdulwahab Noman launched the al-Fudhool satirical newspaper in the port city of Aden, providing a platform for satirical takes on current events. Issued every two weeks, the paper tackled everything from corruption to food insecurity, including a piece featuring a starving TV presenter who almost fainted while asking viewers to donate food.

In the 1950s, Abdullah Abdulwahab Noman launched the al-Fudhool satirical newspaper.

In the ensuing years, satirists continued to parody their political leaders via song and on radio shows. The 1980s saw the launch of the famous satirical radio show Basmah (A Smile) on Sanaa State Radio. Established by the late Yemeni journalist Mohammed al-Mahbshi and journalist Ali al-Sayani, it airs each Ramadan and is re-run at other times throughout the year, satirising issues of corruption in the country.

Under former Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh, Basmah satirised the lack of democratic elections in Yemen; today, it takes aim at the Saudi-led coalition and the government of Yemen's president, Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi. The station on which it airs was taken over by Houthi rebels in September 2014.

"Since its creation in 1982, Basmah broke the mould and was certainly one of a kind," Suad al-Wisy, a host at Sanaa State Radio, told Al Jazeera. "Today, it reflects the concerns and frustrations many feel in Sanaa, regardless of which authority carries the radio. However, I think the show doesn't enjoy the same listenership it used to have, as there is a rise of many other radio channels attracting our audience."

Yemen's satirical landscape is heavily infused with partisan and sectarian overtones. Satirists use their platform not only to entertain but also to subvert rival media narratives.

Bahashwan, who began as a social satirist, shifted his focus to political satire as the Houthis began their armed fight in Aden in early 2015.

Aden-born Karam Bahashwan, who began his career as a satirist via YouTube in 2013 in Aden, today hosts a weekly show called Wala Nakhs (Shut Up) that is broadcast into Yemen from Istanbul, Turkey, on the Belqees television channel, well known for its anti-Houthi/anti-Saleh reporting.

Bahashwan, who began as a social satirist, shifted his focus to political satire as the Houthis began their armed fight in Aden in early 2015. "In that violent and intense political situation, one can't help but shift to politics. I realised that the main source of all of Yemen's problems was political," Bahashwan told Al Jazeera, noting that he hopes his show can bring laughter to the public, while also raising their political awareness.

Satirising Hadi's government and the Saudi-led coalition is a primary focus for Abdel Hafez Moujab, who hosts a daily programme on al-Sahat TV channel, presenting a counter-narrative to pro-Hadi shows. His programme, Maa al-Akhbar (With the News) airs from Lebanon

Satire is 'a useful way to expose lies, especially in light of the Yemen war and the media misinformation', says Abdel Hafez Moujab [Photo courtesy of Abdel Hafez Moujab]

"After many years in journalism, I chose political satire eventually. I found it a useful way to expose lies, especially in light of the Yemen war and the media misinformation," Moujab told Al Jazeera. "I aspire to offer a more truthful depiction through my simplicity and cynicism in analysing the news. I think my political humour brings the viewer closer to current events, and it grabs their attention more than the traditional media."

With Yemen ranked one of the most dangerous places for media groups to operate, many such shows are being hosted outside the country. "Media groups can't work inside the country freely, while there are increasing attacks against the press," Ahmed al-Zurqa, an Istanbul-based Yemeni journalist, told Al Jazeera, noting that various media outlets within Yemen have come under the control of different armed groups. "It's an extremely hostile situation for media."

Meanwhile, anti-Houthi satirist Mohammed al-Athroui - regarded by many Yemenis as a pioneer in the country's political satire scene, having sung satirical songs on television since the 1990s, such as Toz (Whatever) and Ham Shaab (A Nation's Concern) - has continued his work throughout the war. His show Ghagha (Cacophony), which airs long-prepared episodes every Ramadan on the Islamist Party Islah's television channel, is broadcast from Saudi Arabia, as the channel's official offices were looted by the Houthis in 2015.

Ghagha includes sketches and songs that heavily mock Shia scholars (watch below), prompting fierce criticism from pro-Houthi media outlets. "I respect our religion and all sects, and I don't aim to insult anyone, but [rather] to uncover some of the Houthis' fictitious tales," Athroui told Al Jazeera. The dangers of his work are clear: A pro-Houthi judge in Sanaa recently issued a statement on Facebook advocating Athroui's death "for his deliberate and repeated insults" against prominent Shia religious figures. "I am not scared; in fact, I am certain now that my show is very influential," Athroui maintained.

Rabaa says he has also received death threats because of his work; in one instance, his home was hit by bullets. "Over the course of Yemen's war, Houthi supporters have tried to abduct my sister, attacked my brother and confiscated my house in Amran," he said.

After more than two years of war, Yemen is now in the midst of a massive humanitarian crisis threatening millions of lives. Despite the appalling outlook, satirical shows have found a way to lighten the mood - taking aim at everything from political oppression, to the crisis of unpaid civil-servant salaries (watch below), to the Houthis' hijacking of military institutions. Rabaa says he remains determined to forge ahead.

"Yemenis are reminded of famine, disease and devastation all the time, but they have forgotten how to smile, and that's what we try to remind them of," Rabaa said. "We don't mock our misery, but we mock those who led us to the misery."

Wednesday, August 2, 2017

What Next After Humanitarians’ Pleadings for Yemen?

July 28 - Saudi-led coalition strikes Sana’a city in retaliation of a missile fired by Houthi forces.
Courtesy: Ahmed, at Twitter.

This week, the humanitarian catastrophe in Yemen received a great deal of focus in several international media outlets, as the president of International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), Peter Maurer, the director general of World Health Organization (WHO), Tedros Adhanom and the executive director of World Food Program (WFP), David Beasley paid a short visit to different parts of Yemen; meeting officials (former president, Ali Abdullah Saleh and Yemen’s prime minister, Ahmed Obeid bin Daghr) and doing field visits to hospitals and internally displaced people’s camps. Also, BBC team was able to reach Aden and report on the cholera epidemic.

Meetings with Yemen’s prime minister, Ahmed Obeid bin Daghr, in Aden, Yemen. 

Meetings with former president, Ali Abdullah Saleh in Sana'a, Yemen.

As much as these efforts are needed and appreciated as they bring extensive media coverage along, I am concerned about what’s next? Would all this media focus create urgency for internal warring parties and the international community to resolve the conflict? Is this media coverage like a temporary pain killer and shortly Yemen once again, as both humanitarian and political crisis, gets swept under the rug?

Aden, Yemen - “If you remember nothing of #Yemen remember Hussein Mazen Hussein - malnourished and fighting for every breath.” Courtesy: BBC, Orla Guerin.

There have been many other previous pleadings by leading international humanitarians about Yemen over the course of the nearly three-years-long war, however, it has not even achieved securing the full delivery of promised donations from states in response to the humanitarian crisis in Yemen. The pleadings have not even achieved securing safe, un-costly and smooth travel access for Yemenis to and from both Aden and Sana’a airports.

Aden Yemen - “The Awal family in the wreckage of their home - hit by two Saudi air strikes. Some of them still live in the ruins.” Courtesy: BBC, Orla Guerin.

Most of the international and UN humanitarians arrive in Yemen with very exclusive and special access because of their privileges, while thousands of Yemenis are trapped in neighbouring countries because they can’t afford the costly and risky trip to reach Sana’a or Aden. As Sana’a airport is very often closed or has restrictions imposed by the Saudi-led coalition, Yemenis are forced to take an exhausting trip with a couple of connecting flights or travelling with boats to reach Aden or Sayoun then take the bus to reach Sana’a or Aden or other cities. The possibility for Yemenis to get a visa to travel, if they can afford it, or, say, if they were invited to attend international events, is very slim. Embassies are closed inside the country and one has to take the complicated and exhausting trip to reach few neighbouring countries which allow Yemenis’ entry, then apply for the visa. The most savage blockade is imposed into Taiz by Saleh and Houthis’ forces for more than two years now. Even if everything fails, at least, the international humanitarians must focus on the necessity to life blockades and secure safe mobility for Yemeni civilians.

I was about to be hopeful of the potential impact the leading humanitarians could have into the trajectory of the conflict resolution until this happened. Just when the international humanitarians were departing from Yemen, Saudi Arabia intercepted a ballistic missile fired by the Houthis close to Mecca. At the same day, at the night, the Saudi-led coalition struck Sana’a in retaliation. This reflects the gap between the humanitarian efforts tackling Yemen and the military escalation between the warring parties. How can we expect to achieve progress in the humanitarian level while the political aspect of the conflict is overlooked? I understand politics is not the job of humanitarians and that’s why it’s crucial to combine efforts on the humanitarian level along with the political/peace talk level.

After the humanitarians plead, politicians must take action and not merely deliver statements. Yemenis’ agony doesn’t only rightfully deserve an extensive media coverage, but also both humanitarian and political efforts.

This piece was published first on HuffPost on the 29th of July, 2017. 

Yemen Cholera: Where Politics Collapsed

Last night the BBC aired a heartbreaking video report done by British-Yemeni reporter, Nawal Al-maghafi showing a glimpse of the world’s worst cholera record in Yemen. The number of people with cholera in Yemen is now the largest ever recorded in any country in a single year, topping the annual record of the cholera outbreak in Haiti in 2011. Yemen Cholera has killed almost 2,000 people since late April this year and the number is on a constant rise. Most affected are children as cholera is infecting one child every minute.

While Cholera ravages many parts in Yemen, charity groups are exerting efforts and politicians watch away. Among many, both Oxfam and Save the Children organisations are doing a great job in appealing for public donations. Also, the UN Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs – UN OCHA – held a high-level pledging event for the humanitarian crisis in Yemen in Geneva, last April. Eventually, countries pledged $1.1bn. So far, UN OCHA says only $605m has been paid.

I notice how Yemen is more and more seen as only a humanitarian issue and it’s not even taken fully seriously. I notice too how there is an overlook to the political aspect of the humanitarian disaster. The last time a Yemen peace talk was briefly and unsuccessfully held was almost exactly one year ago. This political stagnation has exacerbated the already heavy human cost. Despite that images of skeletal faces and bodies of little babies, women and men grabs world’s attention and compels many to donate, those images didn’t compel politicians to start any sort of mobilisation for resuming peace talks between warring parties or any initiative from world’s leaders (the US, UK, Germany, etc) to create new negotiating tables between the warring parties.

Funny enough, UN Special Envoy to Yemen, Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed was recently mocked by Yemenis for publishing a job vacancy announcement for “Associate Environmental Affairs Officer.” The joke was: while the UN diplomat has not achieved any concrete progress in his mission, he seems to prioritise his own “Environment”.

Ten days ago, the UN diplomat briefed the UN Security Council about the situation in Yemen. He successfully described the humanitarian situation, as if he was a passionate human rights activist. Yet, he keeps failing in offering any new innovative and outside the box solutions to the conflict in Yemen. Despite his constant meetings with many parties involved in the conflict, the UN envoy lacks the critical thinking in finding baby steps towards conflict resolution processes.

Looking at the Yemeni and Saudi-led coalition parties, they all seem to profit from Yemen cholera outbreak. Saudi-backed Yemeni government politicians are to a large extent outside the country with their families and seem not affected at all by the bloody humanitarian tragedy in the country - in fact, the government is facing allegations of corruption and they are likely profiting from donated aids. For the Saudis, Yemen cholera is one of the best inexpensive and effective killing methods. While the Saudis’ airstrikes used to cost them billions of dollars, Yemen cholera is doing the airstrikes job and for free. It’s absolutely not of the Saudis’ interest to stop Yemen cholera. For the Houthis and Saleh’s de facto authority, Yemen cholera is also problematic. The Houthis-Saleh alliance is reluctant to admit its failure in running their areas by not being able to pay the civil servants for almost about a year now - a matter which plunged the already impoverished people beyond destitution. They also take advantage of the cholera epidemic victims to instigate more hostility against the enemy as the Saudi-led imposed blockade on Sana’a airport worsened the cholera outbreak by blocking medical assistant deliveries.

Yemen is in a state of war but more worse is in a state of political collapse. Yemen cholera is one of the results of the devastation the country is going through. Aid organisations try their best in focusing on Yemen but it’s as you can see things are only getting worse. But as long as there is no political will from the international community to approach Yemen politically and not only from the humanitarian approach, Yemen will continue heading into the dark abyss. There must be a quick return to Yemen peace talks.

This article was published first on HuffPost on the 22nd of July, 2017. 

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

I wish the world can know the matter of Yemeni journos is a matter that reflects the suffering Yemeni nation as a whole endures. And It's a justice matter!

I’m so grateful for all the love and congratulating words I’ve been receiving today. My mobile feels going to explode with the messages, notifications and calls. I’m in awe with all your love. Thank you! Thank you! And thank you to Sherif and everyone at the Committee to Protect Journalists! I’m humbled to get noticed by such an organisation that I respect so much, let alone to get awarded by you. CPJ is an organisation I grew up learning so much about press freedom from and I’m humbled to get this recognition for my humble and imperfect work.

The award goes not only for me but also for all Yemeni journalists/writers who face massive dangers just for the sake of speaking up, reporting and writing. My story and struggle in doing something I love to do: journalism, is a story of a whole nation and particularly a story of many Yemeni journalists. And I cherish each journalist’s struggle.

During my college years at Sana'a University in Sana’a, one time, my teacher asked me about what do I want to be after I graduate. I said: I want to become a writer. He replied: you'll die poor & unread - and nobody will know about you. How much was he wrong, right?

As a female, you are expected not to dream big and have not many ambitions. As a woman writer, you are expected to focus on writing only “soft topics” and avoid the hard topics. I didn't buy all of that. I thought the sky was the limit. And my gender should never matter.

I have been writing since I was 15 years old in my journals. I have been writing for newspapers since I was 20. Now, I look back and I see that I’ve been writing more than the half of my life. In late 2008, I started journalism professionally. I was overjoyed to be paid for something I adore to do. When Yemen’s 2011 uprising happened, I felt an urge to tell the world about the bravery of my people. I also thought there was a problem: not many native Yemeni journalists write in English about Yemen. I wanted to have a megaphone to the world. So I created a blog.

I had Zero expectation that anyone would read the blog. In fact, till today, there are moments when I think, how the heck all this happened with this blog! Even though I thought no one would read the blog, I had an urge to tell stories. Stories were bursting out of my chest. I needed to tell the world about my people's stories. So I kept on blogging.

What I know today is that no change has ever happened without free press & freedom of expression. It’s the fundamental tool that any community needs to make a change - to express it first freely. And I know that my Yemeni generation needed change and free press, and so did I. So far I've blogged more than 1,000 blog posts and freelanced for dozen places. I bleed stories. Yemeni stories. I know also, No Yemeni has ever written enough. No Yemeni has ever written enough. Let alone of Yemeni women writers.

The award I get today should draw world's attention to Yemeni journos/writers risking their lives in speaking up against multi-faces evil. Today, Yemeni journos if they are not in prison, tortured, attacked, prosecuted, snipered down, assaulted, they are self-censored, in exile or in a refuge. Yemeni journos/writers today are torn between staying in the country & report & face death, or escape & be quiet. I've put blood, sweat & tears writing this; to draw world's attention to the risks Yemeni journos face at war time:

I wish the world can know, the matter of Yemeni journos is a matter that reflects the suffering Yemeni nation as a whole endures. And It's a justice matter. Period.