Friday, October 20, 2017

U.S. Travel Ban Could Deny Me Attend My International Free Press Award Ceremony



When the Committee to Protect Journalists announced two months ago that I was one of the awardees of this year's International Free Press Award (IFPA), I knew I was about to undertake a bittersweet step in my almost decade-long journalism career.

The CPJ explained that, from the Arab region, they had chosen Yemen this year, in order to shine a light on the conditions in which Yemeni journalists work, and also to celebrate my reporting on Yemen, despite all the obstacles.

But in the age of US President Donald Trump's travel ban - which includes Yemeni nationals - I became increasingly concerned about travelling to the US to receive the award.

In addition to an invitation to the awards ceremony in New York, the CPJ have also organised for me to meet with State Department officials in DC, and university staff to raise awareness about violations against Yemeni journalists and the humanitarian crisis in my war-torn homeland.

While there are good reasons why I should travel to the US and join the CPJ, my two US visa applications to date have been rejected by the American embassy in Stockholm, Sweden. I am currently applying for the third time, and I am not optimistic.

Sweden became my second home after I arrived here in May 2011 from Yemen, after being invited to participate in a youth leadership training course. I left with just two weeks of luggage, thinking I'd soon be back home.

Not wanting to wake my mother before my late-night flight, I left without much of a goodbye. But as the violence escalated in my hometown, Sanaa, and I was at risk following the death threats I was receiving for my anti-regime writings during the beginning of Yemen's 2011 uprising, Sweden became the place where I had to seek political asylum.

As the conflict in Yemen continued, I remained in Sweden and continued freelance reporting on Yemen for various media outlets. In a bid to stay in contact with my family and friends in Yemen, and the diaspora abroad, I've used every channel of communication I can.

For the past six years in Sweden, I have been on constant alert, hunting my next Yemen story. While I could have put Yemen to the back of my mind, and settled down in Sweden, continuing to write felt like the most meaningful thing I could do.

Determined to expose the under-reported war in Yemen, I found that reporting from exile resembled being in a long-distant relationship, with all the love and longing that comes with geographical separation.

A year and a half year ago, I became a Swedish citizen. I could travel freely and was also enjoying living by choice in Sweden. Today, I am both Swedish and Yemeni citizen, though my Yemeni passport expired a while ago.

This makes me a privileged Yemeni in comparison to my fellow countrymen, and especially my journalist colleagues who are all trapped in war.

My Swedish passport enabled me to travel around for work until Trump's travel ban came into the picture. The proposed travel ban has gone through various iterations, but what I know for sure is that my visa applications to the US embassy in Stockholm were rejected because of it.

The first time, applying as a Swedish citizen, "you are not authorized to enter the US" was the response that came. My second application was made as a Yemeni citizen. After I made it to the interview with the embassy officer, she told me that I had failed to show my ties to Sweden and that there was no guarantee that I would return to the "foreign country" - that is Sweden - after my visit to the US.


In both applications, I was asked if I had been in Yemen anytime from March 2011 (that's when the executive order comes into effect). Of course, I had been. The application asked me to justify my visit to Yemen and I told the truth: I had a life in Yemen - family, friends and work.

I will find out by Monday if my third application has been successful. In the meantime, I want my story to help raise the profile of other Yemeni journalists, working hard to make the world understand the brutal suffering of a nation.

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*My latest column published on The New Arab today. 

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

In International #DayoftheGirl, Here are my Yemeni Women Heroes






In International #DayoftheGirl, Here are my Yemeni Women Heroes. Mothers of abducted young men in Houthi-led prisons @abducteesmother association, and women and girls survivors of Houthis’ bullets and shelling in Taiz. Mothers of jailed young men have tirelessly been demonstrating in front of prisons’ gates in Sana’a, Ibb, Houdaidah and other cities, over the past two years. A spokesperson from the association told me over the phone that they believe that there are more than 5,000 forcibly disappeared young men (journalists, teachers, activists and from all walks of life) held in Houthi-led jails for two years and more. Many of them are held with no trail or any access for their families to see them.


Women in Taiz, like all in Taiz, have been subjected to atrocities under the hands of Houthi forces and other (emerging) extremist groups. The photo here shows two daughters of a woman who was executed in front of them a few days ago by Houthi forces after Houthimen stormed into their house looking after the daughters’ father. The father was known to be an anti-Houthi activist. Taiz has been under siege by Houthi forces since almost the beginning of the war. Deadly attacks and massive killings by Houthi forces have become the new norm in the city. These little daughter's’ story is only a face to the agony everyone in the city is going through.

One of the daughters collapsed in front of the camera as she described what she witnessed.



Here's the father explains how exactly the crime happened.





It’s hard for the international audience to know about the atrocities committed by Houthis forces as many local Yemeni journalists are whether imprisoned, living in hid in villages, or displaced in neighbouring countries or definitely they are self-censoring themselves fearing of Houthis’ crackdown. 

Even if a Yemeni journalist is trying to report from outside the country, there seem to be a little appetite from editors to have such stories. The trend shows that there is more interest to focus on the Saudi-led coalition committed atrocities, as such stories make more relevance to the international audience.


This is absolutely not to dismiss Saudi-led coalition atrocities or to equate warring sides’ crimes but this is an invitation to broaden your context. Between Yemenis, they know well that the Saleh-Houthis alliance is what started all this mess after they blocked all political progress and outcomes of Yemen’s National Dialogue Conference in mid-2014. And the rest is history. 


Millions of Yemeni women, along with men and children, are victims of all warring parties' atrocities across the country. In fact, the Saudi-led coalition shares great responsibility of leaving Taiz under Houthis' fire so it can have victims bloody photos raised at the international stage to prove how Houthis are savage. The Saudis could have achieved in Taiz what they achieved in Aden. But you do the calculation.

I will take this day to pay tribute to the struggle of mothers, daughters and sisters of Yemen war victims. No rosy story to tell about Yemeni girls inside or outside. The reality is so grim.

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Yemen needs united nations, not the United Nations

In front of the UNHRC building in Geneva (MEE/Afrah Nasser)


GENEVA – When I told my friends and family in Yemen that I was going to attend the UN Human Rights Council (HRC) again, they scolded me.

Three years after our long war started – and my fourth trip to a UNHRC session – there is a growing sense of resentment and distrust among Yemenis towards the UN over its inaction in dealing with the crisis in our country.

The main cause of that distrust is the sense that the UN submits to whatever Saudi Arabia and its allies want to see - or not see - in Yemen.

While war crimes have been committed in Yemen by all warring sides, the HRC, under Saudi Arabia and its allies’ influence, has failed to establish an international independent inquiry commission into these incidents.

A brief recap: In October 2015, under intense pressure from Saudi Arabia and with insufficient support from the US and the UK, a Dutch-led draft resolution to create an independent commission was abandoned at the UNHRC, six months after the Saudi-led campaign in the country began.

Instead, the council passed another resolution allowing the creation of a national inquiry body led by Saudi Arabia and Riyadh-based Yemeni government which became the National Committee to Investigate Allegations of Human Rights Violations.

Since then, while the committee is supposed to investigate and document human rights violations, it has yet to produce any significant reports and, from my perspective, is completely biased, focusing on Houthi human rights violations, not on those of the Saudi-led coalition.


In 2016, Saudi Arabia’s ally, Britain blocked another call to establish an independent international inquiry, reflecting just how heavily powerful UN member states and their allies influence the council.

Now the battle continues at the HRC’s 36th session which opened earlier this month. Member states will have an opportunity, yet again, to decide whether the UN should establish an independent inquiry.


Hustle and bustle

Following calls from 67 human rights organisations for the establishment of a UN inquiry mission into Yemen war crimes, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra'ad al-Hussein also renewed his call for an international investigation.

“The minimal efforts made toward accountability over the past year are insufficient to respond to the gravity of the continuing and daily violations involved in this conflict,” Zeid said in a speech at the opening of the council’s session.

As the council got underway the bustling UNHRC hall, I talked to Mona Sabella, a UN advocacy officer with the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies, one of the organisations that signed the petition.

“This session is more crucial than previous years because the Netherlands has gotten more support from other members like Canada, Luxembourg, Ireland, Belgium,” she said.

Sabella said she expected two rival draft resolutions to vie for support: a Dutch-led resolution for an international inquiry body and a Saudi-Egyptian-led resolution for another national inquiry body.

“And we, along with other human rights advocacy groups are working really hard to convince state members for the Dutch-led resolution to be espoused this time,” Sabella added.

As I finish my interview with Sabella, I head to the other side of the hall to meet people from Yemen's National Committee to Investigate Allegations of Human Rights Violations. Huda al-Sarai, a member of the group, suggests that, although some have criticised the committee for its lack of impartiality, that’s not the reason it has been ineffective.

“Our work is undermined by the deactivated justice system and I believe no international inquiry body could achieve any success as long as the war is raging and we lack rule of law," she said.

Nearby, Abdulrasheed al-Faqih, executive director with the Sanaa-based Mwatana Organisation for Human Rights, agrees with al-Sarai that Yemen is insecure and that the judicial system is frozen – but that’s exactly why, he says, an international inquiry is needed.

“Warring parties and armed groups in Yemen operate while not obliged with any legal considerations,” he said, “and this is why we need to uphold them accountable by international humanitarian and human rights law.”

Enforcing accountability won’t end the war in Yemen immediately, many of the people I talked to acknowledged, but it will stir the path to it.

An international inquiry, Kristine Beckerle, the Yemen and UAE researcher at Human Rights Watch, tells me, will “ensure the global community has to reckon with what this war has meant for Yemenis across the country, and, ideally, inspire states to finally take the action needed to make sure these violations stop”.


Futile battle

I left Geneva with a sense of a tragic hope. I appreciate the efforts of the human rights groups, but justice for Yemen is threatened by Saudi Arabia’s hegemony at this council and other top UN bodies.

A series of previous events have demonstrated how the final say in establishing the UN Yemen inquiry is at the hands of the Saudis.

Even this time, at the beginning of the ongoing session, the Saudi representative to the council rejected calls for the inquiry, saying the time wasn’t right. Given the past attempts to establish an inquiry, this doesn’t bode well.

For me, it is a futile battle - human rights groups wanting to stand up for Yemeni civilians versus Saudi Arabia’s great power at the UNHRC.

The resolutions that have come out of the council are a reflection of how member states view human rights problems and, clearly, Saudi Arabia and its allies view war crimes in Yemen without much concern at all.

The way these countries wield power at the UNHRC, I can only wish the human rights groups the best of luck.

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*My dispatch to Middle East Eye from the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva, September 25th, 2017. 

Monday, September 25, 2017

Yemen at the UN Human Rights Council

Looking back on a day of interviews last week, reporting and co-speaking at the UN Geneva's Human Rights Council's ongoing 36th session, where the battle for human rights groups demanding establishing UN Yemen inquiry goes on.

My dispatch from the council titled, "Yemen needs united nations, not the United Nations" via Middle East Eye. https://goo.gl/SRuQyF

In details, I explain,"The Unfolding UN Failure in the Yemen War," for the Atlantic Council, https://goo.gl/RetLbX

With Yemeni human rights defender, Ishraq al-Maqtary (Left) and journalist Shatha al-Harazi (right). 

With journalist, Nabil al-Osidi. 

With Human Rights lawyer, Huda al-Sarari who I wrote about in a lengthy feature here

With Yemeni diplomat, Mustafa Naji. 


In the Yemen side-session, I co-spoke on gender-based Human rights violations. 

Sunday, September 24, 2017

'Sana'a Review' e-magazine is here!



After lots of hurdles, along with a group of great Yemeni writers/friends, we launched 'Sana'a Review' online magazine on 22nd September and I'm the editor-in-chief.

The love & support my blog has gotten over the years is beyond what I ever imagined & I want to Give Back! I want to amplify other great Yemeni voices. I want to pass on the spotlight to the great (& emerging) Yemeni writers/journalists/artists/talents. True, Yemen is in a reck & journalists particularly are at most bleak conditions but that's exactly why we need to record what's happening to us now so there will be a time when peace prevail & we can reflect & try to heal & commemorate our history. We need to not mourn, rather organize. Each with whatever capacity they have, we need to resist & persist (like Suheir Hamdan once said).

The magazine is in Arabic because 1. I need to get in good terms with my identity crisis with the Arabic language as I believe I spoke Arabic & Amharic (Ethiopia's official language) at the same time when I first spoke as a kid. Then English became a buffer zone. Anyhow, I write more about that in the magazine in an article titled (Yemenia from Addis Ababa). *i like the title* #wink

2. Because our focus is the Yemeni audience. Sana'a Review's team believes that it's very important to combat the expansion of local propagandist media outlets & also play a role as an independent media outlet bridging people in Yemen with the growing Yemeni diaspora.

Sana'a Review hopes to have an English version in the near future so anyone anywhere can enjoy our content. You may know more details about the mission of the magazine at my Sana'a Review opening article. Also, here are our Twitter, Facebook, Instagram accounts.

Ever since I joined journalism in end 2008, I dreamt of founding a magazine. Every time I pitch to my editors & my emails convincing them of my idea tend to be longer than the final published article itself, I dreamt of founding a magazine so I can easily get published. Every time I watch Anna Wintour of Vogue magazine, I dream of being better than Anna herself & create a meaningful magazine, with all respect to the fashionistas in the world. Every time,,, enough. It's here. It's happeninnnnnng (with Oprah Winfrey voice at the back) 💥❤️💓