Working in Yemen as a journalist can often feel like being an involuntary character in a clichéd Hollywood drama — a hybrid of a John le Carré novel and a Johnny English-style parody.
In over three and half years living in Yemen I’ve gone on the run from government agencies on four occasions. Looking back months later you either laugh or shake your head in despair at the surreal madness of it all.
One occasion involved a more than six-hour drive across part of rural Yemen popular for US drone strikes, with a local journalist alongside me. Exhausted and relieved, our successful getaway ended just before dawn.
Another was, in hindsight, rather more comical. As Yemen’s uprising intensified in April 2011, district security chief came knocking on the door in the middle of the night. He was looking for journalists and demanded copies of foreigners’ passports. It was a few weeks after soldiers had stormed the house of three foreign journalists who were then deported. The young, clandestine-revolutionary who guarded the apartment block where American journalist Jeb Boone and I were temporarily staying, managed to put the official off until the next day.
Under the cover of darkness we each packed a small rucksack of essentials: cameras, notebooks, and a change of clothes, while planning our escape to a friend’s house which had been left empty following the evacuation of the majority of the ex-pat community due to deteriorating security in Sana’a. As we made our furtive escape, creeping out of the gate in the early hours of the morning we walked straight into a truck full of soldiers parked outside the next-door neighbour’s gate. George Smiley wept.
The third almost ended in disaster. After writing a piece in January last year for The Times on Saudi Arabia’s involvement in America’s covert war in Yemen, on advice, I once again temporarily relocated in Sana’a amid fear of reprisals for my reporting. A couple of weeks after returning to my Old City home the taxi I was travelling in was ambushed outside the Ministry of Defence. A bullet smashed through the window next to my head, hissed through the hair of my driver but miraculously left both of us unharmed. Since then I have probably become the only woman in the world to convert their United Nude shoe bag into a gunshot trauma kit which I’ve since carried with me at all times.
But, as foreign journalists we have little if anything to fear. The worst that’s likely to happen to us, as American journalist Adam Baron found out during his deportation last week, is a 10-hour spell in jail wondering if we’re going to be given a few minutes to pack before being kicked out of the country we call home, without the possibility to return.
While we — the handful of foreign journalists based in Yemen — might have anxious moments once or twice a year, our Yemeni colleagues are constantly under threat. Yemen remains amongst the bottom 15 countries out of 180 in the world for press freedom. A Human Rights Watch report last September concluded that freedom of expression since President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi took power in February 2012 has increased, but along with it, intimidation and violence against journalists has also risen. Yemen’s Freedom Foundation recorded 282 attacks and threats against journalists and media workers in 2013.
While Adam waited anxiously in jail last Tuesday, passport and phone confiscated, unease spread. Officials indicated that “other foreign journalists were next” my name was also mentioned. Not knowing if they’re coming to get you today, tomorrow, or at all, means that despite the relatively benign consequences, you are gripped with an almost unbearable sense of apprehension. Preparing for the worst I informed my editor at The Times in London and started to pack.
Three days later, still waiting, the madness felt like it was closing in. As the sunset over Sana’a on Friday evening one friend called to tell of gunfire and explosions next to his house. Meanwhile I sat in the protective darkness of my stairwell whispering into my phone as I heard the distant voices of two men banging on my front gate. Was this it? Was this the moment I would be forced to leave? My phone — on silent in case it was heard by those outside — lit up. Another friend had just narrowly avoided driving straight into a running gun battle in the south of the city. I tiptoed down the stairs in the dark and silently slid the two deadbolts across the large wooden door of the ancient Yemeni tower-house that is my home.
The irony is that while the ex-pat community goes into week two of lockdown in Sana’a and Western embassies close to the public due the increasing threat from al-Qaeda attacks, the most persistent threat to journalists on a daily basis is from the government and its intelligence agencies, not so-called militants.
After Adam was deported last week, for the first time, I decided not to run as I have too many times in the past. Without stopping and challenging what the government has done means the persecution of journalists will continue unabated.
There are just a small handful of foreign reporters based full-time in Yemen. Adam and I were the only ones accredited in a country where the government makes it almost impossible to live permanently as a foreign journalist with the correct paper work. Deporting unregistered journalists means no complaints can be made when individuals are thrown out.
As a legally operating reporter I had firm ground to stand on to support Adam and raise questions about why the government has chosen this moment to target him, and possibly me. Was this a personal vendetta against him? Or, was this a concerted effort by the state to remove witnesses? Those who may witness the consequences of a US-backed war currently being waged in the most significant military crackdown against al-Qaeda every carried out in Yemen.
The answers to those questions were partly answered by the manager of immigration who pulled me aside at Sana’a airport on Monday morning when I chose to leave Yemen of my own accord. I realised I’d had enough of the constant cycle of farcical drama, instigated by the state, that comes with living as a journalist in Yemen over three and a half years. I wanted it to stop. To take back control.
Despite the fact that my journalist visa is valid until February 2015, the immigration official began with “you can’t come back…” and ended with “it’s OK, you are allowed to leave now”. For the latter at least I was grateful.
The foreign media may not be welcome in Yemen, but if they are quietly trying to remove us then the greatest threat to be faced will be to domestic reporters. Over a snack of traditional sweet kataif pancakes and chilled apricot juice on my last day in Sana’a on Sunday, I sat with a Yemeni friend and fellow journalist. He acknowledge the need to step back from the madness. “The national security, they get to you,” he said tapping a finger against the side of his head. “You need to go home for some quiet time,” he added. “I got my quiet time…in prison.”