At the center of Yemen unrest

This is a piece I did for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution last Sunday. It feels great to have something finally in print in my native Georgia.

Georgia native Jeb Boone is managing editor of the English-language Yemen Times and a freelance journalist for publications such as the Sunday Telegraph, the Independent and globalpost.com. It’s a job that puts him in the middle of the one of the fiercest conflicts taking place in the Middle East. He shares his perspective from the middle of the fighting in Yemen’s capital:

Reppin' the Durty Birdz in Sana'a

SANA’A, Yemen – The first time my feet touched foreign soil, I was in Yemen, a long way from my native Augusta. I came to Sana’a during the summer of 2008 as part of an Arabic language study-abroad program at Georgia State University.

After graduating with a degree in Middle East studies and following rejections for positions with the State Department and other government organizations, I decided to try my hand at freelance journalism. And what better place to start than somewhere I’d grown to love, among a people who felt like kindred spirits?

I returned last October, a few months before revolutions began sweeping across the Middle East. I had no idea what I was getting into.

Violence between pro- and anti-government protesters began on a Thursday afternoon in mid-February. It’s an incident journalists around Sana’a simply refer to as “Rabat Street,” after the site where  Yemen’s now two-month-long struggle for democratic reforms first turned violent.

For hours that day, I crouched behind a metal column holding up a footbridge as walls of fist-sized stones flew between the rival camps. Yet I almost laughed as I watched boys with wide smiles in their green school uniforms breaking up cinderblocks and slinging them towards supporters of Yemen’s president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, demanding an end to his 32-year rule.

“This is how my brothers and I play!” said one boy who looked barely older than 12.

Since that day, as I ride my motorcycle to the Yemen Times offices each day, I pass through military checkpoints. As I get closer to the office, I pass six tanks lined up with their turrets bearing down on passing traffic, protecting the presidential palace.

As pro-democracy protesters began construction of their tented city in front of Sana’a University, they were frequently confronted by large groups of Saleh loyalists late in the night. The two sides, often separated by riot police, would shout at each other for a few hours until breaking up to get some sleep before morning prayers.

One of those nights, the Saleh supporters began putting up their own tents in an effort to hem in the protesters. I was in the middle of the pro-democracy side getting a few interviews when I saw the people once again beginning to rip up sidewalk pavement to use as crude ammunition.

I thanked my interviewee and began to saunter towards a building, preparing to wait out another stone-throwing spat. But as the first rock flew, the unmistakable crack of AK-47 fire filled the air. Saleh loyalists were opening fire on rivals armed only with shards of concrete.

Screaming obscenities, I dove for cover. Terrified, I looked back toward the crowd, trying to see in where they would run so I could join the retreat. Instead, I was dumfounded to see that the anti-government protesters were charging their assailants, ripping down the tents they constructed.

In victory, they carried the twisted metal tent poles back to heart of the protest camp along with the dead and wounded.

Fighting between them and the Saleh loyalists or security forces continued for weeks, with a few dead in each skirmish. Security forces often used tear gas, and I learned just how euphemistic that name was. It should be called ‘the-most-heinous substance-devised-by-man-gas’ instead. It sets fire to your lungs while it forces all manner of fluids and mucus out of every orifice of your face.

The smaller clashes led up to March 18, the deadliest day of protests across the entire Middle East. That Friday, as hundreds of thousands of people began leaving prayers at the protest camp, two huge plumes of thick black smoke rose a half a mile down one of the main roads leading into the camp.

Burning tires are never a good sign. I took off running as throngs of enraged protesters, screaming prayers, charged toward the sound of gunfire armed with sticks and stones, ready to confront their attackers. But this time, Saleh’s men were safely on the rooftops, and bullets rained down.

People with gaping holes in their heads were being carried down from the fighting to the field hospital in a mosque next to the protest camp. I tried to push my way through the crowds to get pictures of what was going on.

Fifty-two people were killed that day, including an 8-year-old boy.

Once the situation was calmer, I found a colleague of mine at the field hospital taking some video footage. She had been hit in the back of the shoulder with a rock.

“We’re freelancers. No one is paying us enough to be war correspondents,” I told her.

But two weeks later, as the country stands on the brink of civil war, I’m staying put – war correspondent or not.

Part of the reason is that, for all the distance between this place and my hometown – where the only conflict in the streets involves the traffic during the Master’s Tournament – I find myself surrounded by people whose values are as familiar as a humid evening on the Riverwalk.

Yemenis are a people who toil endlessly against many disadvantages – ones that affect people in the American South as well (although not as severely), such as poverty and lack of access to education.

Like Southerners, Yemenis delight in the simplicity of having a job, a family and good friends. Such delight is not derived from an ignorance of a better life. To the contrary, it is in spite of their disadvantages, making it all the more meaningful.

And just like the people where I come from, they will do anything to defend it.

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One thought on “At the center of Yemen unrest

  1. I just want to thank you for your article. I appreciated reading it and would like to read more. My husband is an expat working in Yemen and says the same thing as you about the Yemeni people. My heart and prayers go out to them and you too. Stay safe.

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