Laura of Arabia

When Yemen fell into chaos, most foreign correspondents were kept out. The only reliable news came from a few intrepid young Western freelancers who spoke the language, lived like locals, and managed to stay in the country.

Remember the Arab Spring? It’s December 2010, a Tunisian street vendor sets himself on fire, and a few months later tens of millions of Arab kids are crowding the streets and squares in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, Bahrain, Libya, and Syria, demanding the fall of dictators and the establishment of democratically elected governments? For those of us who covered it, it was the story of a lifetime, a swell of euphoria and promise in a region that for so long had known only oppression.

In a few of these places, dictators did fall. But by now it’s hard to remember that those were good times. Now, nearly four years after the uprisings began, some countries are struggling to rebuild (Tunisia), some have seen counter-revolutions that have set them back to their authoritarian ways (Egypt), some have continued the struggle (Bahrain), and others have devolved into chaos and even war (Syria, Libya, Yemen). Now more than ever seems the right time to step back and ask, “How did this happen?”

Nov14-Kasinof-Books
Don’t Be Afraid of the Bullets
by Laura Kasinof
Arcade Publishing, 330 pp.

A handful of analysts and correspondents are beginning to answer that question in book form. But up until now, the stories of a few of these countries’ struggles have remained untold. That’s because in some places, namely Yemen, the ruling elite did everything in its power to keep the storytellers out. Correspondents like myself were turned away at the airport or even kicked out of the country with no notice. This left the job of telling Yemen’s story to Yemeni activists and citizen journalists, and to the few intrepid Western freelancers who spoke the language, lived like locals, and managed to stay in the country.

Here was a country that was considered to be a U.S. ally, a place where the United States launched drone strikes against a menacing al-Qaeda affiliate and spent hundreds of millions of dollars to combat terrorism—and the only information we could get was from a few men and women in their twenties who in most cases had never been foreign correspondents. Still, they not only pulled it off, but they brought us the story in a way I would argue we—overworked, overcommitted correspondents at major news outlets—would not have been able to do.

If it’s not obvious, I’ll just say it: I’m biased. I befriended some of these reporters while I was stationed in Saudi Arabia in 2009, and got to know more of them later, in 2011 and 2012, the few times I did manage to get into Yemen and file reports for National Public Radio. They were collegial, professional, ambitious, dogged, and, most important, fluent in a place that was not always easy to understand. They did a good job, and it was fun to watch them do it.

One standout was Laura Kasinof, who, like so many of these young reporters, came to Yemen to study Arabic and try her hand at freelance journalism. She was twenty-five when she landed the string for the New York Times. That made her the paper of record’s voice of record during one of Yemen’s most tumultuous years.

To read her book, Don’t Be Afraid of the Bullets: An Accidental War Correspondent in Yemen, is to understand how Yemen rose up, nearly fell apart, and tried to put itself back together in 2011. It’s a necessary primer on the chaos that has beset the country yet again, as militias from the north tried to seize the capital and force their way into government.

Kasinof takes us back to January 2011, when Yemeni students first began marching in the streets near the country’s main university, in the capital, Sanaa, calling for an end to corruption under President Ali Abdullah Saleh, who had ruled the country for thirty-three years.

Like most of us, Kasinof found herself identifying with these activists, youngsters who organized on Facebook and Twitter in a country that had a literacy rate of just over 65 percent. Her reporting during that time showed that in the beginning, the more established political opposition had little interest in complete upheaval. The revolution was up to the youngsters.

That all started to change when a female media activist named Tawakkol Karman was stopped by plainclothes thugs, detained in a women’s prison, chained, and held for thirty-six hours—this in a country where detaining a woman is a grave insult to her family and tribe. The detention sparked more protests. Karman later led “day of rage” rallies much like those in Tunisia and Egypt.

Kasinof was reporting in the southern Yemeni city of Aden in February 2011 when the longtime ruler of Egypt, Hosni Mubarak, stepped down. People broke out in celebration, and Kasinof realized that maybe Yemen’s own protest movement might gain momentum. But it was not until March 18, when thousands of Yemenis gathered after Friday prayers at a place in the capital they called Change Square, that their revolution began in earnest. For weeks, hundreds of activists, protesters, lawyers, onlookers, and tribesmen had been living in what seemed like miles of makeshift tents in Change Square. Kasinof watched and reported as protesters were shot by snipers posted on rooftops, then rushed to a makeshift field hospital where volunteers worked to save them. In all, more than fifty people were killed that day.

After that, the dominoes began to fall. Key government and military leaders defected and joined the protesters. But Saleh wouldn’t go easily. Three times he agreed to sign a deal that would see him step down from power—and three times he reneged. As the political situation stalled, Yemen’s already weak economy worsened, basic services like gas and electricity were harder to come by, and Saleh and his enemies resorted to warfare in the capital to resolve their differences.

Through it all, the freelancers braved the protests and the fighting, and even the deaths of some of their Yemeni friends, to bring us the story. In June 2011, Saleh was praying at his mosque when a bomb inside the pulpit exploded, severely injuring Saleh, killing the preacher and several guards, and wounding a dozen more. Saleh was flown to neighboring Saudi Arabia for treatment.

Fighting and protests and political stalemate continued, with Kasinof and an increasingly smaller number of reporters remaining to chronicle what one headline declared was a “Yemen on the Brink of Hell.” One night in the central city of Taiz, a city that also saw fighting between pro- and anti-government forces, Kasinof convinced a frightened young driver to take her across enemy lines, as mortar and artillery rounds exploded around them. Kasinof realized she couldn’t stay in Yemen. But it took her a while to get out.

By September 2011, Saleh was back in the country, and in November, he finally agreed to step down, as long as he and his family were granted immunity. His vice president, Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi, was tapped to take power. Kasinof returned home to the U.S., but had a hard time adjusting to life in New York, and when her editors at the Times asked her if she wanted to go back to Yemen, she went.

The assignment was to cover the referendum of February 2012, in which Yemenis were allowed to cast their votes for president. Hadi was the only candidate, but Kasinof discovered a sense of joy among Yemenis she hadn’t seen since the uprising began months earlier. She aptly captures the exultation of a people who felt that they had a real stake in the future of their country.

Since then, the National Dialogue Conference—which included hundreds of delegates from across the political and geographic spectrum in Yemen—has resulted in some 1,400 recommendations on how to reform the country. But even that process has been marred by violence, namely the assassination of two delegates from the Shiite-leaning Houthi rebel group from northern Yemen. The Houthis have since staged violent protests in the capital, have taken over government buildings, and now have forced Hadi’s prime minister to resign. Sadly, the Yemen of today could be at its most dangerous moment yet.

Kasinof, meanwhile, is back in the U.S. for the time being, but her book, while not necessarily meeting its promise as a deep reflection on what it means to be a war correspondent, is a lasting record of how this all happened, to her and
to Yemen.

Kelly McEvers

Kelly McEvers is a former Middle East correspondent for National Public Radio. She is now a national correspondent based at NPR West.