Saturday, February 3, 2018

Thursday, February 1, 2018

Ten People to Follow in Aden

(c) Amr Gamal, Aden.

Aden has been witnessing dramatic events over the past few days with the situation changing by the hour. Yemen has always been a complicated story. For me, Yemen is only a complicated story because to a large extent media outlets, regionally and internationally, exert no effort to include reliable and relevant Yemeni voices in their reports. Social media is to be thanked for opening a new channel and for providing the space for Yemeni voices to narrate what's happening on the ground from their own local perspective.

A few years ago, I developed a list of Top 20 people to follow in Yemen. Things have since changed. Tweeps come and go. Some deactivate. Some change careers. Some remain active and constantly improve. But as all eyes are on Aden these days, we need a new special list on Aden coverage. The following accounts will bring Aden closer to you, as they have done for me.

There is no specific standard for coming up with this list - except that the people behind these accounts reside in Aden at the moment, bringing a meaningful take on events there.

So, here we go!

1. Osan @OsanBoairan  

I've been following Osan since Yemen's 2011 uprising. He's my top source for anything happening in Aden. His tweets are mainly commentary on the political developments with a large dose of cynicism. Commentary on regional events, both political and cultural are not exempt from Osan's timeline. He could be tweeting on serious political topics and next day tweet on, say, Egyptian celebrities' news. He tweets often about his family and beautiful daughters. And that's what I love about following him - he mixes it up and never bores me.

While working as an accountant, he blogs and tweets regularly during his free time. He only writes in Arabic and sometimes curses, which adds some color to his tweets.

His political stance is pro-Hirak but he's never that extremist or aggressive in expressing his political opinions.

2. Fathi Ben Lazrq @fathibnlazrq + @adenalghad  

Journalist and editor-in-chief of 'Aden Alghad' (Aden Tomorrow) news website, Fathi never distances himself from any story happening in Aden. While his newspaper covers Aden news extensively, he also makes sure to use his own Twitter account to update his followers on his take on events in Aden.

Fathi's political affiliation has not been clear or consistent over the years but that's totally understood given the great pressure and control he works under in Aden, as press freedom is almost zero. Fathi has received death threats several times, according to him unapologetically writing about them on twitter and facebook.

3. Nisma Mansour @NismaAlozebi   

The engineering student, Nisam came to prominence on Yemen-Twitter-community during the battle for Aden in March 2015 when fighting in the city began as Houthi and Saleh forces captured Aden International Airport.

Ever since I've been following Nisma's tweets that I find to be insightful and speak loads about the human side of political developments.

Her blog also reveals aspects of Aden that we don't usually hear about in the mainstream media. Nisma blogs and tweets in English but, sadly, she's not as active as one would like her to be. But we can also find her on Facebook.

4. Saleh al-Obaidi @mrsaleh20001  

Saleh is a photojournalist working with different media outlets. I have never conversed with him, so my comments here are only based on my observations. I've been following Saleh for a couple of years and I admire his passion for documenting how the Hirak's protests and events in Aden are developing.

His tweets and facebook posts are mainly visual; videos and photos - but it's clear he's deeply involved with the Hirak movement. He has been on the front lines of the battlefield taking telling photos which earned him serious injuries last year. After being hospitalized both in Aden and then in UAE, he recovered well and continues to work with his camera.

5. Huda al-Sarari @alsarare2013  

Huda is a hard-core human rights defender. I admire Huda so much that I wrote a long feature on her work, which you can read here on Middle East Eye. Huda tweets in Arabic and she focuses mainly on human rights issues in the city. 

I admire her impartiality, despite the very polarized environment she works in. You can find her on Facebook here.

6. Nashwan Al-Othmani @nalothmani  

Working as Radio Monte Carlo's Yemen correspondent, Nashwan's tweets are mainly about Aden news. His timeline shows reliable updates on developments on the ground. He often publishes posts on Facebook, reflecting on major events.

7. Amr Gamal @_AmrGamal  

Playwright and photographer, Amr Gamal could tweet about anything outside of politics. Despite how Aden is saturated by politics, Amr has managed to keep himself focused on the Arts, Theater, Cinema and Photography. 

His work archive has few plays written and directed by him for both local and international audiences in Yemen and Germany. I am lucky to call him a friend. Make sure to check his Facebook updates too.

8. Ahmed Shihab al-Qadi @ahmedalqadi001  

An engineering student who finds photography a hobby and a means of expressing his political opinions. Ahmed's camera is always with him as he participates in every protest and political event for the Hirak movement in Aden. 

He captures beautiful photos and I've always used his photos on my blog ever since I discovered him through Amr Gamal's suggestions to me. He's not super active on Twitter but he is definitely so on Facebook.

9. Vlogger Mazen al-Saqaf  

Mazen vlogs from Aden. Yes, that's right. He vlogs on social and cultural topics. His videos are interesting, funny and super local - meaning he's so chilled and not changing his Yemeni accent so "the other" could understand him. 

I love his simplicity and non-pretentious writing. His channel is in Arabic and you can find it here.

10. Ahmed Abdulaziz @_ahmedaziz  

Ahmed is a poet, I assume, but he's definitely a photographer capturing moments in Aden that your TV or newspaper won't show you. He has a unique style and his photos are about small details in Aden. Sadly, he's not active on Facebook or Twitter but he is active on Instagram.

Thursday, January 18, 2018

Despite Yemen War Devastation Toll for Children, a Yemeni Man Organises First Ever TED Talk for Kids

This piece was published on Aug. 2017 on my HuffPost blog. And as I received an email today that HuffPost blogs seem to shut down soon, I am reposting the article here on my blog to archive it. 


Ahmed Sayaghi, leader of coming TedxKids@Sanaa, “I hope we can learn from our children speakers’
stories the lust for life and resilience.”

It is not like I am ignoring the devastation of the war but it’s exactly because of the war we had to organise Yemen’s first ever TEDxKids@Sanaa conference. It’s important to amplify children’s stories and reflect on children’s innocence in the intense political polarisation in Yemen. In light of the war, I think children have a magical influence on grown-ups who are often with rigid points of views, boxing others in. These kids will voice out stronger messages for peace.

The idea came to my mind last year and I applied to get the license from TED Global and we had it. Then, I was so lucky to find a team of young men and ladies - who are as young as just newly-graduated from high school or just recently entered university - who are helping in organising the event. This team is doing marvellous work, despite all the hardships.

We are in the process of preparation and organisation. Against all the odds, we aim to officially conduct the event in the Universal Children’s Day coming November. At the beginning, it was not easy to find sponsorship. We were covering expenses from our own pockets until we eventually found sponsors who believed in our cause and were willing to support us. However, I would say that the main challenge we faced was the widening political polarisation I mentioned earlier. Given the failed state we are in, any activist is at risk in doing his/her activism. We are often harassed and interrogated: who is funding you? What is your agenda? We are told, “this is time of war and not time for you to invade our kids’ minds with western values. Kids should learn Jihad and not to speak at Ted talks.” The team has gone through lots of intimidation because we don’t have any political and influential party to rely on, as we aim to be nonpartisan. Still, we are determined to hold the event.

This is not my first participation in co-organising a Ted Talk in Yemen. I was also part of the team which organised TEDXSanaa in 2012, 2013 and 2014, as a volunteer or/and in charge of the fundraising and selection of speakers. Even though I work as a pharmacist, I’ve developed a great interest in social activism right after Yemen’s 2011 uprising. I was attracted to Ted Talks in Yemen because I wanted to establish events in Yemen with international standards.

For me, TedxKids is a continuation of the previous Ted Talks we had, but with a greater dose of resilience. The event goes with a theme and hashtag #صغار_كبار (Young but Mature) and we have three subcategories of the speakers’ presentations. A) Kids’ educational aspirations; like how they aspire to become pilots, doctors, etc. B) Kids’ untold talents; like singers, dancers, painters, etc, C) Kids’ stories of survival after being under the rubble - and this is the most heartbreaking but moving talks. The team is also keen to have inclusiveness in the type of children speakers. So; for instance, you will hear in TedxKids from kids from the internally displaced community in Yemen and from Yemen’s marginalized society (Muhamashin) too.

Until the official event happens, last month, we had our inaugural event titled, “The Ambassadors” in which we wanted the attending children to understand how they were the ambassadors of Yemen’s future. It was the phase when our team met with more than 500 applicants children and we are in the process of selecting the final list of speakers. We were fascinated to have about 1,700 audience attending that day. I’ve been pondering on, given the despair, suffering and pain we are going through in Yemen, I hope we can learn from our children speakers’ stories the lust for life and resilience.

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Hisham is free, but Yemen's 'disappeared' crisis continues

A Yemeni protester calls for the release of detainees held in a Sanaa prison [AFP].

The words of Martin Luther King, "Free, at last," come into their own, as one Yemen's top social media activists, Hisham al-Omeisy, 38, walks free from a Houthi jail in Sanaa, after five month's detention. 

The Houthis did not officially charge him, or allow him access to a lawyer or to his family. His arrest, however, was likely linked to his job at the US embassy in Sanaa. Hisham's case was so sensitive, that we - his friends - couldn't and still can't reveal much of our conversations with his family in Sanaa, without risking their safety.

Hisham doesn't need an introduction.

If you are on Twitter and following news on Yemen, you almost certainly follow Hisham.

Hisham's case attracted widespread attention from human rights groups, and local and international media, because of the significance of his online activism. He has been one of the few top English-speaking commentators inside the country providing almost daily updates on events in Sanaa for his followers and the #Yemen Twitter audience.

As war-torn Yemen faces a dearth of happy news, the Yemen Twitter community celebrated photos this week of Hisham hugging his children for the first time since his detention in August.

But as we celebrate Hisham's release, it must also serve as a reminder of Yemen's "disappeared crisis"; the thousands of forcibly disappeared young men across the country, who don't enjoy Hisham's high media profile, and whose names and faces we don't hear about.

With some 12,000 arrests and more than 3,000 men forcibly disappeared, mothers, sisters and daughters of these abducted men began showing up in front of the central prison or police stations across major Yemeni cities, searching for their kidnapped sons, fathers, brothers and other male relatives. They started to organise and formed a collective named, "Mothers of Abductees Association".

The Association works as a pressure-group, raising awareness of the missing men, and advocating for their release.

The collective's spokesperson told me in a phone interview that many young men are forcibly disappeared for their political activities, and some for no reason at all.

In many cases, the mothers have no information or access to their imprisoned relatives - only if they are lucky they might receive some information. The imprisoned young men are held in terrible conditions and exposed to severe torture.

Dozens have been killed under torture, or have to endure a lasting disability from their wounds. Some parents even risk assault if they question Houthi authorities. In this incident, a young forcibly disappeared man's father was assaulted and beaten to death in front of the prison when he went searching for his son.

Journalists face disappearance because of their work, as affirmed by the recently freed Yousef Al-Ajlan who was released from a Houthis prison in Sanaa after a year-long detention.

The Committee to Protect Journalists notes that, "if the Houthis were considered a governing authority, Yemen would have the fifth highest number of journalists in jail in the world".

As the Houthis took over the capital, Sanaa in September 2014, and started a crackdown the press, Yousef wanted to avoid trouble, so he quit journalism and took a taxi driver job instead.

Still, in October 2016, armed men kidnapped Yousef as he was in his taxi in front of his house. During his detention, he was severely tortured and threatened with rape, and barred from seeing his family for months.

During this time, Yousef was transferred to several prisons and saw dozens of other detained journalists, accused of the same charges; "working for the enemy (Saudi Arabia) as a journalist". After a year, Yousef was finally freed in November, thanks to a prisoners of war exchange deal between Houthi and anti-Houthi tribes.

The death of Ali Abdullah Saleh and the semi-collapse of his political party, the General Public Congress (GPC) have allowed the Houthis to target many of Saleh's supporters.

My family and friends in Sanaa told me of men being dragged out of cars or public transport at checkpoints, and being interrogated about links to the GPC. Later, they are detained and then vanish. The local press reports Houthi executions and the assassination of Saleh's loyalists.

In Aden, the disappearances crisis is no different from in Sanaa. Mothers and daughters of kidnapped men regularly hold sit-in demonstrations calling for information about their relatives' whereabouts and release.

Hisham's case typifies Yemen's disappearance crisis.

But amid the unspeakable human suffering in Yemen, the disappearances crisis lacks attention, let alone an effective investigation. Locally, the climate of fear is on the rise and international human rights groups lack constant and full access to Yemen.

Nonetheless, increased pressure and domestic and international condemnation are needed until all of Yemen's disappeared people are found, and freed.

*This article was originally written for and published in The New Arab, today. 

Monday, January 15, 2018

My Turned Down Article by a Major American Newspaper, On Yemen's Civil Society

Days after my attendance at the Committee to Protect Journalists' Awards Ceremony in November, I received an email from a major American newspaper -whose name I prefer not to reveal-, asking me to write a column in which I would reflect on receiving my award, my trip and meetings in the US. I gladly accepted their request. So, we discussed the theme of the column in an email or two; then, we agreed to it. So, I would begin writing and I would finish and send the article to them right away. I waited for few days with no reply. So, I sent a reminder email. Then, I was told very politely that my piece wouldn't be published.

I was very disappointed. I wanted to know why, but I was so busy in that week and the following weeks as I was in a transition, locating myself from Sweden to Egypt, and I never asked them why. Now that my days seem less hectic, I thought about the article last night and how it'd be useless to ask the newspaper for the reasons of why my article was turned down. However, I thought, "I could publish the article as it was, on my blog, anyhow, right?"

So, voila!


My award acceptance speech in November at the International Free Press Award ceremony in New York was one of the most difficult writings I have ever done. I didn’t know how it was even possible to summarize the massive atrocities committed in my country, Yemen, in a three-minute-long speech.

Understanding the gravity of these atrocities, the New York-based organization, Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) in fact decided to choose Yemen of all the countries in the turbulent Arab region this year to put a spotlight on the forgotten war in the country and the risks Yemeni journalists bear while reporting. Because three-minute-long speech was obviously not enough, CPJ arranged for me a two-week advocacy tour, one week in D.C. and another week in New York.

As I had meetings with policy advisor Christine Lawson at the Department of State, Senator Chris Murphy, other Senate staff, media and human rights organizations, I was thinking of how the Travel Ban (which I managed to defeat after being rejected for the US visa entry twice) could have barred me from actualizing this opportunity. If it wasn’t for the relentless support I had from CPJ, I would not have been able to have one-on-one meetings with these influential people and discuss the U.S. disastrous foreign policies in Yemen.

During our meeting, going beyond the Saudi-Iran-proxy-war-in-Yemen questions, Sen. Murphy’s first question to me was, “how is life like for your family in Yemen, Afrah?” For a moment I forgot that I was in the presence of a politician, but rather a friend. “Every time I call my mother in Sana’a, she’s busy going to a funeral or coming back from a funeral of relatives and friends,” I replied, “in fact, yesterday, she messaged me, ‘all entries to Yemen are closed. We will die, we will die.’”

Nov. - 2017 - Meeting Sen. Murphy at his office in DC, with CPJ's team. 

A couple of days before I met Sen. Murphy, the Saudi-led coalition announced closing all entry points to Yemen, in retaliation to a Houthi-fired missile hitting close to Riyadh airport –what Riyadh claims to be an Iranian-made missile and; thus, with the total blockade it aimed to stop arms transfers from Iran to the Houthis. Not long after my meeting with Sen. Murphy, I found out that he had made a strong testimony, condemning the Saudi-led coalition’s total blockade. I hope that my meeting with him and the Yemen suffering he heard about had something to do with his testimony.

Even though I am an independent Yemeni voice, I consider myself part of the collective Yemeni civil society that emerged in the wake of Yemen’s 2011 uprising – not the traditional organizationed civil society, but rather the space in which young people met, interacted, and voiced their grievances and demands. We are perhaps an extension of Yemen’s historic civil society, but we are certainly an untitled Yemeni political component which was tired of an old, undemocratic and corrupt regime whose energy sparked an uprising against the 30-year old rule of Ali Abdullah Saleh in 2011.

As heartbreaking photos of skeletal malnutritioned Yemeni kids and child soldiers fill news media outlets, it’s a reminder that about half of Yemen’s 28 million population are children, teenagers and young adults. That also means that 2011’s protesters who impressed the world with their peaceful movement and who first had taken to the streets, (including myself,) from Sana’a, to Taiz, to Hudaydah and other cities were mostly of young men and women.

While my generation was trying to make the impossible possible, the U.S. administration, along with the United Nations and Gulf Cooperation Council rushed to contain the youth uprising and disrupted what was naturally occurring on the ground replacing it with a power transfer deal. The U.S., in particular, failed to recognize Yemeni youth’s political aspirations and became trapped in what regional powers dictated and wanted to see in Yemen. During the ensuing years, the U.S. continued to approach Yemen through the eyes of Saudi-Iran rivalry geopolitics and dismissed the potential in the emerging alternative Yemeni civil society leadership.

Nonetheless, Yemen’s civil society of individuals and groups continued to be engaged. While I have always been passionate about documenting Yemeni stories, my fellows at Sana’a Center care about policy-analysis, Resonate Yemen focuses on youth’s civic empowerment, the Mwatana organization sets issues of human rights and justice as its priority, Basement organization promotes cultural empowerment and the list goes on.

Even though CPJ chose me as a face representing the struggle facing independent Yemeni journalists, I believe I am one drop in the ocean of the many stories of my Yemeni generation’s struggle and thirst for democracy, social justice and freedom of expression –which in many ways echo American values.

The value of Yemen’s civil society affirms itself as it was one of the key spaces in which people organized and mobilised each other to express Yemen’s 2011 uprising. Had I not joined this platform in 2011 and taken the action which I couldn’t find in Yemen’s political and tribal system, I wouldn’t have had the guts to find my voice. While I appreciate CPJ’s recognition, it’s crucial the U.S. recognizes the political agency among Yemen’s civil society and the constructive role they can play, importantly, in any potential peace process and post-war Yemen.

Current policies; such as, imposing a Travel Ban preventing voices from addressing the American political leadership and offering a blank cheque to the Saudi-led coalition in its war in Yemen would not get us anywhere except towards more destruction and instability in the region, which derails the war on terror. Yemen’s vibrant civil society, still persisting against all the odds. It’s never too late for the U.S. to support the rainbow in the midst of a storm, the Yemeni civil society.