Ire, fire and something dire

Aug 13, 2013, 01:36 IST | Hemal Ashar

Yalda Hakim, BBC correspondent, travels to Yemen -- a rugged, strange and beautiful land with terror havens on the ground and drones in the sky, fast becoming the new front line for the US war on terror

Recent reports state that the US has re-opened all but one of the 19 diplomatic posts closed last week after fears of a possible Al Qaeda attack. The reports state though, that the post in Sanaa (Yemen) remains closed giving credence to the growing sentiment that Yemen has become the new front line for the war against terror.

ON AIR: Yalda Hakim at a migrant camp in Haradh speaking to the camera and recounting her experiences

This past weekend, the BBC World News Special 'Our World’ programme aired: ‘Yemen: America’s new front line’ showing Yalda Hakim, news correspondent in Yemen. Yalda’s reportage from Yemen proved that there was little sympathy for Al Qaeda from the common man, but, there was also simmering anger at drone strikes, rage which is being channelled by the terrorist organization to recruit people to Al Qaeda promising them opportunity for revenge.

THE STORY: Yalda Hakim brings back the voices of the people

In an email interview, Yalda sketches a picture of Yemen -- a rugged, beautiful and scenic place still very tribal, hospitable people, terror strongholds, people caught up in the war and women who have no voice in the system, remain fully covered and nearly invisible in the political process.

TOP VIEW: A top view of Aden, where people caught in the quagmire of war want to lead normal lives

The interview:
When did you leave for Yemen and how much time have you spent there?

Yemen is a country that has long intrigued me; I have always found it to be quite fascinating. When I was about 13, I read a book called ‘Sold’ about a British Yemeni girl who was sold at 14 to her cousin for marriage in Yemen.

GOING BACK: Migrants in Haradh waiting to return home to Ethiopia    

Whilst in Yemen, we filmed two programmes, one was a story about migrants from the Horn of Africa, travelling to the country for work or using Yemen as a transit point to get to Saudi Arabia. The second story was about the United States and its covert war in Yemen, the US drones policy in the country and also, how the country is dealing with Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.

Sanaa, -, YEMEN: Yemeni soldiers search a motorbike at a checkpoint on a street leading to the US embassy compound in Sanaa on August 4, 2013. PIC/AFP

Which places specifically, in Yemen did you visit?
For the story covering the journey of migrants through Yemen, we travelled to the Saudi/ Yemeni border, to a border town called Haradh, where thousands of migrant workers are staying to try and cross over the border into Saudi Arabia. And, for the story on US drone attacks in Yemen, we were in Sanaa, the capital, but we also travelled down south to Abyan Province and the town of Zinjabar, which is deep into Al Qaeda territory.

TOUGH TIMES: Children playing in Aden, Abyan province

If you had to draw a thumbnail sketch of life in Yemen, what can you tell readers about Yemen -- a little about how ordinary people live and their lives? What is it like for ordinary women/girls especially?
Yemen is an extremely fascinating place; it’s a very tribal society. The city of Sanaa, the capital, is one of the most beautiful cities I have ever seen. It is almost like it’s the original high-rise city. It’s incredibly beautiful especially at sunset and you hear the call to prayer from all corners of the city. It’s not as hot as other parts of the country though, there is a lovely breeze we had when we were there, so it was nice to get back to Sanaa from some of the desert places we went to in the country. 

Sanaa, YEMEN: A foreign national walks towards the departure area of Sanaa International Airport before leaving Yemen on August 7, 2013. The US ordered Americans to leave Yemen “immediately”. Pic/AFP

I didn’t honestly see many women. I didn’t have much interaction with the women, except for the migrants in the story we filmed in Haradh, but the women I did see were completely covered up in the traditional niqab.

In fact, I went to the local beauty parlour and actually that’s where I interacted with women. I go to hairdressers and parlours in lots of the countries I visit, because that’s really where you see women able to be themselves amongst other women.

Yemen is a very poor country, the poorest country in the Middle East. Corruption is rampant, there’s high unemployment and the literacy rate is very low. This is despite hundreds of millions of dollars of aid coming into the country, from the international community. However, I found it to be one of the most hospitable places I’ve been to.

Could you illustrate that with an example perhaps about interacting with ordinary folk/people? Food? Culture?
While travelling around the country, I did come across some people protesting. They were angry at the lack of electricity, no employment, they had overthrown their dictator of 30 years, yet they felt like that nothing much had changed in the country. I also spoke to youth activists who were very pro-democracy, pro-America, but were telling me that the US counter terrorism policy in the country is playing right into Al Qaeda’s hands who are using this as a propaganda tool.

I spoke to members of the government and analysts, but I also met a lot of ordinary people who spoke to me very frankly about the state of the country and the counter terrorism policy in their country.

You went specifically as a BBC World News person to report on the drone war. What was the reception like hostile/friendly/wary?
I went deep into the south of the country, where Al Qaeda once had control, but after a military offensive last June, the government overthrew them and now has a very fragile hold over the country. But as soon as I said I was from BBC World News, interestingly the people wanted to speak to me. A lot of people have heard about the World Service and the BBC’s Arabic service, so the BBC is a very well respected outlet in many countries. Especially in very remote places where they don’t get a lot of access to the media, but they all have radios and all listen to the World Service in their own language and have done so for decades.

When about lingo, what language did you speak?
The majority of people in Yemen speak Arabic and we had a local Arabic translator with us. I speak Farsi, Urdu and Dari and so, occasionally, there are words in Arabic that I understand, so there were times I didn’t require a translator. For example, I was interviewing a father whose eight-year-old daughter was killed in a drone strike and sometimes that human interaction doesn’t require a translator. He was speaking to me in Arabic, but his suffering and pain came across clearly.

On the whole, what do people think of the war on terror and of Yemen becoming increasingly the front line?
The people I spoke to told me that they don’t want to live under Al Qaeda’s rule, but equally, they’re as frightened of US drones as they are of Al Qaeda, if not more. I was told that Al Qaeda is using the drones as a huge propaganda boost for themselves, we heard reports of Al Qaeda stepping in after a drone strike to offer compensation and payments for funeral costs, but then pressuring those locals to join Al Qaeda to take revenge for the death of their family members. I was also told that when there’s such little acknowledgement and apology from the Yemeni central government and the United States for the deaths of civilians, people get frustrated and angry and sometimes see joining Al Qaeda as the only way to get justice.

Do people realize that drones have eliminated many terrorists too?
From talking to people in Yemen, I learned that when civilians are killed, in their minds it really wipes out how many terrorists have been killed as a result.

While the US is carrying out a drone war in Yemen, the Yemeni Govt. is complicit too in this. What do they think of that?
The people I spoke to told me they’re angry and that’s one of the reasons why they’re becoming more and more sympathetic to Al Qaeda, because at least Al Qaeda is responding to their grievances. There is a feeling that the Yemeni government is also turning a blind eye and on some occasions they offer blood money to the tribal leaders, but there’s never any acknowledgement or apology.

The Yemeni Foreign Minister told me the sovereignty of the country is not at stake, because they approve every single strike that happens.

Did you face any hostility as you too are from the UK -- the ally in the war on terror? Do they talk about the UK at all?
The Yemeni people are very hospitable, and there is a desire for peace and stability. Unfortunately, when corruption is rampant and there are so many other social problems in the country, it creates a haven for militants.

What has it been like for you, going to Yemen being part of the programme has it changed perspectives in any way?
I’m still intrigued by Yemen and I think I love it more as a country. I really well and truly fell in love with Sanaa, the capital. It has become one of my most favourite cities in the world, especially when people are still kind and generous in the city. In many ways it reminded me of my birth country, Afghanistan, where it’s ruled on tribal lines. There is so much potential for the country, but unfortunately when a state is so fragile. it opens up possibilities for militants and insurgency groups to take advantage of it.

About Yemen
Yemen officially known as the Republic of Yemen, is an Arab country located in Western Asia, occupying the southwestern to southern end of the Arabian Peninsula.

What is a drone?
An Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV), colloquially known as a drone, is an aircraft without a human pilot on board. Its flight is controlled either autonomously by computers in the vehicle. or under the remote control of a pilot on the ground or in another vehicle

They are deployed predominantly for military and special operation applications, but also used in a small but growing number of civil applications.     

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