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Reflections on Yemen

by Stefan Christoff

anti-sectarian graffiti in Sana'a, Yemen
anti-sectarian graffiti in Sana'a, Yemen

An interview with Abubakr Al-Shamahi, a British-Yemeni freelance journalist and writer.

In this interview, Abubakr addresses some key issues related to the political turmoil currently facing Yemen. He addresses the violence and human impacts of the ongoing U.S. drone strikes and the calls for justice from families impacted.

This interview also highlights the current political situation in Yemen relating to the massive 2011 grassroots protests that challenged authoritarian rule.

Could you highlight some of the human story behind the current debate over U.S. military drone strikes in Yemen? As politicians in the U.S. speak about national security and describe militants being targeted, there is growing opposition to the U.S. drone strikes. Given your work as a journalist on the ground in Yemen, wondering if you could offer some reflections, some insights into the human reality of drone strikes?

The human reality is that innocent people are being killed, something that will then anger and distress the family, and in some instances, the tribe. Civilian deaths are often implied to be collateral damage, something that the people affected are naturally very angry about.

A father I met in a rural part of Yemen lost his two sons in a drone strike, one was an Al-Qaeda operative, the other was 10 years old and was simply hitching a ride on the back of the pickup truck that he had seen his brother driving. The father said that he had disowned his elder son, and said that he had chosen that path, and therefore had to accept the consequences. However, he was extremely distraught at the death of his 10 year old, repeatedly showing me his school certificate and his picture. He berated the Yemeni government for allowing the US to strike in Yemen, and constantly emphasised that there was no justification for killing children.

Can you reflect on the importance of justice for the family members and also wider communities impacted by drone strikes? What possibilities do you see in regards to accountability for the U.S. political and military officials who made the decisions to unleash these deadly drone strikes?

Justice is what the families want. In Yemen, especially in the tribal areas, there is a strong sense that an injustice has to be righted before the family/group can move on. Closure, in a way. Leaving that to one side, these people deserve justice because they have been wronged in a terrible manner. Giving justice to these people would send a strong message to them that their lives actually do matter, and that the arguments that al-Qaeda peddles, that there is a war against Islam, that Muslims are simply cannon fodder, and that their lives do not count as much as others in the West, are incorrect.

Unfortunately, I do not see much hope in terms of accountability. Looking at the crimes that have been committed in the past by Western nations in the Middle East, there have been very few instances where people have been held to account. Also, there does not seem to be much of an appetite from the US side - there have been many instances where US military/political figures have attempted to shift the blame when it is proven that the dead have been civilians.

Can you reflect on the protest movement that shook the political foundations of Yemen over recent years. A 'new' government was brought into power, however it seems many from the former regime are still deeply involved in the structures of political power. Could you offer any insights on these points?

The protest movement that began in 2011 contains people who I would describe as the best hope for Yemen's future. However, many of the dreams and goals of 2011 are yet to be fulfilled. It is an ongoing process, 'revolutions' often take decades to complete, if that, and the mantra here is 'the revolution continues'.

The new government contains many of the old regime chiefly because the Gulf states, along with the West, felt it was too risky to cut them off completely - for different reasons. The West because they had worked with the old government on terror issues, and the Gulf because they are fearful of a democratic country on their borders.

With the current government, there are many issues. There is a power struggle between various figures, many of whom are as corrupt as each other. Saleh and his men feel frozen out, and are attempting to cause as much trouble as they can for the current president, so as to demonstrate to the public the failings of the new government. 

On the grassroots level in Yemen, could you offer a couple ideas as to the alternative political visions that people are putting forward on the streets. I can imagine that there are many, many progressive activist voices involved in social justice movements, demanding change, that are largely cut out of mainstream media reporting on Yemen. Ideas on this?

In 2011, the grassroots was hugely powerful in Yemen. They started the process that led to the end of a 33-year dictatorship. However, since then, many have become disillusioned at what they see as a stolen revolution. Nonetheless, some persevere. There have been many inventive ways that activists have used to get their messages across.

Recently, there was a poetry competition organised by anti-drone activists, with the purpose of highlighting the opposition to drone strikes. There is also the famous work of Murad Sobay, a graffiti artist, who has started various street art campaigns. His first was one that highlighted the people who had disappeared over since the 1970s, political activists etc. He stencilled their faces on the walls of Sana'a, with their names and the year they disappeared. This has grown into a big movement, and you now see these stencils all around Sana'a, and other Yemeni cities. His current campaign is called '12 Hours', each 'hour' highlighting a certain ill that affects Yemen. This has encompassed poverty, kidnapping, violence, sectarianism, and drones so far.

Many of these progressive activists are challenging the centres of power, and thanks to Yemen having been relatively more open politically than many other Arab countries over the last 20 years or so, they have lots of experience to build on. The work of HOOD, a group of human rights lawyers, is evidence of this. 

This interview was conducted over email between Montreal and Sana'a.


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Stefan Christoff (Stefan Christoff)
Montreal, Quebec
Member since April 2010


Stefan Christoff is a Montreal-based journalist, community organizer and musician.

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