I Got Kicked Out of Yemen Like a Criminal

For three years, I was a reporter in Washington’s war-on-terror partner in the Arabian Peninsula. Now there’s not a single American journalist left.

CAIRO — Nearly three months on, I still find myself doing everything in my power to avoid telling this story -- reliving the unexpected, abrupt ending of my three years in Yemen still leaves me in a state of trepidation. But after much consideration, I've decided that I need to write this down, because it offers a window into the deterioration of basic rights in a country that is supposed to be one of the successes of the Arab Spring.

It all began in early May, as I was sitting in my apartment in Sanaa, with a phone call.

A man claiming to be from the Yemeni Passport Authority claimed that there was a problem with my visa -- a fact that was odd enough, given that I was one of the few international reporters working with a valid journalist visa (most are working on student visas, with full knowledge of the relevant authorities), and my visa wasn't set to expire until early 2015. The timing also couldn't have been odder: Just hours before the call, a French citizen was killed by gunmen allegedly belonging to al Qaeda in central Sanaa. My close friend and roommate, Farea al-Muslimi, and I realized the man on the phone was directing us to the branch of the Yemeni Interior Ministry responsible for dealing with foreigners, and we soon shared the feeling that it was no mere routine checkup.

When the National Security Bureau (NSB) officer whom I had been directed to meet sardonically chuckled as I told him of my happiness living in Yemen, it only confirmed my fears. I'd been on edge for a few weeks, ever since a friend with family ties to Yemen's security establishment had subtly told me to "watch out." Now, it was slowly settling in that he was warning me about the government, not just the threat of an al Qaeda attack.

The NSB officer clearly luxuriated in dragging the process out, paging through my passport as we strolled to another room. Finally, Farea and I were led to what I later realized was a prison complex. The man sat us down and, in a condescending and hostile tone, told me that I was "no longer welcome in Yemen" and would sit in jail until I flew out of the country. In a threatening tone, he stressed that protesting the decision would prove fruitless, as the order to deport me came down from the "highest levels." This proclamation was followed by the seizure of my phone -- a move that left me in the Kafkaesque position of being forced to sit in jail until I purchased a plane ticket, which I had no clear means of purchasing.

As I was taken off to jail, trembling with fear and confusion, I was separated from Farea, who began to try to figure out what the hell was going on. Initially, it appeared there was cause for optimism. Various politicians and government contacts assured him the whole situation would be solved soon; one powerful member of parliament went so far as to invite us all over for lunch. But within the hour, phones were switched off and calls went unanswered. As I sat in prison attempting to suppress the urge to vomit from sheer anxiety, Farea took it upon himself to circulate around Sanaa, attempting to extricate me from the situation and get some rudimentary explanation for the reason I had fallen into this predicament.

Farea was met at best with mild sympathy and at worst with gleeful derision. Either way, answers were anything but forthcoming. Finally, a high-ranking NSB official agreed to release me on the condition that Farea sign a document guaranteeing that I would leave the country the next day, refrain from leaving my home or publicizing my imminent departure, make no protests against my deportation, and personally face the consequences for failing to comply with the order. By this time, I was painfully aware of the fact that my phone was being tapped, so I was left with little choice but to comply with the order.

The official refused to provide any clarification regarding why I was being deported. Notably, as I left jail, Farea and I were told that I would be banned from Yemen for life if I ever made any public comment regarding my deportation.

I sent a friend out to purchase a ticket first thing the next morning, and I flew out that night, with just a few of my belongings. Escorted onto my flight to Cairo by an NSB agent in what seemed to be an intentionally humiliating fashion, I was informed that I was blacklisted from returning to the country. That was apparent enough: My visa was literally canceled in ink at the airport.

I never really thought about how my time in Yemen would come to an end. But needless to say, I would never have believed it would end with me being forced to leave within 24 hours, booted out in a matter befitting a criminal.

The United Nations, which oversaw the regional agreement that lead to Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi's rise to the presidency after a single-candidate election and which has continued to take a nearly unprecedented role in Yemen's politics, continues to hail the country's political process as a ringing success. U.N. officials, however, have yet to issue any comment on my deportation. A high-ranking U.N. official initially assured me he'd do "everything in his power" to reverse my deportation; the last I heard anything of substance from his staff was more than a month ago. The U.S. government, another backer of the Hadi government, said that it had "no knowledge" of my deportation until it was too late -- a fact that would be strange, if true, given the close ties between the American and Yemeni security establishments. Although I am a U.S. citizen, no U.S. officials have issued anything resembling a condemnation of my deportation and, when directly asked about it at a daily press briefing, the State Department declined to issue any direct comment.

Yemeni officials themselves have largely passed the buck, typically blaming their political opponents, the United Nations, or the United States -- all of which, they say, would have been happy with my deportation. They have also tried to massage my ego by tying my forced departure to my reporting and knowledge of the country.

As much as I'd love to think that my deportation was a result of my singular journalistic excellence, contemporary events put it in a rather different context. Roughly two weeks prior to my forced exit, one of Yemen's most respected intellectuals, former Culture Minister Khaled al-Rowaishan, lost his weekly column in the state-owned al-Thawra newspaper as a result of his regular criticisms of Hadi. Just a few days after I left Yemen, journalist Iona Craig, whose reporting on drone strikes in Yemen has since won her the Martha Gellhorn Prize for Journalism, was effectively harassed into leaving the country and told she would be unable to return, despite also holding a valid journalist visa. On June 11, soldiers under the command of the Presidential Guard shut down and looted the headquarters of satellite TV channel Yemen Today, and in July news leaked that the Yemeni government has placed more than two dozen journalists reporting for both local and international press under surveillance.

Critical reporting on the state of the country has apparently become unwelcome in post-Arab Spring Yemen. Such reporting is needed now more than ever: At the moment, there doesn't appear to be a single accredited American journalist based in a country where the United States is waging a covert drone war against what President Barack Obama's administration has dubbed the world's most dangerous al Qaeda franchise. Of course, Yemen's importance goes beyond al Qaeda: It is a strategically located country undergoing a fraught political transition and is struggling with a perilous humanitarian and economic crisis. In shutting its doors, Yemeni officials are making it far more difficult for outsiders to understand -- and for that matter, help -- their country.

The Yemeni government, however, appears unconcerned with its image -- whether inside or outside the country. One may be able to forgive Hadi, who barely leaves his house and, all things considered, has a lot on his plate at the moment. However, one can scarcely forgive the officials around him for clamping down on criticism -- and then manipulating the leadership's insulation from dissent in order to strengthen their own hold on power.

Such artificial insulation is nothing less than a direct threat to Yemen's existence. As chaos continues to swirl across this southwest corner of the Arabian Peninsula, Yemenis are deeply frustrated with the state of their country. Peace is rare and basic security services are even rarer. Houthi rebels recently captured the northern city of Amran; clashes between them and their tribal and military adversaries have killed dozens on a weekly basis and have left the north on the perpetual verge of civil war. In the south, secessionist sentiment is at an all-time high, while al Qaeda-affiliated militants appear to act with relative impunity, launching repeated attacks on sensitive targets like airports and military bases. Roughly half of Yemenis don't have enough food to eat, and the entire country continues to head toward economic insolvency.

Meanwhile, Western officials -- and indeed, even many Western analysts -- continue to swear that Yemen remains a model for the region. No matter how bad things get, it seems, they're loath to issue a word of criticism about the current government. In doing so, they've enabled Yemeni authorities to blur the lines between principled opposition and treason -- a disturbing trend that only seems set to grow more widespread.

Yemenis will be forced to live with the consequences of their leaders' decisions for decades. And being forced to leave during this crucial time in the country's history has left me nothing other than devastated by my deportation. Devastated that I have no idea if, or when, I'll ever be able to go back to a country I considered my second home. Devastated that I wasn't even able to give most of my closest friends a proper goodbye. Devastated because I naively assumed these things couldn't happen in the "new Yemen." And, above all, devastated that a place I care deeply about appears to be careening into the abyss as the rest of the world looks away.

Photo by MOHAMMED HUWAIS/AFP/Getty Images


In Congo, a Disabled Peace

Security is improving in the eastern part of the country -- so why are many refugees worse off than before?

GOMA, Democratic Republic of the Congo — Maria crosses what is left of her legs and leans back against the wall of her UNHCR-issued tent. She is tall -- before she stepped on a land mine in 2008, she was probably close to six feet -- with dark, searching eyes and a chin that looks as if it were carved out of granite. She scarcely moves when she speaks. "Life was never easy here," she says, while her 4-year-old granddaughter bounces quietly beside her on a thin mattress. "But now it is impossible."

In April, she tells me, the World Food Program (WFP), the United Nations' humanitarian relief arm focused on hunger, stopped issuing her food assistance: the 12 kg of maize, 1.5 liters of cooking oil, and 4 kilos of beans that once provided a monthly lifeline for everyone in the refugee camp where she lives. "Now I have nothing," Maria says, running her hand over the swollen nub that dangles below her right kneecap. "Sometimes the missionaries bring us something, but it's never enough."

Aid workers call this the camp of the vulnerable people. Baked, windswept, and sprawled over several acres of jagged volcanic rock, the Mugunga III settlement six miles west of Goma is home to roughly 10,000 Congolese who have been chewed up and spit out by two decades of near-constant fighting. There are women and children, and the occasional able-bodied young man, but most people over the age of 10 are like Maria: disabled, sick, or elderly. Many were relocated to flimsy tents here after nearby camps were closed down and their residents dispersed; those too frail or mangled to make the journey back to their home villages settled at Mugunga.

And now, almost all of them are hungry. 

"The food assistance was cut off without any warning," explains Juhudi Muhira, the president of the camp's committee for disabled people. "Now less than 20 percent of people with disabilities are receiving anything." The rest, he says, are forced to beg, forage, or look for work in Goma -- a virtual impossibility for amputees and others with serious physical disabilities. "The reality is that these people are stuck. Nothing here is handicapped-accessible," Muhira says.  

The situation in Mugunga strikes a dissonant chord with the emerging narrative about Congo. By many measures, things are actually better now in the country than at any point in the last two decades. Between 1996 and 2013, eastern Congo was the site of a devastating but largely invisible conflict that claimed the lives of roughly 5 million people, mostly from war-related starvation and disease. Rebel groups proliferated, and, at the height of the conflict, armies from nine different countries were fighting in eastern Congo. The human cost rivaled that of the great wars of the 20th century -- but the world scarcely batted an eye. 

The region broke into the headlines briefly in 2012, when Goma, the provincial capital, fell to a rebel group known as the M23 while the U.N. mission in Congo, the largest peacekeeping operation anywhere in the world, stood by. Since then, the authorization of a special U.N. Force Intervention Brigade with an offensive mandate, heightened international engagement -- including the appointment of Russ Feingold and Mary Robinson as U.S. and U.N. envoys, respectively -- and a so-called "framework agreement" between Congo's government and its traditionally meddlesome neighbors have together improved the security situation dramatically. (Signed in February 2013, the agreement requires the Congolese government to carry out security-sector reform in exchange for pledges of noninterference by the other 10 signatories.)

While Congo is still very much at war -- just ask any of the inhabitants of Mugunga III, the vast majority of whom are too afraid to return home -- it appears to be moving in the direction of peace. The new Force Intervention Brigade, fighting alongside Congolese troops, routed the M23 last year and has started in on other armed groups, such as the Allied Democratic Forces. Meanwhile, the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR), a Hutu rebel group that includes former soldiers and militiamen who participated in the Rwandan genocide, seems to be at least flirting with the idea of voluntary disarmament. "All in all," says human rights activist and former Clinton administration official John Prendergast, "the trend line in global engagement for peace in Congo and the Great Lakes is improving."

Positive macro-level trends, however, can feel very distant to those still caught in a daily struggle for survival. And for the residents of Mugunga, the improved security situation has actually made things worse.

After the defeat of M23, the U.N. began to implement a mission that involves projecting state authority into what are called "islands of stability" in remote areas recently cleared of armed groups. According to Christoph Vogel, a Congo-based researcher and a lecturer in African studies at the University of Cologne, this has meant a curtailing of funds for the WFP, as well as other large, donor-dependent nongovernmental organizations working with displaced populations in the eastern part of the country.

The "post-M23 political window-dressing," Vogel explains, led to food assistance being diverted away from camps in and around Goma, as "both the Congolese government and international stakeholders were interested to display a picture of complete peace and stability."

Marring that picture are the many thousands of white tents dotting the outskirts of the city. So incentivizing refugees to return home, in some cases even when the villages they had fled are not yet safe, has become a top priority for the Congolese government and international donors alike. According to Ayako Tsujisaka, until recently the project coordinator for Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) -- Doctors Without Borders -- in Mugunga, "More and more humanitarian aid is being oriented toward the areas of return, while less and less aid is being allocated into the displacement sites around Goma." 

The reshuffling of priorities left the WFP with a $21 million funding shortfall, and in April, it was forced to move to targeted food provision -- that is, helping those people deemed most in need -- in camps for displaced persons and refugees. This despite the fact that 64 percent of families living in camps in the province of North Kivu, where Goma is located, are vulnerable to food insecurity, according to a joint assessment carried out in February and March by the WFP and the United Nations High Commission on Refugees. 

"Food insecurity is widespread and increasing" in the country, concludes another report, published in May by WFP. (Overall, roughly 6.7 million Congolese live in a state of acute food insecurity.) Rates of hunger and malnutrition are climbing, according to the report, because of low social spending by the Congolese government, ongoing conflict, and declining foreign aid.

For roughly 10 percent of the country's population, the situation has reached a "humanitarian crisis level."

In the Mugunga camp, the desperation is palpable. Tired women rest among empty pots and water jugs. Children with distended bellies roam in search of distraction. "There is no hope," Muhira says. "No one has promised us food. Not for tomorrow and not for the next day."

The WFP is still providing food rations to the 30 percent of North Kivu's displaced people it has deemed most vulnerable. But many aid workers say the so-called vulnerability survey the WFP conducted before it shifted its strategy was far from foolproof. For instance, it did not reach many people with disabilities who, according to NGO workers in the camp, were never registered as residents of Mugunga in the first place because of mobility issues.

"The process was a bit of a mess," says Tsujisaka. "There are so many factors that can make people vulnerable ... but it was not clear how they arrived at the final determination."

A spokesman for the WFP, Djaounsede Madjiangar, disputes this notion, saying that handicapped people who are no longer receiving assistance have some other "coping mechanism." Yet he admits, "With the reduced level of funding, it is difficult to adequately respond to the needs of food-insecure people." 

The outlook is increasingly grim for those with serious disabilities. The government wants them out of the camps as another step in closing the book on 20 years of war, but in a country that offers virtually no services for its disabled, the NGO-packed environs of Goma is one of the only places where it is possible to live with some dignity. There is no good data on the number of disabled people in Congo, but after such a long period of war, it is almost certainly higher than the 10 percent figure that is the norm in most societies. "You can see for yourself that it is way higher, not just because of weapons, but because of disease," says Aurélie Viard, a project manager for Handicap International in Goma.

Every day, more Congolese join the ranks of the disabled: Land mines, unexploded ordnance, and sporadic fighting are just a few of the drivers. In the first half of 2014 alone, the International Committee of the Red Cross's surgical team in North Kivu carried out 36 evacuations for war-wounded and completed more than 500 surgical procedures on 160 patients. It also furnished 60 new prostheses and 24 pairs of orthopedic braces to patients in Goma. 

That said, without a reliable source of food, services such as physical therapy or fitting for a prosthetic limb are quickly becoming afterthoughts. "If people are starving," Viard says, "it is hard to work with them on their other needs."

Peacetime, such as it is, is shaping up to be a battle for Congo's disabled population. And in the dusty quadrants of Mugunga, it is a battle that will be difficult for the weary to wage. "I have fled home twice because of fighting," says Maria, extending a slender arm to reassure her granddaughter. "I am tired of all this. I just need a place to live and the means to survive."