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