Marco Werman: I'm Marco Werman. This is The World, a co-production of the BBC World Service, PRI, and WGBH-Boston. If I were to say the United States pays close attention to the nation of Yemen, you'd understand that to mean the US government. As for the rest of us, well, many of you know that Yemen is a country in the Middle East, and that it's been home to al-Qaeda affiliates. And the US has periodically launched drone strikes against those militants, killing some but also killing bystanders. So Yemen is a country that's fraught with tension and not exactly stable. Journalist Iona Craig has been covering Yemen for three years. By her assessment she is the longest-standing Western journalist in Yemen. Iona, you've been there for three years. That's not that long. So is that testimony to how hard most journalists find Yemen to be as a place to grasp and explain?
Iona Craig: Yes, I think so, although journalists aren't the only one. Diplomats don't tend to stay around in Sana'a much longer either. There's actually been four British ambassadors since I've been working in Yemen, and the American ambassador is just leaving after three years there. So people don't tend to stay around that long, and yes, it's a very complex country which is kind of what makes it fascinating, certainly as a journalist, to work there. Even after three years, you know you're still learning.
Werman: Tell us why you're there and what is it about Yemen that you really want to explain to the world.
Craig: I think it's the fact that everybody sees it through the prism of al-Qaeda, and actually that’s one of, for Yemenis certainly anyway, one of the least of their problems on a day-to-day basis. Even the best estimates of Al Qaeda members put them in the low thousands really, and there’s 25 million people in Yemen who have been largely neglected by the central government for decades, who are struggling on a day-to-day basis just to survive. You've got ten million people out of that 25 million population who don't have enough food to eat. Most people don't have fresh water supply, even electricity on a regular basis, and so really it's about the daily struggle for the vast majority of Yemenis that really gets missed amongst this whole story, obviously, that the West is really focused on about al-Qaeda. You've got a military that's in flux, that's being really kind of restructured at the moment under the new president, which obviously causes an internal power struggle. Added to that there's tribal problems, you've got electricity power lines being attacked, you've got oil pipelines being attacked, and this is completely separate to the issue of al-Qaeda, which really is at the lower end of the scale of problems for Yemen on a day-to-day basis.
Werman: Tell me a story about someone you know in Yemen that explains their own situation and why Yemen touches you.
Craig: I remember visiting a village in western Yemen in the region called the Tihamah that runs along the Red Sea and going to a very small village there where I met all the women who had their children there, and the children who were visibly malnourished. All of those families had had to stop farming because they couldn't afford the fuel to pump the water to irrigate their smallholdings to then be able to grow crops. So as a result of that they'd had to sell off all their animals, and they were relying on the income of one person out of that very large family who was a teacher to provide enough income for them to feed more than a dozen children. In fact, I think it was nearer twenty-odd children all together. That's the kind of indication of how desperate people become. And when you've got, as we have in Yemen at the moment, a lot of politics in Sana'a going on, we've got a national dialogue conference, we've got this whole transition process as a result of the Arab Spring. For most people, that has no bearing on their day to day lives. They're just struggling to get by.
Werman: Is for you the big story in Yemen what's happening outside of Sana'a then?
Craig: I think it is a lot. Of course, it all comes back to the power base, because the reason we have all these security issues, again, not related to al-Qaeda, but all these other non-state actors who are fighting each other or carrying out violence, this all comes back to what's going on in Sana'a. So yes, the older leaders that have been existing in Sana'a for a long time, they are still the main players and it all goes back to the capital city. The vast majority of the population in Yemen, it's a rural population. Sana'a, the capital city, is two million people in a country of 25 million. So it's not representative of the whole country in any way, and I think it can be quite deceiving even as a journalist to sit in Sana'a and think you have a good idea of what's going on all around the country, and then be able to say that you've got a good idea of what's going on, because I don't think you can.
Werman: Iona, you're speaking with us from London, where you've been doing some work. You're going back to Yemen this weekend. Why do you stay? Why are you going back and why are you going to stay?
Craig: I think it's a combination of things. I love the place, it's become home to me now, really. And I also feel that with this kind of quick rotation often of journalists, same scenario for diplomats, going through the country on a short-term basis, means that a lot of us are just only getting to understand the place and being able to put that across to a wider audience, and then we up sticks and go. So I think for me, certainly for the foreseeable future, I do want to stay. There's some work that I still believe needs to be done and hasn't been done. And I do love it. The people there, despite all the media coverage for al-Qaeda and everything else, the people in Yemen are incredibly friendly and welcoming. I have a lot of good friends there now. I've lived there for three years and I do feel almost an obligation to get the stories out for a lot of people in Yemen who otherwise wouldn’t get their voices heard, I think.
Werman: Journalist Iona Craig, on the Yemen beat. Thanks for telling us about it, Iona.
Craig: Thank you.