How one woman stumbled into a violent uprising in Yemen

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Marco Werman:  I'm Marco Werman with The World.  We're a co-production of the BBC World Service, PRI, and WGBH here in Boston.  I'm going to take you back now three years.  It's 2011.  Tunisians have just run their longtime president out of the country.  In Egypt, crowds at Tahrir Square forced Hosni Mubarak to step down.  And in Yemen, huge crowds of young people have been camping out in the capital city, Sana'a.  They want longtime ruler Ali Abdullah Saleh to leave office.  Now, if you were listening to The World on March 18th that year, you would have heard this.

 

Laura Kasinof:  Today, at the height of the violence, there is blood everywhere.  There were over one hundred people shot today.  I just kept hearing the word "massacre, massacre" used over and over again, and the doctors were trying to treat the people as quickly and as efficiently as possible.

 

Werman:  That's New York Times reporter Laura Kasinof.  Laura, you were just twenty-five years old when you spoke with us then in the middle of that bloodbath.  What was it like that day?

 

Kasinof:  That day was certainly the worst day.  The violence that day was so concentrated in a few blocks and over a very short period of time.  It also was the first time that I and the Yemenis at the protests at Change Square in Sana'a and the other freelance journalists who were with me... It was the first time we saw violence like that and that sort of gore and that sort of killing.  It's something that sticks with you and causes anger inside of you, just to witness something like that for the first time.

 

Werman:  Yeah, you almost got shot.  You saw some really ugly stuff at the field hospitals that were set up.  I would guess that's not what you were expecting when you went to Yemen as a freelance reporter.

 

Kasinof:  That's absolutely correct.  When I first traveled to Yemen in 2009 to start this career as a freelance journalist, the country at that time -- for Yemen -- was relatively peaceful.  The capital and other major cities were certainly peaceful, though there were conflicts outside of the capital and the countryside every one in a while with the government.  I didn't go there to be a war correspondent.  I didn't go there to cover conflict.  So, when the protests started as part of the Arab Spring in 2011, I just was swept up in the whole thing.

 

Werman:  It feels like -- reading through your memoir at that time -- that you, for one reason you another, embraced what you had to do.

 

Kasinof:  It's a combination of things because, on one hand, it's such a good career opportunity.  Honestly.  If I didn't say that, I would be lying to myself.  Of course it's a great career opportunity.  I have a chance to write for the New York Times.  The Yemeni government was not letting in staff reporters at this time, so it was just left up to a handful of young freelance journalists in the country to cover what was happening in Yemen during those early days of protest.  But, also, it was a chance to write about Yemen in a story that was full of hope at that time, because these Yemenis were coming out to the streets out of a desire to have a better future for themselves.  So, typically, when I wrote about Yemen it only was in the context of Al Qaeda or terrorism that editors would be interested in the story.  It was great to be part of this new story for Yemen.  I felt like I was being a part of history.  You can't say no to that.  And then, as well, it just gets addicting to be a part of that excitement, to have your adrenaline flow like that and to be at the process when these things are happening.

 

Werman:  Tell me what your life was like in Sana'a before the bullets started flying.

 

Kasinof:  Oh, wow.  Life in Sana'a kind of happens at the same pace every single day.  I lived in the Old City of Sana'a, which is one of the oldest cities in the world.  It's a beautiful structure of an ancient walled city of these brown and white brick buildings.  You wake up every day.  I studied Arabic, maybe I did some interviews.  Then I had lunch with friends in a hole-in-the-wall restaurant.  We ate this meat stew called fahsa that's absolutely delicious.  Then we went and chewed khats every day, which is a--

 

Werman:  That's a slightly narcotic leaf and... yeah.

 

Kasinof:  Yes, yes.  The narcotic that is just used in Yemen by, really, the entire population nearly every day.  It's a big process, the khat chew.  You sit for four hours and you talk to people.  It was a great way to learn about Yemen from Yemenis, to sit at these khat chews.  So, it was almost boring in some ways.  It was a very routine life, but, of course, the protest changed all of that.

 

Werman:  If we look at Yemen today in the past month, the current president's hold on power has been threatened not by Al Qaeda, but by another group from the north of Yemen.  Do current events in Yemen today surprise you?

 

Kasinof:  On one hand, yes, and on one hand, no.  It surprises me the ease at which the Houthi rebels -- this group of a Shia militia -- took over the capital Sana'a and is expanding into the rest of the country.  That happened very quickly and that did surprise me.  But the fact that President Hadi's power is threatened is not a surprise at all, because the man was really installed by the international community -- America, the United Nations, other Western nations -- as the president of Yemen through a negotiated agreement that would transfer power from the former president Ali Abdullah Saleh to the current president Hadi.  He had no local base of support and he had no past history of a leadership position, and he really has proven to be a poor president who hasn't really gathered support or gathered a popular base very smartly.  Other groups in Yemen like the Houthis have taken advantage of that power vacuum.

 

Werman:  What are you hearing from your friends in Yemen these days?

 

Kasinof:  People are worried.  People are worried for a number of reasons.  I would say that the biggest reason is that there does seem to be a growing sectarianism in Yemen.  The Houthis, as I said, were Shia.  Many Yemenis are Shia, particularly in northern Yemen where Sana'a is and where I lived, but people are grasping on to either the religious identity or their tribal identity in a way that they didn't do in the past, and it's just because of the conflict.  I think, when conflict comes, people maybe grasp on to their identity more.  I've talked to friends there who are worried about it.  Also, a few weeks ago there was a suicide bombing attack from Al Qaeda in Sana'a in the biggest, busiest square in Sana'a during a rally for the Houthis and it killed many civilians.  That's the first time Al Qaeda has targeted civilians in Yemen.  They've targeted the military but they've never targeted civilians, and that's just a very worrying sign.

 

Werman:  Why do you think you fell in love with Yemen?  Is it fair to say you fell in love?  I kind of get that sense from your book.

 

Kasinof:  Yeah.  Oh yeah, definitely.  It's definitely fair to say.  You know, multiple reasons.  One, I think you see this--  Yemen has been untainted by Western culture to a larger extent than any other country I have been to.  Especially northern Yemen has been quite isolated.  Society goes to this rhythm of an ancient Arab tribal society that is actually quite beautiful, so it was really great to experience that and get to be a part of that.  Also, Yemenis just in general.  Part of their culture is not to take themselves too seriously and have a very happy-go-lucky demeanor and always are looking on the bright side.  It was great to be a part of that culture as well.  They certainly are very quick to be your friends as long as you provide a friendly face in return.

 

Werman:  Laura Kasinof, the author of Don't Be Afraid of the Bullets: An Accidental War Correspondent in Yemen.  Laura, thank you for your time.

 

Kasinof:  Great, thanks so much for having me.

 

Werman:  Laura's book comes out next week, but you can read the first chapter now at pri.org.