As I write this, Dad, you are lying in a hospice bed, in a morphine-induced sleep, your life hanging by a thread. We’ve been told your hours are numbered. Echoing in my head is the conversation I wanted to have before this moment came, but never did, not as directly as I should have. Even before loss of hearing and signs of dementia separated you from the larger world, you were not an emotional person, at least as a father – your love language was “doing,” not words or touch. I am a little the same way, perhaps as a result, and so the words in my head are still there.
I would give almost anything if I could have been with you that night when you were in the hospital but still lucid, and my sister sang in your ear, and you sang back. But I was hundreds of miles away, and so I will write them here. Somehow, I am thinking this letter will find its way to you…
My father and mother at my oldest daughter’s wedding in June.
Dad, I remember so many things you did that made my childhood special, exciting and sometimes endearingly strange.
I remember how you would make every holiday – even the oddball, rarely celebrated ones – an event to be anticipated. We may only have had a very small house, but you could and did turn it into anything you wanted. There were the April Fool’s Day parties, with chocolate-covered ants and bloodied, fake fingers caught in a door. The Halloweens when you transformed our tiny garage into a spook house that scared even me, when I knew you were the hand making the ghost pop out. The Christmases when elaborate clues lured me to the spot where my present was hidden. And the birthday parties where you turned our back yard or den into a miniature golf course.
I remember the often intricately detailed cards you made mom for every birthday and anniversary. We saved them, as you know, and I loved sifting through them years later, tracing the history of our family in the whimsical illustrations. I saw another side of you in those cards, and I looked for that kind of romance in the men I would later meet (often with disastrous results, I’m afraid).
I remember how cool it was to have a dad who was so artistically talented that you could help me put that “extra touch” on my extracurricular school projects. I never progressed beyond stick figures myself, and you had a flair to which I aspired.
I remember my brush with “fame” through your work as an animation artist (in the days when it was all by hand) — — giving me my first glimpse into the world of commercials and movies. When you introduced me to the woman who played the Wicked Witch of the West in the Wizard of Oz, I literally quaked in my shoes. (And then there were those times when you were “famous” yourself — when callers would confuse you for the Bill Bailey who was an FBI agent, or thought it was funny that you had the same name as the “star” of the song, “Won’t You Come Home, Bill Bailey.”)
I remember the strange, funny turns your artistic pursuits sometimes took – what I now call my “weird parent stories.” Because you shared a fascination with bugs with mom, you turned cicada skin (once shed) into earrings by spray-painting them gold (and she actually wore them! Now that’s love…)
I remember your amazing ability to remember obscure facts about just about everything, making you a stand-out at trivia games. Oh what a killing you would have made as a contestant on your favorite game show, Jeopardy!
I remember the camping trips, three weeks long, starting when I was 3 years old. You and mom were serious campers – no cabins for you – and you not only showed me more of the country than most kids (whose parents often returned to the same spots every year), you also taught me an affinity for Mother Nature that I return to as a touchstone even now.
I remember that despite your aloof, gruff exterior, you had something that attracted little kids. I loved to hang onto your foot while you drug me around the floor (the things kids like to do!) and called you “beebaw” – our pet name for you; don’t ask me why. When my own daughter, Shannon, was born and would cry inconsolably for hours, you could calm her with just a jiggle.
I remember that you and mom rarely left us with babysitters (except when you thought my brother could fill that role, and holy hell would break loose while you were gone). You chose instead to spend your spare time with us, even on New Year’s Eve. We made our own confetti, and along with the noise makers and mom’s fancy hors d’oeuvres, it felt like we were in our own Times Square celebration.
I remember the commitment to social justice you shared with mom, spending so many of your free hours in your church’s emergency shelter for the homeless, serving meals. When I am asked where my passion for activism comes from, I say it started with my parents.
I remember what made you the model for what I wanted to be in my “golden years.” Yes, you doted on your grandchildren, but you led lives as active as when you worked — traveling to locales as far-flung as Costa Rica and Japan. My wanderlust and thirst for adventure also started with my parents.
I remember the songs you sang to my sister and me at night to lull us to sleep – eclectic songs from your childhood as well as your college days, ranging from Little Sir Echo to my favorite, Cool Water. You had a beautiful voice, and the songs stick with me to this day. Unfortunately, I can barely carry a tune.
There’s a line in that song, Cool Water, that goes like this:
Dan, can’t you see that big green tree where the waters runnin’ free
and it’s waiting there for me and you.
Water, cool water.
You told my sister that you knew your time was up, and that you weren’t afraid. I will imagine that you have gone on to where the waters are free and cool.
During our visit to Yemen, three of us from the Codepink delegation flew to the southern coast, where many of the 138-231 U.S. drone and other covert attacks have hit since 2002. The families we wanted to interview live in the neighboring governorate of Abyan, a “gathering point” for Al Qaeda and other religious extremists. In a famous “hadith” [saying], Prophet Muhammad said, “An army of 12,000 will come out of Aden-Abyan. They will give victory to Allah and His messenger; they are the best between myself and them." Reportedly, it is this “army” from Abyan who will eventually free Jerusalem.
Most of our advisors warned us it was not safe for foreigners to venture into Abyan at this time, so we heeded their guidance and we made our headquarters in Aden, whose port lies in the crater of a dormant volcano. The families traveled to us, eager for any chance to tell their stories to a world they feel has abandoned them (both the central government to the north that is supposed to represent them and the countries that target them for their own aims – primarily the United States).
The tales we heard were heartbreaking. They also illustrate that the “truth” is not always black and white, and right vs. wrong can’t be easily summed up in a soundbite.
Consider the story told by Ahmed Abdullah Awadh:
It was 9 in the morning on Tuesday, May 15, 2012. Ahmed was at home with his 26-year-old son, Majed, in the small village of Ja’ar. Suddenly, they heard a loud explosion. The house of his neighbor, a man Ahmed described as a “nice, ordinary taxi driver,” was hit. Everyone in the largely residential neighborhood, including Ahmed and Majed, ran to see what happened and help rescue anyone who was hurt.
Awadh (right) gesticulates as he tells the story of the explosion, with his son Sabr by his side.
The 33-year-old taxi driver was dead; fortunately, the rest of his family had not been at home. Fifteen minutes later, as neighbors were still sorting through the rubble, there was a second strike in the same spot. This time, with almost the entire neighborhood concentrated in one location, the entire block was reduced to rubble, about 20 residents were injured and another 14-26 died – including his son, Majed. According to The Bureau of Investigative Journalism, 99-285 Yemeni civilians have been killed by covert U.S. military actions, including as many as 69 in 2013 alone.
Specifics are hard to come by when seeking the truth about covert attacks conducted by the United States, the Yemini military or – as is often the case – a collaboration of the two. Who did it, using what kind of weaponry, how many were killed and whether or not they were involved in militant groups are frequently subjects of speculation. Secrecy is the name of the game, and no one warns the families who live in targeted towns or offers explanations afterwards.
Likewise, there are no official local or international agencies that keep records. The only current central source of this information is the website of The Bureau for Investigative Journalism, which logs each report of a confirmed or possible U.S. drone strike or other covert attack and includes links to often conflicting media coverage. In the May 15 attack on Ja’ar, the strike could have come from a jet fighter, based on the varying descriptions of what the villagers saw and heard, or from a drone, as suggested by the types of injuries. Which of the two countries actually dropped the missiles is uncertain as well, but it is generally accepted that if it was the Yemeni government, the United States was “in the know” or actively complicit.
“Majed was burned over 50 percent of his body,” recalled Awadh through an interpreter. “But there is only an emergency clinic in Ja’ar, and they said he was too seriously injured to be treated there. The nearest hospital is in Aden, and the main road was closed. It took four hours to get there. I held him in my arms while we were driving, and he kept bleeding. On the third day in the hospital, at 2:30 a.m., Majed’s heart stopped and he died.”
A son’s death is tragic in any circumstances, but for Awadh’s family, it had many ripple effects. Although Majed had graduated from high school, good jobs are available only to those who can afford to pay bribes. Still, he worked as a street seller of mobile phone accessories, and was a vital contributor to the family income. While some funds have been channeled to the community to help rebuild the homes, there is no compensation for the loss of productive family members.
(Of course, money can’t stand in for the death of a son, husband and father. Majed had just gotten married three months before the attack, and his wife was pregnant. Majed’s daughter, Huda, was born six months after her father’s death.)
Awadh and his fellow villagers, several of whom joined us at our hotel in Aden for the interview, insist the hapless taxi driver was no militant. However, they knew there were members of Ansar al-Sharia, a group loosely affiliated with Al Qaeda, living in the mountains around the community, often visiting the local market for food and supplies. And, he and the others said, they could easily have been captured if the political will was there.
Ansar al-Sharia effectively controlled Ja’ar from March 2011-June 2012, when they were driven out by a combination of government forces and the locally run militia. Many Yemenis believe former President Abdullah Ali Saleh – a U.S. ally until he was finally driven from office in 2012 by the popular revolution — set up the “occupation” of Ja’ar by ordering his forces to leave the area un-policed. Saleh was a master at alternating provoked violence and unrest with crack-downs to win more military money from allies such as the United States, which shapes its foreign policy almost totally through a counter-terrorism prism. Villagers’ perception of the actual individuals who are the face of AQAP/Ansar al Sharia varies. Some hate their extreme religious ideology and the violence they bring to their village – both their own and the air attacks they attract. Others see them as practical problem solvers who get things done in the absence of an effective, efficient government. Iona Craig, who writes for the London Times in Yemen, described to us her conversations with many villagers, who told her, for example, that when the group came in, land disputes that had festered for years were settled quickly and fairly.
That’s an important observation to remember when people even within Yemen, such as Nasser Arrabye (a translater for Jeremy Scahill, author of “Dirty Wars”), label everyone in a particular town as an Al Qaida “supporter.” When you’re trying to survive on the lower levels of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, you do what you have to do. That same hard truth applies to many of the individuals who join AQAP or Ansar al-Sharia. As Awadh told us, “Those groups target unemployed youth. They give them money and weapons that make them feel important.” Abdurahman Barman from the human rights organization HOOD adds, “One Tomahawk cruise missile costs almost $2 million, and I assume even more is spent to launch it. If the U.S. dedicated just 10 percent of this money on education and employment, most of these kids would not become terrorists in the first place.”
Still, regardless of the presence of the rebel groups, both eyewitness and media reports agree that none of the killed and injured in the May 15 Ja’ar attack were fighters. Then there is the matter of the “double tap” strike – a common practice in which a target is hit twice, in close succession.
As in the case of Majed, 8-year-old Wafa, daughter of Mohammed Ahmed Baggash, was killed in a second strike. A mechanical engineer also living in Ja’ar, he had taken his daughter and one of his sons to the market to get groceries at about 10:30 a.m. on Wed., Sept. 7, 2011. Just as they arrived, a strike hit the town’s emergency clinic. Although they didn’t know it until the hit, Ansar al-Sharia had been using a storage area of the clinic to house a cache of weapons and food. Eight to 10 members of the group were killed. Baggash and his children ran to the local school to hide in the basement, afraid there might be another strike. Huddling on the floor, they tried to protect Wafa by sandwiching her between them. Sure enough, a second hit came, this time right in front of the school. Sabr, the son, suffered a wound in his leg, and Ahmed’s back was injured. And Wafa? She was lying in her brother’s lap, the back of her head a mass of blood and matted hair. She died on the way to the hospital in Aden.
“Whenever we gather for a meal, my wife says someone is missing,” says Baggash sadly. “We rent in the village now, because we hated staying in our house after that. Sabr had nightmares for six to eight months, and all of the kids in the community are terrified whenever they see or hear a plane.”
The rationale for these “second strikes” is reportedly exactly what it seems – to “mop up” additional militants, who come out to rescue their injured and claim their dead. Glenn Greenwald observed in a Salon article last year, “I ask this sincerely: What kind of country targets rescuers, funeral attendees and people gathered to mourn? If a Hollywood film featured a villainous king ordering lethal attacks on rescuers, funerals and mourners — those medically attending to or grieving his initial victims — any decent audience member would, by design, seethe with contempt for such an inhumane tyrant. But this is the standard policy and practice under President Obama and it continues through today.”
Yemeni lawyer Haykal Bafana told NPR, “The people who the Americans are terming as collateral damage, they are the poorest of the poor in Yemen. There is, as far as I know, no attempt by the Americans to go in and do a proper battlefield damage assessment.”
Bafana says that at the very least, Yemeni or American officials could investigate civilian deaths, acknowledge mistakes were made and perhaps offer compensation. Or, even better, help build hospitals and schools, so local residents aren’t encouraged to join the militants.
Of course, the Yemeni government is complicit in the use of drones and other methods of extra-judicial killings. Abdul-Ghani Al Iryani, a political analyst and a founder of Tawqq, the Democratic Awakening Movement, explained to us that sometimes the strikes are initiated by the United States and the Yemeni government provides a “cover” by accepting a fax request for approval after the fact. Other times, it works the other way around, with the U.S. agreeing to target individuals identified by figures in the Yemeni government as enemies. One story that has become infamous within Yemen is that of Jabr al-Shabwani, deputy governor of the Marib governorate. According to Iryani and others, there was a commercial dispute between al-Shabwani and a military general who also was the head of the national security bureau. The general wanted to get rid of him, but had extended his “protection” to the head of al-Shabwani’s tribe. What to do? A U.S. drone strike! Members of al-Shabwani’s tribe responded to his killing by attacking the pipeline that carries oil from Marib to Ras Isa, a terminal on the Red Sea coast – causing a massive power outage and the suffering of many. A Yemeni official was quoted in June 2011 as attributing $1 billion in lost revenue to the pipeline blast.
Transitional president Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi has given blanket approval to U.S. covert actions in the fight against Al Qaeda. Nadia Al-Sakkaf — editor of the largest English-language newspaper in the country, the Yemen Times, and the only woman on the nine-member committee charged with managing the National Dialogue Conference – explained it to us this way: “Hadi is in a tight position. He is supposed to run the country and guide it into an uncertain future. But the Army was divided and until very recently, he only commanded 30 percent of it. He can’t even live safely in the presidential compound. His intelligence says there are10 terrorists in Sana’a right now with the mission of assassinating him. So, he feels very insecure; he doesn’t have a tribe like (former president) Saleh did to protect him. When the U.S. says it will take care of things for him, with drones, he doesn’t know of any other way.”
For the good of the country (and the global community), however, an alternative must be found. “In the fight against Al Qaeda and the extremism it represents, we can do it the easy way (by killing), and thus have to do it again and again, or the hard way and really solve the problem,” said Iryani. “To truly fight Al Qaeda, we must deal with the root causes of its growth – poverty, injustice, lack of rule of law, hunger…and drone strikes.”
A case in point: What happened to Al Qaeda after it was driven out of Ja’ar? Some members were dead, obviously, but others simply moved a bit north to Shabwah or traveled to Syria to fight Bashar Assad. In other words, the attacks shuffled the problem around rather than eliminating it.
Amidst the gloom is a ray of hope: Bara’a Shiban, Yemen’s project coordinator for UK-based Reprieve, has worked hard to build broad-based support within the National Dialogue Conference (NDC) for a resolution banning extra-judicial killings, including the use of drones. To date, it has been adopted by more than 90 percent of members of two sub-committees, and is on its way to debate by the entire 565-member conference. If passed – and everyone we talked to thinks it has a good chance of being adopted – its implementation will be mandatory by the country’s new government that will follow the completion of the NDC’s work.
Now, that’s what democracy looks like!
A brave “uncovered” woman speaks at the National Dialogue Conference, convened to create a “New Yemen.”
Awda is 12 years old and has never seen her father. Her mother was pregnant in 2001 when her father, Abdulrahman Al Shubati, traveled to Pakistan to earn extra money as a teacher of the Qur’an. However, he suddenly disappeared without a trace and her mother gave birth alone. It wasn’t until a year later that mother and daughter learned what had happened to him: a caller from the Red Cross announced that Abdulrahman had been imprisoned in Guantanamo. In Arabic, the little girl’s name means “come back.”
Medea Benjamin, co-founder of Codepink, comforts Awda as she breaks into tears while telling the story of her father (pictured on the banner she is carrying).
* * *
Qaid’s cousin, Abdulhakim Ghalib Alhaq, was just 17 in 2001 when he left Yemen for Pakistan to study Islam. Two months later, he disappeared. When his family learned that the teenager was in Guantanamo, his parents’ health deteriorated. “When we are permitted phone calls,” says Qaid, “our news is mostly about deaths – first his father, then his mother and grandmother. He is losing everything familiar to him while he is behind bars.”
* * *
Ameena’s brother, Salman Yehia Al-Rabiee, journeyed to Afghanistan when he finished high school to look for his brother, Fawaz, who had gone to the region in search of work. Then Salman disappeared as well. From TV, they discovered Salman was in Guantanamo. Fawaz had been jailed as a suspected member of Al Qaeda and his entire family paid the price. After Salman was detained, his father and brother were imprisoned as well (in Yemen), and Ameena’s husband divorced her, afraid of guilt by association. “We have lost all of the men in our family,” she says.
Ameena holds a letter from her brother, written more than five years ago, saying he would be coming home soon.
* * *
These are just three of the stories our Codepink delegation heard from families of the estimated 82 Yemenis still held in Guantanamo – the largest national segment in the prison operated by the United States to keep “War on Terror” suspects behind bars without charge or trial. The stories have an eerie sameness – men who suddenly disappear off the streets, frequently while traveling in targeted countries, with no explanation to the victims or the families who are left behind, waiting in confusion and desperation for their sons, fathers and husbands. They learned of their loved ones’ fate only from a TV report or a phone call from the Red Cross, many months later.
Twelve years on, the men are still behind bars, despite the fact that 56 have been cleared for release since 2008. For about 20 of those 56 (including Abdulrahman Al Shubati and Abdulhakim Ghalib Alhaq), the U.S. government has basically admitted it has absolutely no evidence against them at all. For the rest, either the evidence can only be described as reaching the level of “suspicion” or the individuals are generally acknowledged as being very small potatoes.
“This was done by your government, a major superpower,” admonished Ali Mohammed Aziz, whose brother-in-law was seized in Pakistan at the age of 17. “It’s not a gang or a criminal. I thought the United States was all about democracy and the rule of law. Instead, what you’re teaching us is the law of the jungle.”
Ali Mohammed Aziz, holding a picture of his brother-in-law when he was 17.
Most of the Yemenis are among the 100-plus Guantanamo detainees who have been on hunger strike for more than 200 days (with some being force-fed, widely regarded as a form of torture), protesting in the only way they can their indefinite confinement without trial or sentencing. The international media coverage and attention from human-rights agencies spurred President Barack Obama to re-affirm his neglected election-year promise to close the prison, as well as to lift the moratorium on releasing detainees from Yemen imposed since Christmas Day 2009.
Transfer of the cleared Yemeni prisoners had been just about to begin when Nigerian underwear bomber Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab attempted to blow up a Detroit-bound airliner. The Nigerian had been trained in Yemen, and the administration ruled the Yemeni government too unstable and unreliable to assure that the returning prisoners would not retaliate with terrorist acts once home.
On May 23, however, Obama agreed to lift the moratorium – if the new, transitional Yemeni government initiates and will vouch for a “rehabilitation” program for returning inmates, similar to the program operated by Saudi Arabia.
We met with Yemen’s popular Human Rights Minister Hooria Mashour to discuss this issue and others. She earned respect during the revolution for leaving her post in Ali Abdullah Saleh’s government to join the people in the street, and has continued her reputation for being willing to “speak truth to power” to her bosses in government, including transitional President Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi.
I interview Hooria Mashour.
On June 2, she announced a two-day hunger strike to protest her employer’s refusal to release all of the youth imprisoned during the revolution. When Yemen youth were camping in “Change Squares” throughout the country, Saleh gave his security apparatus a green light to conduct mass arrests. As a peace offering, Hadi’s newly formed coalition government promised to release all political prisoners. Many were, but many more were not — including some who have simply “disappeared.”
“I had tried to get a meeting with Hadi many times before on this issue, with no luck,” Mashour laughed. “But when I started my hunger strike, he came and met me for more than an hour, and issued an order to release 19 of the prisoners.” Seventeen of them eventually were, with two continuing to be retained by a special court. An estimated 41 more remain behind bars, however, and the fight continues.
The Guantanamo detainees are another of Mashour’s priorities. When we met, the government had just signed a decree defining and authorizing the creation of a rehabilitation program that could receive them, meeting Obama’s condition. She is consulting with a delegation from Saudi Arabia on its own such program, which the United States considers a model. About 120 Guantanamo detainees have “graduated” from Saudi Arabia’s program, the core of which is to return “extremists” to “true Islam.” The program, for example, teaches participants they can only wage jihad with government approval — specifically the head or ruler of state — and not through a fatwa issued by an ideologue. Counseling and evaluation follows religious instruction. Determining whether participants are ready for release is the responsibility of the Saudi Ministry of Interior and its security forces. A condition of release is agreement to be monitored under a system similar to parole or probation.
I have to pause here and express a deep ambivalence about this program and others like it. On the one hand, it allows them to come home, offers participants psychological counseling and supports them upon release with employment and housing. On the other, there are aspects that are a bit creepy. My uneasiness begins with the fact that in Saudi Arabia, it is run by the government’s “Ideological Security Directorate.” It continues with the fact that in the case of Guantanamo, many of the detainees were simply in the wrong place at the wrong time; if they need rehabilitation, it is only because of the torture and other trauma inflicted upon them by their jailers. Saudi Arabia reports that 20 percent of graduates who are former Guantanamo detainees broke the rules upon release – including 11 who reportedly went to Yemen to join AQAP. But even then, Abdulrahman al Hadlaq, who is in charge of Saudi Arabia’s program, attributed this outcome in part to the treatment they received in Guantanamo. “Torture is the most dangerous thing because in the end you will be having something called ‘revenge’,” al Hadlaq told The National. In Yemen, 22 Guantanamo detainees had been released to their home country before Obama imposed the moratorium, and only two were known to have associated with terrorist activities.
“I must be personally involved (in the creation of the rehabilitation program) to make sure the returning detainees are not simply imprisoned,” Mashour told us. “They need vocational training, for example, and medical care. Some of them will come back very sick.”
Funding for the program still must be secured, however. (My question is why hasn’t the United States committed to providing the funding? After all, our government has admitted it doesn’t have enough evidence to prove their guilt, and they already have lost 12 years of their lives.) In addition, it will take time to identify and prepare a proper facility. How long that will require she doesn’t know – perhaps five or six months.
“But someone could die by then,” Medea Benjamin responded in shock. What will happen to the hunger strikers?
A month ago, Awda and her family traveled seven hours to Sana’a to see her father for the first time via video link. But she went home disappointed. Her hunger-striking father was so weak he was unable to talk.
Postscript: Just as I was publishing this post, we received an email from Hooria Mahsour informing us that the life of another Guantanamo prisoner, Abd al-Salam al-Hilah, is in danger due to his prolonged hunger strike. We had just had lunch with his brother.
Abd al-Salam Al-Hilah
There are three ways to deal with your enemies: ignore them, kill them or engage them in dialogue to seek a mutually beneficial arrangement for living together.
We all know that ignoring them doesn’t work. So, most countries these days – including the post-9/11 United States — has chosen to try to kill them. There are a couple of problems with that strategy, however. It violates the principle of due process so dear to Western democracies. It leaves collateral damage in its wake, injuring and killing innocents no matter how “clean” drones and other technologies are billed. The Stanford University report, Living Under Drones, found that the number of “high-level” militants killed as a percentage of total casualties is extremely low – estimated at just 2% of deaths. And, in the long term, the strategy simply doesn’t work. Kill one militant and another will take his place, as the root causes of rebellion continue to simmer. In fact, although it is an issue of some dispute, many observers believe that drone strikes actually serve as a recruitment tool for non-state armed groups, motivating further violent attacks.
That leaves the “third way” of neutralizing enemies – engagement. When the rebels are an organized, entrenched group of a country’s own citizens, rather than an external “spoiler,” I’d argue that dialogue is the only hope of a long-term solution. And I am in good company. My Codepink delegation met today with Abdurahman Barman, head of HOOD, the most prominent human-rights-focused non-profit in Yemen, and heard some surprising news: About four months ago, Barman and his team arranged a meeting between members of the transitional Yemeni government and Naser al-Wuhayshi, the leader of AQAP (Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula) – public enemy No. 1, at least on the United States’ list. [The staff at the Yemen Polling Center painted quite a different picture of concerns at the local level. Although no one they interviewed in their Dec. 2012 security survey condoned AQAP, few considered the shadowy network to be a serious threat to their daily lives. In fact, some wondered if the organization was even real. Rather, they worried most about revenge killings among tribes, such as between the Islah (Islamic) party and the Houthis (northern Shias) and Southern secessionist movement.]
Despite some opposition from his deputy, Barman reported, Al-Wuhayshi is tired of fighting. His followers want jobs, and Al-Wuhayshi expressed a desire to participate in the “National Dialogue” now underway. In return for stopping all AQAP operations, he asked that the government release prisoners from his group, stop sanctioning U.S. drone strikes and close all commercial banks. (Usury is banned by Islam; however, that demand would likely have been dropped, Barman said.) Was the offer real? Barman thinks so. At the very least, it seems like an opening that was worthy of exploring. The only hope Yemen has of a peaceful transition to a new government that actually represents and serves all of its constituents is to get each of the stakeholders to the table. However, the meeting was suddenly cancelled, and Barman said he was told the decision makers weren’t Yemeni, but American and Saudi.
“Dialogue is the only way Yemen can build a better future,” Barman told us. “But the United States is playing the lead in the transition process. Our own leaders are afraid to upset the U.S. I didn’t believe it before, but now I’m a firm believer: The U.S. does not want to eliminate terrorism and the AQAP completely. It wants to keep it going to some degree so it can retain a presence in the region.” (I actually believe the same about Hamas; it serves a useful purpose for Israel by being the “bogeyman” upon which a lack of peace can be blamed.)
Far-out conspiracy theory? Maybe. But Barman isn’t the only one who believes that the United States and other international players are trying to call the shots during Yemen’s “National Dialogue.” We’ve heard more than once that the real powerbrokers behind the scenes are the United States and Saudi Arabia vs. Russia and Iran.
“The absence of a strong, independent state allows external actors to have their way,” agrees Abdulhadi, a spokesman for the Organizing Committee of the Revolution, the group that served as the coordinating body for the 2011 popular uprising against former President Saleh. “Creation of the National Dialogue was one of our demands (after Saleh’s ouster). But to work it has to be inclusive. We need everyone at the table – including the tribes and AQAP.”
Abdulhadi (middle) and his Organizing Committee colleagues.
Abdulhadi and his peers on the committee (about 20, in addition to a number of subgroups) remain tentatively hopeful that real, positive change can still result. However, they are quick to lament the slow implementation, with the economy and security situation worsening every day and promises such as the release of political prisoners still unmet.
“We’re watching the situation very closely,” he said. “We welcome help from the outside, but the United Nations and the United States seem to care only about stability – even if it’s unjust. We may need to go to the streets again. “
Jodie Evans, co-founder of Codepink and one of the organizers of Occupy Wall Street, expressed the sentiments of the delegation when she commisserated: “None of our demands have been met either. In fact, it’s worse. As citizens of the world, we are all upset with our governments. But it seems that here in Yemen, and in the United States, it’s still the same players reshuffling the deck. The question is, do we need to stop out of the old structure all together?”
I think the answer is yes.
Jodie Evans flanked by our two Yemeni “guides,” Luai (left) and Osama.
As I while away the time in the Cairo airport — one leg away from my final destination, Sana’a — I am trolling news reports related to Yemen. And as occurred when I traveled home from Gaza after one of the repeated Israeli attacks, the manipulation of language and the selective use of facts is evident, informed by the research I’ve conducted as I prepared for this delegation. (I shudder to think how misinformed I am on the wide variety of topics I have not researched or with which I have no personal experience.)
A case in point: The Washington Post carried an Associated Press report datelined June 9, headlined “7 killed in Shiite protest in Yemen capital; drone strike in south kills 6 al-Qaida militants.”
The AP story contained two phrases that subtly frame readers’ perceptions:
“The violent protest and al-Qaida’s presence throughout parts of Yemen revealed how nearly a year and a half after a new government took office, the impoverished Arab country is still struggling for stability.”
The operative phrase here is “still struggling for stability” – as if peace and serenity should have been achieved a long time ago, little more than a year after the hastily called post-revolution election that ended the 33-year “rein” of Ali Abudullah Saleh. In my last blog post, I quoted from Sarah Phillips’ thoughtful book, Yemen and the Politics of Permanent Crisis. To repeat: “In most conversations about appropriate strategies for Western donors (or other intervention) in Yemen…..there is usually a security imperative – the need to quickly stabilize an area that is vulnerable to violence or militancy. ..(But) what Yemen needs – and has long needed – more than ‘stability’ is change.”
Real change — especially after the disruption of a dynasty as virulent and long-lasting as Saleh’s (about the same length as Hosni Mubarak’s rule, and Egypt is still roiling) — is usually not quick and it’s always painful.
As in Egypt, youth in Yemen were are the forefront of the protests that drove their corrupt, exclusionary leader from power, but once the movement built steam, the political parties (particularly the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and Islah, its Islamic equivalent, in Yemen) jumped on board. The entry of the parties both helped and hurt; they added needed numbers, organization and legitimacy, but brought with them elements of the status quo. After all, both parties had learned to operate within the ruling regime. In Yemen, there was a rush to new presidential elections, driven in part by the United States and the West (we seem to be so intent on bringing our brand of democracy to the people that we fail to ask what is most important to them). What that meant both in Yemen and in Egypt is that the youthful, emergent voices of resistance had no opportunity to mature into organized opposition forces of their own that could field competition. The result: Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi, vice president under Saleh, was the only candidate on the ballot and is now president. How could that be expected to yield significant change?
In a series of reports from the nonprofit Saferworld called “People’s Peacemaking Perspectives,” the authors observe: “While participants (in our research) feel that the length of the protests, the longest-running in the Arab world, allowed the international community to better understand their grievances, youth expressed frustration at how the aftermath has been portrayed as a ‘political crisis.’ ‘Do they admit to themselves that what is happening is actually a very big change?’ wondered a young man in Taiz (southwestern Yemen).”
Phillips puts it more directly: “A lasting solution to security threats requires fundamental change rather than near-constant crisis suppression and stabilization…The 2011 uprisings across the region appear to testify against the notion that short-term security can be purchased at the expense of a state’s longer-term development and self-determination.”
So…how about skipping the judgmental language and directly acknowledging that re-shaping a country is long and messy? And while we’re at it, it might be a good idea to stop rewarding Yemeni leaders for focusing virtually all of their attention on our definition of “stability,” at the expense of the hard work of internal development that will pull the people out of poverty and make terrorist movements less attractive.
“A Yemeni security official said two missiles from the U.S. drone were fired at two cars carrying the militants in the al-Mahashma area in al-Jawf, a militant hotbed.”
The problematic phrase in this quote is “a militant hotbed.” That may indeed be true; this area in northwest Yemen is a center of the conflict with the Houthis (a rebel Shia group) and is where a U.S. drone strike killed the American-born activist Anwar al-Awlaki (who did indeed actively preach jihad against the West, but was never charged and a capture was not attempted). In my book, using phrases like “militant hotbed” as shorthand in news stories encourages a collective ignorance of the many other residents who are just trying to eke out a living, and are caught in the crosshairs. (Al Jawf Governate had a population of 532,000 as of 2011.)
In addition to the psychological toll of living under drone surveillance and a constant threat of attack, “collateral damage” is almost always a consequence of this so-called precise technology. The Bureau of Investigative Journalism reports: “This strike took place in a populated area according to Mareb Press, and eyewitnesses reported hearing huge explosions as a drone fired five missiles on a vehicle. Local resident AbdulSalam Abdullah told CNN: ‘Any of our children could have easily been killed by a shrapnel if they were in the wrong place during the attack… The suspects were on a vehicle and the attack could have easily happened far from homes and civilian presence.’ Local reporter Nasser Arrabyee tweeted that Huraydan had died alongside two relatives, including his 10-year-old brother.”
Is it too much to ask to pay as much attention to the bystanders damaged by our interventions as we do the intended targets?
I’ll end with these words from an Emma’s Revolution song that feel universal in their sentiment:
I need some change I can believe in
I need some change that I can feel
I won’t give up, I won’t give in
I need some change … that’s real
I need some peace, don’t want the killing
I need some power to build my future
I need some hope to keep me going
I need some justice, I’m tired of waiting
I need some hope … that’s real
I need some power … that’s real
I need some peace … that’s real
I need some change … that’s real