As Yemen’s huge offensive against al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) rages on, foreign reporters have been deported and blocked from entering the country, and the only two foreign correspondents working on journalist visas left earlier this month. Fighting is taking place across many parts of Yemen since the conflict began last month. Then there are the frequent US drone strikes.
So the usually quiet mornings in the capital of Sana'a have now disappeared. This ancient city rises early for prayer, and usually yawns itself awake for work hours later. The standard sounds — neighborly chatter, muttered prayer, the gush of water from public spouts, all heard from Sana'a's traditional gingerbread houses — are now accompanied by the scream of fighter jets flying overhead.
The sounds of the night have also changed. While evening traffic noise in spring and summer is often accompanied by fireworks and occasional gunfire — signaling the many weddings at this time of year — the shooting now lasts through the night, heard from battles between Yemen's armed forces and AQAP.
With a very public war on AQAP, and the economy in dire need of international support, one would think Yemen would welcome any journalistic coverage of the conflict. Bureaucracy makes it difficult enough for foreign journalists to work in the country, but now Yemen's government has started actively working against journalists.
Adam Baron, a McClatchy reporter, was deported on May 8 because: "He was no longer welcome in the country." Iona Craig, a veteran journalist from the Times of London, left of her own accord after threats against her. Both Baron and Craig had been working in Yemen since the beginning of the revolution in 2011, and were the only two accredited foreign reporters in the country.
Other journalists who have been barred from entering Yemen include Tik Root, a freelance writer, CNN, and a VICE News team. More reporters have had their visas cancelled.
The country is even cracking down on Yemeni journalists. A local Al Jazeera team attempted to cover the events in Azzan, but was taken directly from the airport to a guarded hotel, and then put on the next flight back to Sana'a.
One must wonder — what does Yemen have to hide?
On April 20, Yemen's President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi embarked on all-out war against al Qaeda, and began a series of heavy air strikes against AQAP bases. This move came after years of clashes in the outer provinces, sometimes led by the national army, other times by local tribes and popular committees (organized militias) and in recent years, a barrage of US drone attacks.
"Oh look at the president, he looks so tired," one Yemeni man in the Old City told VICE News, speaking to Hadi's haggard appearance. "He's been trying so hard. America said if he would fight al Qaeda, they would help him. Now look at him."
Hadi has indeed aged in his two-year term as president, but his job hasn't been easy. In the post-revolution transition period the situation in Yemen has gone from bad to worse.
While there are months of calm, al Qaeda has grown in numbers and power, penetrating Sana'a and many of Yemen's outer provinces. Chased from one to another by army offensives and barrages of US drones, the militants simply shave their beards and move to a new area.
After a major breakout from Sana'a's Central Prison on February 13, AQAP rallied their forces and taunted the Yemeni and US governments with a celebratory video. Since then they have gained power in the provinces of Hadramout, Abyan, and Shabwa. The largest government military offensive is in Shabwa, particularly in attempting to take back the city of Azzan.
Abdullah al Laqwar, the editor of Shabwa Press, described the fighting to VICE News. "People called about the situation in Azzan; the majority of the fighting was up till May 15, but the army continues to open fire in the city and on houses."
The simultaneous growth of al Qaeda and the US drones is no coincidence. Often strikes mistake civilians for militants, and even more often, the identifier of the dead is a "suspected militant" — which could mean any male over the age of 18.
In rural Yemen, where AQAP is based, there are few government services, little water, no electricity, and no work. In the honor-based culture and poverty of the rural areas, many young men join al Qaeda to make a living, and to avenge their families.
One six-year old boy, whose civilian father was killed by a drone, was asked by VICE News what he wanted to do when he grows up (for work). He replied simply: "Revenge."
Most Yemenis are tired of al Qaeda, however, and support this offensive, despite the prolonged conflict it might bring. But as Yemeni journalist and activist Farea al Muslimi, whose own village of Wessab was hit by a drone strike, told VICE News: "If US drones get involved, this would be seen as foreign intervention. Many people might stop supporting the war."
As with any war, the conflict is not confined to the battlefield. The kidnappings of foreigners have increased and nearly every international non-governmental organization and UN agency has evacuated their staff due to security concerns.
Frustrated tribes in the rural Mareb province continue to bomb pipelines, leaving citizens throughout the country without power, sometimes for days. In Sana’a, thousands of cars sit in miles-long lines to buy gas at inflated prices.
The economy is in shambles. The government is running out of money, not just to fund the military offensive, but to provide basic resources like water, petrol, and electricity.
Yet life also goes on as normal. AQAP have yet to reach midland and coastal provinces like Taiz, Ibb, and the Tihama. In some ways the Old City of Sana'a also remains unchanged. Yemeni men still go to work and still drink tea at cafes. Children still go to school. Women still dress up on weekends for weddings, donning brightly colored dresses and beautiful makeup, which are only uncovered in the privacy of women-only celebrations.
At one such recent celebration in Hadda, a southern neighborhood of Sana'a, a wedding guest commented on the small number of attendees. Most of the seats in the wedding hall remained empty, with barely 200 women and children in the room. "We invited over 1,000 people! Do you think it's because of the situation?" asked a family member of the bride.
She never heard the answer. Half the women in the room gathered around the bride, ululating and clapping, drowning out the sound of gunfire coming from just streets away.
Photo via Flickr