It was all such a happy event at first, I’d even called it a kind of Arabic Glastonbury – tents filled the streets, stretching for miles in all directions out of the university campus; where the protest had began some 8 weeks ago with just 2 or 3 tents bravely placed by students inspired by the developments in the rest of the Arab world.
Who could have thought that a just a few weeks later the camp would be home for up to a million people including tribesmen from every corner of this dry country.
This is a country of 25 million people and it is said they have around 60 million weapons between them, making it the second most heavily armed country in the world (after the USA of course) – but there are no Rambo’s here amidst the hard faced tribesmen, they had been told that if they want to join this protest it must be without their Kalashnikovs, and most amazingly they have.
I am greeted by a fantastic array of articulate English speaking Yemeni’s, they tell me the way of the gun is the past, that this revolution will prove that they are different.
I really feel something special is happening here, as a westerner who enjoys a drink in the pub as a pastime I have to admit that Yemen was kind of dull after dark for me – and the chewing of Khat doesn’t really hit my spot (unless taken with vodka chasers on the quiet) – but this place has been completely invigorating. Different tribes working together as one alongside people from different political, social, and religious persuasions, all with the one goal of overthrowing this corrupt tired regime headed by a president whose time has (it seems) come to an end after 33 years of lies.
In the camp I sense hope, people tell me they have already declared democracy here in ‘Change Square’. Some Yemeni’s swear they will not leave until the president falls, others are refusing to go back to work until he has gone, just like the university students who are refusing to attend their lectures…
And there is a great show of strength from the women of Yemen too, many with their faces uncovered, not too many, but certainly more than outside of the camp. In Sana’a most women are completely covered apart from their sexy eyes which they used to flirt with outrageously. Inside the camp it is good (from my Western perspective) to see and speak to Yemeni women on what feels like equal grounds, visually at least, but this is not the West and the women have their own tents and sit together below the stage where speeches and songs from the ‘revolution’ can be heard.
But all is not well outside of Change Square, the security forces are closing in on the media and 5 eminent journalists have been kicked out of the country. I fear something is going to happen that they don’t want reporting, that maybe they will try to forcibly remove the campers; an impossible task surely without killing hundreds of them.
But anything is possible here in this largely ‘lawless’ land which has been propped up by America and Europe for the last few years. The president has enjoyed up to 500 million dollars of aid to help in his “fight” against Bin Laden’s boys, a battle that many Yemeni’s I speak to think is a joke.
They believe the ‘terror’ is state sponsored by the regime to create fear (amongst the people) and to enable the president to claim ‘aid’ from the West – exactly where that money goes, or what happens to the arms the Government receives to fight Bin Laden no one knows, pretty much the same story with the money from Yemen’s oil, some say President Saleh is the 6th richest person in the world after 33 years of ruling the poorest country in the Middle East.
As each Friday comes I find my getting more and more nervous, after prayers the protesters try to extend the camp’s borders outwards towards the palace where the president holds on to power.. a very delicate power… Sadly for the demonstrators his support from America keeps him in office now – what the US fears is Bin Laden’s boys taking over the ensuing civil war – what they don’t seem to understand (or are not interested in) is that the longer this president stays in power the more chance there is of a civil war. It reminds me of my time in Iraq where I witnessed the endless stupidity of American policy… Can America really be that stupid some people ask? Yes and more than you can imagine I reply, just look at Iraq.
I arrive in the camp the morning after the night before when the army had used force to try and force the protesters back, in the makeshift hospital I meet people with breathing problems, once again the ‘tear’ gas they had used didn’t appear to make anyone cry, but it did appear to mess up their nerve system.
It is rumoured that canisters saying ‘Made in America’ had been found – the tools America had given Yemen to fight terrorism were it seems being used against it’s own people
The next day more journalists are targeted and kicked out, the New York Times, the Los Angeles Journal… I get ‘intelligence’ sniffing me out – someone had told them that I was a CNN journalist.
I was getting nervous going in and out of the camp, outside the camp perimeters government loyalists carrying Kalashnikovs constantly roam the streets – it seems just a matter of time before they use them. Recently I’d filmed a fight between protesters and loyalists outside the boundaries of the camp and ended up trapped by the ‘wrong’ guys in an internet cafe. My camera SD card was then taken from me by the gang, who politely apologized as they did it, such is (luckily for me) the amazing respect these people still show to us westerners in these bizarre conflict scenarios.
In an attempt to get the card back we went to chew Khat with the security agents responsible for funding attacks on the protesters, it was bizarre – Kalashnikovs hanging on the wall outside the room where we chewed, and inside, a picture of the security man’s father meeting Saddam Hussein. We chatted for hours as one tends to do on Khat, but I remember clearly the words he said to me, “The protesters are evil, we need to fight” he said, “We need to kill” he said, I looked at him in amazement, and he reiterated “No really, we need to kill, I’m telling you, if they touch the walls we have built to stop them advancing, we will kill”.
The next day is Friday and I find myself on the stage filming Friday prayers – for as far as the eye can see men and women are praying together to the evocative tunes emanating from the Imam over the loud speaker, “God is great” he sings, the crowd responds, standing up and bowing to and fro, in the distance I see plumes of smoke appear, and soon the familiar sound of gun crackles and sirens merge with the Imam’s call.
In the calm before the storm I remember my visit to the makeshift hospital that sits at the side of the mosque here in ‘Change Square’, 50 or so empty beds all with drips waiting beside them. The young doctors I meet joke about the prospect of being very ‘busy’ tomorrow, “Come and see us tomorrow” one jokes, “You will be amazed”. It is as though everyone knew what was to happen, that something had to happen, this is a revolution after all. Are there any rules in revolutions I wonder to myself?
My mind shoots jarringly back to the here and now as the gun crackle increases and the prayers end, the young run like hero’s to the front line in the face of live rounds as I film the bodies of those freshly wounded / killed being carried to the makeshift hospital, the doctors are looking more shocked then ever, some crying others speechless at the slaughter that is taking place, bodies arriving in rags and sheets used as makeshift stretchers – today there are no gas attacks, today it is real bullets to head and upper torso.
Plain clothed snipers hiding in buildings opened fire on the crowd whilst the army retreated seemingly unsure what to do. Is this government backed, were the government loyalists I’d chewed Khat with the day before financing this murder? One thing is for sure, the shooting began when the protesters broke the wall the army had built to stop the camp from spreading its reach.
I film as the first man arrives with half his head blown away, in the hospital doctors are beside themselves, too emotional to work, grabbing me and dragging me around the room to film more casualties, but as I zoom in on one man’s bullet wound and dying face another is arriving, I find a boy about 17 crying hopelessly to himself whilst holding his brother’s hand, opposite his friend also crying holds the other hand – I continue filming, feeling like a vulture, filming this, what is that all about?
I pan upwards to a the man on the next table where doctors push up and down on his chest, and watch as suddenly they give up, I continue to film as they close his eye lids, then another boy arrives, and before I can ask the doctor looks at me and says he dead, I pan from his bullet wound up over his young aspiring hopeful face to his left hand and focus on his silver wedding ring, his wife doesn’t know her husband is dead yet, neither do their kids, but I do for this moment. I leave him there, laying in a pool of his own blood on the hospital floor as new arrivals grab my attention with each dreadful chorus of mania from the boys bringing in the bodies; the screaming haunts me even today.
It gets too much and I move myself to a corner to try and hide but as I do the body of a 10 year old boy comes in, I see my own son staring at me from his bloody half shot away face. I recall the last time I thought of my own son – when live rounds were being fired at the crowd and towards where I was filming. “How can I die here I thought, how can I justify it to my kids?” I took cover as the shots rang out, but no one else did, they were soldiers of change, warriors of peace, who despite the death toll, did not reach for their guns. That was amazing.
Back in the makeshift hospital I try to make my way to where the 10 year old boy lies dying, 5 doctors attend to him, they are surrounded by dead bodies, I step over two to either side of the boy’s table, as I film I see that he is alive, hopefully unaware of what is really happening, at one point he sits up and almost tries to move but then falls back, it feels like a final fall, the last breath his god has given him. I cannot take anymore and try to make my way out, I pass people I had befriended whilst filming here these last few weeks, people now dying on hospital beds, I meet a beautifully educated quiet boy who’d looked after me earlier that week in his tent, he is now mourning the death of his cousin. All the dead are in their 20’s and 30’s apart from the 10 year old who became the youngest martyr of the day.
Friday had begun as a day of hope for change in Yemen but it became a massacre of 52 people which the world didn’t see because the news agenda was taken up with Libya and Japan.
But this was not a one-off, Friday’s murderous events in Sana’a have been mirrored by similar ones in other Yemeni cities and has made the people more determined then ever to win.
I meet a grieving father standing over the open coffin of his dead 18 year old son, he turns to me and says “When I look at his face I feel sad and I cry, but when I look to this revolution and to the future of Yemen then I would happily sacrifice another one of my boys”, the people of Yemen have come too far now, I doubt they will be going home until change comes and the president gives way to the peoples demands.