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Reflections on Yemen’s Arab spring…and after

[Ed note: This essay appeared as part of an exhibit of photographs presented by the Rachel Corrie Foundation at the Olympia Film Society last year. Luke Somers took the photographs while he lived in Yemen from 2011 to 2014. See a brief bio below.]

After I moved to Sana’a in February 2011, Yemen’s (now “Honorary”) President Ali Abdullah Saleh long remained unreal in my imagination. I didn’t watch television much, but did hear people speak about him to an inordinate degree. Pictures of him, plastered about the city, again inordinately contributed to my sense of the man. Based simply on the pictures, he was waxy, vibrant, stern and yes, rather unreal.

Yemeni children present documents to receive food rations as Saudi Arabia aided by the US continues to wage war on them. AP Photo/Hani Mohammed

Ali Abdullah Saleh, Yemen’s 33-year-long president, soon found a firmer foothold in my imagination. Not through personally witnessing him issuing directives and giving orders, but through coming into close contact with people daily affected by those directives and orders. Seeing with my own eyes (but thankfully, somehow, with my camera’s viewfinder acting as something of a buffer) how sniper fire from paid “balatiga” (“thugs”) could make a man’s face unrecognizable; how young people who, after a frantic motorcycle ride and who mere minutes earlier were forming the peace sign with their hands, can then be deposited on a mosque floor, bleeding and unable to breathe.

modest numbers of university students took to the streets, unarmed, with peace signs held high, their safety receiving no guarantees.

Saleh has, from early this year, met his country’s brightest hopes for the future head on, and with unmitigated brutality. He, like many of the youth that desire some hope for themselves and their children (whether at home or in their future imaginings) have learned, understands that the world, simply put, generally cares as much as it knows about Yemen and its people—that is, very little.

The difference is, while Saleh’s regime manages to capitalize on this lack of knowledge and interest to extract funds from more powerful nations for military equipment and training, Yemen’s pro-democracy protesters managed to see the world around them not with cynicism, but with hope.

Inspired by protests that swept dictators from Tunisia and Egypt, young men and women put down their books and individual aspirations with the aim of doing the same for their own country.

This point can’t be emphasized enough. Living in a poor country, a country largely cut off from the daily swirl of world affairs, these young men and women realized that opportunities for individual betterment don’t come cheap—and may come around only once. Even so, modest numbers of university students took to the streets, unarmed, with peace signs held high, their safety receiving no guarantees. Their numbers only grew.

That the “shabab”—the youth—are less savvy when it comes to political affairs, and less organized than one might hope shouldn’t come as a surprise. The man they have been struggling to depose has been in power for longer than most people in this young country have lived.

It has, in fact, been both heartbreaking and beautiful to witness, to photograph, to spend hours with people who expect the best from the world and who have dared to believe in one of the best, most absurd ideas imaginable: that of peaceful protest.

Barely-conscious protesters, sprayed with chemicals and shot at close range, have raised the peace sign in the hope that a camera would see and that a world would care. Meanwhile, reality says that these same young Yemenis would be more easily associated with al-Qaeda than with peace. Yet it is impossible to find citizens from any part of the country who consider the local branch of the terrorist organization to be anything more than a ragtag band of men not numbering more than a hundred — but who have skillfully been used by Saleh’s government to extract concessions, funds, equipment, and military training from foreign powers.

Ali Abdullah Saleh has since signed a power transfer deal [November 2011]. Government ministries have been divvied up between Saleh’s General People’s Congress party and opposition parties. Meanwhile, youths around the country have not left their “tent cities.” Resolving Yemen’s various states of crises has very possibly—and purposefully—been allowed to take precedence over meaningful change and grounds for future hope.

Saleh’s signing of the GCC power transfer deal may have seemed like an apt opportunity for the youth to celebrate. Some did, but many others resisted the temptation. I communicated with and photographed the 20-or-so denizens of the “Deaf and Dumb Youth Revolution Alliance” tent, not far from opposition-held Change Square, in the moments before and after Saleh’s signing. Gesticulating with fervor but managing not to overwhelm the lone translator, their comments ran from “Yemeni blood is precious, there must be a trial” to “As for the west, we tell them not to have double standards and use us to test their weapons. You demand human rights—where are human rights in Yemen?” Their manner was nonetheless warm and their dedication to peaceful protest unquestionable.

Their pointed words reflect frustration that their revolution—after so much blood has been shed and so much hope put into action—may somehow be lost. After ten months in Yemen, after being in the midst of Yemenis in the most trying and revealing of circumstances, I don’t see such young men becoming future threats to global security. Rather, if their revolution and their positive outlooks have, in the end, proven to be futile, I see them growing older, living with dignity in impoverished conditions, and wondering where the rest of the world—and where their youthful, naïve hopes—went.

Luke Somers, a British-born American freelance photo-journalist and resident of Yemen arrived in Sana’a, Yemen in 2011 to teach English. He was killed there in 2014. Though revered by his students and colleagues, Luke shifted into photojournalism to bear witness to the visceral realities—both bleak and inspiring—of the country, as well as the cultural phenomena of the Arab Spring as it swept through the region. Luke had spent much of his time in Tent City, Change Square—the protestors’ main area of living and congregating—where he had spent countless hours, days, weeks and months sharing food, plans, conversation, and stories. This was Luke’s home. He was killed in a failed rescue attempt in December 2014, a year after he had been abducted by armed tribesmen. You can see some of the Luke’s photos at the Rachel Corrie Foundation, “A Day in the Life of Yemen.”


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