Experiencing one of the most unique societies in the world…

Guerilla Journalism: The Dangers of the Frontline

I was stuck in a war zone, my equipment was confiscated, and I was interrogated and threatened. What a day! I am physically and emotionally exhausted. The situation here in Yemen is worsening by the day. Escalating violence, increased tension and frustration has made everyone slowly begin to reach their breaking points. All this is snowballing into what seems like a huge black hole. With only a few international journalists on the Frontline, just enough to count on my one hand, reporting has become quite a task and a dangerous one at that. Photo/journalists have been beaten, intimidated, threatened, arrested and deported while attempting to report what’s on the ground. If you are a Photo/journalist in Yemen, you are a soldier and a warrior. You are placing your life on the line. You familiarize yourself with methods to increase your chances at survival and to ensure your own safety. Soldiers target you on the ground with their Kalashnikov and Gunmen on rooftops with their sniper guns. You do your best to survive. You familiarize yourself with your environment, search for open doors leading to residents homes or yards and alleyways to prepare to take cover when the gunfire starts. You prepare a story to tell the soldiers, who if you’re lucky enough, only detain you for questioning. You are always alert, and as the Marine Corp puts it: Complacency Kills.

This comes with a photo/journalist’s territory, especially one on the Frontline. Photo/journalists are identified and targeted by the cameras they carry. It isn’t an easy job. With that being said, I am one of those lucky people who were able to get away from a situation that could have dramatically turned awry. Today, I woke up to reports of gunshots in Al-Hasaba, Sana’a. The event’s specifics were still being confirmed. It was later reported that there was an internal gunfight between Saleh security forces and Al-Ahmar tribesmen. There were further reports of the Al-Saeeda and Yemenia airlines offices on fire due to the conflict. The story continued to develop as it was reported that the gunfight had moved into a local building that is an all girls school. The school was empty. I decided to head over to the location in effort to film some footage of the Yemenia/Al-Saeeda fire and meet some of the staff members trapped in the middle of the conflict.

My cab driver stopped me a short distance from the gunfight before telling me he had to leave. At this point, all I heard were rounds of live ammunition. I ran across the street to where some bystanders were taking cover and asked for updates. “It’s a fight between Saleh and Al-ahmar men,” a man said. Suddenly a sound of an RPG blasts. “It’s not safe here, you need to leave” another man tells me. The fight was clearly escalating as heavy artillery and weaponry was being used. This isn’t my average march where I’m being chased with demonstrators by Security forces. This was FAR MORE DANGEROUS. I knew I had to get out. As I turned looking for the safest route to take, a man approached “Who do you work for?” He asked. “I’m a freelance reporter with CNN, MSNBC and other American media outlets, why?” I answered. “You know it’s against the law to report?” he told me. “No, I didn’t know that. But that’s fine, I’m leaving anyway.” This man looked suspicious. He was wearing a green raincoat and dressed in plain civilian clothes. It was clear he was an officer. The men who were next to me whispered, “get out of here now.” The man with the raincoat pulled out his phone to make a call as he kept his eyes on me.

I begin to walk away making my way towards the end of the street where I could stop a cab. A group of soldiers walked by me, on their way to join the fight on the other side of the street. I rushed past them quickly moving, suddenly they started yelling, “Hey you! Come back! Come over here!” I had no choice but to answer them, there was no other way to go and they were carrying weapons. I turned around and made my way back to them. I saw the man in the raincoat pointing in my direction as he spoke to them. “Yes? Is there a problem?” I asked. “Hand over your phone,” one of them said to me as the other soldier asked, “What were you filming?” “Nothing, this man in the raincoat said it was against the law to film so I decided to leave.” I answered. “Who do you work for? Al-Jazeera?” Another soldier asked. “NO! I freelance for American media.” I replied. “Open your bag!” A soldier yelled. They searched my bag and found my camera. “What were you filming?” the soldier yelled. “Nothing!” I yelled back, “I wanted to film but this man here said I couldn’t! Check the SD card!” “Let me see some ID!” he demanded. I took out my Yemeni ID and American passport. “We need to see something that says shows the name of the American news organization.” The soldier is still yelling. “I work freelance! Why don’t you understand what I am saying?” I yelled. They began walking away with the camera and my cell phone “Hey! Where are you going? You have no right to take my things! I wasn’t doing anything wrong!” I was yelling at that point as they continued to walk away and raised their weapons in attempt to scare me off.

At this point, one of the captains had already made their way from the area of the conflict to me. The soldiers were already at the opposite end of the street, entering the fight. “What’s the problem?” the Captain asked. A group of about 20 men had surrounded me; all bystanders who watched the entire thing unfold. “They took her camera and phone!” “Make them give it back!” “Stop bullying the poor girl” they yelled. Suddenly the sounds of heavy artillery increased and the sounds of RPGs were getting closer, louder and more consistent. Rounds of live ammunition were flying towards us as the battle expanded and we were about to get trapped right in the middle of it. “RUN!” Bystanders yelled. I ran as fast as I could, looking for open doors, alleys, parked cars or anything I could use to take cover. I couldn’t find anything. Suddenly a barbershop owner opened his door and told me to hide inside. As I ran in to take cover I found the captain rushing in as well.

I sat at the barbershop as the owner pushed nosy bystanders away from the front door. The captain sat beside me as I explained the entire situation to him. I also sat through an interrogation as he asked questions about my intentions and why I was in Yemen. “You know they want me to arrest you?” he asked. “I don’t care. Please do. Maybe then you’ll believe me. Take me to you office so I can show you who I work for through online correspondence! Arrest me! And even if you tell me to go home I won’t without my property.” By the end of the interrogation he sees I was distraught and upset and promises me that he will get me my camera and phone back. For the next hour, I wait as he “tries” to get my things back. I can’t trust anyone. It was a war zone outside the barbershop doors and I knew I had to get out before it got any worse. I took the captains contact number and took three different cabs home just in case I was being followed.

For my own sake, I won’t go fishing around for my camera. It is unsafe. It’s difficult trusting anyone. My camera is gone and I am thankful that I am well and safe. I got very lucky unlike many others who’ve faced worse repercussions. But I can’t feel too safe, they have my full name and have my phone that is filled with personal contact and information. I must always be aware and alert. I must expect and prepare for the worse. I am unsafe until Yemen is no longer deemed unsafe. I’m not sure when this will be, but I do hope its soon. For all my fellow photo/journalists, stay strong and alert. You are survivors and warriors! And for all those on the outside, it’s getting rough in here and we desperately need your help! Yemen needs you.

For live footage of Today’s attack visit my Bambuser Live Stream Account. The footage was taken right before my equipment was confiscated and before I was detained:
http://bambuser.com/channel/rajaalthaibani
http://static.bambuser.com/r/player.swf?username=rajaalthaibani

8 responses

  1. Keep up the great work sister. You have our support and prayers. Stay safe!

    May 24, 2011 at 9:50 am

  2. yasmin

    You are braver than many people. I wouldnt dare to go, and I am a yemeni. Stay strong, for us and for the world. thank you.

    May 24, 2011 at 11:34 am

  3. Pingback: Arab Female Journalist Detained and Threatened in Yemen | The Crescent Post

  4. We are really proud of you. Yemeni women are always brave and strong. Stay safe

    You have our support hopefully it won’t last long…

    Yemen will never die…

    May 24, 2011 at 4:55 pm

  5. Rachel Buhr

    Raja,

    Thank you so much for sharing your story. I didn’t realize you were over there. You are a brave, and incredible young woman. Be safe and again, thank you for continuing to share the story with the world despite the dangers.

    Rachel

    May 24, 2011 at 5:04 pm

  6. Al-Waleed Dirbiji

    This is what we call it journalistic scoop! Thank u Raja for ur consistant, credible, and professional job! Ur bravery and insistence on finding out the reality has inspired all of us.. Not lesser than us men in the fields or any other warrior but maybe greater!! Thank u again and keep it up>>

    May 24, 2011 at 9:48 pm

  7. Pingback: Dodging Fire; Losing a Camera « Images of Revolution

  8. Aisha

    Raja,
    I’ve been following your posts. They tell me so much more about what’s going on in Yemen. You make all Arab women proud! Be safe and my prayers are with you for a liberated Yemen. Let me know if there’s anything I can do to help you from over here.
    Salaam,
    Aisha

    May 26, 2011 at 4:08 am

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