Since January, when Yemeni citizens joined the Arab Spring protests for democracy, the country has been rocked by violence. Hundreds of demonstrators have been killed and thousands wounded, according to a United Nations report. President Ali Abdullah Saleh—who was seriously wounded himself in an attack and returned to the country only last week—claims he's prepared to cede power, but he has not done so, and fighting has escalated. Nadia Al-Sakkaf, editor-in-chief and publisher of The Yemen Times, continues to lead her independent paper —and to raise a young daughter, surrounded by the sights and sounds of a country veering dangerously toward civil war.
They say the first thought that enters your head in the morning defines your day. My first thoughts these days are questions: Do I hear any shelling? And, Is there any electricity? Usually the answers are yes and no, respectively.
We have all gotten used to planning the day around electrical power, or rather the lack of it, just as we have come to terms with the fact that there is trouble in some part of the town, where supposedly peaceful protestors are being met with live bullets.
People like me are also accustomed now to the problems of just
getting to work, having to pass through multiple security checkpoints and deal with unforeseen delays.
Being a female editor of an independent newspaper in Yemen is not easy, especially if the paper is in English and is available online. Many times I feel that with our limited resources and so many challenges, we are competing against the World Wide Web and not just newspapers in Yemen.
To start with, it was difficult to manage Yemeni men, who have been raised on the concept that male is supreme. But once we got over that issue, the real challenges began.
When I arrive at the office, we do a head count to see who has made it in today and who hasn’t. Not that we have lost anyone, thank God, but some of the reporters live in conflict areas, and many roads are blocked by either state security or a splinter army, so it becomes hard to move about.
We have a small staff and they are already stretched to produce the paper. Since the crises, I've moved out of my office and into the newsroom, where I keep one eye on my computer screen and the other on my people, making sure the morale is high or at least that they are not too depressed to do their work. When there is monotony, I stir up a controversial topic and watch as conversation flares and the energy comes back.
We try to cover all events happening in the country but we can’t be everywhere, and I decided not to send my staff to cover the protests in person, instead using our contacts in the conflict areas. It’s just too dangerous, and no news scoop is worth dying for—or at least that is what I believe.
But one way or the other, we do go to dangerous grounds, either to see what is happening or the aftermath. It is all part of our town. There is always someone whom we know living in that street where the shelling took place. We know someone who knows the man who was shot in the chest just because he demanded a regime change.
As reporters and editors, have received some threats in person, others through phone calls, emails, text messages and even on Facebook. One of our reporters had his camera confiscated, and after being summoned to a political security office and interrogated for hours he sought political asylum elsewhere. We have even had problems at the airport when one of our staff was prevented from travelling just because she was a journalist.
Despite that, we believe ourselves lucky, considering our critical reporting. Other journalists and activists have been not only threatened but attacked. One cameraman was killed recently, and another TV journalist was abducted; the list goes on.
I am also a wife and the mother of a five-year-old girl, Aya. When I look at her I wonder if I can contribute to making her world safer. We celebrated Eid—marking the end of Ramadan—over a month ago, and we had fireworks. Today, when she hears the gunshots and shelling, she wonders: Don’t they know that Eid is over? I don’t have the heart to tell her that these sounds have a different meaning, so I go along, encouraging her innocent interpretation. It is harder to make her understand why she is not going to school regularly—we are not always sure the streets are safe enough.
As it is, I pass through several security checkpoints between my home and the office. The officers wave the cars through one by one after inspecting them. Sometimes it is a simple nod toward the driver without much looking, and on other occasions the ragged security man with his qat-swollen cheek and a rifle loosely hanging on his shoulder decides he wants to have a thorough check of the vehicle—thus creating a long line of restless, silent drivers in their cars fumbling with their phones.
Although not so uncommon as it was ten years ago, being a female driver has an advantage somehow. The security system in Yemen seems to believe that women can do no harm, and so when I pass by in my car I get the nod and a curious three seconds of eye contact. In return I smile, murmur my thanks and try not to delay the line. You don’t want to mess with the security men; they can make your life hell, and they often do.
The other day, I met with a high-ranking security intelligence officer. With one eyebrow raised above the other and a “hmmm, what-do-we-have-here?" sort of sound, he said: “So, you are with the revolution!” To which I answered, “We are neither with nor against it. We are an independent newspaper....” That’s when he cut me off, accusing us of covering the news of the protesters and promoting them as heroes. I had to admit that our front page usually has a picture of angry masses demonstrating or victims of the shelling. I wanted to shout, “Then stop killing the protesters, for God’s sake!” but instead I asked him to give me their version of what is happening and we will publish it side by side with what the others say. It was good enough for him, it seemed; either that or he really didn’t care what we publish anyway.
Now we hear that politicians on all sides are talking. Apparently, there is a roadmap maneuvered by the UN envoy to sail Yemen through this storm. Hundreds of citizens have been killed since the beginning of the uprising, while Yemenis are still waiting for a hero to come from somewhere to fix things for them.
Yet painfully, slowly, the people are realizing the power of public opinion, and that simple citizens—if they come together—can topple regimes. What is needed now is to get the silent majority to speak up, especially since all the political alternatives—including the opposition parties—are not satisfactory. And this is why I am still relentlessly moving on: for a better Yemen for me and the generations to come.
Editor's Note: This is an extended version of a story from the current issue of Newsweek.