Here I am in Pittsburgh, as my homeland veers toward war

6 Jun
Sunday, June 05, 2011
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Yemeni boys collect water for their families in  the capital city of Sanaa. It now costs 12 times as much to buy water as it did  when the political turmoil in Yemen began back in March.
Photo by: Saif Abduallah/Associated Press


My name is Malak. I am a journalist from Yemen who is spending five months in  Pittsburgh as an Alfred Friendly Press Fellow at the Post-Gazette. I was very  happy when I was told that I would be given the chance to work at a newspaper in  the United States. And of course I would come to know the American culture, as  well.

When I left Yemen, where people had been calling for the president to step  down, the situation was not very serious. There were occasional standoffs  between protesters and security forces, and some people were killed or hurt, but  only those demonstrating were at risk. Other civilians were not touched.

When I arrived in the United States in late March, Americans asked me about  what was happening in my country. “Yemen is not like Tunisia and Egypt,” I used  to say. “It is only dangerous for those who go out in the streets, and it is not  all the time, and my family is safe.”

Being part of a fellowship program, I have duties here. I have to learn how  the American press works by writing stories and gaining new skills that I can  take back to my newspaper in Yemen, the Yemen Times.

I really love Pittsburgh. The city is so beautiful that I sometimes forget  everything about Yemen. I spent almost a month without really worrying about  Yemen. Whenever I called my family they told me they were safe, which made me  feel as though nothing serious was going on back home.

However, there is many a slip between the cup and the lip, and now, two  months into my time in Pittsburgh, the situation in Yemen has deteriorated. The  demonstrations, which had been confined to a small area, spread like air to  everywhere, and military units have begun fighting one another.

I started freaking out and called my family. They said they were fine, but  they were lying because they did not want me to feel anxious while I am away and  supposed to be learning. Maybe they forgot that I am a curious journalist and  that they are not the only people I know in Yemen.

I called one of my journalist colleagues. She told me that, as the  demonstrations spread in Yemen, the Republican Guards loyal to the president and  men from the most influential tribe in Yemen, the Hashid, had started exchanging  fire. Many of the people living near the battleground fled their homes.

The head of the largest opposition party, Islah, is from the Al-Ahmar family,  which belongs to the Hashid tribal confederation. Islah had incited the protests  against the president in the first place after watching the Arab Spring take  down leaders in Tunisia and Egypt. Three times the president agreed to step down  but backed out. Now, the death toll is rising.

Fighting between the Republican Guards and the Hashid in the capital of Sanaa  began when both sides accused the other of taking over a strategically located  school near government ministries and the house of tribal leader Sadeq  al-Ahmar.

When my friend explained, it sank in — the situation had turned critical. So  I called my mother.

“Hi, Mom,” I said.

“How are you, dear?”

“I am fine. Tell me about you. Is everything OK in Yemen?”

“Yes. Yes. Do not worry. There is nothing here. Everything is great.”

“So you do not have any problems?” I asked. “You have access to water, food,  electricity?”

“Yes, dear, everything is OK,” my mother said.

Then I changed my tone. “Mom, I just called a friend and she told me  everything. She said there are clashes between the Republican Guards and Hashid  in Hasaba. Mom, you better tell the truth.”

“OK, dear. Well, to some extent we are fine, but, yes, there are now clashes  between the Republican Guards and Hashid. Your cousin, Amal, left her house  because, as you know, she lives nearby and it is not safe to be near the  fighting. She might get a bullet or two in her house.”

“Oh, that’s sad,” I said.

“Yeah, she went with her husband and their four children to live in her  husband’s family’s house. She was scared of a possible war.”

I called Amal. She told me that, just before the fighting began in her  neighborhood, residents were warned to leave their homes at once. Her husband  was not at home at the time, so she alone had to escape with their young  children, ages 8, 6, 5 and 2. They had to walk 5 kilometers to find a taxi. She  is not poor, but neither she nor others from the neighborhood could find enough  food and for a while had only one meal a day.

My aunt and her two daughters also live in the Hasaba neighborhood. She went  to stay with my father’s family on the outskirts of Sanaa.

My mother told me the price for 400 liters of water — a little more than 100  gallons — had risen to $60 from $5. In Yemen, the average monthly salary is  $200. She told me the generating plant responsible for providing the capital  with electricity had exploded, cutting the power supply to only three to four  hours a day.

“No more TV, no more computer,” Mom said.

“God be with you, Mom, and all the people.”

With all of this happening in my country, I am trying my best to focus on my  work here in Pittsburgh and to learn. The other day, when I was trying hard to  concentrate, the phone rang.

“Yes, Malak Shaher, Post-Gazette,” I said.

“How are you, dear? This is your mother.”

“Aaaah, mama, how are you?”

“We are fine. They said there might be reconciliation between the president  and the tribe. I just wanted to call and share the good news with you. I want  you to enjoy your time. Today, we had a tranquil day. So do not worry.”

A few days later, everything started getting worse again. The people in  Hasaba were told to evacuate. Fighting began at key positions around the  capital. Government forces killed dozens of protesters in Taiz. Government  planes attacked al-Qaida members in the south, where they were reported to have  gained control of a province. On Friday, mortar rounds hit the presidential  compound, slighly injuring the president.

My family is safe now, but Yemen is not only my family. It is my childhood,  my friends, my good and bad days. It is the streets and the people. It is  home.

God, I ask thee to protect Yemen.


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