Alumnus takes to the streets of Yemen's capital where he covers the unrest as a freelance journalist
A first person account by Jeb Boone (B.I.S. '09)
As a freshman six years ago, I remember sitting hunched over my desk in the bowels of the General Classroom Building nervously trying to craft Arabic letters and saying "ahlan wa sahlan" (hello) over and over in my head. My journey from GSU to reporting on the Arab Spring's longest running protest movement was a long one. With the incredible support of GSU's Middle East Institute, I made my way to Yemen for the first time in 2008 to study Arabic. I instantly fell in love with this extremely misunderstood country.
In spite of their country's status as the poorest in the Arab world, Yemenis welcomed me with open arms and invited me to lavish meals at their homes at every opportunity. Strangers would run up to me with words of welcome, something that was pleasantly unexpected in a country that was reported to be the new battleground in America's war against Al-Qaeda.
I returned to GSU after eight incredible months in Yemen, armed with Arabic language skills. And after graduation, I looked back to Yemen. I found a job as managing editor of the Yemen Observer, a newspaper owned by President Ali Abdullah Saleh's press advisor, who, along with his boss, is now recovering from his injuries in Saudi Arabia after an attack on the presidential palace in June.
The job paid dismally, and for six months I relied on the kindness of my dear Russian friend and roommate and his mother for food.
But as protesters began taking to the streets across the Arab world, I managed to squeeze an opinion piece into the Guardian. Hoping to hide it from my boss, I continued pitching to publications around the world. But just a few days after my name first appeared in print, my boss, a friend to Yemen's embattled president, offered me an ultimatum - stop freelancing or leave.
I left with the money I had earned from my Guardian piece in my pocket with no other source of income.
As protests began sweeping Yemen, I was right alongside the activists with notebook and pen in hand, my fate inexorably tied to theirs. Without two Yemeni riyal coins to rub together, I continued pitching and was continually ignored.
It was when the shooting started that editors began replying to my e-mails.
"What the hell is happening in Yemen? It's a waiting game. Unfortunately, Saleh and the boys seem to be unaware that Yemen's economy is all but collapsed. The longer it takes to find a resolution, the worse it's going to get. In any other country in the world, people would be killing each other at gas stations. Why that isn't happening in Yemen is anyone's guess. The Yemenis are an incredibly patient people but I don't expect them to be patient for much longer.
The protests are almost a non-issue at this point. Now, most average Yemenis could care less whether Saleh is the president or not, they want the economy back to normal. They're right, the economy is a much more important issue at this point."
Jeb Boone on his blog, An American Southerner in the Imam's Mafraj
My first close call was in mid-February, when plainclothes gunmen opened fire on a group of protesters. It was also the day my first news article was published.
What usually devolved into a stone-throwing match that day became a one-sided gun battle, with one side doing the shooting and the other running for cover. I was on the wrong side.
The more dangerous things became, the more journalistic success I started having. As the protests in the Yemeni capital, Sana'a, picked up speed, security forces got more involved and often operated alongside plainclothes gunmen. On one particular night, I was covering a typical protest march that had been stopped by riot police. In the midst of dancing and singing, shots rang out from buildings behind the crowd. As we began to run from the gunfire, security forces began lobbing tear gas from the other direction. The only way out was over a fence and into a scrapyard. Coughing and hacking in a cloud of tear gas, I hid under the remains of a Peugeot station wagon as the street battles continued.
As the violence intensified, my bylines grew in number. Anything less than rushing out of bed in the middle of the night into street battles seemed boring. Considering that my professional success became tied directly to violence, I had no choice but to throw myself into the fray.
Inevitably, the violence spread outside of Change Square, Sana'a's protest camp, as defiant tribes and loyalist military units began fighting in the capital. Members of the powerful Hashid tribal confederation engaged Yemen's Republican Guard in a 13-day-long war in downtown Sana'a. Instead of sporadic gunfire and non-lethal tear gas, artillery began falling from the sky. The fighting was contained to one part of the city, about a mile from my apartment in the ancient fortress of Old Sana'a. Electricity became scarce and I spent most nights in the dark, staring into the flashes of light emitting from artillery hits in the distance.
The author with soldiers from the rebel 1st Armored Division who were guarding protesters during Friday prayers in April.
"When the violence first started, it was satisfying to be covering a revolution. However, as more friends started fleeing the country and the violence intensified in early May, things got much worse.
Looking back, I think May 11th was the point to where I can say life here became almost unbearable.
I was covering a usual standoff between protesters on the march and security forces who had stopped their advance. In typical fashion, the standoff continued for hours, from the afternoon and on into the night. You develop a sort of routine in these types of situations - have a tea here, smoke a cigarette over there, get an egg sandwich, take a few photos, etc. The bizarre thing to know is that you're only waiting for violence.
I think the protesters know it too but there is really nothing else for them to do, to give ground is to admit defeat.
On that particular night, I was the closest to the bullets I'd ever been and when they started shooting, I thought it was over for me. I made it around a few corners, avoided a few brushes with wandering gunmen, and then got gassed as I finally made it to safety. The Central Security Forces like to gas you after you've managed to narrowly escape death to remind you that you're still breathing and that breathing can be painful, too.
At least 11 protesters were killed that day and more than 60 were injured. When you take into account that there were about 250-300 people there when the shooting started, everyone had about a 25 percent chance of being shot. I was lucky again, I reckon.
Since then it's been all downhill. The power outages started soon after. The 13 day artillery bombardment and siege of the Hasaba district started at the end of May.
During those nights with no power I usually light a candle in my window and read my Kindle, something I finally managed to acquire after two previous failed attempts. I don't need to convey to you the sense of irking irony that such an act involves."
Jeb Boone on his blog, An American Southerner in the Imam's Mafraj
During those nights, my thoughts often drifted back to Atlanta and GSU. The days of wearing my Matt Ryan jersey, drinking Sweetwater 420 and watching Falcons games with my friends not only seemed to have taken place an eternity ago but in another universe entirely. Struggling to string together Arabic letters in a classroom in the GCB seemed even stranger considering that most of my Arabic was now used for interviewing injured protesters and soldiers from defected military units.
As foreigners streamed out of Sana'a, I and a handful of other determined journalists stayed put to cover the fighting. Thinking back on my days in Sana'a as a GSU student studying Arabic has been a source of comfort. To know that some of the kindest people in the world were being subjected to unbridled state violence encouraged me to continue covering their uprising. But now, in the wake of the chaos, an economic crisis is gripping the country. Protesters that have been living in squares across the country for more than six months are beginning to take a back seat to fuel shortages and a planned ramping up of U.S. drone strikes against Al-Qaeda targets.
Yemen's struggle is far from over. I'm taking a vacation in August, but I will return to Sana'a when my Cambodian fishing trip is over. I'm not sure how much longer I'll stay, but with only three resident Western journalists left in the country, the plight of the Yemeni people may be lost to the English-language press.
Jeb Boone is a freelance journalist based in Sana'a, Yemen, and managing editor of the Yemen Times. Boone has contributed to the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, Time Magazine, Foreign Policy, the Christian Science Monitor, the Guardian, the Independent, the Sunday Telegraph and Global Post and has appeared on the "BBC World Service,""BBC World News," "Sky News" and "Anderson Cooper 360." Follow him at http://jebboone.com/.