Mohammed al-Qadhi, an experienced war journalist, has been reporting from the frontlines of Yemen’s on-going war, from both Sana’a and Taiz, since the very start of the conflict. In his eighteen years as a reporter, al-Qadhi has covered stories both for local and international news outlets. His work focuses mainly on community issues, politics, economics, security, terrorism, civil society, and diplomacy. Since the start of the current conflict, al-Qadhi has been targeted for his reporting by various warring factions and has managed to escape death several times.
Currently, al-Qadhi is one of the very few reporters still working on the ground in the besieged and war-torn city of Taiz. He arrived eleven months ago and has worked, under extremely dire conditions, every day since.
Located in central Yemen, Taiz is one of the largest cities in the country. It has become a key battleground in the current conflict between the Houthi militias and their ally, former President Ali Abdullah Saleh, who together control most of northern Yemen, and their opponents, supporters of exiled Yemeni President Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi, who is supported by Saudi Arabia and the UAE, and controls territory in the country’s south.
Taiz has been the site of fierce ground battles, which are still ongoing today. Several groups, including militias fighting in support of Hadi and aided by the Saudis, as well as a coalition of Houthi fighters and army forces loyal to Saleh, are engaged, on a daily basis, in bloody battles that have created a dire humanitarian situation in the country.
Yet, information about the situation in the city-turned-warzone remains hard to come by. Muftah interviewed al-Qadhi about his experiences reporting from Taiz, what keeps him motivated, and why the conflict in the central Yemeni city is so underreported.
Mareike Transfeld: Can you explain to our readers what the situation in Taiz has been like over the last several months?
Mohammed al-Qadhi: The humanitarian situation in Taiz is absolutely beyond description. The fighting in and indiscriminate shelling of residential areas has been relentless. On June 3, 2015, alone, more than ten civilians, mostly women, were killed and more than thirty others were wounded, after shelling by the Houthis and their allied forces targeted a popular marketplace teaming with shoppers.
The Houthis and Saleh forces also continue to impose a tight siege on the city, which has even prevented medical supplies from reaching hospitals.
Why has the fighting been particularly fierce in Taiz?
From a geopolitical perspective, Taiz is very important for Saleh and the Houthis, who have been using all available means to maintain their presence in the city.
In addition to being a large population center, Taiz is the main gateway to the south. Keeping it under their control gives the Houthis/Saleh important leverage in the conflict. Both Saleh and the Houthis also have a bone to pick with the people of Taiz. It was in Taiz that the popular uprising against Saleh’s thirty-three-year-rule began in 2011. As for the Houthis, they are not happy with Taiz because it was the first city to spearhead protests against their armed takeover of Sana’a and other cities in 2014.
What has the humanitarian situation in Taiz been like, since you have been based in the city?
Compared to other parts of Yemen, Taiz has experienced one of the worst humanitarian situations since the conflict began. The siege imposed by the Houthis/Saleh, which has blocked access to the city from all directions except the south, has largely been to blame for Taiz’s suffering.
Personally, I have had terrible experiences here. It was a big achievement to locate a box of ice to cool off during the summer last year, which was one of the city’s hottest. Food and water prices have been very high. The price of fuel has been so exorbitant that the city has turned into a ghost town. Only four public and private hospitals are operating. They are increasingly unable to accommodate the number of sick and injured in the city.
Last year, at the end of Ramadan, during Eid, I decided to do a story on how fighters spent the first day of Eid on the battlefield. As I drove by al-Rawdha hospital, I saw casualties arriving – they had been hit by shelling from Houthi fighters targeting al-Tahreer residential area. It was one of the most unforgettable experiences. I saw women and children arriving at the hospital weeping and waiting at the doors to hear about their relatives. The children were wearing their new Eid outfits. Those women and children were supposed to be celebrating and having fun in parks, not standing, frightened in hospitals.
Have you ever been targeted or physically harmed?
I have experienced terrible nights in Taiz where I had to run with friends from our rooms to the basement, to escape indiscriminate shelling from the Houthis and the Saleh forces. I have escaped death several times.
While covering battles between the Houthis/Saleh and Hadi government forces allied with Saudi Arabia in March 2016, I was slightly wounded. That same month, I was also kidnapped by gunmen from a pro-Hadi government militia. They snatched me, my cameraman, and another colleague from the street with guns aimed at our heads, and took us to an unknown place for questioning. They searched my cell phones, which they confiscated as soon as they captured us. When I asked why we were being kidnapped, they said we were “filming for the Houthis,” which is, of course, a serious accusation. When I asked them who they were and to which pro-government militia they belonged, they told us they were “followers of God.”
I suffered terrible psychological torture during this ordeal. The first thing I thought about was my wife and what would happen to her if she called my phone and I didn’t answer or if one of my kidnappers answered instead.
After holding me for several hours, the kidnappers released me the same day. The next day, I was asked to meet with the leaders of the militia the kidnappers belonged to. While they had promised me they would arrest the kidnappers, instead, they beat me up. After this experience, I decided to keep a low profile and did no field reporting or appear on TV for about two weeks. Now, I am escorted by an armed guard at all times.
I have been working non-stop from January 20, 2015 until today. That is more than sixteen months of non-stop reporting on a conflict that has exhausted Yemen and Yemenis. I have been here in Taiz reporting on the conflict since August 17, 2015, alone, without my family. You can imagine how crazy it is for a reporter to spend more than eleven months working continuously with no holiday, not even for a single day, in a war zone and city under siege.
How would you assess the coverage on Taiz in international media?
There are very few of us who are reporting for international media here in Taiz. Me and a reporter representing Al Jazeera are here at all times; another reporter for al-Arabiya joined us a few months ago, although he moves back and forth between Aden and Taiz. Since the conflict began, few if any foreign journalists have worked from Taiz, or I would suspect, from Yemen generally, except during short visits to the country.
I believe people outside Yemen are watching what is happening here. At least, humanitarian organizations seem to be, as I have noticed their reactions to my reporting. With social media platforms being used more frequently to report on events, activists have effectively launched campaigns from time to time to attract global attention to Yemen’s humanitarian situation. In general, however, the war in Yemen is a silent one, with limited coverage in the international media.
Why is the conflict in Taiz underreported in the international media?
I think the security situation is concerning for foreign journalists. I have been approached by some foreign reporters, from time to time, who have said they wanted to come to the country, but they never did, as far as I know. I understand their security concerns, but, of course, all war zones are dangerous and risky. Conflict zones, like Taiz, need brave journalists.
What needs to be done to support journalists reporting from isolated war zones, like Taiz?
I think the best thing that can be done for such journalists is to appreciate and commend their brave work. Without such journalists, the plight of the people living in conflict zones and the suffering they face would go unreported and unnoticed. Journalists uncovering these human tragedies should be honored.
What motivates you to continue reporting on the war?
I have witnessed and, at times, lived the unprecedented predicament affecting the people of Taiz, over the last several months. Despite the immense physical and emotional pressure I have been under, I am happy about what I have been doing in Taiz, particularly in terms of my humanitarian reporting.
On one occasion, I reported on the plight of patients suffering from kidney failure in one of Taiz’s clinical centers. After my report aired, I was told that the center would be receiving medical support, as a result of my story. I was obviously thrilled with this result. On another occasion, I did a report about a girl who lost her leg in a shell blast. She was completely devastated and wanted an artificial limb. After the story aired, I received many messages from people who wanted to help.
These examples show me that my reporting is having an impact. This is my motivation and the driving force behind my work. I believe – as a Yemeni and as a journalist – it is my duty to continue reporting on the war and its catastrophic consequences, at all levels.