A cat-and-mouse game

  • Nation
  • Sunday, 10 Apr 2011

Some assignments make you do and think of crazy things. Covering the uprising in Yemen, a country which didn’t want foreign journalists around, was one of those.

FOR a full five minutes, I scrutinised my colleague Glenn Guan as he heartily tucked into his lunch of lamb and rice and I wondered if he could be persuaded to do it.

And would it work?

We were in Yemen to cover the anti-government protests aimed at ousting Ali Abdullah Saleh who had been president for 32 years, and the government wasn’t friendly to foreign journalists.

They weren’t issuing journalists visas either, so the foreign media had to find other ways to get in and get the story out.

The day before we arrived, the Yemeni government had deported four foreign journalists who came in as “tourists” and ended up covering the uprising.

And while we were there, we got word that another two journalists who entered the country on the same reason had been booted out.

We too had come in as “tourists”, so we had to be discreet. This meant there would be no backpack, no reporters’ notebook, no tape recorder, no name cards and definitely no bulky professional camera when we headed to the protest site.

But there was a hitch. With his shoulder-length hair, Oriental features and striking Oakley sunglasses, Glenn stood out like a beacon.

We had been warned that there were government spies among the protesters, so we had to always be on the lookout.

I managed to blend in (or so I thought) easily enough by wearing a flowing black head scarf and the abaya, the long black Arab dress almost all Yemeni women wear.

So here I was over lunch contemplating the pros and cons of getting Glenn to don the abaya and disguise himself as a woman!

I remember reading years ago about a Japanese male journalist who ingeniously used the burqa in Afghanistan to get to places, until he got found out.

His lack of facial hair (not even a stubble, which is rare in the Arab world) and pretty boy looks also had many in Yemen and Tunisia (where we had been two weeks earlier) thinking Glenn was a girl.

A couple of times when he went to the men’s toilet, locals, thinking he was a girl, stopped him and pointed him to the ladies instead.

But I realised that dressing him in an abaya would be a bad idea. For one, Glenn and his RM1,300 Oakley shades (the model Tom Cruise wore in Mission Impossible!) cannot be parted.

Despite the blazing glare of the sun, Yemenis don’t wear sunglasses, at least not at Taghyeer (Change) Square, the heart of the anti-government protests. So any sunglasses would be conspicuous enough, what more a Tom Cruise-modelled Oakley sort.

But more important were the security checkpoints and body searches we had to go through every time we wanted to enter the main protest area.

I could imagine the shame, horror and bashing an abaya-clad Glenn would get if a female guard body-searched him and discovered he was a guy!

So we did the next best thing. We pretended we didn’t know each other, walked on different sides of the road and kept a distance between us. If we “lost” each other in the crowd, we would just call or text to find out where the other was.

For the first two nights, we stayed in a good five-star hotel (US$135 ++ per room) that was close to the pro-government rally site. But the problem was that most of the stories were at the anti-government protest site, which was a few kilometres away. So, on the third day we moved to a US$28 per night hotel and got rooms with views of the protesters on the streets. We were the only guests here. We had Internet and cable TV, so we could follow the news easily. And there was a restaurant (where again we were the only guests) and room service.

I threw out all my office notebooks and bought small plain notebooks to scribble notes on. I could easily stick these into the pocket of my vest or cargo pants that I wore under the abaya. I also kept my name cards and office press tag hidden.

After writing and sending a story, I would immediately delete the copy on my netbook, taking care to empty the recycle bin as well, so that if anyone came to check, there would be no trace on my computer. Glenn did the same with the photos he took.

On the table in my hotel room, I prominently displayed our itinerary of places to visit as tourists and a magazine titled Is Yemen Safe For Foreigners. I made sure there were details of tour packages in my netbook as well.

And we had a story to explain why we were staying at the protest area. It was that we had come to Yemen to study Arabic and we did not know the schools and universities were closed because of the protest. We said we couldn’t go back immediately because it was too expensive to change our flight ticket.

The reason we are staying at the protest area? Because it is clean, cheap and only a walking distance from the university we had planned to study in.

Even the two interpreters we had over the course of the assignment were a bit nervous and jumpy. We, of course, told them we were journalists. The first had his streetwise friend and his son join us as we walked around.

He signalled when it was safe to interview someone, but when a small crowd started gathering around us to listen to what was being asked and said (as they often did because they were curious), he would ask that we quickly move on. And we did.

Sometimes Glenn had to ask our interpreter’s friend to take the photos with one of the small cameras. It would draw less attention if a local took the photos.

After the third day, our first interpreter suggested that his friend Muhammad take over from him. As his English wasn’t really good and he had difficulty translating the speeches on stage, and Muhammad spoke fluent English, that sounded ideal.

The first day Muhammad was with us – it was a Friday, a day after we had moved into our new hotel – turned out to be quite eventful.

We had been standing on the steps outside the hotel waiting for Friday prayers to end and there were tens of thousands on the streets praying.

Right after the prayers, snipers on rooftops started shooting at the protesters. We didn’t hear the gunshots from where we were but when we heard there was shooting, we headed for the main square. Within minutes, we could hear the shooting and see ambulances rushing back and forth.

It wasn’t long before we saw groups of men and boys frantically carrying out the injured to a makeshift hospital at the square.

I looked at my watch, noting that since Malaysia is five hours ahead of Yemen, it was already night time back home. We had only about two hours to get our story and photos in before the deadline!

I know from personal experience that if I tried to get to where the shooting and snipers were, I might get stuck there for hours and would be unable to file the story. So we followed the injured instead.

The scene at the makeshift hospital was both chaotic and organised at the same time. The injured just kept coming in – some with terrible head injuries and others who were convulsing from being hit by some sort of nerve gas (definitely not tear gas, we were told).

The doctors, nurses and volunteers there seemed prepared for the emergency. Despite being overwhelmed, they calmly tended to the injured and everyone seemed to be taken care of – within minutes or seconds – depending on the severity of the injury.

It was there that I got my first glimpse of the other foreign journalists. There was a handful and the cameras were out.

“Go into the mosque. The dead are in there,” one of the doctors told me as he attended to one man who was shot in the leg.

I went in and counted 21 dead. I saw shocked and angry young people and others in anguish as they recognised the dead as a family member or friend.

After some heart-wrenching interviews with the injured and one with a young medical volunteer who was in tears, I rushed back to write the story and made it for the deadline.

Then we went back to get more up-to-date information. We spent hours talking to people and going to the area where the snipers had been. The sight of groups of young men walking hand-in-hand through the very spot where people had been gunned down just a few hours ago was amazing.

They were loudly chanting: “We are not afraid of your guns and intimidation tactics. Our protest is peaceful. The regime must go.”

When we finally got back to the hotel, it was very late and the main entrance was locked and grilled. They let us in through a side door and then told us we had to change rooms. Speaking through Muham­mad, the hotel manager said some security forces had come to the hotel and demanded to know who we were and why we were there, and also wanted to search our rooms.

“We didn’t let them in this time. But if they see the lights in your rooms tonight, they will come back again so you have to move to another room now. If you are tired, we can help you pack and move your stuff,” he said.

So we moved to rooms one floor up. Mine faced the wall of the building across. We carried our room keys with us at all times and didn’t let the hotel staff clean our rooms.

The next day, we saw a group of protesters doing the gambia (Yemeni dagger) war dance. I stopped to interview one of the guys while Glenn took photos.

Someone passing by muttered something to Muhammad and I saw his face change.

“Why? What did he say?” I asked.

“He said I should tell you to go to the pro-government site because there are a lot more people there,” he replied.

Oops! Despite our efforts to stay low, we’d just run into one of those government “spies”.

A day later, Muhammad got so nervous he wanted our assurance that we would help him if he was picked up for “colluding” with foreign journalists.

“Can you please call your embassy and ask if they would help me if I am detained because I was working with Malaysians? Can you call Mat (the first interpreter and his friend) and ask him too? He will know exactly what to do,” he said.

We reassured him and took even more precautions, including meeting Muhammad at different places.

We broke our routine and did what tourists are supposed to do. One day we went to the old city of Sana’a instead of the anti-protest area. There, we spent about two hours looking around, taking pictures and buying food. We also visited a tiny tea stall flanked by two huge photos of the president. I sat and chatted with some men drinking mint tea there. In this area, they were very pro-Saleh.

On Monday, there was a change in mood when a number of the army’s top brass broke with the president over the Friday shooting.

And Friday prayers that week couldn’t have been more different. This time, there were soldiers with AK-47s on rooftops protecting the anti-government protesters while they prayed.

I asked if we could get to the rooftop to talk to the soldiers. Knowing that we are foreigners and hence not a threat, one of the boys took us there. While I interviewed the soldiers, Glenn took great photos of the protesters and the soldiers.

After two weeks in Yemen and with Saleh still fighting to stay on, we decided to leave. We also knew that the longer we stayed, the more chances we might be discovered and thrown out.

While there were no bombs or grenades flying around and the Internet and phone lines were all working, it was still a tough assignment because of the authority’s hostility towards foreign journalists.

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