On the Ground in Yemen: Six Questions with Safa Al Ahmad
Over the past several months, the political crisis in Yemen has escalated dramatically: A capital city occupied by the Houthis, a rebel movement whose slogan includes the words, “Death to America. Death to Israel.” An airstrike campaign against them, led by Saudi Arabia. A president who has fled the country. A U.S. embassy closed.
It’s a chaotic mix that has catapulted Yemen into the international spotlight.
But one thing has at times been missing from media narratives on Yemen: reporters on the ground capturing voices from those caught in the middle of the crisis.
That’s where Safa Al Ahmad comes in.
Born and raised in Saudi Arabia, Al Ahmad has been reporting on Yemen since 2010. A winner of an Association for International Broadcasting Award, she was one of only a few journalists reporting from inside the country for a Western news organization as the crisis escalated.
In fact, Al Ahmad began filming in Yemen’s capital, Sanaa, just two weeks after the Houthis had taken over — and she negotiated extremely rare access to the rebels as they advanced.
The result of Al Ahmad’s reporting, a new documentary called The Fight for Yemen, airs tonight on PBS stations across the U.S. (check local listings). It’s in conjunction with BBC Arabic, and it’s a raw, gripping report straight from the heart of the country’s complicated conflict.
Al Ahmad’s life was at risk multiple times throughout the filming, including when she was detained for four hours by Houthi gunmen after trying to film this interview with the caretaker of a mosque whose imam had been recently ousted. And tragically, the politician whose house she was staying at in Yemen’s capital was assassinated in the course of her reporting trip.
In advance of tonight’s premiere, we asked Al Ahmad — whose past films include the BBC’s Saudi’s Secret Uprising in 2014, and FRONTLINE’s Al Qaeda in Yemen in 2012 — to share her unique perspective on what’s happening in Yemen, and why she believes the whole world should be paying attention.
Here’s what she had to say:
1) What Is the Recent Fighting in Yemen About?
“What is happening in Yemen is purely political — but all sides are using sectarian language to further their own bases.”
2) What Is the Relationship Between the Houthis and Iran?
“There is a relationship between the Houthis and the Iranians, but vastly overblown… the Iranians can’t just pick up the phone and tell the Houthis what to do.”
3) Who Are the Houthis? And Why Is It So Hard to Find Out?
“The government has been waging successive wars on the north of Yemen… [Yemen’s former president] stopped most media from being able to cover the wars, so it became really difficult to find out the truth of ‘who are the Houthis’ because there was so much propaganda.”
4) What Do Yemen’s Houthi Rebels Want?
“One of the most difficult things about covering the Houthis is that it is a very young movement, and very versatile. And so they keep changing what they want.”
5) Where Did the Houthis Come From?
“You are a very small, tiny little group, stuck in the mountains of the north, and all of a sudden you find yourself in control of the capital of Yemen…”
6) What’s It Like Reporting in Yemen?
“There are a lot of concerns when it came to dealing with the Houthis in Yemen, but being a woman wasn’t one of them.”