“My dream is for the war in Yemen to end, and then I can feel that I am at ease and can go back to my normal life.”
Baraa Shabin, a young man Yemen, still remembers the day when a senior member of the former’s president political party said to him: “Who do you think you guys are, passing such resolutions? We are trying to do this in a peaceful way, but trust me – we can burn Yemen to the ground.”
Back in 2011, Baraa didn’t understand the meaning of what the official had just said. But it all makes sense now. Ali Abdullah Saleh, the man who ran Yemen for more than 30 years, was not messing around.
Baraa, who studied Business and Administration in Yemen’s capital of Sanaa, remembers when he first started feeling repulsive towards his country’s politics: “The public system was incredibly corrupt – people got into university through their connections and not out of merit and qualifications.”
He was one of the lucky ones who managed to get in, but was constantly reminded that people shouldn’t take the government’s help for granted.
“My friend, who was from a small village in Yemen, took me to see where he lived. It was an accommodation provided by a charity and they paid very little – $20 dollars a month – and even that he couldn’t afford.”
Yemen’s revolution begins in Sanaa’s Change Square
Baraa’s first encounter with politics happened during university, when the Arab Spring revolution started and protests erupted at the Change Square in Sanaa. The Square quickly became known as the melting pot of Yemen’s creative and revolutionary minds, including most of Baraa’s friends.
“The same day I finished my final exam I walked out of university and I went to Change Square. I started calling people and telling them they should be there, that everyone should be there.”
He added: “I always said the square had its magic touch. It attracted everyone to follow us there.”
Baraa felt like he was a part of a community – part of something bigger. It was January 2011, shortly after the Yemeni people decided they had enough of President Saleh’s dictatorship. A large group of intellectuals, politicians and economists felt the country had a future – a future where Saleh was not President anymore. These people got together and started a movement called the Freedom and Change Form (FCF).
Baraa explained: “One of the first things we did was come up with the documents that held the ‘demands’ of the revolution. They basically said who we were and what we demanded from the government. Everyone thought it was a good idea.”
“The FCF brought something the Yemenis had long waited for: hope.”
However, it did not last long. On 18 March 2011, government forces opened fire on protesters during Friday prayer and took the lives of up to 52 people.
A complex political situation
In May, the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) decided that it was impossible to cooperate with Saleh and abandoned efforts to mediate in Yemen. Eventually, a transition model was agreed and Vice President Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi took over as President, but the whole nation knew that Saleh would not let go that easily.
Baraa, as a part of the group National Dialogue, met with Hadi a few times to discuss the country’s future.
“The design of the transition gave more power to Hadi to a certain level, so we realised that we could pressure him to move things forward.”
Indeed, he managed to introduce changes in late 2012, particularly within the military.
He explained: “The main thing that we imposed was that anyone who wanted to run for the elections must have left the military for at least ten years.”
Despite Baraa’s warnings, President Hadi refused to see what was obvious to many people – while Saleh was outside the government, he formed alliances with the Houthis, a group of tribal rebels from the north, promising them a safe path to the capital.
“They were advancing from the north and it was clear that Saleh’s people were providing them power.”
Baraa claims President Hadi did not want to face them. He said: “A country in that state needs a strong leadership and someone that would go on TV and say ‘this is it’, but he didn’t. A President cannot allow a militia to come and run the capital. It just doesn’t make sense.”
Soon after, the Houthis had President Hadi under house arrest. From then on, there were only two options for the Yemenis: it was either war against Saleh and the Houthis, or surrender to a system that had been oppressing its people for decades.
Risking his life for his country
The fighting didn’t stop Baraa. He knows he is a target, but he is stripped of fear.
“My family feared for my security but I didn’t particularly fear for theirs because in Yemen, traditions and tribal costumes are still very strong. So it is very shameful to attack one’s family because you have a problem with someone.”
His family had reasons to be scared. Back in 2011, Baraa had already been kidnapped and tortured, not by Saleh’s allies, but by the National Security of Yemen. He acknowledged the possibility that now that the Houthis are in power, they will come after him for being a big player during the revolution, especially after he had seen many of his friends being killed for that same reason.
“I think when it comes to me, I am already marked, and if everyone who is marked remains silent then you are not going to solve anything. I felt like I couldn’t accept the fact that that was it, that Saleh was back, and we were supposed to be oppressed again.”
Baraa is now the Yemen Project Coordinator for human rights organisation Reprieve and often visits the UK to talk about Yemen’s current situation. During a visit to the UK in 2013, he was detained at Gatwick Airport, where he was questioned about his work for Reprieve.
Despite this, his life continues to revolve around the state of his country and he continues to search for ways to solve the conflict.
“It’s an issue because whenever my wife and I talk, the situation in Yemen takes the majority of our time. Even in our private discussions.”
Due to safety issues in the country, having a family is not in his plans. The UN said that at least 5,878 people had been killed and 27,867 others had been wounded since the conflict started in March 2015. The humanitarian crisis is as bad as in Syria, with more than 21.2 million people requiring aid.
However, as many other young people living in Yemen, Baraa remains optimistic. While investigating the drone program, he visited some of the poorest communities in Yemen.
“The majority of these people didn’t even have basic services, and whenever I talk to them, they are looking forward to a formal state and stability. They want the state to provide them with a school, or a hospital, or a new road.”
Reconciliation has happened before in Yemen. And Baraa believes it is possible for it to happen again, if the country has the right leadership.
“My dream is for this war to end, and then I can feel that I am at ease and can go back to my normal life.”