“I feel there is so much untold, uncovered and unexplored yet. Everything I had seen in the Middle East was different in Yemen, and I am still fascinated to this day.”
Even though it has been years since Charlene Rodrigues visited Yemen for the first time, she still shuffles on her chair and struggles with words when she talks about the country. Not because it is difficult to say something, but because it is difficult not to say everything at the same time.
Charlene was born in India and is now living in London. Since July 2014, she has lived in Sanaa, the capital of a nation caught in a brutal civil war. Although she moved there while the city was still a peaceful place to live, through the eyes of a foreigner she has seen the country that welcomed her crumble to pieces.
She said: “I didn’t really fear for my security. I thought foreigners like me were relatively safe, I didn’t hear a lot about kidnapping back then.”
Yemen descends into chaos
However, a rebel militia from the north, the Houthis, were moving south. In 2004, they were involved in conflicts with former President Ali Abdullah Saleh after protesting against his government. During the 2011 revolution, the Houthis were amongst those who wanted Saleh out of power. Charlene’s life in Yemen pre-Houthis was one of wonder, intrigue and adaptation.
“It was hard for me to get around the fact that women couldn’t feature in photographs and things like that, but I must stay that having lived in Saudi Arabia, in comparison, Yemenis are far more liberal.”
She felt the most inspired she had ever been. Charlene had a guard who looked after her and made sure that her generator had fuel and that she always had food. When the Houthis took over the capital, they became essential. Although a minority, the rebels managed to gather support during a movement of protests in August 2014 that urged the government of President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi to step down.
For the next few months, the Houthis imposed themselves in Sanaa, painting their flag on buildings, driving around town playing Shia chants and raiding government institutions. At the same time, they were taking over other regions, such as the strategic port city of Hodeida. In January 2015, they stormed into the presidential palace and put President Hadi under house arrest and then forced him to leave the country, leaving the political situation in Yemen in a chaotic state.
As a foreign reporter, Charlene saw a nation fall apart in half a year, and suddenly, she found herself in a war zone.
Choosing to return to a war zone
Under the Houthi ruling, her life changed dramatically. Old City, where she lived, became a Houthi controlled area; food and oil prices went up and electricity was scarce. Things got even worse in March 2015 when a Saudi-led coalition began conducting airstrikes against the rebels.
Charlene stayed for another month but then decided that it was too dangerous, as did thousands of Yemenis who have been displaced since. She flew back to London for a few months, following the destruction of Yemen from afar. She was repelled by the normal newsroom atmosphere, constantly feeling useless.
Charlene could not bear not being there while Yemen’s social fabric was being ripped apart, so she decided to return in October. She arrived first in Aden, where she saw first-hand the atrocities committed by both the rebels and the Gulf coalition.
“In Aden I was even more petrified because you can’t tell your friend from your enemy, you don’t know if the person you are talking to is Al-Qaeda or an informant.”
She had to disguise herself to go back to Sanaa in a car with a Yemeni father and his daughter. She described the harrowing journey to the IPF:
“The journey is 13 hours and there are so many checkpoints on the way. My friend said, ‘Don’t speak at all!’ I have never prayed so much in my life.”
By October, the war in Yemen had escalated to a catastrophic point. The United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) and the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) reported that more than 114,000 people had already fled the country, the humanitarian crisis was severe, and peace talks between the Houthis and the official government kept getting suspended.
When Charlene arrived in Sanaa, the mesmerising city that had welcomed her a year earlier was unrecognisable. Her old accommodation had shut down after it became a Saudi target, the beautiful buildings she once used to roam around had been reduced to rumble, litter accumulated on the streets and there was only electricity four hours a day. She explained how she struggled to adjust to the circumstances, even as an outsider:
“I could see the bombings and shootings, I could feel my windows shaking. I don’t know how these people coped… It takes a different body and mind set to be able to live like this. They sort of endure death. But the suffering is very tangible.”
Detained by the Houthis
While reporting on a bombing in Old Sanaa one day, Charlene was taken by the Houthis for interrogation. She was asked for her passport and journalism pass, but only had her business journalism visa that had been issued by the Saudi controlled government of President Hadi.
“They don’t recognise it,” she explained. “They also demanded that you had somebody from the ministry of information accompanying you, which I didn’t. I was on my own.”
She was detained for four hours until she showed them a picture of her online passport.
“I suspect the only reason they let me go was because I had an Indian passport. If I had a British or an American passport I wouldn’t have got away with it.”
As in any war zone, the current conflict between the Houthis and the Saudi coalition makes it increasingly difficult for journalists on the ground to cover events and send information out of the country. Both sides are unwelcome to foreign reporters, particularly the Houthis, who known for kidnapping and torturing foreigners. This is especially true of Americans or British foreigners as both countries sell weapons to Saudi Arabia.
Considering this, Charlene was lucky not once, but twice. After being harassed for a week following the Houthi interrogation, she was about to leave Yemen when she received a phone call: the rebels’ leader, Mohammed Ali al-Houthi, had agreed to be interviewed.
Interviewing the Houthis
“These were the same people who have locked up all my associates and friends.”
Charlene went to the presidential palace accompanied by a translator. They were both terrified.
To their surprise, they were received with Yemeni hospitality and copious amounts of juice. She said: “Until today, I honestly don’t know why the tables turned, why they were incredibly nice to me. They even gave me like a little gift before leaving. They wanted to keep in touch, they wanted me to let them know when I was coming back and told me they would fix me. Mohammed Ali al-Houthi gave me his direct number.”
Charlene left after two days and has not been back since, but Yemen remains close to her heart. Charlene’s voice shakes slightly when she thinks about millions of women and children facing starvation and death without being able to defend themselves.
She said: “I have never felt more touched or moved by a country like Yemen. You see children and women dying in the middle of the street. I can’t forget images of dead children in hospitals because of lack of food, oxygen or water.
“As a journalist, you should never let your emotions get in the way, but you can’t not cry. It’s your job to report, but how much can you endure?”