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How I Got Detained and Permanently Banned from Yemen

  • Heather Murdock

In southern Yemen’s port city of Aden, many locals complain that the northern government ignores the south, supplying jobs and government services only to the northern provinces

In southern Yemen’s port city of Aden, many locals complain that the northern government ignores the south, supplying jobs and government services only to the northern provinces

About a year ago, in the weeks after I moved to Yemen, my new local friends wanted to know how long I planned to stay in the country. Was I settling down? Was I planning to marry a Yemeni man?

"I'll stay until the government kicks me out," I joked, having no desire to leave, or plans to stay forever. My friends laughed heartily at the idea.

"We are all your brothers in Yemen," said one Yemeni journalist. And this is almost true. Yemen is the only place I know so friendly that people will readily declare how much they missed you - even if you never met.

And since I was living in a nation of friends, I never really thought the government would kick me out of the country. But since I never was able to exactly follow Yemen's strict, if fluid press regulations, I figured life might become harder the longer I worked in Yemen.

Over the course of the year, I did not notice any change in the way the government treated me, even after I had published critical stories on sensitive subjects. Perhaps all the freedom made me too bold, because now, after trying to report on the Yemeni government's least favorite topic, I am banished from Yemen, forever.

Last month, freelance photographer Adam Reynolds and I traveled to Yaffa. The region in southern Yemen is known for rocky mountain vistas and political unrest. I had been reporting in Yemen for almost a year when we made the trip, both wearing black veils - both disguised as Yemeni women.

Despite Aden's beach views, and warm climate, foreign tourists are rare these days and the local economy is reeling

Despite Aden's beach views, and warm climate, foreign tourists are rare these days and the local economy is reeling

Locals call the area "Al-Janoob al-Har," the Free South, because the Yemeni government cannot go there. Southern flags, illegal in Yemen, are painted on mountainsides, rocks and on concrete walls. The region is ruled by sheiks and a network of outlawed separatist leaders, who head what has become known as "The Southern Movement."

Northern and southern Yemen united peacefully in 1990. Separatist leaders say they all supported the unity at first. But only four years later, the south rebelled, claiming the north was draining their resources, while denying southerners political rights and government services. The rebellion was crushed swiftly in a bloody civil war.

Since then, separatists have slowly regrouped and sporadic violence breaks out more and more often. In the past few months, about 100 people have been arrested and at least seven others have been killed in connection with separatist activities, including activists and soldiers.

Last week, there were reports that some separatists tried to kill one of Yemen's deputy prime ministers and attacked a convoy carrying a high-level defense official, killing one of his guards. The Southern Movement is now arguably the single largest threat to Yemen's fragile central government.

Rebel strongholds, which include large swaths of the south, are virtually untouched by the government. Wanted separatist leaders roam freely. From time to time Internet or cell phone service is cut off, isolating the region.

There has been a crackdown on the news flow from the south. Al Jazeera's equipment was recently confiscated after reporting in the south. A government official told one of my fellow journalists, "Reporters who write about the Southern Movement are not welcome in Yemen."

The Al-Ayam newspaper was the most popular of seven papers shut down last year after being accused of supporting the separatist movement

The Al-Ayam newspaper was the most popular of seven papers shut down last year after being accused of supporting the separatist movement

Journalists are not technically banned from the south, but official travel permits are never granted, on the grounds of "security," purposes. Not long after we returned from rebel-controlled lands and checked into a hotel in the government-controlled port city, Aden, our passports were confiscated. The next morning we went to the visa office and officers told us our passports would be returned shortly. They drove us to the political security detention center to "do the paperwork."

It soon became clear that we were not there to retrieve our passports. I tried to call the U.S. Embassy. A Yemeni political security officer took the phone from my hand and hung it up. He told me, "It is forbidden."

Around midnight, the first round of interrogation was finished. I tried to be vague and tell them only the names of people who were openly rebels - the ones who were safe in hiding that had asked me to publish their names. But my tangle of half-truths was all for naught. Our notes, cameras, computers and radio equipment were confiscated, and we were detained.

We stayed in a hotel, conveniently placed adjacent to a political security detention center, and plain-clothed soldiers were stationed outside our rooms. The guards told me that the hotel generally houses low-security prisoners, like us, and prostitutes. Adam was thrown in a jail cell one night, but I think his dank, hot cell was a joke, meant to amuse the investigators. Adam didn't find it very funny.

On the fourth day in custody, our prospects seemed grim, as we were transferred to central political security in Sanaa, Yemen's capital. Officers allowed me to take my sunglasses from my purse along the way, but when I tried to snatch a John Grisham novel for entertainment, it was quickly removed from my hands. Our passports were nowhere in sight.

But a few hours later, after we were re-questioned, and just as we were making friends with the armed guards, two officials from the U.S. Embassy appeared, out of the blue, and we were freed. Within an hour, we rumbled through the narrow cobblestone pathways of the Old City in an embassy armored car. They dropped us off in Felahi, a cozy square packed with colorful shops, juice-stalls and potato-sandwich vendors, near my apartment.

Before we got out of the car, embassy officials told us we were banned from Yemen and our pictures would be added to a database at the airport. We were told we would go to prison, if we tried to go back. Get out of Yemen as soon as possible, for safety's sake, they said, and maybe you will get your equipment back.

Over the next few days, I looked over my shoulder a lot as I wandered the city, shopping and saying goodbye to friends. I changed all of my passwords and opened new email accounts.

I was wary of calling my Yemeni friends and colleagues. I was more afraid that they would reject me for breaking the rules, than that they would be fingered for knowing me. I also thought they might be afraid to be associated with me, now persona non grata. But when I stopped into one local newspaper office, the reporters welcomed me. As always, they were in a rush, eager to make their deadlines.

They said they were saddened by the government reaction, and sorry I had to go. Like reporters all over the world, Yemeni journalists take information control personally. And in Yemen, where everyone who doesn't dislike you is your brother or sister, sympathy is easy to find. "We'll keep in close contact by email," said one journalist. "And, enshalla, we will see you again soon."

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