When Afrah Nasser was growing up in Sana’a, Yemen, “freedom” was an alien word, a Western concept associated with the erosion of traditions and culture. “More relevant to Yemenis is a life without oppression,” she says—a life marked not by violence, corruption, and poverty, but rather by a sense of possibility. It’s those aspirations that drove her to become a journalist, and to both cover and participate in Yemen’s 2011 uprising, which began as a peaceful, youth-led movement against an authoritarian regime.
In the face of death threats from regime supporters, Nasser was forced into exile in Sweden, where she’s lived for the last eight years, documenting Yemen’s slide into civil war, the overwhelming humanitarian crisis—some 14 million people are at risk of starvation and death because of displacement, disease, and famine—and the failures and complicity of international actors. Deeply connected to the home she left behind, Nasser occupies a vital position as a sensitive chronicler of both international diplomacy and the ground realities in Yemen. “Yemen experts tend to be 40-year-old academic guys sitting in New York,” she says. “Whatever I am part of, I always stress the agency of Yemenis. Talk with Yemenis, not just about Yemenis.”
Nasser’s reporting and analysis has appeared across international media. She’s received the International Press Freedom Award from the Committee to Protect Journalists and has been featured repeatedly as one of the “100 Most Influential Arabs” by Arabian Business Magazine. Recently, she joined Human Rights Watch as a researcher investigating humanitarian law violations and human rights abuses in Yemen.
I spoke with Nasser over Skype from her adopted home in Gothenburg, Sweden, where she described how winter’s scant daylight casts an additional pall over her challenging work. Nonetheless, “a story of resilience” is what Nasser strives to tell. “I will make it, Yemen will make it. Eventually.”
Meara Sharma: How are you doing? Give me a sense of your context.
Afrah Nasser: I’m coping. I mean, Swedish winter is very harsh. It’s nonstop evening. Can you imagine that? Evening all day long. Then the nature of my work is about people in famine, people persecuted, detained, tortured. I spend most of my time talking to people on WhatsApp, whether inside Yemen or in the diaspora. It’s just so depressing. The weather is depressing, the work is depressing.
I don’t recommend Sweden at this time of year.
Meara Sharma: What are the big questions occupying you right now, as a researcher and journalist, but also just as Afrah, a Yemeni?
Afrah Nasser: There are multiple fronts to the conflict in Yemen, and the humanitarian crisis is absolutely horrific. But the main question is: how can we save Yemen from being a failed state? Ensure it is a state where basic rights are protected, where people can enjoy life without human rights violations and misery?
As someone who grew up in Yemen and is living in exile now, I’m pretty much dominated by the feeling of guilt. It’s like, I survived, you know? Survival guilt. And I see, from people inside Yemen, especially those who have access to social media, a tendency to say, “Look, these Yemenis outside, they’re not doing enough to help us. They’re enjoying their time.”
It reminds me that I have a responsibility from the outside towards people who are stuck inside.
Meara Sharma: What was the context in which you left Yemen?
Afrah Nasser: I was working as a journalist, and then the uprising started I became involved with that. We were a really tiny group of Yemeni journalists writing in English, so the Ali Abdullah Saleh regime and the pro-Ali Abdullah Saleh people tried to control us. I started getting a lot of online bullying, hateful comments, death threats.
Around then, I was invited to attend a workshop in Sweden. I didn’t have any idea of what Sweden was at that time. But I came, and while I was in Sweden, violence broke out in Yemen. My family was displaced from one area in Sana’a to another area. When I called them, they were like, “You can come back but there is a lot of violence and also, if you come back, you cannot write again.” My family, out of a sense of protectiveness, was threatening me, not allowing me to write again.
I couldn’t imagine myself not writing. I decided to stay here in Sweden. I became a political refugee. And the violence never ceased in Yemen.
Meara Sharma: You left without realizing that you were actually leaving for good.
Afrah Nasser: Exactly. I went through a lot of phases. Now when I look back, I just feel so sad. But I also think how courageous I was. I said, “Let me write here for at least some time. Then maybe I can go back, at some point.” I mean, my passion for writing and journalism became home.
Meara Sharma: You’ve been covering diplomatic aspects of the conflict, some of which play out in Europe, but you’re also in touch with what’s actually happening to people in Yemen. What’s it like to move between these realms?
Afrah Nasser: At some point I realized it was useful for me to engage with the international diplomacy aspect of what’s going on in Yemen, because I felt like there were a lot of misconceptions. For example, about Yemen being this land of al-Qaeda and terrorism. I think the real terrorism in Yemen is poverty and corruption. So I started to focus on the disastrous foreign policy from the US and the EU, and I found myself becoming a sort of ambassador for Yemen. I went around the world, talked with international actors, journalists, et cetera, and tried to connect Yemen to international politics.
Meara Sharma: And in those spaces, what are you trying to convey?
Afrah Nasser: Yemen experts tend to be 40-year-old academic guys sitting in New York, talking about Yemen. So in any talk, interview, article—whatever I am part of—I always stress the agency of Yemenis. Talk with Yemenis, not just about Yemenis. Let Yemenis be part of whatever Yemen project you’re doing. I think that has been the most effective way to combat misconceptions.
I used to wear a hijab and then I took it off here in Sweden. People would say, “Are you Yemeni? No, you’re not Yemeni. You can’t be Yemeni.” I’m like, “Of course, I’m not Yemeni to you because you never saw Yemenis before.”
In Sweden, there is something called Almedalen, an annual political week. This year they had three panels about Yemen, and none featured any Yemenis. I emailed the organizers saying, “Thank you for being interested in Yemen but it could have been beneficial to have insight from someone from Yemen.” I’m not necessarily saying me. There are many Yemenis in Sweden; they have the resources to bring someone from Yemen. Their reply was, “This panel was about the Swedish role in Yemen. So we felt like it wasn’t important to have someone from Yemen.”
I find this all the time. Many Westerners don’t give significance to people from certain communities speaking for themselves. Often in Sweden, there is a huge focus on “objectivity.” But it’s limiting. It’s not enriching.
Meara Sharma: How do you deal with this notion of objectivity in your own work?
Afrah Nasser: I’ll tell you about a journalism fellowship I had at the United Nations in New York last year. Longtime war correspondents talked with me about the psychological impact of covering tragedies and how journalists need a certain level of detachment from the story being covered. Of course, I didn’t totally believe in that. Steeling oneself against pain need not mean total detachment, particularly when the stories you cover hit close to home.
My fellowship at the UN was a bittersweet experience. On one hand, I got access to resources and connections to people that I would never have had otherwise. But on the other hand, I was ashamed to tell my friends in Yemen that I was benefitting from the United Nations, because they see the UN as having failed them.
During the farewell celebration in November 2018, I gave this speech and I told everyone my takeaway from the fellowship is that the UN Security Council is just a talk show. We only hear words, while we know exactly who’s responsible for the war and violations and sometimes war crimes. But we want to have a good time and talk and discuss and just show how we’re elegant and good with words and that’s it. What’s next? You don’t show the political will to take action and bring justice to these people, to the people in the conflicts. Take Yemen as an example, take Syria as an example.
Meara Sharma: What was the reaction to your speech?
Afrah Nasser: People were having drinks; it was a typical mingling, high-society kind of gathering. After I finished, a few women journalists came to me and said, “Thank you for saying that. We need someone to shake the system.”
Nothing happened, nobody followed me home and attacked me or something like that. I guess they accept the criticism.
Meara Sharma: As we speak, a new round of behind-the-scenes talks are going on between Saudi Arabia and Yemen’s Houthi rebels. What’s your analysis of how things might unfold?
Afrah Nasser: Based on my interviews with people inside the government or close to the Saudi-led coalition, I think next year will have some good news for the Yemenis. It could be the year that the war ends. I think Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates are interested in dialogue. Not necessarily peace talks, but de-escalation and reaching a political settlement.
But also as a human rights researcher and advocate, I think the aftermath is when the work really begins. There are multilevel violations happening in Yemen and it’s very, very critical to start the accountability conversation for those who have suffered most.
Meara Sharma: Yes—you’ve often stressed a need to understand the multidimensionality of injustice in Yemen; how domestic problems can’t be understood in isolation, but rather, need to be considered in light of international and regional policies.
Afrah Nasser: In hierarchical sequence, the powerful step on the weak. Western powers suppress or fail to support transformational movements in the region in order to preserve their economic and security interests; Arab regional powers step on poorer nations like Yemen for similar reasons; and Yemen’s corrupt political elites step on the population as a whole.
Take women as an example. In the Gender Equality Index reports, Yemen is always at or near the bottom of the list. And then, I’m in conferences in the West where we’re talking about gender issues in Yemen. But there is a big elephant in the room in these discussions about women’s rights, and that is militarization. And, how Western states are fueling the conflict in Yemen, how they are contributing to the devastation of a country. That’s one facet of modern colonialism.
Yes, Yemen lacks legislation protecting women; laws that ban child marriage, for instance. But also, Western policymakers, you have a hand in the political and military situation in Yemen today. If you stop fueling the conflict in Yemen, with your arms sales to Saudi Arabia, you would be helping the protection of women. International powers, regional powers, and misogyny in Yemeni society—how the tribal system works to oppress women, how the patriarchy dominates—each layer has to be looked at seriously. We need other countries to have a cooperative relationship with Yemen instead of just fueling conflict through militarism.
There was a Saudi diplomat at the UN who was stopped by a journalist. He was asked something like, “When are you going to stop bombing Yemen?” The Saudi diplomat started laughing and said: “What a strange question. It’s like you asking me, When are you going to stop beating your wife?”
That gives you an idea of how the Saudi understanding of violence against women influences their understanding of using violence in Yemen.
Meara Sharma: You’re saying we can’t look at violence against women and not connect that to the militarization of society more broadly.
Afrah Nasser: Right. Consider the story of Samira, which spiraled across Yemeni media earlier this year. She’s a mother of two girls who was kidnapped and shackled for about five years by her cousin, a man named Mahdi. Throughout, he was either trying to force her to turn over her entire inheritance, or trying to kill her.
Samira’s story reflects how the war’s assault on liberty has manifest itself in a war on women. Violence on a personal level, really, is a measurement of the well-being of a country as a whole. That kind of violence inside each Yemeni house is a product of the conflicts that happen in the country. Violence breeds violence. These cases, like what happened to Samira, are a manifestation of the cycle of violence that the country has endured year after year. That eventually will crack. But even if there are no air strikes or snipers anymore, citizens will have normalized violence with each other, which is, I think, a disruption that you cannot even quantify.
Meara Sharma: Yemen has become defined by the scale of the humanitarian crisis; indeed, the suffering is so extreme that the story of where this all started feels very distant. Where does the uprising of 2011 live for you, now? What kind of energy remains around forging a new political reality?
Afrah Nasser: From the grassroots, I think there is still a desire to be something other than what the Houthis are or what the Southern Transitional Council is or what the Saudis want to bring. There is a very different Yemen that we still can’t imagine or can’t see—but it wants to emerge despite all of these powers.
Yemenis want a life without oppression. This is what my generation sought when we joined the 2011 uprising. I remember how women filled the streets next to men, chanting slogans demanding the fall of the regime, the establishment of a civil state, a society where equal citizenship was guaranteed for all.
And even though the humanitarian crisis is massive, I think if it wasn’t for civil society today, the country would have collapsed completely. It’s the people that are keeping Yemen together. Take my mother as an example. In Sana’a, when the economic situation started to get really hard, she and other women started to mobilize themselves in their own neighborhoods. They started pooling money together each week, so that if a family had health problems or food insecurity, there was an economic safety net. This is just one tiny example, but it’s so impressive for me. People are mobilizing themselves in whatever means they can, and they are the core of Yemen.
Meara Sharma: You recently described how Yemen is fragmenting into many Yemenis. You said, “I know that whatever I’m missing is not there any longer.” What do you mean by that?
Afrah Nasser: Khalas! Rest in peace, Yemen that I used to know. It feels like it died.
I only have the memories. Most of my friends have migrated. My main connection to Yemenis are victims of violence or families of whatever story I’m writing about. There are neighborhoods in Yemen that are pancaked. My sister sent me a picture of our neighborhood and it doesn’t look the same anymore. Streets we used to walk on—some of them are completely devastated, completely destroyed. Even if you build them back, they will not be built in the same way that they were before. That Yemen is gone.
Meara Sharma: But even as you describe this loss, you also seem very keen on emphasizing how there is life, and agency. What is the story of Yemen that you want told?
Afrah Nasser: A story of resilience. Yes, it’s horrible what’s happening in Yemen, but we will make it. I will make it, Yemen will make it. Eventually. I can’t wait for the end of the war. I can’t wait to tell Yemenis, “You deserve to live a life with your full human rights protected.” I mean, I can’t wait.
And I know from history that it will happen. Life will continue. The more you learn about history, the less shocked you are about reality. You have to be empowered by history, I think. All I want is for Yemenis to enjoy life, to enjoy respect, to enjoy dignity.
Meara Sharma: Do you want to move back to Yemen eventually?
Afrah Nasser: Of course. I can’t wait to be back in Yemen. For the sake of the sun.
Meara Sharma: No more dark Swedish winter!
Afrah Nasser: Yeah. The sun is always shining in Yemen.