Yemen: Descending Into Despair

From the Fall 2011 Innovation issue

By Jennifer Steil

SANA’A—It’s 2009. Dust from the recent bombings still hangs in the warm air of Sa’dah, a city 113 miles north of Yemen’s capital, just shy of the frontier with Saudi Arabia and the vast desert known as the Empty Quarter. A five-year-old girl stands crying in the street. Hungry, thirsty, and alone, she has been wandering in the ruins of her home, searching for her mother, father, or any other family members, all of whom have vanished in the devastating battles between the Houthi Shiite rebels and the government. She finds no one.

At last, someone finds her. An old woman stops to help the weeping child but is unable to discover who she is. The traumatized girl cannot give her own name or the name of anyone in her family.

“I will be your grandmother,” the woman, Mariam Hadi Ali, says to the girl. She calls her Hadiya, which means “gift” in Arabic. Together, the two flee Sa’dah, seeking refuge from the bitter conflict. They land in nearby Amran, where UNICEF has set up a small transit camp. By then Hadiya is acutely malnourished and requires two months of treatment with Plumpy’nut, a peanut-based, high-calorie paste created especially for famine victims.

She has stabilized nutritionally. But her other afflictions will be slower to heal. Hadiya, now seven, is psychologically scarred, says Rajia Sharhan, a Yemeni pediatrician and nutrition officer with UNICEF Yemen. While she has begun to play a little bit in the camp, she hardly speaks and usually hides behind her new grandmother. She has never attended school. She remembers nothing of her past and cannot return home.

Yemeni children have more to fear than starvation. Ongoing armed conflicts in many parts of the country terrorize their minds. Violence traumatizes everyone, but it’s far worse for children, says Geert Cappelaere, UNICEF’s representative in Yemen. Yemenis are growing up with bullets flying around their heads. It is not uncommon to see a child playing with the unexploded ammunition that litters the streets. Even refugees who do still have homes often cannot return. Landmines riddle the Sa’dah region, and many who have tried to return home have lost limbs in the process.

Of the more than 300,000 who have fled the conflict, most still live in camps. Among these is a family of 14 who in September 2009 fled Sa’dah, the capital of the northernmost province, with only what they could carry. Mohammed al-Mogny, his two wives, their nine children under the age of five, and a set of grandparents left their cows, sheep, and chickens behind and walked for two and a half days before settling in a deserted area called al-Mazraq. Within a month, some 10,000 others had followed them there, gathering where they found familiar faces. By the time they arrived in al-Mazraq, all nine children were suffering from varying degrees of starvation. The seven-month-old twin boys, Saleh and Ali, were close to death. The grandmother, Haleema Saleh, was looking after all nine children, as the mothers were busy fetching wood and water and doing the cooking. It was she who got them treatment from UNICEF. The boys were hospitalized and the rest of the children treated with Plumpy’nut until they recovered.

These are the lucky few. Those unable to find their way to the few functioning refugee camps are not faring as well. Often, they live far from treatment centers and cannot afford to travel. Recent fuel shortages and skyrocketing prices have made car travel all but impossible. A journey that cost $2.50 a year ago now costs $40, so parents often wait until their children are in crisis before seeking help. Fuel shortages also mean that even the camps cannot get water, as it must be transported in trucks or pumped from the ground using gasoline-powered pumps.


The problem is about to get much worse—reaching famine proportions on a biblical scale. Just across the Gulf of Aden, the famine in Somalia has captured the world’s attention with the likes of Lady Gaga, Justin Bieber, and Madonna all campaigning for relief. Meanwhile, the looming humanitarian disaster in Yemen, a country with more than twice the population, has been largely ignored. The political upheaval that began with anti-government protests around the country in January, combined with violent conflicts in many parts of the country, are driving tens of thousands from their homes.

These new floods of internally displaced are now straining communities that were already struggling. In the south, more than 60,000 have been displaced by recent conflicts in Abyan. Many areas remain inaccessible to aid organizations because of running battles. In the strategic southern city of Zinjibar, the capital of Abyan, just inland from the Gulf of Aden, Islamic militants have been battling security forces on a daily basis.

Internal displacement is just one of the myriad crises facing a Yemen teetering on the brink of catastrophe that could result in widespread starvation, the collapse of the economy, runaway disease epidemics, and massive internal displacement of the most vulnerable Yemenis—
a recipe for instability and further conflict. Hundreds of thousands of protesters, frustrated with a government they feel has ignored their needs for too long, have gone into the streets and squares, demanding an end to the regime of President Ali Abdullah Saleh, who, they charge, has been largely responsible for pushing the country to the edge of this humanitarian disaster.

Conflicts between youthful protestors and government security forces lead repeatedly to bloodshed. But while the protesters face real danger, a far greater threat to the Yemeni people is playing out across the nation. Yemen’s economy is in freefall. Over-reliance on oil revenues (which make up more than 70 percent of state income), corruption, a lack of coherent economic policy, and President Saleh’s web of patronage are all taking a steep toll. An attack in March on an oil pipeline in Ma’rib, 150 miles east of the capital, halved the country’s oil exports and left it with severe fuel and foreign exchange shortages. The weakened government took months to reach a deal with the tribe responsible to arrange for the repairs.

As a result, lines of cars waiting at filling stations extend for miles. Many wait weeks for a tank of gas. When fuel arrives, fighting often follows. “I always know there is fuel when I hear shooting,” a taxi driver told activist Kawkab al-Thaibani one morning. The fuel shortage contributes to Yemen’s already critical water shortage. Most of Yemen’s water comes from aquifers deep below ground, which means fuel is required to pump it to the surface. In Sana’a, 60 percent of water arrives in tankers. So when trucks can’t get fuel, Sana’anis can’t get water. Al-Thaibani’s home often is without water for weeks. When water is available, its price has quintupled since January. Much of the country is in a similar situation.

More than half of Sana’a’s shops are shuttered, and few cars can be seen on the once bustling streets. Many Sana’anis have sent their families back to villages where they can live more cheaply. Even before the current crisis, more than three million Yemenis were severely malnourished, according to the World Food Program. Nearly half of the country’s population is below the poverty line. Now, skyrocketing food prices are intensifying the situation. Yemen imports 90 percent of its wheat and 100 percent of its rice, meaning that rising global food prices have led to a sharp increase in domestic prices, hitting the poorest families hardest. If a political solution is not realized soon, inflation, now averaging 16 percent annually, could rise to 30 percent by the end of the year, say economists.

Yemen cannot be compared with any other country experiencing an “Arab Spring.” Unlike Tunisia, Egypt, and Syria, Yemen is chronically underdeveloped, so what is happening now places additional strains on an already critical situation. Tensions in Sana’a dramatically worsened in June and July, says UNICEF’s Cappelaere. Militias loyal to the powerful al-Ahmar family, among Saleh’s chief rivals, have taken over the Hadda neighborhood where they live, erecting roadblocks of sandbags, while a few hundred feet away, government troops are poised for battle with them. When the Republican Guard recently tried to remove some roadblocks, shooting broke out, forcing Cappelaere to flee to his office, which is where he now sleeps. “We need to be very clear that Yemen is on the verge of a massive, massive humanitarian crisis,” he says.

UNICEF has been forced to drop all of its long-term development programs to focus on emergency aid. Rather than working to create sustainable water systems, the organization is simply trying to get emergency water supplies to the most desperate. Campaigns urging Yemeni women to breastfeed (one of the best ways to combat chronic infant malnutrition) and to immunize their children have been suspended. “For the moment, we are a kind of fire brigade,” says Cappelaere.

Each month, the organization must find a way to transport an average of 21,000 gallons of diesel to the camps of Sa’dah refugees in Hajja. This diesel is needed to fuel the pumps that extract water from deep in the earth. It takes five people working 24 hours a day, seven days a week, simply to ensure that those 21,000 gallons of diesel get to the camp. The need for water is especially urgent, given that summer temperatures in the camp hover around 115 degrees Fahrenheit. Moving food and other supplies around the country has become equally difficult. UNICEF struggles to find truckers willing to take their consignments to the south. When they do find a driver, often extortionate prices are demanded. “But we don’t have a choice,” says Cappelaere, explaining that with the security risks, it’s uncertain the trucks will ever make it to their destinations. “We cannot call on the government to make them secure because the government is not in control.”

Nearly half of Yemen’s children are stunted as a result of chronic malnutrition, and may starve to death in just a couple of years. Many teenagers don’t look much older than eight. In Abyan, at least 12 percent of babies under the age of one are acutely malnourished. Al-Thaibani knows families who feed their infants only tea. For the first few years of conflict in the north, UNICEF could not get into Sa’dah. When they finally gained access, workers found that 45 percent of the children were acutely malnourished.

Humanitarian organizations are also thwarted by the lack of a functioning government. They cannot work with the country’s various ministries, because most are depleted by defections or shut down. So they are forced to seek alternative means of delivery in a country lacking a strong civil society. Among the severe health crises is the loss of nearly a third of all vaccine supplies, since fuel shortages mean clinics cannot keep generators working to cool them. While the immediate impact is invisible, it won’t be long before disease epidemics dramatically increase child mortality. Already an outbreak of whooping cough has begun in the north.

Countries interested in Yemen’s future cannot wait any longer before stepping up aid. “We have a responsibility not to wait until people start to die to call the alarm bell,” says Cappelaere.


The country’s slide into the abyss has its roots in politics as well as in poverty. Protesters across the nation blame the current political and economic turmoil on President Saleh, who became president of North Yemen in 1978 and of the entire country after it united in 1990. On paper, Yemen’s government is a constitutional democracy with executive, legislative, and judicial branches. The president is head of state, while the prime minister is the head of government. A 301-seat elected parliament and a 111-seat, president-appointed Shura council comprise the legislative branch. There is notional separation of powers, regular elections, and genuine pluralism—more democracy than exists anywhere on the Arabian Peninsula.

But while Yemen’s government has superficial resemblance to western democracies, in practice, parliament is little more than a tool of President Saleh. His party, the General People’s Congress [GPC], wields nearly all the power. He regularly uses parliament to stall legislation he doesn’t like. The judiciary is corrupt and manipulated by the regime. The president, rather than ministers, makes all major decisions. Costly oil subsidies encourage smuggling, which benefits corrupt presidential cronies—and keep oil revenues from contributing to public welfare. Oil sold at official, reduced prices in Yemen can be diverted, then sold on an industrial scale on the black market for far more. The people who benefit most from oil smuggling are those with the greatest access to fuel, namely the president’s allies.

The Yemeni people, the majority of whom live in destitution, have felt a growing sense of inequity as they watch the ruling elite look after their own interests, with no consideration for the public good. Yemeni political analyst Abdul-Ghani al-Iryani says Saleh’s manipulations have made his people completely dependent on corruption and patronage.

In 1994, a warlord from the Hashid tribal federation (to which Saleh’s clan, Sanhan, belongs) looted the warehouses of the highway authority in Aden, says al-Iryani. The warlord used the equipment to start his own construction company, accepting government contracts and cash but failing to fulfill his obligations. When he submitted an inflated invoice, even the corrupt minister of Construction and Public Works refused to pay. The warlord complained to the president. The next day, armed thugs surrounded the ministry and began shooting at the minister’s office. No one intervened. Central Security officers, whose job is to enforce the law and protect government officials from this kind of attack, simply watched. After hiding under his desk for two hours, the minister finally agreed to pay the invoice. Even today, this is how Saleh approaches the role of the state, says al-Iryani. “He has completely undermined the rule of law and turned the government into a mafia enterprise.”

Southerners who feel disenfranchised by unification have been pressing for secession, while the Houthi Shiites in the north have been battling the government for self-rule for years. Saleh failed to follow through on 1994 promises to decentralize authority and allow Yemeni provinces, known as governorates, more autonomy, says Mohamed Qubaty, former adviser to the prime minister and a longtime member of the ruling GPC party. After years of frustration with Saleh’s refusal to move the state toward a true parliamentary system, Qubaty quit earlier this year and moved to London. 

Saleh has consistently made decisions that have denied his people economic opportunities. When he backed Saddam Hussein and refused to oppose Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990, Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries responded by expelling some two million Yemeni workers. The remittances these workers sent home had been a major contribution to Yemen’s national income. Yemen’s support for Saddam led to a $500 million (33 percent) decline in remittances to Yemen between 1990 and 1991, according to the World Bank, damaging an already fragile economy.

For 20 years, Saleh also refused to reform the civil service and allowed scores of Yemenis to receive wages for doing nothing. When he was finally forced to tackle the problem of these “ghost workers,” he exempted the army and security forces—the core of his support. If everybody receives a salary from him, then he controls everything, says al-Iryani. “Economic backwardness was an integral part of his strategic assault.”

Groups of students demonstrated their dissatisfaction with the government as far back as the presidential election of 2006. These students felt marginalized by their government, frustrated with the lack of jobs, and furious over the widespread corruption within the regime. They didn’t want  a violent battle. They simply wanted change. But they were afraid to speak freely. They worried government informants would finger them, endangering their families. But five years later, watching the Tunisians and Egyptians rise up against their governments gave them the courage to act. Protesters took to the streets in January. Civil society groups and opposition leaders joined forces to demand an end to political repression, corruption, grim economic conditions, 40 percent unemployment, and an end to the rule of President Saleh.


It never occurred to Kawkab al-Thaibani to become an activist. A doctor, perhaps, or a professor. But politics? That was for men. Al-Thaibani, 28, had an unusual childhood. In a country where many girls never finish primary school, her father strongly believed in education for women. He encouraged his daughters to excel in school and finish university. But he died when al-Thaibani was only 10 years old, and her uncles forbade her to attend university. When they finally relented, after months of her protests, they refused to let her study medicine (unsuitable for women), but they did allow her to learn English.

After graduation, she began teaching, but quickly became bored. “I respect teaching, but I didn’t enjoy it,” she says. Lacking alternatives, she walked into the offices of the Yemen Observer one day and told the editor-in-chief that she wanted to be a reporter. Though she kept her petite frame swathed in a black abaya, her long dark hair covered by a hijab, and face obscured by a niqab, she worried that she would be accused of immodesty for working alongside men. To a Yemeni woman, reputation is everything. As she gained experience, her passion for reporting on injustices burned away the last of her fears. Her first human rights story followed the case of a Yemeni woman who maintained she was raped while unlawfully imprisoned. Al-Thaibani was inspired by the woman’s bravery. It is most unusual for a rape victim in Yemen to report the crime or attempt to seek justice.

“I was surprised to find myself writing about politics because I had never thought that was for me,” she observes. Her fervor for human rights also led her straight to Khaled al-Anesi, 41, a lawyer and human rights activist who was an early mentor. They married in 2008. Now, almost every day, she winds a colorful scarf around her hair, kisses her one-year-old son goodbye, and takes two buses across Sana’a to University Square, where protesters have been peacefully demanding an end to the regime of President Saleh since January. A few times a week, she spends the night. Al-Anesi, a protest leader who has camped there since the beginning, refuses to leave until Yemen has the civil society the protesters are demanding. He is also afraid to go, having received several death threats. Al-Thaibani moved back in with her mother after mysterious angry men came to their home looking for al-Anesi.

Hatred of the president and his corrupt entourage keeps alive the rebellion of hundreds of thousands like al-Thaibani and has persuaded them to take to the streets in towns across the nation. For many, it is the first time they have questioned the authority of the president, tribal leaders, or even religious leaders.

“The disease is Saleh,” says al-Thaibani. She remembers the moment she turned irrevocably against him. It was March 18, 2011 when snipers killed at least 52 peaceful protesters. “I was really pissed off when he was showing up on TV and saying the neighbors were the ones who did it,” she says. Like many Yemenis, she is sure government security forces were responsible. “I hated to look at the TV at that moment. He was so arrogant. He was disrespecting his people.”

A visit to two young boys shot that day further politicized her. The first boy, around 12 or 13 years old, lay still and expressionless in his hospital bed. Curious to see the protests, he had left home without telling his mother. While standing in the crowd, he spotted a sniper on a rooftop and pointed, calling “Sniper! Sniper!” At that moment, a bullet hit him, permanently blinding him. “He was very upset,” says al-Thaibani. “Not sad or breaking down but silent all the time.” She asked him how he felt and he said “nothing.” He told her that he was going to go back to school as soon as he could see again. The second child, who had gone to the protests with his father for Friday prayers, was in a coma. It hadn’t occurred to his mother that anything would happen to him. “Is there any mother who would send her child to his death?” she asked.

It wasn’t just the children themselves who drove al-Thaibani to rally against the government, but what their suffering symbolized—the regime’s callous disregard for its people. “We are Yemenis and cannot detach ourselves from being Yemenis,” she says. “I have seen the massacres. And this is the turning point in our lives.”


It was the turning point in many Yemeni lives—and, many hope, for the country itself. The protestors have made University Square, now renamed Change Square, into a miniature version of the Yemen they would like to see. Made of tents, it is home to tens of thousands of people—Sunni and Shia Muslims, Islamists and secularists, men and women from tribes across the nation. They have created their own code of behavior. They criticize the state media and debate the merits of democracy. Groups that have never spoken to each other live side-by-side. But perhaps most unusual, in one of the most armed countries in the world, it is free from weapons. Seventeen similar encampments have sprung up across Yemen, including particularly robust protests in Aden and Ta’iz.

“This revolution changed the Yemeni mentality,” says al-Anesi. “It made Yemeni people believe in peaceful change. This is what we are fighting for, to keep the people fighting peacefully and not to go back to guns and violence.” This is a country where it’s not uncommon for men to die in a fight over 100 riyals (47 cents). Arguments escalate quickly into violence when everyone is armed.

But in Change Square, Yemenis have begun to recognize the merits of peace. In the square, entire families who have never before engaged in politics paint themselves with Yemeni flags and protest together. Small boys sell boiled eggs with “Leave!” written on the shell—a message for President Saleh. Others sell tea with “a freedom flavor.” The protest is not confined to a narrow group of intellectuals. Hundreds of different groups populate Change Square, including semi-literate tribesmen from the north, housewives, tradesmen, and the unemployed.

Thousands of protestors remain there 24 hours a day. Young people study how to use Facebook as an agent for change and recite revolutionary poetry. A web of electrical cables has spread through the square, providing power for computers, televisions, and large screens. People climb on stages to sing a few songs of peace, and then go on a march before returning to pray. For the first time, many women are engaged in public life. “I met one illiterate woman who said she feels like she is being educated because of exposure to life in Change Square,” said al-Thaibani. This involvement of women is remarkable in Yemen, where no woman has wielded real political power since Queen Arwa reigned from 1067 to 1138.

While the protesters are still a minority in this country of 23 million people, the 70 percent who live in rural areas and eke out an existence from subsistence farming will find their lives transformed if the protesters’ demands are realized. The state the demonstrators seek would bar government revenues from disappearing into the pockets of the rich and powerful and would instead develop an effective safety net to look after the impoverished. The government would no longer buy off tribal leaders with lavish gifts of houses and cars but would provide effective delivery of services such as education and health care.

For all this to happen, the protestors say, Saleh must go.


Indeed, in its earliest stages, the momentum and scale of the protests nearly succeeded in overthrowing the president. After the March 18 massacre, one of Saleh’s closest confidants, General Ali Mohsen, changed sides, taking a significant part of Yemen’s armed forces with him and forcing Saleh to make temporary concessions. At one point, the president agreed to bow out of the 2013 elections and remove his son Ahmed as his chosen successor.

But then a critical escalation by pro-Saleh protesters (many of whom were paid to support him) gave new hope to the president, and he dug in his heels. The tens of thousands who regularly rally for Saleh say they want the president to stay. Among their reasons are that Saleh has always looked after the armed forces; aided many business people; and been a strong leader who brought unity, development (albeit limited), and a degree of security and order. And of course plenty of tribes have benefited from oil money. Like Saleh, they attribute the nation’s chaos less to his misrule than to the malign influence of opposition forces.

The international community and eventually the Gulf Cooperation Council [GCC], an alliance of six Gulf states, stepped in to mediate between the regime and the parliamentary opposition. Protesters, southern separatists anxious to dismember the country into the two nations that had existed before 1990, and the Houthi rebels of the north were left out of these negotiations. The outcome was a call for the president to step down in favor of the vice president within a month, new elections to be held 60 days later, and immunity from prosecution for Saleh and his family. The president came close to signing this proposal three times, always backing down at the last minute. The third time, at the end of May, the leadership of both the JMP [Joint Meeting Parties], the loose coalition of opposition parties, and the president’s GPC party signed the initiative. But Saleh himself once again balked.

Fighting quickly broke out between government forces and the Ahmar family, the most powerful clan in the Hashid tribal federation, who have supported the protesters. The clashes with government forces on the streets of Sana’a, which left hundreds dead, ceased abruptly after a June 3 assassination attempt on Saleh. The president was flown to Saudi Arabia for medical treatment after suffering severe injuries in the bomb attack on the palace’s mosque that killed 12 senior officials and wounded 123 others. While the perpetrators remain unknown, many suspect that because the explosives were planted in the presidential mosque, the attack was, at least in part, an inside job. Details of Saleh’s injuries are unclear, but most reports say 40 percent of his body was burned. In August, Saleh was released from the hospital, but he has yet to return to Yemen. One report claims that Washington has convinced him to stay in Saudi Arabia, avoiding the fate of former Egyptian leader Hosni Mubarak, who is facing corruption charges in Egypt. Yemeni officials deny this, saying that Saleh will return to Sana’a when he has finished recuperating. Saleh himself said in a televised speech to loyalists in mid-August that he would be back “soon.”

At first, protesters and international observers were optimistic that Saleh’s absence would allow a relatively peaceful transition of power. But it has become clear that Saleh’s influence did not end with his departure. Vice President Abd Rabbuh Mansour Hadi, who nominally assumed power in Saleh’s absence, appears impotent, failing to push forward with any change. A senior member of the Yemeni government, who declined, for fear of reprisals, to be identified, blames the opposition, saying that Hadi indeed has power, but that the JMP has been refusing to meet with him.

Now Yemen is reverting to traditional type, regime hardliners facing off against an intransigent opposition. No dialogue is underway. The protesters remain in Change Square, angry over their increasing marginalization, but with no effective way to gain a foothold in the political process. Even here, rifts are appearing. Many young, independent protesters now feel that the JMP, a party with significant Islamist sympathies, is hijacking their revolution.

No one can predict what will happen should Saleh return. The most likely result, says al-Iryani, the political analyst, is civil war, and “the first victims will be Saleh and his family.” Even if it lasts just a few weeks, the violence could end up splitting the country into three: the eastern governorate of Hadramaut, the south, and the north. That could prove to be Saleh’s lasting legacy—“the man who claimed to be the Great Unifier of Yemen would bring about the ultimate destruction of his country,” says al-Iryani. Nor would the division of the country necessarily bring peace. The result could well be perpetual civil war, since none of the three components would be either politically or economically viable. The only stable condition, says al-Iryani, is the Republic of Yemen—unified.


As protesters risk their lives and millions face starvation, a political settlement is essential to staving off a humanitarian crisis, say analysts, aid workers, and diplomats. To achieve this, Saleh must empower the vice president to take forward the political process—which most Yemen watchers believe isn’t possible without Saleh actually stepping down or signaling his intention to do so in the very near future. Yemen observers, almost without exception, believe that to begin addressing the huge challenges confronting the country, a unified government must be established—incorporating as many major strands of Yemeni politics as possible. The GCC initiative envisages a member of the current opposition leading this government, presiding over presidential elections, and, in the longer term, pushing forward vital constitutional reform.

Yemen’s political landscape in its broadest sense—civil society, universities, tribes, armed forces, unions, media—needs to start incorporating the new ideas emerging from Change Square. But the humanitarian crisis and those most desperately in need cannot be held hostage to the arrival of political stability. Ultimately, most of the work has to be done by Yemenis, but the international community can have two important functions. It must step up the pressure for change and provide both humanitarian and developmental support. Yemen is remarkably underfunded from an aid point of view. American diplomats in Yemen have long privately complained that their government focuses too much on flexing its military might in an anti-terrorist campaign of marginal significance to Yemenis, since terrorist groups have little support among the population.

Not enough resources have been devoted to development aid, which would have far more long-term impact on reducing terrorism than drones or secret bombing raids. U.S. Deputy National Security Adviser John Brennan’s recent statement to Saleh that American aid would flow only once he resigns and a political solution is found alarms many humanitarian workers. “I keep telling donors that if they allow the situation to deteriorate much further, with structures at every level breaking down, you are not going to get a political solution,” says Richard Stanforth, policy officer for Oxfam Great Britain, which operates in Yemen.

Even in the absence of political stability, international organizations must find creative ways to get vital resources to the Yemeni people. Emergency fuel aid from Saudi Arabia should be used to help basic lifesaving services restart. Priority should be given to immunization and the transport of food.

In Change Square and elsewhere, vigils continue with a hope that someday these voices will be heard. Each day they have a little less food, a little less optimism, and draw a little closer to the plight of their starving brethren. Yet there remain some sparks of light. Change Square protesters recently taught a group of children about democracy through mock elections. The children excitedly chose cartoon characters to be their president and ministers, electing a Pokémon character as minister of electricity in a landslide vote.

So al-Thaibani has not entirely lost faith in a better future. “I am still very optimistic,” she says in the encampment. “Things get worse when you are passive and still. But when I move, things get better.” Too much is at stake for her to walk away now. Knowing Hadiya and millions like her facing starvation are without a voice, al-Thaibani feels an obligation to keep using hers.


Jennifer Steil is the former editor of the Sana’a-based newspaper the Yemen Observer and the author of The Woman Who Fell From the Sky, An American Woman’s Adventures in the Oldest City on Earth. She lived in Yemen for four years.

[Photo: Sallam]

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