Yemenis say their country is about more than war and humanitarian aid
Since the Yemen war began in 2014, Western journalists have been telling the world about the fighting, the human toll and the geopolitical underpinnings of the conflict. Many reports, even today, contain no Yemeni perspective. A new project is inviting Yemenis from across the country and in the diaspora to talk about their own experiences of war and daily lives. Host Marco Werman speaks with Nuha Al-Junaid, the Yemeni woman coordinating The Yemen Listening Project.
Yemeni vendors display various types of dry goods at a traditional market as food prices rise, in Sanaa, Yemen, Oct. 1, 2022.
Hani Mohammed/AP/File photo
Since the war in Yemen began almost nine years ago, most Western coverage has largely focused on the big picture: the fighting, the human toll and the complex geopolitics. It is often rare to hear perspectives from ordinary Yemenis caught up in the war. Nuha Al-Junaid is Yemeni and working for an organization called The New Humanitarian. It's an independent, nonprofit newsroom focused on humanitarian crises. She is trying to fill that gap with something called The Yemen Listening Project.
Marco Werman: Nuha, what is the goal of the Yemen Listening Project? What are you trying to do?
As you know, Yemen is [experiencing] one of the world's worst humanitarian crises. It was described as "the forgotten war." So, we wanted to show the massive impact the war has caused to Yemenis and let them speak their true stories themselves. And we make it accessible for them to speak through WhatsApp, Facebook and also emails.
So, we're talking about various ways that Yemenis have connected with you. Voicemail message is pretty prominent, as you said, on WhatsApp, etc. So let's hear some of what you've been listening to. We're going to hear a few voices, and you can tell us about the person.
This clip is from a 50-year-old woman in Taiz. Taiz is the third-biggest city in Yemen. She says that her husband died of a heart attack at the start of the war. And after two years of that, her eldest son was killed by a sniper. And the other son was in severe depression and she was struggling with that as well. So, what is surprising is after saying all of that, she said "Alhamdulillah," which is "thank God." And that really reflects how Yemenis are resilient. And it's just how sad the circumstances [are that] she had been through, she's still being thankful.
It's really striking. In all of her misery, that woman still clings to hope. How common was that among the people you heard from?
It is very common in Yemen, within Yemenis. Yemen is more than a war. Yemen has great people, great capacity, valuable brains, kind hearts. And whenever I talk to someone, they end up with saying that they still have hope.
Wow. Really remarkable. Nuha, you and the Yemen Listening Project have another voice for us. It's also a woman from Yemen. She's calling from Cairo. Let's listen a little to her voice message and then you can tell us about her.
So, this story is from a woman. She described herself as an artist and a writer. She is originally from Aden, a city in the south, but she moved to Sana'a 25 years ago to get married and stopped working in her career to raise her children. And she says here that the war changed her husband and his attitude, the family dynamic. And she described that with saying, "We were suffocating."
I was going to say, I mean, she's suffocating through personal relationships during a war. A really tough story and one that I imagine is repeated among many Yemenis in many different ways. What emotions were you hearing coming through in these calls, Nuha?
Well, I will be honest to say that, yeah, depression and sorrow are the most. I can sense a bit of hope for peace, but lack of trust.
So, as part of your project, The Yemen Listening Project, you'll be sharing many of these messages publicly. Who is the intended audience?
Well, the first ones are the Yemenis themselves. Maybe you already know that Yemenis — the war has not only divided Yemenis inside Yemen, also outside and has torn apart the social cohesion between Yemenis. So, maybe when Yemenis hear each other's stories, they discover and realize that their suffering is the same.
If you could have policymakers listen to these Yemeni voices, why would you tell them it's important to get their ears on the human experience of this war?
Well, I will just tell them that Yemenis are still suffering and asking for very basic needs. They're asking for food, shelter, electricity, very normal ones. So, they're asking simply for peace in order to get this. And this is what matters now.
As I said earlier, I knew how you're Yemeni. If you were to send a voice message to The Yemen Listening project today, what would you say?
Well, I already shared it. Of course I shared that although I have left Yemen, and it was heartbreaking. I lost a family. I lost my house. I lost security and my family, my whole family scattered. I lost a father. I lost extended relatives in very harsh circumstances. My whole family died in one day. So, you can imagine how hard that was on me.
I'm very, very sorry to hear that.
Yes, thank you. But I when I left Yemen, I decided to start a new life. So, I'm seeing the bright side of it. I am in the Netherlands. I'm still suffering from the survival guilt and still want to do something for Yemen. And this is why I'm working on this project. And this is why I chose to do this as well. It's a part of saying that I'm Yemeni, I'm outside Yemen, but I did not forget that Yemenis are suffering. And also, up here I have security, life. My daughter is living a great life. But don't forget that Yemenis, they need the chance to live with dignity and with the fulfillment of their needs as well.
I have to ask, based on what you've just described, what you've been through. Has the project been helpful for your own trauma and healing?
When I'm working on this project, I should be honest that it's brought up lots of hard feelings [for] me, traumas and I even myself, I reconnected with my psychotherapist to speak about it and everything because I believe in the importance of mental health. And when you see people that you know or might not even know, but they're Yemenis and they matter to you, suffering and or sharing stories, you kind of relive those moments that you have already either heard or lived yourself a long time ago. So, it's not a healing process. It's just coping with pain and learning how to live healthy with our challenges — that or sorrows that we held from the war and that impacted us, of course.
Yeah. Thank you for sharing that with us. Is your project still accepting submissions?
Of course, we are accepting submissions until the 15. However, we are now extending it and yeah, we are hoping that more Yemenis from inside, outside or not even Yemenis, anyone who has been impacted by the war in Yemen [respond].
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.