Thank you and goodbye
Mar 18th 2011, ADDIS ABABA
WITH his double row of medals, a blue felt beret and opaque black aviators, the colonel looked, as one of my fellow deportees put it, like "the thousands of anonymous henchmen I’ve shot in video games." On March 14th, he woke me up at seven o'clock in the morning, storming into my bedroom as I slept. Other Yemeni men had refrained from making eye contact; he shouted at me to get up and get dressed.
As one of a handful of foreign journalists working in Yemen, I had been covering the country's unrest since it began in late January. Over those weeks, I had watched those calling for a peaceful revolution grow from a few dozen students into impassioned crowds of tens of thousands. In recent days, I had reported on the security forces' violent crackdown on these protesters.
That morning there were five armed men in the apartment I shared with two other journalists and a photographer. As they demanded our passports and ordered us to leave with them, we procrastinated for as long as possible, hiding memory cards filled with photos and address books listing the phone numbers of people who had talked to us. Finally we went blinking into the daylight where the colonel directed us to his emerald green Mercedes, parked in the narrow street outside the ancient stone tower house that had been our home. As we drove through the early morning traffic of Sana'a's scruffy new town, he allowed us to use our mobile phones to call our editors and embassies. He even stopped to buy us cups of spiced milky tea, served in old jam jars.
But when we arrived at his office, the friendliness melted away. He shouted at us in Arabic, keeping his opaque sunglasses on all the time. He took out a heavy pistol from the holster on his belt and ostentatiously deposited it in a cupboard beside his desk. He told us to turn off our mobile phones and give them to his colleague, who sat watching us from a corner as he toyed with an old Kalashnikov. There would be no more "good cop", the colonel told us in Arabic. We were a threat to national security.
Each of us had a valid visa and the three journalists had registered with the Ministry of Information. Just weeks before we had gone to a presidential press conference where Yemen’s ruler of 32 years, Ali Abdullah Saleh, had told the foreign journalists there that they could report in Yemen without fear of harassment and should expect the protection of the security forces as we went about our work. We were well known to government officials who provided us with press statements, took us to the rallies the regime organised and tried to help us understand the government's perspective.
But in recent days, we had written about violent crackdowns on the opposition protesters. Police were using live ammunition and tear gas to try to quell demonstrations that grew larger every day and spread to fresh parts of the country. Demonstrators in the capital would phone us late at night, asking us to be at their camp so that even if we could not prevent the attacks on them, we would witness them. As we waited at the immigration ministry, I wondered what would happen to the protesters camped outside Sana'a University with four fewer witnesses to protect them.
The colonel drove us to their airport, our belongings following in a battered police van a short way behind. He asked where we going. I had decided on Addis Ababa—one of the closest capitals to Sana'a—since I hoped to return to Yemen soon. "I like Addis", he said wistfully. "I bought these sunglasses there." "Perhaps you could visit us there," one of our number offered. As he mulled over the idea, my colleagues pointed out the bomb scars in the concrete underpass we were driving through, etched a year beforehand when a suicide bomber tried to kill the British Ambassador. As the buildings thinned and the road became quieter, the colonel lifted the glasses from his face and turned to us. "Please forgive me", he said, "I'm just doing my job." I couldn't help but think about all of the other policeman and soldiers in the country who in the coming weeks would be doing just that.
Source: the Economist