Tag Archives: GCC

From the Souk to a Field Hospital: Building Peace in Yemen

6 Dec

Children in Change Square, Sana'a, Yemen

The piece set forth below, describing my recent trip to Yemen, was posted today on the United States Institute of Peace (USP) website:  http://www.usip.org/in-the-field/the-souk-field-hospital-building-peace-in-yemen

From the Souk to a Field Hospital: Building Peace in Yemen

USIP’s Colette Rausch describes her recent trip

December 5, 2011

I arrived in Yemen the day before the long-awaited Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) agreement between President Ali Abdullah Saleh and the opposition parties was signed on November 23. The GCC agreement set the stage for the President to transfer power to the Vice President and for the ruling and opposition parties to share power through a unity government. Despite the agreement, fighting and violence continued unabated. Just the day after the agreement, five anti-government protestors were killed and many others wounded. Late that night, from our hotel, we could hear gunfire and an explosion in the distance.

Then around dawn, we awoke to the sounds of automatic weapons firing and the echo of what sounded like mortars. At the same time, people went about their business and lives. We drove to the Old City’s souk, and people were busy working and shopping, a testament to the resilience of the people of Yemen. Together with my colleagues Manal Omar and Mark Shaw, we traveled to Yemen to consult with a wide range of stakeholders from across the social, economic, and political spectrum on the challenges facing Yemen. We also sought input on what a justice and security dialogue process would look like. Ideally, one that would bring together all stakeholders to identify concrete steps that can be taken to improve justice and security in the immediate-term, and help create a long-term vision for civil justice in Yemen.

Over the course of the week, we had the privilege to meet collectively with over 100 people from civil society, the government, opposition, and youth. I was pleasantly surprised by how friendly and open people greeted us. Even as foreigners, we were warmly welcomed and treated with great respect. Upon learning that our trip coincided with the American Thanksgiving day, our Yemeni colleagues invited us that day for a traditional Yemeni meal — and we joined with our new friends in the spirit of Thanksgiving.

Roadblocks, Sana'a, Yemen

Power Outages and Checkpoints

While only in Yemen for a short period of time, we had time enough to witness the many hardships so many of its people face. “Welcome to our world,” a youth activist wryly said as the power went out during a meeting, prompting him to direct the glow of his mobile phone interface onto my paper so I could continue to take notes from our discussion. In addition to frequent power outages—where the power is off more often than it is on— Yemenis are subjected to skyrocketing prices for food, gas, and suffer other shortages. Yemenis have become used to patiently spending days in line just to fill up a car with gas, assuming they could afford it. Driving from the airport to the hotel gave us a glimpse into other challenges facing so many Yemenis.

Sana’a is largely a divided city, where government, rebel army, tribal, and opposition parties mark their territory using checkpoints, roadblocks, and sandbags. The result is a time-consuming slog to get from one part of the city to the other. The hope is that with the implementation of the GCC agreement, the barriers will be taken down and the military divisions will be resolved.

Late for my flight out of Sana’a, having just driven through an area controlled by a tribal leader, a gunshot wrang out. My colleague and I instinctively ducked. Unfazed, our driver smiled and told us it was coming from near a government ministry building that we had just driven past. As many Yemenis we met, he seemed used to such errant gunshots while driving around town. Power outages and checkpoints, however, pale in comparison to the suffering caused by the violence that each day makes the lives of Yemenis difficult and threatens the stability of the entire country.

Sana’a Field Hospital

As part of our consultations in Yemen, we were invited to visit the Field Hospital set up by volunteers to treat the injured in the heart of the capital’s iconic Change Square. Just inside the southern gate of Sana’a University, Change Square has since February become the site of an encampment for primarily disaffected youth, opposition parties, and other forces protesting the lack of civil administration and justice in Yemen. The Square is now an elaborate tent city, complete with electricity, permanent structures, an art studio, and the tent “offices” of various disparate organizations and causes. Born of necessity, the Field Hospital found its home in the square’s mosque because the regular hospitals either would not or could not treat the wounded — fearful of retaliation.

Since its creation, the Field Hospital, like Change Square itself, has evolved as the conflict has. With modern equipment and provisions provided by Doctors Without Borders and other donors, it is now a full-scale emergency hospital, complete with surgery center, emergency room, x-ray lab, pharmacy, laboratory and ultrasound clinic room. It was there that I met with doctors, surgeons, pharmacists, nurses and other healthcare workers who work tirelessly to save the lives of those caught in the violence. Far too many of these volunteers have become victims of the violence themselves, either hit in the cross fire or targeted because of the assistance they provide the injured.

The tour started with viewing photo after photo of those who had been killed. Our host, the director of the Field Hospital, explained the background of their efforts and what the photos depicted. As often as I have seen the carnage of war over the years, I never actually get “used” to it. I look at each person and think about their life, their family, and the fact that through violence nothing will ever be the same for that family and their friends. It makes me wonder how people can do what they do to other people.

We then went into a small room to huddle around a computer to view a video of the injured and killed who have passed through the clinic’s doors. I struggled to keep my emotions in check while watching the graphic scenes and to maintain my composure. I admired how my host and all the hospital staff, in the face of such unimaginable violence and hardship, showed such strength, grace, and dignity. As the video played, I noticed a young man, maybe in his late 20’s, whose eyes betrayed a depth of pain and trauma. As the video presentation concluded, the man was asked to stand up and reveal his bare chest and back.

I was told that he was a healthcare worker who had been abducted, detained for weeks, tortured, and only recently released. I was told that the starburst-shaped, burn-like marks etched into his back were the result of electric shock. He also had a bright red welt across the length of his chest. At first I worried that the simple act of being asked to show his injuries could trigger further trauma to the young man. However, when I shared my concerns with my host, he reassured me that, no, actually, the act of bearing witness to what had happened to him, helped give the young man back the power that had been taken away.

As we left the small room, we came to a laboratory, complete with refrigerator full of bags of donated blood for emergency transfusions. Then our host took us to the pharmacy, a room the size of a large closet. A photo of a man was posted on the cinderblock wall in between two well-stocked shelves. I was told that he was a pharmacist who had been killed in the violence. We also viewed the X-ray room, where I marveled at how sheets of tin had been pounded and nailed to the walls to improvise a rudimentary protection from radiation. Then we found ourselves in front of a room where, on the floor before the entrance, were two footprints and a big X, spray-painted in red, indicating that uncovered shoes were not permitted. This was the operating room.  At that point, we all donned disposable scrubs, masks, head covers, and booties. In the operating room, I spoke with two female scrub nurses. They mentioned how honored they were to be able to serve side by side with their male colleagues to treat the wounded. Our tour ended in the large treatment room, where we learned that the hospital, in addition to treating those injured due to the violence, had also begun to provide basic medical care to the surrounding communities.

I was impressed with the incredible ingenuity of the Field Hospital staff who had worked with what they had to create a full service, functioning emergency center. The doctors and other healthcare workers were an inspiration. They assumed personal risk to aid others and reflected a commitment to caring for patients, no matter which side of the conflict they belonged.

After we departed the Field Hospital, still processing the dedication of its volunteers and the carnage they deal with on daily basis, I was motioned to the raised platform overlooking Change Square where presentations, announcements and even entertainment take place. As I stood at the platform’s edge, peering over at the expanse of women and children preparing for Friday prayers, one, two and then a crowd, children first, then women, came toward the platform, many holding up their hands and fingers in the sign of “victory”, a sign of protest and defiance in the face of the hardships and country’s poor governance that they face. When I left the podium, I was surrounded in a sea of children and a chorus of “hellos.” One after another, the children jockeyed to shake my hand. As I reached for hand after tiny hand, I could not help but be moved by the contrast between what I had just witnessed in the Field Hospital and the hope and optimism of these children.

Art Tent in Change Square, Sana'a, Yemen, where residents come to express their emotions through art

A Lasting Impact

Traveling to countries suffering from the ravages of conflict and meeting those caught in the crossfire, always leaves a lasting impact on me. My brief time in Yemen was no exception. Even after returning to the United States, I find myself still connected to Yemen and its people and their stories, not able to fully integrate back into my own life. Although my trip was limited to Sana’a, Yemen’s capital, other parts of Yemen are suffering as well. Early on in our visit, I met with three youth activists who had traveled to meet with us from the besieged city of Taiz, a five-hour trip to Sana’a. They spoke of civilians suffering from shelling and fighting, including seeing their friends injured and killed. They talked among themselves about how many friends each of them had buried. But despite all of this, they also spoke of their hope for peace to come to their city and of their insistance that the youth be given an active voice and role in building that peace. Upon my return back to the US, in following the media, Twitter and other social media, I learned that the death and injury toll in Taiz increased to even greater numbers and wonder how those I met from Taiz are faring.

While various sides differ as to who is responsible for the violence and what is feeding its continuation even after the GCC agreement, there is a growing consensus that the time for bloodshed is past. We heard over and again how it is now in the interests of all Yemenis to reach practical solutions to provide the stability necessary to rebuild. We heard from youth and elders alike how the youth can be looked to for inspiration. The youth are peacefully demanding a society that abides by the rule of law, one where governments are accountable to the people and corruption is actively countered.

The international community can support the youth’s and other Yemeni’s ideas on how to build a civil state that is founded on justice, freedom and security for all Yemenis. Peace, justice and security cannot take hold where certain factions use fear and violence to divide the country’s people, where peaceful protestors and other civilians cannot demonstrate without facing death or where only a small group of people monopolize the country’s resources and power.

Contrary to what the news headlines convey and any preconceptions I may have had before traveling to Yemen, having met so many resilient people from every sector of society collectively conveying a desire and vision for an inclusive and just Yemen, their unyielding commitment to seeing that vision through, no matter the cost to themselves, and their optimism – even if cautious optimism — I left Yemen feeling hopeful for the future of their country, despite the looming challenges that still lie ahead.

Caution:  Segments of this video are graphic.  Viewer discretion is advised.


Yemen after the political earthquake

24 Nov

I am reproducing a piece from CBS that my colleague Manal Omar and I wrote yesterday following the signing of the GCC Initiative, the first step that so many hope will lead to a peaceful and just Yemen for all Yemenis.

Here is the original link: http://www.cbsnews.com/8301-215_162-57330794/yemen-after-the-political-earthquake/

Yemen after the political earthquake

By  Manal Omar and Colette Rausch
Former Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh speaks to the press at the Chancellery Feb. 27, 2008, in Berlin. (Getty Images)
(CBS News)The consistent advice we received from a wide range of Yemeni stakeholders during our visit to Sanaa was to be aware of the unpredictability of events. Wednesday morning’s news of President Saleh’s flight to Riyadh to sign the Gulf Cooperation Council agreement proved the wisdom of the advice.Despite spending most of the day in meetings in Change Square, the central hub of the voices of the opposition, and several pro-government meetings, we could not have predicted such a quick turnaround in events. In fact, by the end of the day on Tuesday, as we passed through countless checkpoints throughout the city, we could not help but wonder if the stalemate between pro-government and pro-opposition forces that had divided Sana into two cities could be broken.The reality is that the news was unexpected to many Yemenis, and was greeted by a mixed response from people on the street. On the one hand, all sides welcomed the end to the nine-month stand off. Basic services such as electricity and water were at an all time low, food prices had skyrocketed, and people have been eager to move to the next phase. But on the other hand, a sense of caution was palpable.

One of the first challenges will be to ensure popular buy-in and cohesion amongst all Yeminis. The country has been divided, and the signing of the GCC initiative may not translate into automatic local buy-in. In the last 48 hours, many Yemenis have expressed support for the president. There is acknowledgement of the political failure of President Saleh, but also a recognition that he was in the best position to keep stability.

A combination of the fear of the unknown combined with a fear of civil war and distrust of the opposition led to support for Saleh. There were some pro-Saleh people who agreed it was perhaps time for a transition but that there should have been greater effort from within the system to pressure the president to fulfill his promises of reform. As reforms were implemented, Saleh could have departed with some of his dignity intact -rather than being forced out. At the same time, we heard that there was a smaller pro-Saleh group closer to the regime that would have the most to lose, and were eager to keep political power. This concern was exacerbated by the fact that immunity is not provided to his inner circle, and many referred to Egypt and Libya as a cautionary tale and as an incentive not to relinquish power.

From the opposition side, many expressed their view that it was not possible for Saleh to remain as president because he had not governed democratically and would not leave on his own volition. The concerns about challenges were also shared from within the opposition. One of the main questions they raised is whether Salah will truly leave the political scene,scene or whether he will continue to be active — or even support efforts to impedeto impede progress.

At the same time, while some are confident in their ability to maintain unity and govern democratically, there is a strong concern from within the opposition about whether they will be able to maintain unity and move forward with the implementation of the process outlined in the agreement. We heard concerns that creating a coalition government will lead to political infighting and stalemate, with various parties fighting over key ministries. Despite the concerns expressed, one sentiment shared by all groups is the hope in moving forward. All agree that this will be be challenging, but this is just the beginning.

As with many transitions the real hard work begins after the agreement is signed. Yemenis will need to have patience and manage expectations, but at the same time, tangible change will need to be seen.

We heard from many that the opposition parties, who will lead the national unity government, need to demonstrate in concrete ways that they will not engage in politics as usual, and to demonstrate transparency, openness, and an inclusive process. They will also need to tackle a host of challenges. These include not only providing basic services and addressing the poor economic picture but also dealing with a the North-South divide, preventing further fragmentation, ensuring that the police and security forces are accountable to the people, and establishing a system of fair and equitable governance over all of Yemen.

Although events may be unpredictable, the main lesson learned is not to underestimate the Yemenis. Many Yemenis we spoke with believe that the potential for Yemen to provide a new constructive model for transition is high, benefiting from lessons learned from previous Arab spring transitions.

They emphasize that despite the number of military defections, the movement remained peaceful with no civilians taking arms. There also is a pride that political negotiations coupled with popular uprisings in the streets were able to take place that led to a solution. On issues of transitional justice and accountability, several Yemini activists indicated that they aspire to provide a model for the region.

Unlike other experiences, a political party representative pointed out that the opposition is committed to eliminating a decision making-process that is held closely in the hands of one person. The general theme that we heard is that the principles of justice and accountability should not be lost. There is a need for a process for achieving justice and accountability as well as the mechanisms for building rule of law, but in a Yemeni context determined by Yemenis, through a national dialogue devised and implemented by them. Youth are demanding to be at the center of this dialogue and have more than just a voice. They expect an active decision-making role.

There is a strong determination across the different factions within Yemen to seize the opportunity to change the global image of Yemen. More and more, people are talking about moving away from the image of drug abusers and terrorists to a country that establishes democracy and rule of law through a peaceful transition. In fact, during interviews the level of sophistication of the youth movement, civil society, the political debates, and the commitment to a new future taken place is a positive indicator of the potential for a positive outcome. Yemenis have expressed a commitment and an ability for putting the interests of the nation above any individual interests.

This in itself provides a strong sense of hope for what lies ahead.

Bio: Manal Omar is the author of Barefoot in Baghdad and the Director of Iraq, Iran, and North Africa programs at the United States Institute of Peace. Colette Rausch is the Director of Rule of Law Programs at the United States Institute of Peace. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the authors.

© 2011 CBS Interactive Inc.. All Rights Reserved.

Yemen in Transition: Signing of the GCC Initiative Today

23 Nov

Photo Courtesy of Manal Omar

I have been so honored and privileged to be in Yemen and have the opportunity to meet so many wonderful Yemenis over the past few days who are working to build peace in their country. It was also very interesting to arrive in Sana’a the day before an agreement, the GCC Initiative, was signed between the President and opposition parties whereby the President would step down from his post and a coalition party would govern. For all Yemenis, I hope this is the beginning of a peaceful transition that will see Yemen as a model for justice and rule of law.

Here is a quick piece that my colleague Manal Omar and I put together on today’s events:

USIP Building Bridges in Yemen

November 2011 | On the Issues by Manal Omar and Colette Rausch

November 23, 2011

Manal Omar and Colette Rausch are in Sanaa, Yemen meeting with a wide range of stakeholders from across the social, economic and political spectrum to learn the approaches for building peace.

How has the news been received on the streets of Yemen that President Saleh will cede power?

The Gulf Cooperation Council agreement signed between President Saleh and the Yemeni opposition sets forth a gradual plan to transfer power from the president to a national unity government. This comes on the heels of popular uprisings in several governates across Yemen that led to a standoff between pro-government and opposition members. There has been a wide range of responses to the agreement, which took many by surprise.

Despite news of his trip to Riyadh, many Yemenis with whom we spoke believed he would not sign the agreement because he had promised to sign the agreement but decided not to do so. Although there is a strong consensus that the nine-month standoff needed to come to an end, there are still many concerns about moving forward. The concerns most often raised come from the youth, who comprise more than half the country. During interviews in Sanaa, youth from different governates expressed concern that the original issues that led them to occupy public squares may not be addressed, given this was a political negotiation that included provisions with which they did not agree, most notably the immunity granted to Saleh.

Opposition leaders understand the concerns expressed by the youth, but have emphasized the agreement is the first step in a gradual process that will lead to long-term change. They also recognize that compromises were crucial to ensure a peaceful transition and to avoid violent confrontation or civil war.

What are the immediate challenges for implementation?

Many Yemenis we talked to believe the potential for Yemen to provide a new constructive model is high, benefitting from lessons learned from other “Arab awakening” transitions. Naturally, there also are many concerns. One of the first concerns raised was whether Saleh will truly leave the political scene or continue to be active in the political life of Yemen – or even support efforts to impede progress. There also is a strong concern people expressed that the new national unity government must maintain national unity and move forward with the implemention of the process as outlined. Further, that they must avoid political infighting and stalemates.

The youth fear they will continue to be marginalized, and that this will be a change of the regime but a continuation of the political process as usual. Some women fear there will be an unwinding of the progress they have made. Despite the concerns expressed, one thing shared by all groups is that there will be a successful transition leading to a peaceful Yemen. All agree that it will be challenging, but that it is just the beginning. As with many transitions, it is difficult because people will need to have patience and manage expectations, but at the same time tangible change will need to be seen.

What are the immediate next steps for Yemen?

The national unity government must demonstrate transparency, openness, and an inclusive process – and that it is not business as usual. This includes dealing with a host of immediate problems, including the North-South divide, further fragmentation, ensuring that their is an interated national army protecting and serving the security of all Yemenis, and establishing a system of fair and equitable governance over all of Yemen.

The GCC agreement grants immunity to Saleh, it does not eliminate other options for the development of accountability mechanisms to address past crimes, human rights abuses, and corruption. The general sentiment across the board is that the principles of justice and accountability should not be lost. Yemenis have expressed the need for an independent system of justice that is trusted by the public. There is a need for a process for achieving justice and accountability, but in a Yemeni context determined by Yemenis in a national dialogue. Youth want to ensure that they are at the center of this dialogue and have more than just a voice. They expect an active decision-making role.

Yemenis are determined to reverse the negative stereotypes of them as terrorists, drug abusers, and citizens of a failed state that they feel has been perpetuated in the last few years. In fact, during interviews the level of sophistication of the youth movement, civil society, the political debates, and the commitment to a new future taken place is a positive indicator of the potential for a positive outcome. Yemenis have expressed a commitment – and demonstrated an ability – for putting the interests of the nation above any individual interests. The best thing external players can do for Yemen is not to impose solutions, but is to provide space and resources for this movement to grow and support an enabling environment for the emergence of local leadership.

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