To the esteemed friends awarding the Johann Philipp Palm Award for Freedom of Speech and the Press,
I heartily thank you for giving me the honour of receiving the Johann Philipp Palm Award for Freedom of Speech and the Press this year along with my Chinese friend, publisher Gui Minhai, whom I hope the Chinese authorities will release and who will get to see freedom soon. I wish the same to all those imprisoned by the warring parties in my country.
I was hoping this celebration would take place in Berlin and that I would be there with my friend Gui on this great occasion. However, measures put in place due to the coronavirus have prevented me from travelling and [led you to] hold this celebration virtually. Still, I hope that you are in good health – and that the hardship of coronavirus will be over so that the world can breathe again.
I was very surprised to receive this award since Yemeni authors and journalists living in Yemen are far from the spotlight, despite facing many hardships and daily risks. Therefore, I consider myself lucky to be honoured with this award. I got word about winning the award from my journalist friend Monika Bolliger, whom I deeply thank for playing a monumental role in translating my book “What You Have Left Behind: Voices from the Land of the Forgotten War” into German. I also thank my translator Sandra Hetzl, my publisher Silvie Horch from ECON Publishing House, my literary agent Nina Sillem, my friend Annette Kroenert and Professor Ulrich Palm as well as the organization’s team, and German journalist Christiane Schloetzer who nominated me for this award.
The situation we live in in Yemen – and I mean for us remaining authors and journalists – is extremely difficult and harsh because when you write, the parties to the war and their affiliated media will threaten and tarnish you. This is why authors and journalists really suffer. There are authors and journalists who have lost their lives in the war uncovering crimes committed by the warring factions. For this reason, we move within an extremely confined space. The fear of being threatened and arrested as well as defamed and morally targeted is present for all those authors and journalists who condemn the warring parties and uncover their crimes.
Over the years of war, authors and journalists have been targeted by the warring factions with tens of journalists still languishing in Houthi prisons. Some of them have been sentenced to death.
Academics have also been arrested, including Dr. Adnan al-Sharjabi, a professor of psychology at the University of Sana’a. He was detained by the Houthis in Sana’a for more than a month. A few days after his release, he died of complications [brought on by] imprisonment, oppression and torture. Many detainees have died due to torture. Dr. Hamid Aklan, head of the Science and Technology University, is still detained in a Houthi-run prison in Sana’a.
My point is that writing in Yemen with the aim to uncover crimes committed by warring parties is like buying a ticket to death. As many Yemeni authors and journalists keep uncovering war crimes, survival is merely a matter of luck in an environment that is unsafe not only for authors and journalists, but also for Yemenis in general.
When I wrote my "Victims" book, my hope was for the world to know that the warring parties are committing ugly crimes against Yemenis and that they are well versed in grave violations including murder, rape and organized crime. However, murder is still the daily narrative that Yemenis live. In just one week, more than 50 civilians were killed as a result of the Houthi militias’ shelling in the cities of Taiz and Hudaydah. Tens were victims to landmines planted by the militias in the cities of Hudaydah, Marib, and Al-Jawf. Moreover, civilians were killed in Saudi-Emirati airstrikes in border areas, or [by] what is known as the Arab Coalition. Not to mention the assassinations taking place in most Yemeni cities, in addition to the killing and mutilation of corpses. Most recently, Dr. Aseel al-Jibzi was killed in the city of Taiz by the Islah Party, also known as the Muslim Brotherhood. They mutilated his corpse. Meanwhile, murder, physical liquidations and extrajudicial executions continue to take place among the warring factions in Taiz, Shabwa, Abyan, Sana’a and other Yemeni cities, whereas innocent civilians pay the price of war, infighting and systemic violence.
There are other aspects that spur authors and journalists living in Yemen into action. One is the dreadful humanitarian situation that Yemenis endure. The word “famine” remains an abstract word, devoid of meaning, and does not reflect what Yemenis are suffering.
The humanitarian crisis worsened after the Central Bank in Sana’a was moved by the legitimate authorities to the city of Aden in September 2016. Now, there are more than a million Yemeni employees in Houthi-controlled areas that are deprived of their salaries and their right to live. They die without being able to buy medicine. The warring parties have turned the economy into a weapon against innocent citizens after they had stolen the state’s resources for themselves and for the networks of war that feed off impoverishing Yemenis as millions go hungry. Many Yemenis have died because of the deteriorating living conditions as well as the healthcare situation. My cousin on my paternal side died in Taiz city when she couldn’t find insulin; my cousin on my maternal side died due to a seasonal fever because there were no equipped hospitals in the area where she lived in Hudaydah city. In Sana’a, my journalist friend Basheer al-Said died because he did not receive proper treatment at hospital.
Poverty in Yemen is a systematic policy imposed by the parties of war while the war economy in Yemen is growing: The war economy in Sana’a under the control of the Houthi militias and in Arab and regional capitals that are pro-Houthi in Damascus, Tehran and Beirut, and the war economy of the legitimate authority in the Yemeni cities that are under their control as well as in Cairo, Amman and European capitals. There is also the war economy of the STC in Cairo, Abu Dhabi and other cities, and there is the war economy that belongs to the Islah party, one of the largest parties affiliated with the legitimate authority and controlling the military institution, [supported by] Qatar, Turkey and Malaysia.
The [local] warring parties in Yemen as well as the international powers – who view Yemen as an arms market and as a back arena for the Saudi-Iranian struggle – are the ones benefiting from the ongoing war in Yemen and from perpetuating the suffering of Yemenis.
The decision to go to war was a Yemeni decision, when the Houthi militias supported by Iran and the forces affiliated with former President Ali Abdullah Saleh decided to turn on the legitimate authority on September 21, 2014. This is an undeniable truth. After President Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi had called on Saudi Arabia and the UAE, i.e. the countries of the Arab Coalition, to support him in his war against the Houthis and Saleh, the war turned into a regional war. But after six years of war, the war is no longer in the hands of these local players financed by regional powers. Iran supports the Houthis, the UAE supports the STC, Qatar and Turkey support the Islah Party (the Muslim Brotherhood) and Saudi Arabia supports the legitimate and internationally recognized government. However, the war decision is no longer in the hands of these parties, but of the larger powers that fuel the war in Yemen and make it grow bigger for the sake of making arms deals.
It is sad, inhumane and immoral that Yemenis continue to be exterminated for the sake of international and regional powers’ interests.
In war-striken countries, it is the responsibility of the author to remain a witness of what is happening in his or her reality and to write down the abomination, horror and death as well as the wartime narratives of daily life with all its oppression and ugliness. He or she must try to write all that they see so as to give voices to the ordinary civilians that have been overlooked by the warring parties and international powers. However, all humane authors and intellectuals in Yemen, Germany and all countries of the world must raise their voices to stop the war in Yemen. It is true that one day the war will stop. [It could be] today or tomorrow. But every minute that passes sees Yemenis dying – by murder, hunger, assassination, insecurity, hatred and successive cycles of violence.
We keep postponing our lives until this war is over, and I don’t know when that will be. But we still have hope that we will see peace soon, that our Yemeni friends in the diaspora will return home, that the victims’ families can breathe and mourn their dead, and that they can bury them properly and receive justice. But now, there is nothing but war. We live in a time of war, death, horror, murder, fear and psychological oppression. We want to live and have our lives back as human beings. We deserve that. We are tired of all this endless death.
I thank you once again for honouring me with this award, and I hope peace will prevail in Yemen and the world.
Peace be upon all the victims of war in Yemen, Syria, Libya, Iraq and Palestine. Peace be upon the victims of the Beirut explosion. Peace be upon the victims of the coronavirus and other plagues all over the world.
Freedom for my friend Gui Minhai and to all those imprisoned in my country by the warring parties.
Many kisses, Bushra al-Maqtari, Sana’a, December 5 2020
Translated from the Arabic original by Sana'a Center for Strategic Studies, edited by Yasmine Khaled-Jaiser, Reutlingen