When antigovernment protests broke out in Yemen, part of the revolts sweeping the Arab world at the time, she contacted the New York Times to see if she could cover the rapidly unfolding events for the newspaper. Laura never planned to be a war correspondent, but found herself in the middle of brutal government attacks on peaceful protesters. As foreign reporters were rounded up and shipped out of the country, Laura managed to elude the authorities but found herself increasingly isolatedand even more determined to report on what she saw.
Don’t Be Afraid of the Bullets is a fascinating and important debut by a talented young journalist.
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I slid into a taxi for my daily commute, the road to Change Square. It was a Friday around noon, and Sanaa's dusty streets were quiet, small appliance shops shuttered, restaurants closed, everyone praying.
I leaned my head against the taxi's backseat window, watching the outside world pass by while shielding my eyes from the sun. Sleep had become more elusive with each day. I just hadn't been able to drag myself out of bed early enough this morning to gulp down an extra cup of Nescafé. Now I regretted it. I looked down at my brown leather satchel and dug through it, making sure I had remembered to bring my cell phone. I caught a glimpse of my brittle nails, chewed from worry, and scolded myself for the nervous habit. So far, 2011 had not turned out how I had expected.
My friends, young journalists like myself, had been deported from Yemen a few days prior. The same threat hung over my head. During the last few weeks, I had seen people fire guns for the first time in my life, and those guns had been aimed at other human beings. I had never planned to cover conflict. Never dreamt of being a war correspondent. I was afraid of what the future would bring, but also believed in what I was doing. I loved Yemen and had the opportunity to write about the country for one of the most important newspapers in the world. The sense of purpose trumped fear. That's also how the protesters at Change Square felt, except some of them ended up dead. That sense of purpose had betrayed them.
It was March 18, 2011. Just over a month since former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak had conceded power after mass protests swept through his country, jolting the remaining dictators of the Arab world. Inspired, Yemenis were taking to the streets in the thousands, more every day, calling for the resignation of their president, Ali Abdullah Saleh. They set up a city of blue and green tents in a part of Sanaa that had once been a busy thoroughfare, dubbed their sit-in Change Square, and protested, slept, prayed, and danced there for days on end. Occasionally, the Square came under attack from the army when the protesters tried to expand the sit-in, taking over new street blocks on Ring Road. Tear gas, water cannons, and at times live gunfire were shot at them. A handful of the peaceful protesters had died as a result. Yet this had only strengthened the protesters' resolve and attracted more to join them at the Square.
On this morning, I arrived at the sit-in's northern edge, concerned that at the main, central artery into the Square I would have run into government soldiers who would prevent me from entering as the government was trying to quell media coverage of the growing political dissent. I passed by a row of men, protesters, standing with their hands on their hips, elbow to elbow like a human chain, guarding the entrance and searching all those who entered for weapons. It had come as a surprise to us, the few foreign journalists in Sanaa, that Yemenis had insisted on peaceful resistance and that no guns be allowed inside the Square. Weapon use is endemic here ("A man isn't a man if he leaves his house without a Kalashnikov," a northern tribesman once told me), and so is conflict, the traditional dispute-solving mechanism. Blood feuds, tribal war, these were put aside upon entering the Square.
I was patted down by a tiny woman in a black niqab who stood next to the male gatekeepers. She giggled when my ticklishness made me squirm. I was dressed significantly less conservatively than Yemeni women in a long trench coat — like beige jacket that hung to my knees and a scarf around my neck. Yemeni women almost exclusively wore the long black abayas and thin black veils that covered their faces, the niqabs.
Making my way southward on Ring Road, I walked along the curb and passed by crowds of men with their colorful prayer mats draped over their shoulders, fringes blowing slightly in the wind. The communal Friday prayer had just been completed, during which blocks full of men and women, prayer mats lined in a neat row, listened to a sermon delivered over a loudspeaker by an imam on the Square's central stage and performed the customary prostrations afterward. They had been doing this every Friday morning since the Square began.
Now it was time to protest, and the men around me were chanting in unison against their president — "Ya Ali, After Mubarak!" — with the sort of determination that made it seem that there was no question their president would be the next dictator to go, their voices blending together like a choir. On one side of the street, the large, deserted campus of Sanaa University sat behind a gray wall. On the other, there was a line of small stores and a rickety gas station that stayed open to serve the needs of those living at the sit-in. All around me, rows and rows of tents, either the type that are used for camping or large green tarps propped up with poles, had taken over the street.
I noticed a group of men had gathered in a circle along the side of the road. Their focus was on a handful of bouncing young boys, each launching himself into the air on a trampoline that had been erected at the Square that morning. The boys laughed and jumped in chaos, one springing into another with no regard for safety. The men surrounding the trampoline clapped their hands, cheering, goading them on with loud yelps. They were in their own world of merriment despite being in the middle of a large antigovernment protest. The sight made me smile. It reminded me why I enjoyed working here as a reporter after all, and some of the morning's anxiety dissipated. Yemenis sought to enjoy life, despite the hardships of their present situation — and they were so good at having fun.
Aside from the trampoline, I could see most men spoke amongst one another with furrowed brows, concerned eyes. Their attention moved from one area of the Square to the next, searching for any indication that the government was about to attack. Their protest chants were angrier today, underlined with tension. I knew they were expecting soldiers and their Kalashnikov-toting thugs to show up once again. Yet they were still here, protesting. In fact, there seemed to be more people at the Square than ever before, swarms of bodies had taken over this street for a mile. Some ten thousand came out. And they weren't just university students and civil society activists anymore; tribesmen from the countryside had started to come to Sanaa to join. They dressed traditionally, in floor-length white robes called thobes, with blue, gray, or brown suit jackets worn over them. A curved dagger — or janbiya, as it is known here — tucked securely into a wooden sheath decorated with rust- colored leather and intricately detailed silverwork, and then attached to the center of the men's leather belts, worn at the waist of the thobe.
A group of such tribesmen had surrounded me, an obvious Western reporter. They shouted in my face about how corrupt Saleh's family was, and how they couldn't get jobs, and how there was no electricity in their villages. Once one started talking, another felt like he had to tell his story as well.
"Okay okay, but I won't understand any of you if you don't speak one at a time," I said in Arabic as I reached into my bag and pulled out my spiral notebook and pencil. I was accustomed to this, the zealous verbal diatribes of protesters that spilled out whenever a Western reporter was present. But I was still eager to record. I felt they were the underdog and somehow I could help them. I was not afraid of the anticipated violence. Attacks on the Square had always been localized, and I had always been able to find safety. And anyway, I had great trust that a Yemeni would never intentionally hurt a foreign woman. That went against their honor code. The only Yemenis who broke such codes were al-Qaeda, and they lived in the southern deserts, far away from the capital.
"I want you to tell President Obama that we are not terrorists. That we want democracy just like you," one of the tribesmen shouted at me.
"Yes, yes," I said, nodding my head. I looked up to see the tribesman's unkempt hair, his wrinkled suit jacket, and his black-stained teeth.
As I was taking notes, I saw one tribesman turn his head to concentrate his gaze down the street. Then another did the same, until the collective attention of the crowd turned southward. Men pointed and murmured about a large cloud of smoke billowing to the sky on the southern end of the Square, about a half mile down Ring Road. We were all confused by what this could be. A car on fire? That's what happened last week. I needed to get down there to see.
A group of white-robed medics ran past me through the crowd toward the site of the fire and I jumped in behind them as people did their best to make way. One of the medics in the front shouted "Isaf, isaf!" "Emergency, emergency!" as if they were an ambulance rather than a handful of volunteer doctors and nurses on foot.
After we jogged a few blocks through the crowds of tents and men, a buzzing sound made us all look to the sky. A military helicopter descended near the Square's center stage, high enough that we couldn't see inside, but low enough that there could be no doubt that its presence had to do with what was about to happen. It hovered for a second, and then continued flying westward toward the surrounding mountains as protesters shouted insults to the sky, pumping their fists.
Before I could figure out where the helicopter was headed, my focus shifted down Ring Road again, to the more residential section of the street. My ears immediately recognized the sound of gunfire. Not just the occasional bullet like in the past, but a banging that crescendoed into a blanket of noise enveloping us. I could feel its reverberations in my chest.
For the first time since the start of the protests in Yemen, bullets rained down from the sky onto the large crowd of men and children who were just rolling up their prayer rugs. Snipers opened fire from the fourth and fifth floors of nearby brick residential buildings. It was one bullet after another, as if they were trying to pick off the protesters one by one.
Despite the onslaught, dozens of protesters did not run, but stood their ground. They defiantly took their positions in the middle of the street and yelled out to the men who were aiming assault rifles at their heads. They pulled their T-shirts up over their heads and faced the snipers with bare chests. A mix of adrenaline and conviction drove them to sacrifice their lives. This was the start of the massacre that would change the course of Yemen's history.
I pressed forward toward the gunfire because I didn't know how to draw the line between my inner desire to get to the story, to see what was happening, and keeping myself safe. The street, a four-lane road, was crowded with men. There was no clear directive as to what to do, whether to run away or stand ground, yet we all knew that the government had crossed the line and entered new territory of brutality. "This is Gadaffi!" one protester yelled, referring to Libya's draconian leader.
This was around the fifth time I'd been near gunfire in the past two weeks. I had grown used to it because a person can grow used to anything. I didn't grasp the severity of what was unfolding in front of my eyes because I didn't yet understand what fellow humans, fellow Yemenis, could do to one another. Yes, there was the bang of the gun, but no one expects that he will be the unlucky soul to take a bullet. And anyway, I thought that I needed to be there to do my job.
"Ganasa, there are ganasa," I heard the protesters telling one another. There are snipers. It was a new word for me. Snipers meant that we didn't know the source of the shots being fired. Snipers meant anyone could be a target.
About six men ran past me, eyes locked straight ahead, holding the edges of a bloodied blue-and-red checkered blanket, a blanket that had been inside a tent for warmth in Sanaa's chilly nights. Now it was holding a man whose face was pale white. His hands grasped futilely at his blood-soaked T-shirt, around his stomach, as if he couldn't believe what had just befallen him. Another group of men ran past, hauling another man in a blanket. He was already dead. I could see it in his eyes. His neck hung limply. Another blanket; the man inside just stared at the sky with a dull expression. I couldn't tell where he'd been shot.
I had already started building the wall that prevented me from being debilitatingly traumatized by all this. It was the wall that allowed me to report, to suspend a part of my humanity, the part that feels. The wall came so naturally, I didn't even know I was building it at the time. I suppose it's an intuitive defense mechanism. My brain knew that my body would not flee, that it must stay and be witness to tragedy, to men dying violent deaths. I knew I wouldn't run because that's not who I believed myself to be — a person who flees.
I had come to Yemen with the desire to be tough, the need to prove myself to some nebulous judge of the universe. The harder the situation was, the more I felt that I earned the right not to feel guilty for my privileged white American upbringing. But what if, in doing so, I put my well-being in jeopardy? It wasn't possible to realize that distinction in the moment.
Some of the Yemenis around me were panicked — a boy ran through the crowd holding his arms straight out in front of him, trying to force his hands as far from his body as possible. They were stained in someone else's blood. His face was contorted in shock and horror. Most others, though, stood their ground or continued walking toward the worst of the gunfire. A young man defiantly threw his arms up into the air, bellowing to the sky curses at his president.
It was as if with each bloodied body carried through, the crowd's resolve strengthened. Young and old, rich and poor, they were standing together, facing whatever may come. A protester patted another on the back. "Look," he said, pointing to the top of a nearby building where he thought there was a sniper. "God will hold them to account," another told a group of men, strangers brought together in this moment.
Then a whizzing sound, like a racecar zooming by. I instinctively understood what that meant. I realized I didn't even know from where the bullet had come.
That's not safe. So that means I'm not safe.
My thoughts were no more complex than that.
I searched the side of the street for a hiding place, a small alley to run down or a store that would open its doors to me, a foreign woman, someone whom Yemenis were always eager to protect. I saw a couple of Yemeni journalists ducking behind a large, rust-colored metal gate to my right. One motioned for me to join and I ran to them. We hid in a small frontyard of dirt, shrubs, and pavement that led to a four-story apartment building. I leaned the backs of my shoulders on our enclave's brown brick wall and inhaled deeply.
Finding rest in my new position of safety, I felt that part of what had just taken place had actually been fun, dodging gunfire, adrenaline pumping. I didn't know how easy it could be to become addicted to adrenaline. I wish someone would have told me that from the beginning.
I giggled nervously and looked around to engage with the other men hiding with me. An older male journalist was bent over at the waist, hands on his knees, panting. He glanced up, his eyes met mine, but he was far from smiling.
I turned back to peer out through the crevice between the garden's gate and wall into the street. I saw some men retreating from the gunfire, walking — certainly not running — back toward the center of the Square, but others pressed forward. One man dressed in tribal attire with round belly spilling out over his janbiya belt walked southward toward the carnage, chanting into a megaphone, "Don't be afraid of the bullets! Don't be afraid of the bullets!"
Don't be afraid of the bullets?
These were the Yemenis I had come to know, with whom I had spent life at the Square for several weeks. Were they brave or were they crazy? I didn't know, but I admired them.
Another bullet whizzed very close by, and I pulled back against the wall with a jolt, moving away from the door.
"Be careful," said a man's voice from behind me in clear English.
I turned to him. "I know," I said, wide-eyed, smiling.
"Are you a journalist?" he asked. He was tall, attractive, Western-dressed, and spoke English in a near flawless American accent.
I told him I was, and the man took out his camera to show me a video of when the sniper fire began just as prostrations ended. He showed me that a protester standing right beside him was shot in the head and collapsed to the ground.
"See, they are aiming for people with cameras. They were aiming at me, but hit him instead," he said.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Don't Be Afraid of the Bullets"
Copyright © 2014 Laura Kasinof.
Excerpted by permission of Skyhorse Publishing.
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