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Bushra al-Maqtari’s Speech when Receiving the Palm Award for Freedom of Speech and the Press

اقرأ المحتوى باللغة العربية

Bushra al-Maqtari // Photo by Lina Malers

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 honor 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.

My friends,

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 us to]hold this celebration virtually. Still, I hope that you are in good health, and that the hardship of coronavirus will be over and the world will be able to breathe again.

My friends,

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. I consider myself lucky with this honor, and I got word about receiving this 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.

My friends,

The situation we are living in Yemen, and I mean for those remaining authors and journalists, is extremely difficult and harsh because when you write, the parties to the war and their affiliated media will threaten you 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. That is why we move within an extremely confined space, and 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, authors and journalists have been targeted by the warring factions, where there are still tens of journalists inside Houthi prisons. Some have been sentenced to death, and while the Houthi authorities have released four journalists, Tawfeek al-Mansouri has been in prison for more than five years. Recently, his health condition has deteriorated, but the Houthi authorities refuse to release him along with tens of others in their prisons, such as Sultan Ahmed Qatran who has been imprisoned for three years. In Hadramawt, journalist Abdullah Bakeer has been incarcerated for three months at the Mukalla Political Security prison. In Marib, which is under the control of the internationally recognized government, journalist Mohammed Ali al-Muqri has been jailed for years. A few months ago, journalist Al-Shatheli Saeed was held in prison under the control of the Southern Transitional Council (STC) in the Lahj governorate. Before that, journalist Aseel Souied was tortured also in a prison under the STC’s control in the Lahj governorate, and before that, journalist Radwan al-Hashidi was imprisoned in a prison in the city of Marib. Weeks before that, activist Omar Mennah was arrested in Dhamar governorate by the Houthi authorities because of a Facebook post he had published. He had already been detained twice before and released. Earlier this year, photojournalist Nabil al-Quaiti was killed in Aden by armed assailants. 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, and Dr. Hamid Aklan, the head of the Science and Technology University, is still in a Houthi-run prison in Sana’a.

My point is [the act of] writing in Yemen that aims to uncover crimes committed by warring parties is like buying a ticket to death. As many Yemeni authors and journalists keep uncovering war crimes, then survival is merely a matter of luck in an environment unsafe for authors and journalists, but also for Yemenis in general.

My friends,

When I wrote my 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 daiy narrative that Yemenis live. In just one week, more than 50 civilians were killed by shelling by the Houthi militia 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. Civilians were killed in Saudi-Emirati airstrikes or what is known as the Arab Coalition in the border regions. Not to mention the assassinations taking place in most Yemeni cities, in addition to 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 assassinations, and extrajudicial executions between the warring factions in the cities of Taiz, Shabwa, Abyan, Sana’a and other Yemeni cities continue, as innocent civilians pay the price of war, infighting, and systemic violence.

My friends,

There are other dimensions [and] layers authors and journalists living in Yemen experience. One is the oppressive humanitarian situation that Yemenis endure. The word “famine” remains abstract, 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, and the warring parties have turned the economic war into a weapon used against innocent citizens after the warring parties have stolen the state’s resources for themselves and for the war networks that feed off impoverishing Yemenis as millions go hungry. Many Yemenis have died because of the deteriorating living conditions as well as the health situation there. 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.

My friends,

Poverty in Yemen is a systematic policy, imposed by the parties of war as the war economy in Yemen grows: 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; [there is] the war economy under the control of the legitimate authorities in the Yemeni cities under their control as well as in Cairo, Amman, and European capitals; and there’s the war economy of the STC in Cairo and Abu Dhabi and other cities; and there’s the war economy that belongs to the Islah party, one of the largest parties that supports the legitimate authority and that controls the military institution and [is supported by] Qatar, Turkey, and Malaysia.

The [local] warring parties in Yemen as well as the international powers, who eye Yemen as a market for arms 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.

My friends,

The decision [to go] to war was a Yemeni one, when the Houthi militias supported by Iran and the forces supporting 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 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 one. But after six years of war, the war is no longer in the hands of the local players financed by the regional powers where Iran supports the Houthis, the UAE supports the STC, Qatar and Turkey support the Islah Party (the Muslim Brotherhood), and Saudi Arabia supports the internationally recognized government. These parties no longer control the war decision, it is now in the hands of the larger powers that grow the war in Yemen and feed it for the sake of making arms deals.

It is sad, inhumane, and immoral that Yemenis continue to be exterminated for the sake of the international and regional powers.

My friends,

It is the responsibility of the author in the beginning of wars to be a witness to what is happening in his or her life and to write down the abomination, horror and death as well as the daily life narratives during a war in all its oppression and ugliness. He or she must try to write all that they see so as to give voices to the civilians that have been overlooked by the warring parties and the international powers in the world. However, all authors and humane intellectuals in Yemen, Germany and all over 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, either by murder, hunger, assassination, the absence of security, [the presence of] hatred, and the ongoing cycles of violence.

My friends,

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 have peace soon, that our Yemeni friends will return home from abroad, that the families of the victims can breathe and mourn their dead, [that they] can bury them properly and can 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, and we are tired of the endless deaths.

My friends,

I thank you once again for honoring me with this award, and I hope peace will reign 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 in 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


December 5, 2020

Bushra Al-Maqtari is a researcher at the Sana’a Center. She holds a bachelor in History from Taiz University. Her writings have been published in various Arab newspapers and periodicals, including The New Arab, New York Times, and Gulf House for Studies and Publishing. Many of her studies have approached the 2011 uprising and Yemeni left. She has authored “Behind the Sun”, a novel published by the Arab Cultural Center, a book titled “What You Have Left Behind: Voices from the Land of the Forgotten War,” which has been translated into German, and co-authored with Lebanese intellectual Fawaz Traboulsi the book “Southern Yemen under the Left.” Al-Maqtari has won several international awards, including the Françoise Giroud Award for Defense of Freedom and Liberties.