"A conflict as hard to understand as it is dangerous to cover"
How has AFP's coverage of the conflict in Yemen changed since you arrived as Dubai Bureau Chief?
The bureau in Dubai, in the United Arab Emirates, covers the six Gulf oil monarchies and Yemen. I took up my position there in August 2014, when Iran-backed Shiite Huthi rebels were approaching Sanaa, Yemen's capital. A few weeks later, they had taken over control with the help of forces loyal to former president Ali Abdallah Saleh. No foreign reporter could work in Yemen for fear of being attacked, kidnapped or killed so I was very worried about our coverage, all the more so as three of our local journalists had to flee the country for security reasons. But our stringers reacted very professionally in April-May 2015 when the Saudi-led coalition began its bombing campaign. AFP's rich coverage of the conflict on a daily basis is due to the skill and courage of around 20 Arabic-speaking correspondents.
Like the Syrian conflict, one of the characteristics of this war is how dangerous it is for journalists…
The Yemen conflict is as hard to understand as it is dangerous to cover. The conflict is mainly between pro-government forces supported by an Arab-Sunni coalition, and Huthi rebels. But there are also tribal factions, militia groups and jihadist organisations, notably Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and the Islamic State group. In this context, eight journalists died in Yemen in 2018 alone. These included photo and video journalist Abdullah Al-Qadri, who worked for the Yemen channel Belqees TV and also with us. He was killed by a projectile on April 13, 2018 in the centre of the country. A year earlier, a regular photo stringer for the Agency, Saleh Al-Obeidi, was seriously wounded in a bombing. He suffered significant after-effects. In addition, certain of our local staff have received threats that have forced them into exile. But even these people have decided to continue working for us.
How is our stringer network set up to cover such a complex war?
Our network has four text journalists, eight photographers and eight video journalists. Of the text stringers, two "ex-AFP" journalists work out of Dubai and Abu Dhabi but have a large number of sources both in the army and the tribes and are often the first to be informed when something happens. We also have the broadest network of photographers and video journalists of the big agencies. The photographers are coordinated by our chief photographer in Sanaa, Mohammed Huwais , whose work regularly features in the international press. The video team is organised from Cairo by our former Sanaa video journalist Sami Al-Ansi, who was forced into exile in 2015. He is supported in Dubai by video coordinator Mimen Khatib. All these stringers are extremely reactive and have a strong bond to AFP for personal reasons and because of the Agency's powerful impact in the Arab world. Thanks to them, we are often the first with the news, with exclusive images such as those from the coalition offensives or the first cases of cholera and famine.
What role does the Dubai bureau play in this network?
Before the Saudi intervention, most of the coverage was organised from Sanaa. After the country was split up, everything is run from Dubai, in coordination with the regional HQ in Nicosia. As far as possible, we aim to have text, photo and video journalists working together. If we decide to do a story on cholera on the western coast, a video journalist and photographer will go out there to produce a multimedia package that will be pulled together in Dubai. A video journalist in Taez, in the south-west, might tell us that there are battles between loyalists and rebels. We tip off the photo service and we gather information for the story. As we have fewer text stringers, our stories are often based on images - in particular videos. Many of them are first written in Arabic under the guidance of my deputy Mohamad Ali Harissi, who is the direct point of contact for the network. They are then translated into French and English. The bureau puts the information in context and tries to explain as simply as possible this conflict where tribal, regional and religious dimensions are intermixed.
AFP stringers on the ground need to be mobile. How is their safety guaranteed?
We cover most of Yemen, which requires regular reporting trips. For example, our photographer and video journalist based in Aden in the south are often required to go to the west coast to cover clashes. Given the risks, the security protocols are very strict. When we ask a stringer to go on a reporting trip, it has to be on a voluntary basis. Then, the journalist is always equipped with a bullet-proof vest and helmet. If we feel the situation is too dangerous, we would rather not have a team on the ground than put any journalist's life in danger. That is an absolute rule. Three of our main Yemeni staff have received security training in France. That said, most of the network is made up of professionals who mainly work for Yemeni media and who know the situation on the ground. They can also move about during missions organised by the Saudi and Emirati armies. They are then "embedded" and fall under their protection. But this is not always enough. Our photographer Saleh Al-Obeidi can attest to that: a missile was fired at the tank he was riding in.
After four years, how do you continue to bring the conflict to life?
Our constant aim is to have people on the ground. That's what gives our work its power. On the military front in 2018, we covered the offensive on the port city of Hodeidah. Using our contacts, my deputy found a journalist that we recruited as a stringer, while our rivals had no one on the ground. The bureau also closely followed the negotiations that took place in Sweden under the supervision of the UN. We sent a journalist there from Dubai and wrote a series of stories about the scepticism these talks sparked in Yemen. We also report on the effects this "dirty war" is having on the people. This term refers to the fact that civilians are literally taken hostage by the belligerents and where the humanitarian catastrophe has become a central part of the story. More than two-thirds of the population need urgent aid, 3.3 million people have been displaced, several thousand have died of cholera or hunger, not to mention the thousands of others who have died in combat or air raids.
Do we always give priority to the human angle?
Without taking our eye off the news from the front lines, we are increasingly writing about this type of story. In this respect, Mohamad Ali Harissi plays a crucial role in Dubai because he comes up with angles for stories. If civilians have been killed in a bombing, he very quickly looks to give the story a human angle by using the testimony collected from survivors by our stringers. The human angle is a priority. It allows us to reveal the scale of the humanitarian, economic and health crisis the people are suffering.