Yemen through the lens: ‘I’ve never seen such intense fighting’
Yemen is a country torn apart by war, yet one that has received little attention in the international media. Guillaume Binet is one of the few Western photographers to have covered the conflict. He speaks to FRANCE 24 about his experiences.
Since March last year, a Sunni coalition led by Saudi Arabia has waged an intensive air bombing campaign in support of Yemeni President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi in his battle against Iran-backed Shiite Houthi rebels allied with former president Ali Abdullah Saleh.
Despite the conflict being largely emblematic of the deep sectarian divide that is the source of so much bloodshed in the Middle East, the news coverage of the war in Yemen has been almost inversely proportional to the extent of the carnage. According to UN figures, 5,000 people have died in the conflict and another 25,000 have been wounded.
With logistical support from Doctors Without Borders (MSF), one of the few aid agencies still working in the country, Binet was given a rare opportunity to witness the devastation first hand. He arrived in the southern port city of Aden, scene of some of the heaviest fighting, after a 15-hour boat journey from Djibouti. From there he flew to the capital Sanaa on an MSF-chartered flight.
The striking photographs Binet took during his visits to the two cities have now been published as an online photo essay by his agency, Myop, in partnership with France Inter radio, with the aim of bringing the scale of the humanitarian crisis to wider public attention. Click here to see the photographs.
France 24: What drew you to Yemen, a country where working as a journalist is extremely difficult, if not impossible?
Guillaume Binet: I wanted to go there because it seemed important to me to document this part of the world, where the press is non-existent and where the only information comes from local blogs or tweets. I had the opportunity to go thanks to the support of MSF, which runs a hospital in Aden. Their only condition was that I respected the security rules. I jumped at the chance while being aware that working there would be difficult. But any information is worth having and passing on.
In your photo essay, you cite the coordinator of the MSF hospital in Aden, Thierry Goffeau, who says he has never seen “such a climate of violence” in his 10 years with the organisation…
The situation in Aden is terrible. The city was besieged by the Houthi Shiite rebels in July, who are not well organised. Under the regular bombardments of the Saudi air force’s Mirages [a French-built fighter jet], they didn’t have the time to properly adjust the aiming of their rockets, which fell haphazardly across the city. Moreover, just behind the MSF hospital, where I was, two Yemeni army tanks were firing constantly to try to reach Houthi lines.
In the middle, there were also all these jihadist factions, like Al Qaeda and the Islamic State group, as well as Marxist cells and forces loyal to President Hadi. For a city measuring just one kilometre by five, you can imagine the mayhem. The city is so small that military forces are mixed with civilian forces, which is terrible for the population.
I have been to Libya, Syria, Ivory Coast, Mali and I had never experienced such intense fighting.
Was the conflict as violent in the capital Sanaa?
Sanaa is bombarded about twice a day for about half an hour on average. In the old town [a UNESCO World Heritage Site], air strikes mostly target government buildings. The payloads cause damage but, from what I can tell, the capital has not been razed to the ground. In contrast, Saada, a big city in the north and a Houthi stronghold, has been about 60 percent destroyed, according to Amnesty International.
What is terrible in Sanaa, which is not really on the front line of the fighting, are the shortages the people there have to live with. There has been no electricity in Yemen for a year, because there is no more fuel which a lot of the power stations need to function. The price of petrol has risen by 400 percent. Nothing is regulated, there is no state at all, so no more food or water supplies. Life is a daily struggle; it has been for a very long time.
Do the civilians blame any one particular group over another?
I’ve tried to understand firsthand how people have lived this war. And what emerges is the gap that exists between the international view of the conflict – which would portray it as a conflict between Shiites and Sunnis, between Iran and Saudi Arabia – and the experience of those who are actually there. Civilians, Sunnis and Shiites alike feel taken hostage by political and economic, but not sectarian, war. For them, this is the result of longstanding local conflicts that have been exploited by international actors. This is something that has become bigger than them.
As a photojournalist, can you have full independence in your work if you’re relying on another organisation, even an NGO?
I think that today MSF is the only aid agency in Yemen and I have no problem with using the organsiaion to try to glean information over there. I held talks with MSF before going there and we agreed on the way the information would be treated. In the end, none of my photos have been censored, some have been the subject of debate, but there were no objections on their part, either over the content of the images or over the discourse I’ve used that might not necessarily be their point of view. It is entirely my own words and credibility that’s on sale with this photo essay.
In the field, I met journalists from Vice and HBO who themselves had paid heavily armed Houthis to take them places. In terms of integrity and subjectivity, I think I was better off.
Do you think your work can help to highlight a war that the majority of the media has lost interest in?
I’ve been pretty in demand since the photo essay was published. The more this war is talked about, the more the country will be understood and the more people will start to take an interest. All the issues of the Middle East come together in Yemen, which makes this a complex war. It is difficult to summarise 40 years of history, a country’s history, or even just explain what has been going on since the 2011 revolution.
It is like how it is difficult to explain that France supports Saudi Arabia, which gave birth to Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, which claimed responsibility for the “Charlie Hebdo” attack.
Do you envisage returning?
I hope to, but it depends on the security situation allowing me to do so and being able to work with total freedom. Today the south of the country is no longer accessible as the airport and port in Aden are closed because of attacks by Islamic State suicide bombers. To go to southern Yemen now, without any security guarantees, would be suicidal.
This article was translated from the original in French.