Photojournalist Essa al-Ragehi Brings Yemen’s Worst Atrocities to Light

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IN THE SUMMER of 2018, Essa al-Ragehi, a freelance photojournalist and videographer, received a tip that villagers in rural northwestern Yemen were starving. The community was mostly composed of marginalized dark-skinned Yemenis, who have been among the most victimized groups in the country’s ongoing war, and Ragehi, a tan, stocky man of 38, lived only a half-hour away. He knew that he needed to investigate and document whatever was happening—because if he didn’t, perhaps no one would.

 

 

When he arrived in the village of Al-Mashrada, he was shocked by what he saw: Families were trying to survive on boiled leaves. The village had somehow received no international aid, and at least 20 children were believed to have already died from starvation in the province. The malnourished villagers included a year-and-half-year-old girl named Zohoor, who was little more than skin and bones. Her pregnant mother was 40 but looked 20 years older, Ragehi recalled recently, and the family’s two sons both had untreated mental disorders.

“I felt so much pain in my heart,” Ragehi said. “I moved away, wept near the car, then came back and resumed photographing.”

Ragehi’s photos of starving villagers, seen on this and the following page, sparked a U.N. investigation into why aid wasn’t reaching certain rural communities in Hajjah province, one of the hardest hit areas in Yemen’s ongoing civil war.
Ragehi’s photos of starving villagers, seen on this and the following page, sparked a U.N. investigation into why aid wasn’t reaching certain rural communities in Hajjah province, one of the hardest hit areas in Yemen’s ongoing civil war. Courtesy of AP Photo

 

After he finished taking photos and videos, he sent the images to his colleague Maggie Michael, an Associated Press reporter in Cairo, more than a thousand miles away, and fed her key information for a story. When the AP published the piece in September, Ragehi’s photos and videos—some of the most heartbreaking images of 2018—afforded the world a clear look at how bleak the situation had become in Yemen. Other news organizations, including The New York Times, soon followed suit, sending journalists to the village and northwestern Yemen to photograph many of the same starving children Ragehi had. The resulting coverage helped to change Americans’ view of the war and increased scrutiny over the United States’ support of Saudi Arabia–led coalition forces. But these stories would have likely gone untold if not for Ragehi’s efforts.

I FELT SO MUCH PAIN IN MY HEART. I MOVED AWAY, WEPT NEAR THE CAR, THEN CAME BACK AND RESUMED PHOTOGRAPHING.

As one of the few journalists based in remote Hajjah province, near the border with Saudi Arabia, and the only one working for the international newswire services, Ragehi has largely acted alone in documenting the tragedies that have befallen civilians during the war between Houthi rebels from Yemen’s northern highlands and the Saudi-led coalition. Since the conflict began in 2014, he has gained a reputation for his unflinching photos taken in perilous locations, often at great personal risk. Ragehi has dodged gunfire from Apache helicopters, narrowly avoided air strikes, run into a burning hospital, and survived artillery shellings in a deserted house.

Starving woman and child in Hajjah province
Starving woman and children in Hajjah province. Courtesy of AP Photo

 

Ragehi’s story about the villagers not only helped bring the Yemen conflict to the forefront of international debate but also sparked a United Nations investigation into why food wasn’t reaching the community. “Essa has conveyed our suffering to the world,” said Mekkiya Mahdi, a local doctor who runs the district’s only health clinic. Shortly after the piece was published, her clinic received logistical and financial support from donors and the U.N. “I used to be unable to feed just five families per day,” she said. “People are now calling to help.”

RAGEHI AND HIS WIFE and their five children live in a village called Shafar, in Abs district, about 100 miles north of Yemen’s capital. Their one-story house, which they share with Ragehi’s father and nine brothers and sisters, sits off the main road. When I visited in November, Ragehi, dressed in a sleeveless shirt and a ma’wazz, a traditional skirtlike outfit, spent the afternoon in a spacious but spare room off the main house, searching the internet and fielding calls from locals, trying to suss out his next story, with periodic interruptions from his kids.

He got his start freelancing for local TV stations more than a decade ago, and his decision to stick with journalism was motivated largely by the loss of his brother Hammadi, who died of a heart attack a few years after Ragehi entered the field and who also worked for local news outlets. Ragehi told me that he intends “to follow on my brother’s path and complete his march” to become an impactful journalist. For a time, he also helped out at an uncle’s fruit-export business, until bombing during the war ceased trade; he has worked as a photojournalist more or less full-time ever since.

The conflict in Yemen, which ranks among the Middle East’s poorest countries, began in 2014, when a group of Houthi rebels gradually overtook Sana’a, the capital. The conflict escalated the following year, when Saudi Arabia, backed by the U.S., intervened, accusing the Houthis of being surrogates for hostile Iran. Civilians have been caught in the crossfire ever since. From the outset, Saudi coalition air strikes have targeted public gatherings, including funerals and weddings, and at least one school bus full of children. Though the war has claimed at least 60,000 lives, the U.S. has continued to back Saudi Arabia—primarily by providing arms, intelligence, and, until recently, midair plane refueling—ostensibly because the two countries share an enemy in Iran.

Young girl in Hajjah province of Yemen
Young girl in Hajjah province of Yemen Courtesy of AP Photo

 

When the war began, Saudi forces banned commercial and humanitarian flights into Yemen’s capital; as a result, outside journalists have generally been blocked from entering—which has made Ragehi a critical asset inside the war-torn country. According to the U.N., 22 million people, three-quarters of Yemen’s population, now depend on aid, in what’s become the world’s largest humanitarian catastrophe, and Ragehi has gone to great lengths to document it. As the war progressed, the internet speed in Hajjah became so slow that he couldn’t email photos to his editors. For more than a year, he arranged to have a taxi driver courier an SD card with his photos six hours from his home to Yemen’s capital, where a colleague would email them over a stronger connection. Once, when an air strike bombed a wedding and the driver was unavailable, Ragehi made the trek himself. “He cares so much about the local community,” Maggie Michael, the AP reporter who works with Ragehi, told me recently. “He understands well the roots of the humanitarian crises affecting his home city.”

Ragehi’s work has won him the respect not only of his colleagues but also of his community. During my visit, store owners offered Ragehi, who always seems to be smiling, free bottles of water, and security guards recognized him and waved him through checkpoints.

A father prays in front of the grave of his 3-year-old daughter. Some 60,000 people have died in the war between Houthi rebels and Saudi-led forces.
A father prays in front of the grave of his 3-year-old daughter. Some 60,000 people have died in the war between Houthi rebels and Saudi-led forces. Courtesy of AP Photo

 

THOUGH RAGEHI typically shows up after an attack has occurred, he has no doubt witnessed the war’s carnage firsthand. One day in April 2015, he received a phone call at 4 a.m. It was an acquaintance, who told him that an air strike had targeted a restaurant in Haradh, a bustling city of 100,000, about 30 miles away, killing a dozen people—including one of the caller’s relatives. When Ragehi arrived at the restaurant a few hours later, he found tables mangled and the roof tattered and half caved-in. The bodies of the dead had already been taken away. But the violence was far from over.

At 10 a.m., as Ragehi was walking down a main road, jets roared overhead. Residents fled their homes and scattered in all directions; missiles slammed into a spot Ragehi had passed minutes before. Still filming, he ran to a nearby hospital operated by Doctors Without Borders, or MSF, where he thought he’d be safe. But when he stopped outside the gate to catch his breath, a missile struck right behind the hospital. “It felt like the jets were going after me,” Ragehi recalled. Still, he kept filming, hoping that, should he die, his footage would be recovered and reveal the horrors in Haradh. The air strikes in and around the city lasted for 24 hours and ultimately killed more than 60 people, according to the Legal Center for Rights and Development.

A man feeds children leaves. Three- quarters of Yemen’s population now depends on aid, but many become desperate when food fails to reach their village.
A man feeds children leaves. Three- quarters of Yemen’s population now depends on aid, but many become desperate when food fails to reach their village. Courtesy of AP Photo

 

RAGEHI HOPES TO SEE prosperity and stability return to Yemen. Haradh, where he narrowly escaped the air strike, had once been bustling. “Now it looks like a ghost city,” Ragehi said. And the war still rages on. In November, after a Saudi kill squad murdered Jamal Khashoggi, a Washington Post columnist and critic of the kingdom’s conduct in Yemen, the Senate voted to end the U.S.’s support of the Saudi coalition. But House Republicans promptly blocked the bill from advancing. A nationwide ceasefire also looks unlikely anytime soon.

In the meantime, Ragehi hopes that his work will force people to confront the atrocities being committed in Yemen. Though he has been relatively fortunate compared with many of his countrymen, he sees himself as part of a larger whole, which is why he has no plans to leave Yemen anytime soon. “The war has had its toll on the population I’m one citizen of,” Ragehi told me. “Any damage inflicted on the nation hurts me, too.”



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