Ten years ago, on March 19, 2011, I walked into a tent in the antigovernment protest encampment in Sanaa, Yemen, known as Change Square. I cannot remember why I walked into this particular tent rather than one of the hundreds of others. Maybe I had seen the two bullet holes on its outside flap, or I was beckoned to enter by one of the tribesmen sitting under the tent’s green tarp, but I recall clearly what one of the protesters inside told me that day.
Two men had had been killed in that tent the day prior, March 18, 2011, which would become known as Jumaat al-Karama, or the Friday of Dignity, after pro-government snipers rained gunfire on Change Square following Friday prayers, killing at least 45 people and wounding some 200 others. It was the largest massacre of protesters at the Sanaa demonstration, and the day would change the course of Yemen’s history, but we didn’t know that yet on March 19. Yemenis were still recovering from shock and horror at what happened, as was I, a young reporter who was covering the Arab Spring uprising in Yemen for The New York Times.
I sat down in the tent among a handful of tribesmen. These were countryside folks from Northern Yemen, which means, many of them were unemployed. They received funds from their tribal leader, or sheikh, for their loyalty. They followed tribal code above state law, and tribal law included rules that managed revenge killing. Tribes could be at odds for decades because of this tit-for-tat violence. The two men killed by pro-government snipers the day before were from this tribe, so tribal custom would dictate that they take revenge.
Up until this point, the protesters at Change Square had remained noticeably peaceful. Some men would throw rocks at armed security forces whenever they came to pick off one or two protesters, but otherwise, there was a strict adherence to nonviolence, which had taken a lot of outside observers and Yemenis by surprise. Protesters talked about the ethics of Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. They told me that this was the only way they could win in their call for President Ali Abdullah Saleh to abdicate power. Everyone expected Yemen's revolution to turn violent after Tunisia's and Egypt’s successes, but the Yemenis I met would not be.
There were no guns at Change Square. In Northern Yemen’s countryside, a man isn’t a man if he leaves his house without his Kalashnikov, or so I was told over and over again while living in Sanaa. Guns were, and are, ubiquitous in Yemen. I was also told stories of how, in a remote province along the Saudi border, people used bullets as currency in the absence of cash. Change Square’s volunteer guards inspected people for weapons before they entered to make sure the protest encampment stayed gun-free.
After the March 18 massacre, I didn’t believe that the protestors would maintain their vow of peace. It seemed like it went against everything I had learned about Yemeni tribal culture. So I asked one of the tribesmen inside the green tent, Obad Dahamash, how the group would react. After all, the government had murdered two from their tribe. Would they fight back?
Dahamash told me that, no, they wouldn’t. They would remain peaceful, and in doing so, the world would see their steadfastness be on their side.
Ten years later, his words still reverberate in my heart. Not much of the world saw Yemen’s version of revolution. In accounts of the Arab Spring, Yemen is often left out — Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Syria are the countries most commonly mentioned. The war, humanitarian crisis and utter collapse in Yemen today can trace their roots to the political chaos that came out of the Arab Spring protests.
I think of Dahamash’s hope — and the hope of so many Yemeni protestors at that time — that the world would be on the side of Change Square, and together unified, global powers would support Yemenis’ call for a new democratic era.
I may have been starry-eyed back in 2011, but so many who spent time in Change Square will tell you of its joy. Inside the encampment, Northerners and Southerners, traditional enemies, sat down together to debate and break bread. Tribes who had long-standing blood feuds between them signed contracts to end their disputes for the sake of the peace and a better future. Young people from cities exchanged ideas with their peers from rural areas for the first time. Change Square wasn’t without internal problems, especially regarding the role of women and the Islamist party’s reaction to women protesting, but for the most part, it was a miracle.
Yet that all seems in sharp contrast to what has happened in Yemen since: 233,000 dead in a war that still rages, starvation, a divided country and collapsed economy. Enemies have become more entrenched in animosity toward one another. A friend of mine from my time covering Change Square, a 30-something Yemeni who now lives in North America, told me that he feels partially responsible for the war, as if all their fervor and dreams as young protesters led Yemen to where it is today. I have to admit that his guilt, though irrational, also made sense to me.
It can feel like the hope and joy from Change Square led to the tragedy of Yemen today. That’s a dismal thought, and I too can wallow in that despair, though it’s important to note that I am not Yemeni. I am a white American. As an outsider who had the privilege of being a witness to Yemen’s uprising, ten years later I’ve come to realize that I shouldn’t run away from what I learned at Change Square, despite Yemen’s outcome to date. At Change Square, I saw what happens when people work together to bridge the gaps that divide them, united in a common goal that restores human dignity. I am grateful for that lesson.
The question isn’t how can something that contained so much goodness go so poorly, because there were many reasons why Yemen’s pro-democracy uprising was bound to fail and lead to utter chaos. Rather, my hope is that for the sake of the future of Yemen, the desire for reconciliation that once existed in Change Square will not be forgotten.
Laura Kasinof is an award-winning freelance journalist and documentary filmmaker. She is the author of Don't Be Afraid of the Bullets: An Accidental War Correspondent in Yemen, a memoir of her time reporting on the Arab Spring in Yemen for The New York Times. For more, see laurakasinof.com