Digital connections relay news from the war in Yemen. But calls to family bring home the humanity

Canadian writer Kamal Al-Solaylee shares the personal, complex questions he faces as a member of a ‘digital community of Yemen watchers.’

By: /
November 2, 2016
A man looks at a phone while at his shop in the old market in the historic city of Sana'a, Yemen, October 21, 2016. REUTERS/Mohamed al-Sayaghi

Journalism Professor at Ryerson University and Author

New Twitter followers are supposed to be a bump in social media capital, not a cause for concern. But as someone whose family in Yemen is trapped in an 18-month-and-counting civil war, my anxiety level spikes whenever I see notifications that groups such as South Yemen Needs You or South Yemen Untold have followed me. In wars, activist groups only follow you if they believe you to be an ally or a mortal enemy. I’m neither.

Like most conflicts of this decade (the tragedy in Syria, the rise of ISIS), the war in Yemen is being fought just as relentlessly on social media. These voices popping up in my digital feeds seek my intervention, so that I will do my bit to champion their cause on the world stage. I don’t always know whose side they are on, or whether they or the groups they support have committed atrocities in a conflict that has seen accusations of war crimes by both rebels and government supporters. They are making assumptions about me, based on my media profile (digital and otherwise), our shared ethnicities and access to Twitter.

Since the Saudi-led coalition launched a military campaign in Yemen against the Houthi rebels in March 2015, I’ve followed, written and agonized about this war on two fronts: the digital and the physical. A digital trail of tweets, Facebook updates and Instagram posts have brought a war two continents away to my laptop and smartphone with full force. What to do with it all has weighed on my mind, as a journalism professor, as a writer and as a human being. Do I retweet and share indiscriminately or should I curate a digital feed that only includes reliable sources, but perhaps misses or ignores genuine pleas for help? What is my responsibility to a war that is unfolding both in my country of birth and my digital apps of choice? Is my role to amplify all voices or privilege a handful of them? Should I really be concerned with all this when children in Yemen are starving and dying?

I’m of course grateful to the hundreds of social media users who post every few seconds under the #Yemen hashtag on Twitter. Collectively, they’ve drawn a more comprehensive picture of that war than any of the regular media outlets I usually consume—the CBC, Globe and Mail, Guardian, BBC World Service, New York Times, etc.—could have done. This digital stream has raised my awareness of and ache over a civilian population that’s fighting off not just airstrikes but famine, cholera, unemployment and renewed calls for the south’s cessation. Still, having this much access has also increased my sense of dread and routinely crushes whatever hope I entertain about a peaceful resolution, or at least a ceasefire. I felt helpless at the start of and during the early months of the war. I now feel hopeless. Being part of a digital community of Yemen watchers comes at a heavy price.

That’s why I balance my Google News searches and hashtag-checking compulsive behaviour with regular phone calls to my family in Sana’a, where eight of my siblings and 17 of their children and grandchildren, not to mention extended family members, are doing their best to survive. I take comfort in hearing their voices, no matter what the news might be, on what feels like an ancient instrument: the landline phone.

My family has a habit of underplaying even their closest brushes with death, hiding their own suffering so as not to inflict any on me. Part of this attitude comes down to traditional pride, but it also stems from a resilience that has been building over years. Many lived through the civil war that pitted the north against the south in 1994, not to mention the turbulence of the Arab Spring that led to the current situation.

For a few minutes every weekend I mute the online cacophony to hear the actual voices of brothers, sisters, nephews and nieces. The calls bring the war home in a more immediate and literal sense—friends, close and distant relatives are dying or wasting away—but I’ve discovered that the anxiety these calls trigger is more manageable. Along with stories of waking up to explosions and going to work to a soundtrack of flying jets, I also hear ones of family gatherings over meals, plans to attend weddings (or funerals) and efforts to help the less fortunate survive the food and water shortages. If wars bring out the brutality among military and civilians, they also showcase the humanity. And my digital feeds rarely contain that part of the exchange.

In being open about my disappointments and confusions around digital platforms, perhaps I’m revealing my own bias in favour of traditional media’s role in providing context, analysis and guidance to readers and viewers. Part of me still longs for a Barbara Walters, a Dan Rather or a Knowlton Nash to break it down, to explain to me why people in my home country are fighting each other. That’s not going to happen, obviously, in the current insular media climate where foreign news bureaus are the first to go in budget cuts.

Instead, my best bet is to wade through the digital trail again, make a few more phone calls home—then try to explain the tragedy and call for action, or at least empathy, from those who will listen. 

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