Prelude to a Deportation: Covering Yemen's Uprising

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Muhammed Muheisen / AP

Medics help injured anti-government protesters in a Mosque's yard following clashes with Yemeni police in Sana'a, Yemen, March 12, 2011.

As the sun crept over the mountains to the east on March 12, I was awakened by my phone beeping. "They are attacking us now," the text read. Adel al-Surabi, a university student and one of the organizers of the antigovernment protests, was referring to the Yemeni security forces cracking down on demonstrators in the capital of Sana'a. I jumped into a beaten up taxi and made my way over to Sana'a University — the center of the demonstrations — assuring the driver that we would stop short of the protest so he wouldn't have to drive in.

As I approached, I could hear gunfire and the rumble of distant chanting. Men rushed frantically through the streets, delivering the wounded from the frontlines back to rough and ready medical centers, before stuffing plastic bags with rocks and running back to rejoin the battle against riot police who were clad in black armor.

For the last few weeks, I had been reporting in Sana'a, shoving my way through the protest crowds that had grown to over 100,000 people as Yemenis gathered on the weekends to demand that their leader for three decades, Ali Abdullah Saleh, step down. Women and children had joined the masses, cheerily waving flags, and some people wore comical wigs painted in Yemen's national colors of red, white and black. People sang and danced at the sit-in, which felt like a festival, with many camping out for the duration. Entrepreneurial street merchants moved in to sell barbequed corn or freshly diced cucumbers sprinkled with salt. Occasionally, there were scuffles with the police and army at the fringes when panicked soldiers shot in the air to disperse the crowds, or when pro-Saleh supporters jeered at the protesters.

But on the day al-Surabi texted me, tear gas canisters bounced along the sodden cracked roads that were already wet from water canons used to push back protesters. Previously fearful of any confrontations, the protesters were now frenziedly fragmenting the tarmac for shards of rock that they flung at the soldiers like missiles. A smashed up ambulance swayed slightly as men ran past, their clothes stained with blood.

The government had — until recently — been generally hands-off handling the demonstrators. But observers say that the army started to push back when protest numbers soared and anti-government marches overflowed into major streets and pro-Saleh neighborhoods. Still, despite having their tents trampled, the protesters have not lost much ground. The deaths and injuries have only served to boost turn-out and augment resentment against the regime. In fact, many of Saleh's friends are jumping ship.

Saleh defector and GM Motors franchiser Nabil al-Khameri has started to support the protesters with food, money, tents and blankets. His desk covered with buzzing BlackBerries, the burly businessman spent half of his interview with TIME directing supplies to the demonstrators. "Give them food, give them what they need," he shouted in Arabic down a phone wedged between his ear and his shoulder, looking up and smiling apologetically at me.

"The president is talking too much, but in reality there is no action," al-Khameri said in a brief moment between ringing phones. "Corruption in Yemen is huge. For 12 years I have kept most of my businesses outside Yemen as I don't want to involve myself in the corruption." A leading mover and shaker in Yemen, al-Khameri says he and others from the business community have been advising Saleh to step down in order to help his country prepare for the next elections.

Across the country, meetings are being held to discuss how the revolution should play out. At a villa in the suburbs of Sana'a, academics and regional politicians met at the house of ruling party official and outspoken Saleh critic, Muhammad Ali Abu Lahoum. In the villa's gaudy 30-meter living room, men chatted excitedly over cups of sweet cardamom tea. "We must not be scared to talk about the revolution," said a university professor from the western mountain city of Ta'izz. "The president must decide now. He can flee like Hosni [Mubarak] or he can leave with honor, by stepping down and removing his family from power."

After the discussion, Lahoum told TIME that he applauds his colleagues who have left the president's party, but decided he would stay and try to reform "from within" so the party could outlive its leader. "There is no room in the Arab World for someone to stay for longer than 15 years anymore, let alone 33," he said, sitting in his living room, muggy with stagnant smoke from the debate. "Reality will kick in at one point or another. Once the president sees the voice of the street rising, he will have to reconsider. Change is coming."

But Lahoum's optimism is not reflected in Saleh's actions. The president stubbornly refuses to accept any deal that sees him step down before his term ends in 2013. Instead, Saleh has offered two sets of confused political concessions to the opposition — promising to devolve more power to parliament and not to hand the presidency to his son — and both have been rejected by the opposition. Dialogue has broken down and Yemen is at a political stalemate.

Violence intensified across the country and I continued to get early-morning text messages from protesters complaining of violence. That was until my last morning in Sana'a, March 14, when I was roused by a knock on my bedroom door. A two-star Yemeni General, complete with Ray Bans and pistol, then asked me and two other journalists to accompany him to his office. Our passports and cell phones were confiscated and we were told we are being deported, but refused an explanation.

Guarded by soldiers casually passing around an AK-47, we were allowed to return home and pack our bags. One plain-clothed policeman grabbed my arm and took me to one side. "Don't worry, you'll be back, after the revolution," he said quietly and smiling. "Are they scared of our stories?" I asked. The policeman nods.

Our General drives us to the airport in his rusty Mercedes. On the road, he tells us that protesting tribesmen have stabbed a provincial governor in the neck, in the eastern region of Marib. Even in the capital — relatively modern compared to rural Yemen — the protest demographics have grown from predominately-educated students to tribesmen, a shift that has stirred up tensions even more in this highly tribal and well armed society. "It's good you are leaving," the General tells us, laughing. "There are too many problems here. Come back later."

Epilogue: The crackdown on dissent continues in Yemen. On Friday, police and pro-government supporters opened fire on protesters in Sana'a, killing at least 30 people and leaving more than 100 wounded, doctors on the scene and at a nearby hospital said. If accurate, the toll doubles fatalities since the protests began in January. Many of the dead were reportedly shot in the head by live ammunition, medics said. Eyewitnesses said government supporters fired on demonstrators from rooftops after the protesters ended Friday prayers. The Yemeni government has always insisted that security forces do not use live ammunition, a claim disputed by protesters and local human rights organizations. Meanwhile, President Saleh has imposed a state of emergency on the country.