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July 25, 2013

Americans in Yemen fear kidnappings

Al-Qa’ida flexes its muscles as Yemen seeks stability

http://www.jewishjournal.com/live_from_the_arab_spring/article/americans_in_yemen_fear_kidnappings

Yemen. Image from Google Maps

Yemen. Image from Google Maps

This story originally appeared on themedialine.org.

Luke, an American photographer and editor for an English-language local newspaper, lives in one of the tall historic buildings in the city.  With increased kidnappings of Westerners in Yemen, he also lives in fear.

The number of kidnappings has increased recently, with tribesmen or Al-Qa'ida terrorists using hostages either as bargaining chips for the release of imprisoned members or as a way to get a lucrative ransom.

Several foreigners have been abducted this year by either Al-Qa'ida gunmen or disgruntled tribesmen. Last month a Dutch couple was abducted here. Their location is still unknown. In May, gunmen abducted two South Africans in the southern province of Taiz. Three members of the Red Cross, including a Swiss citizen were also briefly held captive as well that month.

Although they refused to give an exact number of Westerners living in the country, Yemeni foreign ministry officials said that the number of Westerners here has plunged in recent years.

For the Westerners who live here despite the threats, the fear is always there, but they try to live as normal a life as they can, and believe reports of violence in Yemen are exaggerated by the media. 

Luke, 31, who arrived in 2011, says the situation has taken a toll on him. "There's no denying that as a foreigner, in particular a 'Westerner,' you stick out in Yemen. But while such news is certainly disturbing, it is clear to me that carrying around such worry or concern is neither helpful nor healthy.”

Luke says he tries not to think about the fear of kidnappings.

"I live my life as normally as I can," he told The Media Line. "The fact that so many of the people who surround me on a daily basis are kind, helpful and genuinely curious [about me] helps in this regard."

"I do sense that as long as foreigners aren't secreted away in compounds or constantly surrounded by security details, the unparalleled warmth and generosity of the Yemeni people can serve to assuage most daily fears or concerns about such things," he told The Media Line.

Luke is hardly alone in facing down the fear of kidnapping in Yemen. Hundreds of Westerners here have to worry about increased violence and a growing lack of security.

"We pray every day for God's protection. And we feel that God is guiding our steps. That said, we also have to be careful and use our common sense regarding where to go," a 47-year-old American teacher who requested anonymity, told The Media Line.

The language teacher, who has been living here for nine years, said Yemen's security and economy took a turn for the worse after the revolution in 2011 that ousted former President Ali Abdullah Saleh.

"When we first came to Yemen, we would go in the car and visit cities and villages…But now we can't go out of the city due to the bad security situation," she recalled.

The kidnappings and growing lack of security here have taken not only a psychological toll on the Westerners, but has hurt them economically as well.

Susan Coleman, co-owner of the Coffee Trader, a well-known coffee shop in Sana'a and one of a handful of businesses owned by Americans in the country, told The Media Line that kidnappings have hurt her business, which attracts foreign and Yemeni customers alike.

Coleman, 47, said she came here with her husband to study Arabic and teach English. But when they noticed there were no Western-style coffee shops in Yemen, they decided to open one in 2007.

She said that the coffee shop was a hit from the beginning, but business has fallen off lately because of the opening of rival coffee shops and the fear of kidnapping.

"We used to have people from embassies come, but now due to the security situation they don't come here because they fear for their safety."

Despite putting up a positive front, Coleman refused to be photographed for security reasons and she says Westerners' need to maintain a low profile. She added that if security improved Yemen could become one of the biggest tourist hubs in the region.

Stan, from Washington, D.C., who arrived this summer to study Arabic, also thinks the country gets a bad rap, but exercises caution anyway on a daily basis.

"I arrived in Yemen just this summer, right in the thick of the current spate of kidnappings. I vary my schedule, keep solitary travel to a minimum, and stay in touch with friends and colleagues, particularly when I'm in a new or unfamiliar part of town. This is definitely distinct from my daily life back home."

Besides his interest in learning Arabic, "I was really excited by the incredible developments Yemen is undergoing right now. Between the transitional government, the national dialogue and impending new constitution and elections, this is an incredible time to be in Yemen and I wanted to take advantage of it."

He refuses to allow the fear of kidnappings to get in the way of his goals. "The kidnapping of Westerners is something that saddens me but does not ultimately affect my daily life. Hearing about kidnappings is a reminder of a number of things.  It's a reminder that there are risks being a foreigner in Sana'a, It's a reminder there are groups in Yemen that are willing to use foreigners to further their political or ideological goals," he told The Media Line.

Nonetheless, Stan, 24, refuses to let the tension scare him away from his goal of learning about the country and its people. "I came to Yemen to meet Yemeni people, experience Yemeni culture and society, and improve my Arabic. I cannot do those things from the safety of my dorm room, nor do I think that remaining indoors is substantially safer than living prudently in greater Sana'a. The kidnappings don't worry me, because I feel that worrying doesn't accomplish anything. They simply remind me to be safe, while also inspiring a hope that current hostages will be returned safely and soon."

Reacting to accusations that Yemen is a major terrorist center, Stan said: "The presence of terrorist groups does not a 'terrorist hub' make. The US and its media outlets love the words 'terrorist' and Al Qa'ida and are eager to report on these things with inflammatory news bites and oversimplified headlines. …We're used to relying on the media to tell us everything about other countries, and we do the same for Yemen. So when an attack by Al-Qa'ida is mentioned as having taken place in Yemen, it fits in nicely with the narrative the media has started to build, and which Americans in general have accepted, that Yemen is a desert country with terrorist groups running around everywhere."

He says the international community should take a closer look at Yemen.

"It's easy to assume the worst about a people or country halfway across the world; I would want to start correcting those assumptions," Stan told The Media Line.

The American embassy won't provide numbers of Americans residing or visiting the country either.  But US Ambassador to Yemen Gerald Feierstein said: "Al-Qa'ida has consistently made clear it wishes to harm American citizens and we take such threats very seriously. As a matter of policy, we do not publicly discuss our security posture."

Despite the kidnappings, Stan hopes Yemen can earn a better reputation among foreigners.

"The most important thing for me would be to inform Americans that Yemenis distinguish between the American government and an average American person. Many Yemenis strongly dislike the former, but I have not met a single Yemeni who disliked me for being the latter. Every Yemeni I've spoken to has been gracious and welcoming. They have gone out of their way to make sure that  they do not harbor ill will toward me because of the actions of my government, and that they are glad that I have traveled to Yemen," Stan concluded.

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