CreditLynsey Addario for The New York Times
At War is a newsletter about the experiences and costs of war with stories from Times reporters and outside voices.
By Robert F. Worth
Getting back to Yemen was probably the hardest trip I’ve ever had to arrange. It took months of work, two separate visas, talks with three different governments and endless negotiations with Yemeni friends and helpers. We had to overcome the understandable doubts of The Times about the safety of our travel plan. But in the end, the 11-hour drive from Aden to northern Yemen — the most dangerous stretch — proved strangely anticlimactic. Every time we approached one of the checkpoints manned by young Yemeni gunmen, I’d slink lower in my seat and take off my shades, in hopes of looking a bit less like a Blackwater mercenary. (Lynsey Addario, in a full black niqab, was less conspicuous.) We were traveling through a lawless desert where all kinds of gangs and jihadists, including Al Qaeda, are active. But our 19 year-old driver just looked over at me and laughed. “You can keep them on,” he said.
The key to safety in Yemen is social networks. If you know a family with local and tribal connections, they can protect you in almost any situation. Our trip was made possible by a southern family I’ve been close to for more than a decade. Their knowledge of the terrain, and their ties to various factions across the south, were worth more than any number of bodyguards or cars. But their influence extended only to the south, the non-Houthi areas of Yemen. In the north, I depended on another old friend named Nasser, who has negotiated Yemen’s chaotic politics with unusual skill (and some luck). He always maintained a good relationship with Yemen’s longtime ruler, Ali Abdullah Saleh. After the Houthis captured Yemen’s capital, Sana, in 2014, he made sure to stay on their good side. He helped link me to the people I needed to meet, as did a couple of other old Yemeni friends.
Even then, we faced many obstacles getting the Houthis to talk. They are an Islamic militia with a profoundly conspiratorial mind-set. They were happy to show us houses bombed by their enemies, and to recite their propaganda. But they initially refused to let us talk to any fighters or clerics, or to attend funerals. Halfway through our trip, Lynsey and I were talking to a young Houthi official when it suddenly became clear: This guy understood what we wanted. Not only that, he was willing to push hard to help us get it. From then on, we exploited him as much as we dared, asking him to wake up at 7 a.m., and to accompany us everywhere — because only he, the insider, could persuade the Houthis to talk to us in the short time frame we had.
This week’s cover story for The Times Magazine is the culmination of reporting from that trip to Yemen. Today the Houthis fight on in a war that has created the worst humanitarian crisis in the world.
Robert F. Worth is a contributing writer for the magazine. His book on the Arab Spring uprisings of 2011, “A Rage for Order,” won the 2017 Lionel Gelber Prize.
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