In February, a few young students from Sana’a University started protesting, calling for change and and an end to President Saleh’s regime. It was called ‘the day of rage’, but unlike that in Egypt, the Yemeni protest didn’t last longer than the afternoon, and then they went back to their normal lives again.
A group of those students created an initiative to clean the streets where the protest had taken place. The idea, as they describe it, was to clean up what ‘politics’ has caused in Yemen.
“We wanted to prove to the others that we didn’t protest to ruin the country, but to reform it,” said one of the protesters.
That first protest was one of the initial sparks that would lead to the sit-in in front of Sana’a University, soon to be renamed ‘Change Square’, that continues to this day. Attending that first protest was Alaa Jarban, a 21 year old in his third year of a business administration degree at Sana’a University.
Alaa has always believed in more freedom, democracy and human rights before “the youth revolution” started in Yemen. He had already been engaged in human rights activities, spending six months in Bulgaria with the Youth Peer Education Network (Y-PEER ). This is a youth-to-youth initiative pioneered by UNFPA that brings together more than 500 non-profit organizations and government institutions. Its thousands of young members work in the area of adolescent sexual and reproductive health.
Alaa is also responsible for his family of three sisters and his mother.
“My mother kicks me out of the house, urging me to go to Change Square,” said Alaa.
On Feb. 24, two young journalists and three activists were called upon to meet President Ali Abdullah Saleh, and to deliver their message stating why they wanted him to step down. The five decided to call those who they believed in to share the moment where they could speak clearly to the president and ask him to leave. Alaa was one of those they called.
He attended the group discussion about what to say to the president. Together they papered a draft of demands for a civil state that Saleh’s regime has still failed to establish. Alaa worked hard with the group until nightfall. But by the end of the meeting, he stood up and told the group that whilst he appreciated the way they thought, he could not join them.
“I believe that two hours with Saleh is wasting our time. I prefer to be doing something else in the protest that the people will get benefit from,” said Alaa.
Over the five months of anti-government protest, Alaa took shifts in the security committees of the protest, and used social media to mobilize people for marches and escalations. He has been dedicating his time to tweet the international community the events unfolding in Yemen. These efforts have attracted threatening messages and phone calls.
“On a personal level, I have received threats that I will be eliminated, via phone calls, SMS, Facebook and even Twitter. My phone has been tapped for a while, and strangers have tried to kidnap me a few times now when leaving Change Square and walking in the city. I have friends who have been captured and tortured by the security forces. Then they are conditionally released. They are now planning to leave the country.” Alaa wrote.
“This all puts a heavy psychological pressure on me. I can’t go out easily. I can’t go out on my own, and I can’t stop worrying about my family’s safety. The financial pressures also adds to the troubles. There’s a fuel shortage, and long lines of cars waiting at empty gas stations on a false hope that they will find few gallons of fuel and diesel so they can provide food for their family.”
“Whether this is planned by the failing regime or not, the world needs to know that Yemenis are living in a severe humanitarian catastrophe. It may get even worse, and we really need the international community’s help to survive.”