What readers of the good news coming last night from Martha Gellhorn Prize are not aware of what it took journalist Iona Craig to win such a prestigious prize. It was kind of her to give me a credit for accompanying her to the troubled region of Hadramout but it wasn’t me who took the trouble and risk.
It was in the middle of chaos in Hadramout when Iona asked me to go with her to the most troubled region in eastern Yemen amid an ongoing military offensive against what the military then dubbed “the dangerous leader of al-Qaeda in Ghail Bawazeer”. That announcement went viral in local and international media. However, for Iona Craig, a rebellious reporter and ever the challenger of the government’s declared “victories”, it rang a bell with similar announcements where such propaganda turned out later to be “official drivel”.
I crossed out the risk calculation of going there for I’ve always appreciated her keenness for such an excellent investigative journalism. Indeed, it was riskier for her despite efforts to disguise in the black balto as a traditional Yemeni woman. It worked well for the first couple of days until we travelled some 300 kms to Sayoon. Intelligence officials, out of their abundance of caution, tracked the ‘foreign journalist’ to the town’s hotel upon arrival and gently asked to accompany her during her stay in Sayoon. When she said ‘no need’, a phone call later to the hotel made it clear it was a must and that the intelligence services were already on the way to the hotel.
As a security officer in Sayoon said later, that abundance of caution was in practical terms a deportation of the foreign journalist. If caught, I wasn’t sure what I might have faced, but not less than a charge of facilitating a foreign spy.
I also appreciate honesty but sometimes it costs you a lot. That was the case when Iona insisted we have to pay the hotel for the two hour stay before we decided to run away back to Mukalla. While packing up, I was arguing with her that paying the hotel guy would definitely lead to our apprehension by the intelligence agencies when the hotel manager would be compelled to inform of our departure. The ruse was to tell the receptionist that we were leaving for dinner and to get money from ‘the nearest’ money transfer service. Iona insisted the money be left in the room and that the hotel staff would see it after our departure. But this left the risk of the staff going immediately to the room and discovering our ‘plot’ and thus report it to the intelligence agencies, meaning we could be stopped in one of the checkpoints along the 300+km drive back to Mukalla. I convinced her finally that they wouldn’t let us go unless we paid, regardless of any story we come up with. As we anticipated, he did ask as we told him we were going out for dinner and we immediately paid him. We also ‘urged’ him to clean any mess before we come back in an hour maximum. It was around 9 pm when we left Sayoon, panicked we could be caught anytime down the road. We arrived in Mukalla at dawn, safe but exhausted.
I woke up at noon to see the many calls from Sayoon’s intelligence officer asking whether we were still in that hotel or have moved elsewhere in the town. They were still willing to provide their help. Only then did I know that our plot worked!
It was an exciting experience that was worth a try. It was risky. For the potential publications interested in the coverage , the highest rate Iona told me about was $150. She had spent almost $1000.
Back to Sana’a a few days later, I told her that the great job she did must be rewarded sometime soon. And here we are with the good news: Iona won The Martha Gellhorn Prize for 2014.
It was so kind of Iona to give me such a credit that it wouldn’t have been possible for the prize if it wasn’t for me. In fact, it could have been possible from my point of view. She had made it alone to the most dangerous strongholds of al-Qaeda in Abyan some years before. It was indeed as announced by the Gellhorn judges: “Iona Craig receives the prize in 2014 for her courageous, insightful and humane reporting from Yemen — journalism exemplifying that of Martha Gellhorn herself”.
Again, congratulations to the courageous Iona and hope for more recognition of her excellent work from Yemen.