After 2 years in Yemen, Claire finds herself viewing a quite different horizon in Qatar
Young French journalist, Claire discusses her experiences of war journalism in Yemen, where she was caught up covering the recent revolution.
Surrounded by rich Qatari men and women kindly paying her no attention, a young woman is working alone at the table of a cafe at the Pearl-Qatar, an artificial paradise built on the water where local elites like to distract themselves.
It is early March in Doha and one could not ask for a better time for a stopover in the Qatari capital. A gentle breeze refreshes the desert air, which, in a few weeks, will be almost unbearably hot.
Nothing seems to occupy her mind. She looks calm and relaxed, wearing a simple but elegant dress. It would be impossible to guess that bullets brushed past her in demonstrations in Sana’a, or that she escaped abduction before finally being deported from Yemen. The country had become too complicated for her so she eventually fled.
Claire has taken refuge in Qatar after spending two years in Yemen. “Even if the country is getting better now, I really needed a break especially as the country has become dangerous, particularly in the capital, and especially for all the foreigners who are there. There isn’t any more safety. The police do not really have any impact, or power, so I decided to leave.”
Moving to Sana’a was another easy decision she made in 2010. At the time she was a 24-year old journalist leaving Damascus where, officially, she had settled to learn Arabic. She then chose to head to Yemen.
“Immediately I felt a link with this country,” she say “I had also realised that there were no French journalists there. I was killing two birds with one stone. Firstly I could fulfil myself on a personal level moving to the old town of Sana’s: there aren’t a lot of old towns as authentic and accessible to foreigners. From a professional perspective, a new world of opportunities was opening to me. I was planning to focus on long reports, not to cover the news.”
Of course, nothing happened the way it had been planned.
In 2011, the first demonstrations broke out in Sana’a.
“I covered the revolution because it came upon me, I didn’t really have a choice. When you’re a young journalist and a revolution happens to you, with all French radio, newspapers, television calling asking you to cover it, it’s impossible to refuse.
That’s how it all started. I wish I had more time to work on documentaries and longer pieces, but the revolution erupted and I was plunged in the political arena. There was nothing else I could do.”
It is astonishing to hear Claire demystifying the professionalism of war journalism in such a vigorous way, when others claim they are drawn to it, as a vocation. Claire’s critical eye on the way 24 hour news organisations cover conflicts has also been sharpened by this unique experience.
At the time, the Arab spring was seen as an opportunity not to be missed by many journalists of her age, struggling to find work in European capitals and hoping to be noticed by news editors. How many of them, fresh from university, have embarked on planes to Tunis, Cairo and Tripoli, without thinking of booking an insurance contract?
Heading to the frontline as information warriors seeking recognition or money, they take excessive risks. Claire admits she took few precautions.
“I learned despite myself, what journalism was because 6 months after the beginning of the revolution, the conflict mutated into a war in some parts of the capital. I went to the front with the Yemeni army and also joined the other side with the rebels. I learned to cover a conflict with no real preparation.
It was interesting but looking back, I realise that I took too many risks and that the French media do not really know what we are facing. I did not have a bulletproof vest but I should have one. I had no helmet either. I had nothing. I was really lucky that nothing happened to me.”
Was it the Media’s fault?
Claire’s new daily life started to shape itself naturally, following the rhythm of newsrooms’ demands and the sound of gunfire.
“That year, I worked for French outlets. Maximum I could work on 10 pieces a day, including live shots for TV. My days would start at 5am but often I had already woken up because of the bombings in Sanaa.
My first live shots would start at 6-7am. The first months, the protests were happening on almost a daily basis. I would go to the university to talk to high-profile opponents, then with the young rebels. I would follow their protests until they got arrested by security forces. In some cases, it would end with violence and gunfire.”
Despite her lucidity and very professional understanding of the work of a journalist, Claire feels some disappointment following her unique experience.
“I have put my life at risk but what did it bring me, to cover a revolution in Yemen, apart from professionally? Nothing … I do not get more money than before, I do not have better access to the media, I’m not given more work than I used to be given. It is even harder to sell my stories because of the revolution and nobody is interested in Yemen anymore.”
She admits she is “revolted” by the lack of humanity displayed by some of the people she has had to deal with in the French media, regarding the risks that can be taken by independent journalists. Financial motivation of these journalists can lead to their loss.
“It would be good to create a short contract that could last three months, six months or a year for people who work in conflict zones, allowing them to have a salary at the end of the month. That way they would not have to return repeatedly to the dangerous areas. This could reassure them and stop them from taking risks,” she dreams.
From revolution to peace
In Doha, the sun finally plunges behind the towers of the Pearl, soon we will have to leave. While many journalists in Doha complain that their work has become too bland and boring, Claire enjoys her new freedom.
“I feel like I could be 40-years-old professionally speaking as I did so many things in 5 years, between 20 and 25 years. I lived professionally, I am ready to put things behind me,” she says, somewhat disconcertingly sure of herself.
After Yemen, and despite her good knowledge of Syria, Claire never thought about going back to Damascus. “I covered a revolution, I will not cover two.” She admits that she was surprised by the outbreak of the conflict and the horrific developments in Syrian, but she maintains a temporal and geographic distance with the country where it all began for her.
“The revolution started in Yemen before it started in Syria. I didn’t think it could reach Syria, or that I would become that big. I am very surprised. I feel sad for this country, for the Syrians I knew. I never felt they had the desire to rebel. I thought they were rather happy at the time. I believe that Syria wouldn’t have gone into a revolution if the Arab Spring had not happened”.
Claire does not know where she will be finally settling in the coming months. She never thought she would be working in conflict zones. “I dream of working on investigative journalism, of making TV and radio documentaries, of economic and social documentaries, even cooking programmes, but political journalism, war journalism wasn’t my thing at all.”
This interview was conducted in French and was conducted by DCMF’s Victoria Baux.