I wasn’t following this story in real time, but when it came to my attention today, the irony was too poignant to ignore. A friend just sent me the content of a post from Journalist Casey Coombs on the First Look, Intercept website.on May 4. It is called “Stuck In Yemen: A Personal History“. In the article, Coombs describes being stranded in Sana’a, the capital city of Yemen, during the Saudi bombing campaign because the United States decided not to rescue US nationals in the country when the war began.
He describes his efforts to leave as follows:
Initially, I bought a ticket on Turkish Airlines, but the flight was canceled amid the continued Saudi air strikes. Then Sanaa’s international airport was bombed, and it became clear commercial flights wouldn’t be resuming anytime soon.
Next I turned to the U.S. government for help. From the start of the crisis, the U.S. State Department has been heavily criticized for not evacuating Americans from Yemen, even as India, Russia and other countries arranged flights and ships for their own citizens. Facing a public backlash, the State Department finally referred Americans to the International Organization of Migration, or IOM.
There were supposed to be IOM supported flights leaving on the 28,m 29 and 30th of April during a planned cease-fire. However, the Saudis did not cease firing. He begins his article with the last message from IOM:
You will not be traveling tomorrow.
And a couple of days later:
On April 30, the U.S. State Department posted updated information for Americans in Yemen with this printed in bold: “There are no plans for a U.S. government-coordinated evacuation of U.S. citizens at this time. If you wish to depart Yemen, you should stay alert for other opportunities to leave the country.”
So there he is. Abandoned in a war zone. Coombs describes nightly bombings, and charging his cellphone at the Mosque. He says there is no electricity for ordinary people, and no gasoline. Food has not run out yet, though water has become scarce. Travel is expensive and dangerous though some US citizens found their way out making dangerous journeys through Saudi Arabia or across the Arab Sea to Djibouti. i have read that the Russians evacuated a number of American citizens. Likely, it never occurred to him to go to the Russian Embassy and ask for help.
But Coombs describes living in a nearly deserted city with a bombed out airport, continuing under daily air attacks. He hears people talk at the Mosque, and
it was the harshest language that I’ve heard over my past three years in Yemen directed against the United States. The media frames the threat from Saudi Arabia and America as one and the same.
In spite of that, the neighbors were looking after him, and the Houthi guards at a local outpost wave to him and offer friendly greetings when he passes by. His biggest problem, he says, is boredom.. . . . and I would imagine, concern about what the future might bring.
————————- FAST FORWARD to JUNE 1 ——————————————–
New York Times: American Journalist Freed by Yemen’s Houthi Rebels.
Home at last! Can we say that it’s a good thing those friendly Houthis took him in and then negotiated his release to Oman? Otherwise he might never have got home.
The State Department was just fine with leaving him to face U.S. backed Saudi air raids on his own. In fact, no one in the U.S. mentioned him until he became a hostage about to be freed. One wonders how they found out he was a hostage if it wasn’t the Houthis that informed them. Since the US doesn’t pay for hostages (and forbids the families to do so), I have to wonder who set up the negotiation with the Sultan of Oman, and who paid – if anyone?
There is no information in the articles cited above about the circumstances of Casey Coombs abduction, or his treatment as a hostage. Nor is there a discussion of the terms of his release. The articles do indicate that there are believed to be a few other hostages held by the Houthis, though they are not named and likely have not been identified and possible don’t exist. In both articles the plea for help of Isabelle Prime, another hostage in Yemen, is discussed. The circumstances of her abduction are known. The New York Times mentions near the end of the article that she is believed to be held by Al Qaeda, not Houthi militants.
For lack of a better source, I turned to Casey Coombs’ twitter page. His last post on his twitter page before the press claims he became a hostage was on May 14. He said “Quiet day as far as fighting in Sanaa“. Over the preceding two weeks he had periodically described bombing raids.
On May 7 he tweeted:
— casey l coombs (@Macoombs) May 7, 2015
The article says that Yemeni Ambassador to the UN is calling for ground forces to route the Houthis. The Yemeni Ambassador in question represents ex Yemeni President Hadi and his Saudi backers. Most recently Saudi trained militias around Yemen have routed the Houthis in Aden. These men are not necessarily Loyal to President though they oppose the presence of the Houthis in their city To this day, the Saudis haven’t been able to recruit an international ground force to assist in the battle against the Houthi led popular revolution in Yemen. When he says it’s already too late, perhaps he is referring to the resentment felt by the population after months of air raids targeting civilians and the social infrastructure of the county, and a crippling siege denying them the basic necessities of life, water, food and power.
Recently Casey Coombs Favorited a tweet by fellow Intercept journalist Glen Greenwald, which says that once a journalist has an event in his personal life covered by the press, the ubiquity of not only misleading, but inaccurate coverage in the press becomes painfully clear.
There are many mysteries here, Coombs’ Twitter page says he is currently on Medical Leave. Maybe the Houthis traumatized him when he was in their custody. I think it’s more likely they didn’t. Either way, they provided his ticket out of the war zone. Surely, the abandonment by the his own government when the war began would be a source of disillusionment. It’s almost as if every American in Yemen at the time of the crisis was treated as a a traitor. Hundreds, maybe thousands of Arab Americans in Yemen were left to find their own way out as well. The few stories I’ve heard were harrowing.
Casey Coombs hasn’t told his own story yet, but maybe he’s writing a book. In whatever form, I’d like to read/hear his account of what happened. Meanwhile, the Intercept still has a reporter on the ground in Yemen, and you can see a gallery of her recent photos: Aftermath: A Photo Essay on Yemen’s Victims of Saudi Airstrikes.