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Heather Murdock mulls an order never to return to a country with a fearful reputation but many fairytale moments.
NEW YORK — Until this month, I had reported from Yemen for eleven months without bothering the authorities. Now, I am told, if I try to return, I will be arrested at the Sanaa Airport.
Before I left Yemen, one editor asked me, “Would you even want to go back?” In the West, Yemen is more famous for being a terrorist hotbed than for its medieval gingerbread cities, sleepy villages and mobs of children shouting “Hello!” and “Welcome!” to every foreigner that passes. Almost everyone who goes to Yemen eventually wants to go back.
Yemen is also known for quietly controlling information by detaining reporters, confiscating equipment, blocking opposition websites and refusing access to much of the countryside. Freelance photographer Adam Reynolds and I were technically detained and later deported for traveling without a permit.
Why? We had traveled to a place that many locals call, “Al-Janoob al-Harr,” the Free South, because the government cannot go there. A network of sheiks and a growing separatist group dubbed the Southern Movement governs the area. Rocks and concrete walls across the region are painted blue, black and red, in the form of the illegal flag of the former South Yemen, which was a separate country until 1990.
Yemen is fraught with security crises — including Al Qaeda and a on-and-off northern rebellion — but many say the biggest threat to the central government is the Southern Movement. North and south united peacefully 20 years ago. Four years later, a southern rebellion was crushed in a brief yet bloody civil war. Separatist sentiment has grown in recent years, sparking widespread protests and sporadic violence.
Adam and I traveled to a remote mountainous area called Yaffa to meet Southern Movement leaders. To get past the military checkpoints, we disguised ourselves as Yemeni women, covering our faces and eyes with black veils.
After a day and half in the rocky rebel stronghold, we returned to the steamy port city of Aden, in government-controlled territory, and checked into a hotel. Around midnight, the receptionist called my room, and said the boss needed to see our passports immediately.
Our documents where whisked away to the police station. A man from the visa office appeared in the hotel lobby where I sat, hoping the passports, and the man would return. He knew we had been in Yaffa because a government informant reported us. But don’t worry, he said, it would be sorted out with paperwork in the morning.
By noon the next day, we were in an office in the dank political security complex across town being questioned. We were not there to fill in paperwork.