NEAL CONAN, HOST:
Last month, President Obama acknowledged that the United States takes direct action to fight militant groups in Yemen. Groups aligned with al-Qaida control parts of that country and have launched attacks against the United States. The country is also desperately poor. NPR foreign correspondent Kelly McEvers was one of two Western journalists allowed exclusive access to battlegrounds in Southern Yemen. She has reported some powerful stories from that region, including one you may remember from ALL THINGS CONSIDERED, where she met a group of children whose father and brother died in an air strike.
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KELLY MCEVERS, BYLINE: Nine, 10, 11, 12, 13. Thirteen children. One of the boys was there when the strike hit. He says he and his father and brother were grazing camels in an area known to be controlled by al-Qaida. Night fell. Then came the strikes.
AZZEDINE: (Speaking foreign language)
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: He said he did not move until the morning. And then when he woke up, he was kind of scared. He went to see his father and his brother. He saw them scattered into pieces.
MCEVERS: The boy says his father fought in Afghanistan in the 1980s, with men who later join al-Qaida. The family says the father recently renounced his ties with the group. Either way, his sons now have one thing in mind.
AZZEDINE: (Speaking foreign language)
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: He said his feeling is only to take revenge for his father.
MCEVERS: How's he going to do that?
AZZEDINE: (Speaking foreign language)
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: He said, by killing whoever killed our father.
MCEVERS: And who's that?
CONAN: NPR foreign correspondent Kelly McEvers, recently back from her trip to Yemen, joins us now from her base in Beirut. Nice to have you back on the program.
MCEVERS: Thanks for having me.
CONAN: And can you tell us a little bit more about - that's a touching, scary, poignant scene.
MCEVERS: Right. And sitting next to me - the next moment there in the piece, sitting next to me is another of the man's sons, the man who was killed by the air strike. His name was Osama. He was about 13 years old. And in his pocket, he kept a crumpled-up picture of an American plane and said that all he thought about was revenge. I have to say that while this was a pretty shocking thing to hear, it's not how all Yemenis feel about the escalating, you know, American air war in their country, airstrikes and drone strikes that are targeting al-Qaida militants, but often killing civilians.
And there's a real big range of how people react to that. Some people do, in fact, want to take revenge. These boys' oldest brother had actually joined al-Qaida, they said, the family said, in order to take revenge. Other people - there's different reactions. Other people are angry with the Yemeni government for allowing this to happen, and still, others sort of say, look, you know, if someone would just come and investigate these scenes. If the American government would, at the very least, acknowledge that this is going on, you know, there might be a lot more goodwill.
CONAN: In fact, there's an interesting scene you paint, I think, in another story, where a house is hit in which I think five militants were living. They were killed by an air strike, and the al-Qaida group comes back and pays the man whose house they were renting.
MCEVERS: Right. That was in the same story. And this is one of these instances where, you know, it sounds like air strike or drone strike - again, we don't know which one it was, because the U.S. government will not comment on specific strikes. It did hit its target. But the next day, who came into town and who cleaned up the mess? Al-Qaida-linked militants did. They came in. They paid compensation for the house, you know, talked to everyone in the neighborhood. And so, you know, it's clear who's winning hearts and minds in these very poor areas of Yemen.
CONAN: Yet al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula controlled two cities in the Southern part of the country. They've now been driven out by government forces. Those are the places you visited.
MCEVERS: Right. I landed in Yemen on a Monday, and on that same day, we heard that the government had retaken control of these areas. We went down on a Tuesday to check it out to see if that was actually the case. As with everything in Yemen, it was a little more complicated than that. It wasn't that the Yemeni military, backed by these U.S. air strikes, had sort of been victorious and pushed these guys out. It seemed that - at least in one of the two main towns that these al-Qaida-linked militants had controlled - that the militants had actually, you know, decided to retreat beforehand, before the government troops got there. Because when we got there, we just saw no signs of a fight whatsoever.
But what was extraordinary about this was that, for the first time in more than a year, we were able to access these sites. Up until now, these sites where these airstrikes and these drone strikes have been happening have just been completely off limits, because they're in such dangerous territory. We were able to go in. And I'm telling you, you stand in this, you know, block of rubble, and people literally start coming out of the woodwork to tell you what happened. And more often than not, it's civilians who were killed in these strikes, than militants.
CONAN: That's, of course, not what the U.S. military says.
MCEVERS: Right. I mean, the military is very adamant that these strikes are precise. They are targeted, that they take great care not to kill civilians. But, I mean, the reporting on this is, you know, I mean, if we were the ones who were on the ground and this is what we were seeing, you know, sort of, for the first time, I mean, anecdotally, we did hear that, you know, this one particular attack that officials had reported, you know, two militants killed, eight civilians killed. We found zero militants killed, between 17 and 26 civilians killed. That's just one attack between 40 and 50 that have hit this year alone.
CONAN: These towns that were taken over by this group allied with al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula - who's been described as the most dangerous of al-Qaida's affiliates at the moment by various members of U.S. intelligence. And, of course, they are the people who did try to launch attacks against the United States several times. But these two towns were strikingly different. One was a town that was sort of a showpiece, as you put it - the other, their true home.
MCEVERS: Right. I mean, this is the thing. I mean, we cannot belittle the threat posed by this group. This is a very dangerous organization. I mean, this is the organization that has tried to attack U.S. interests on, you know, airplanes via, you know, so-called underwear bombs. Both of those attempts have been foiled. But this is a group that is, you know, hell-bent on attacking American interests.
This territory that they controlled, it was actually controlled by a sort of another organization, sort of a Taliban-like organization called Ansar al-Sharia. And this is kind of your more - like the Taliban, it's sort of your more local militants on the ground, where the kind of al-Qaida guys were, you know, more the elite, kind of hiding in the hills coming in and out of these towns. One of these towns, yes, was a place where they had driven out all the civilians and clearly had put up a major fight over the months.
But another town, you know, you went into the town - and again, this is a place where the government had claimed total victory - and it just didn't seem like that to us. I mean, we weren't able to stay very long, because it was still not totally safe. The militants had left landmines when they split the town. But, you know, it was clear that there was still a lot of sympathy from the local people, people saying, look. When these guys were here, things were quiet. They were, you know, safe. People didn't steal from each other. So, you know, it was hard to tell whether the people wanted the militants to leave or not.
CONAN: And you said, in fact, you felt a little threatened there.
MCEVERS: Well, yeah. I mean, there's something pretty powerful - but, you know, not necessarily threatened by the locals. You know, something kind of powerful about standing on a place where, you know, an airstrike or a drone strike has obliterated a block of houses. And all of sudden, a plane flies over your head. And you look up and you think, oh, dear, you know. I'm, at this moment, maybe a little more afraid of what my own government might do than what the people around me might do.
CONAN: There is also the broader context of this. And we talked of a dozen killed here or a score killed there, yet this is a country on the brink of mass starvation.
MCEVERS: Yes, there is a massive hunger crisis that Yemen is facing right now. And I think if you talk to a lot of Yemenis, there's a cynicism on the part of people saying, you know, sort of why our, you know, our government's outside powers focusing so much on the security, spending so much money dropping these drones and airstrikes that, you know, kill civilians when what we really need is help with the humanitarian crisis.
It's thought that millions of Yemenis right now are without adequate food, and more than 200,000 children face life-threatening levels of malnutrition. We were able - this is based - basically a result of the political unrest that hit Yemen last year. You know, the country was swept up with Arab Spring-like uprisings. Eventually, the president stepped down. But there was a lot of unrest that, you know, that had to happened before that all came to pass. And so oil price - you know, fuel prices shot up and people are - who are already living on the edge are really on the edge now. We visited a family where nearly all of the children were malnourished, and these are people who don't even make the list, you know, for donor help.
CONAN: This is an excerpt from one of Kelly McEvers' piece from her visit over three weeks in Yemen.
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MCEVERS: Women in brightly colored prints greet us with kisses.
One pulls me toward a young mother holding a baby. His leg is about...
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Speaking foreign language)
MCEVERS: ...as big around as that carrot. A very tiny, tiny baby.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Her husband drowned in the sea.
MCEVERS: The women say the child is very sick. We're shocked to hear that this tiny person - the smallest baby I've ever seen - is two years old. It's likely the child has severe acute malnutrition, which means he could die if not treated soon. We asked the women why there are no men in the village. They tell us they're all at sea, fishing.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: (Speaking foreign language)
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: If they find fish, they bring us. If they don't, we don't have food.
CONAN: And as you may have heard also in that excerpt, Kelly McEvers, the child - the father of that child, he drowned at sea.
MCEVERS: Yeah. This was a village close to the western coast of Yemen, and most of the men go out fishing. Well, in better times, the fuel to power the boats didn't cost as much. They could get more for the fish when they came back to shore to sell it. The women could go get work on nearby farms. But, you know, just so many of these things have come to a halt. Prices have dropped. Fuel prices have gone up. And so any little factor like that is going to send people like this, like I said, who are already at the edge of poverty into, you know, dangerous levels of basically starvation.
I mean, these people, the women and children in this village were surviving on bread and tea. They showed me the bag of flour that they used. You know, each household had one bag of flour, and, you know, each household had between seven and 12 children. And a lot of them - you know, the flour bag was basically running out.
CONAN: We're talking with NPR foreign correspondent Kelly McEvers, with us from Beirut, just back from three weeks in Yemen. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News. And you also mentioned the political situation in the country. Yes, the president was eventually forced to leave. His vice president took over on an interim basis. Is there any progress towards reintegrating the various insurgencies and tribal disputes that have torn this country to pieces?
MCEVERS: Amazingly, yes. You know, I think there are so many people who are willing to write Yemen off. It's always so close to becoming a failed state. I feel like I've done that story a few times over the last few years. You know, just any minute now, you know, the government's not going to be able to pay salaries and everything's going to fall apart. The humanitarian crisis is real. The threat from al-Qaida-linked militants is real, and the effect of this escalating, yet secret U.S. air war is very real. Yet, strangely, the transitional president - who is basically the vice president of the outgoing president who stepped in for two years - is trying to pull things together.
He has made some really bold steps to, you know, reform the military. He's kicked out a lot of the old cronies of the old president, more bold than people thought he would do. You know, he's putting together a kind of transitional plan for the country. There's a national dialogue going on, you know, in preparation for elections and tiers. Instead of like Egypt, you know, rushing into elections, I think Yemen realized that we're going to have to take some time to put all of this together.
I mean, Yemen actually has a pretty active civil society. So all of these people now have a voice. It's messy. It's ugly. There's a lot of arguments, maybe an occasional fistfight when you get together and try to figure out how this national dialogue is going to happen. But strangely, despite all the problems, you actually see that this might be one of the Arab uprisings that ends up working out.
CONAN: There were always comments when Mr. Saleh, the previous president, was there, that just outside the capital, nobody was in control. This was all tribally controlled areas. And indeed, this was what enabled al-Qaida and its allies to take over various areas. Is that still the situation?
MCEVERS: I think a lot of activists would say that it was Saleh who enabled a lot of al-Qaida and its militants to flourish. I mean, it's no coincidence that during the unrest is when these al-Qaida-linked militants were able to take over this area in the south, and Saleh's government, Saleh's military basically did nothing about it. It's well-known now that Saleh really used the al-Qaida terrorist threat as a way to get more money from donor countries and get more attention from donor countries. And, you know, even the very elite counterterrorism force in Yemen that was trained by the United States, where were they when al-Qaida took over these areas in the south?
They were in the capital, actually, battling against anti-government forces, people who had defected and joined the protestors. So I think there's that, but, yes, Yemen is, of course, a very complicated web of tribes and alliances, depending on where you are. And any new leader is going to have to be very deft at negotiating and, you know, keeping the right people on the payroll at the right time. I think the key things that are facing Hadi right now - the new president - is, you know, again, humanitarian crisis and how to deal with the growing, you know, upset about this U.S.-led air campaign.
A lot of these air strikes and drone strikes are hitting in the south, while, you know, the south of Yemen hasn't always been all that happy about being part of Yemen. I mean, the countries only came back together in the '90s. So there's a lot of separatist fervor down in the south. The new president himself is actually from the south. So, you know, I think there's optimism, but he's got a lot of challenges ahead.
CONAN: And we mentioned the threats against the United States from al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, even more alive are threats to Saudi Arabia, the powerful neighbor to the north. Do you see the Saudi hand in Yemen?
MCEVERS: Of course. There's always a Saudi hand in Yemen. It's not a visible hand. But, you know, and conspiracy theories do run wild. I mean, it was Saudi Arabia that was instrumental in sort of orchestrating, you know, Saleh, the outgoing president, for him to step down. And it's interesting when you look at a place like Syria, I think a lot of people are looking and hoping that a similar kind of thing could be worked out for President Bashar al-Assad there where, you know, Russia being kind of the key ally of the president would orchestrate a similar step-down. I don't necessarily see it happening. Saudi Arabia has so much influence in Yemen, and that influence is usually, you know, seen with money, but - that it was able to, with the United States, sort of orchestrate this political transition.
CONAN: Kelly McEvers, thanks very much for your reports. Thanks very much for your time.
MCEVERS: You're welcome.
CONAN: You can listen to Kelly McEvers' reports from Yemen at npr.org. She recently returned from that country, and joined us today from her base in Beirut. Tomorrow, what's changed for you after the heat wave over the past three weeks? This is TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan, in Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.