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How Two Yemeni Women Are Using 360 Video to Reveal Realities of War

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“Many women lost their husbands from the war. Yemeni women became both the mother and father.”
 — Amal Al Yarisi, Yemeni journalist

This time last year, we released our first virtual reality documentary from Yemen, Yemen’s Skies of Terror, that was filmed by two local journalists Ahmad Algohbary and Manal Qaed Alwesabi. We sent them 360 video cameras and trained them remotely through countless number of WhatsApp messages and calls over the course of four months, to ultimately produce an award-winning documentary that detailed the lives of three young Yemenis who were impacted by the air raids (read more about the process here).

The documentary finished, but the stories of the war continue to this day. In the coverage of the war, we’ve seen the devastation of an already struggling country. We’ve heard of the deaths of the illnesses and air raids, but so many of the stories of those left behind remain in the shadows.

This war in Yemen has had a profound impact on women. As mothers who carried the immeasurable pain of seeing their children waste away in front of their eyes, as caretakers responsible for the wellbeing of their families, and as documentarians and witnesses to the events of war. Above all, as men fall as a result of war, the women are the ones tasked with rebuilding and raising a new generation.

“Yemeni women have a role that is both big and harsh. Sometimes I feel that we have lost many of the features of our natural life. Especially since the economy has collapsed, we are always thinking about how to live for those who around us, who are under our responsibility. In a society where previously only few women worked, now many women are working,” says Manal.

Amal, another Yemen journalist, agrees:

“Many women lost their husbands from the war. Yemeni women became both the mother and father. The role of female journalists is no less important than male journalists, but it is important for us to support and be the voice of the rest of women by covering their issues, their suffering and their stories.”

As we approached another year of war, we wanted to work with the same journalists to continue to shed light on Yemen’s crisis, but this time through a different lens: exploring the impact of the war on women and their children, specifically looking at malnutrition. Ahmad Algohbary, one of the journalists we trained, ended up having to leave the country to undergo eye surgery, so we looked for another journalist based in Sanaa, Yemen’s capital.

Enter Amal Al Yarisi, a 27-year-old journalist from Sanaa. “I covered stories I never I imagined I would have to witness in my country,” she told us as she set about filming in 360 video for the first time.

She teamed up with Manal, who is based in Hodeidah, a key port city on Yemen’s western coastline. Having filmed for Yemen’s Skies of Terror in 2018, Manal was now embarking on filming her second 360 video documentary.

In the year that passed between her first film and the second, a lot of things had changed — despite her country still being frozen in war.

How the war in Yemen affected the documentary’s post-production

Last year, we struggled with issues of communication, but still managed to connect daily (or at the very least, every other day) on WhatsApp which became our main line of communication. This year, we couldn’t connect with Manal online most of the time.

The fighting and bombardment in Hodeidah had deeply intensified, with the last six months of 2018 being among the most difficult since the beginning of the war. Manal and her family were temporarily displaced from their homes. Electricity blackouts became common; the internet first cut off for hours, then days, eventually weeks.

Without internet, we had to reach her by weak telephone connection, struggling to hear her voice in the muffled scratches of a person around 2,000 kilometers away. She had no internet to send us the footage, so she had to load it on a USB drive, hand it off to a driver of a public bus and pay him to deliver it safely to Sanaa into the hands of Amal, who would then upload it online for us.

Some things also changed for the better.

Despite all the chaos, Manal got remarried this past year, sharing her happiness with us through a selfie with her and her son on her wedding day.

Yet, even the symbolic acts of celebration and life were nevertheless tainted by the war, as Manal contemplated the (im)possibility of bringing another child into what she now knew as a painful world.

All around her, she witnessed Yemen’s youngest generation dying, if not by shelling then by an even bigger danger — of hunger. Save the Children estimated that 85,000 children may have died from starvation. As many as half of children under the age of five are chronically malnourished. Most astonishing is the realization that Yemen will carry these scars deep into the future, when half of the war torn country’s children will likely not develop to their full intellectual capacity.

The numbers are shocking. The stories are heartbreaking. The crisis is devastating. We knew we had to cover this issue. We began first discussing the possibility of filming a story on malnutrition with Manal and Amal in early December. We spent some time training Amal how to film with 360 video, as she prepared a trip to Hajjah to film at a medical clinic there.

We continued to develop the possible story angles that examined malnutrition but also explored what it means to be a woman, a mother, a witness, and a victim and survivor of war. Through time, it became clear that Manal and Amal are also central parts of the story, as they navigated not only the painful scenes in front of them, but also questioned and reflected upon their role.

“The war turned me into a journalist and I found myself responsible for conveying all I saw.” For Manal, her role as a mother also played a big role as she witnessed the pain of the women around her. “Now, I see my son in all the children,” Manal said.

Manal, in Hodeidah, and Amal, in Sanaa, both filmed two young children undergoing treatment for malnutrition over the course of a little more than a month. Sitting with the children in the hospital rooms, we begin to grasp the larger toll that the children’s illness has on the mothers and families.

The Yemeni mother is tired. Not only me, every Yemeni mother is in pain. Yemeni women are strong but this crisis made us weak, yet we still fight.”

Those are the words of Fawzia, the mother of two year old Hanadi, that was featured in the opening of our documentary.

As the stories of the children unfold, so do the stories of Manal and Amal, as they speak about their past dreams, painting an image of a brighter past, and what they still hope for the future. Through the voices and guidance of Manal and Amal, they bridge across different worlds and bring the viewer into their Yemen, showing what it used to and what it has now become.

“I may be unable to save all these children from hunger and the danger of death, but I hope to change and draw the attention of the world through reporting and documenting what they are going through, hoping that one day we will reach peace,” says Amal.

True to the meanings of their names in Arabic, with Manal meaning “Determined” and Amal meaning “hope”, the two of them share a world in crisis, yet are still determined to have hope.

Amal (left) and Manal (right).

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