In Yemen’s war, a photographer finds points of light in the darkness

Amira Al-Sharif trains her lens on the hope that stubbornly persists in her homeland amid shadows of conflict.Wednesday, May 22, 2019

By Erin Blakemore
Photographs By Amira Al-Sharif

Amira Al-Sharif has been displaced by Yemen’s civil war. Though the photojournalist longs to go home, conflict, disease, and the constant threat of arrest for her work have driven her away from her country for now.

Since she was a child, Al-Sharif has trained her lens on the world around her. In Yemen, that world was shattered in 2014, when a brutal civil war made normal life next to impossible. The conflict began after Yemen’s president of 33 years was forced out of office after an Arab Spring uprising. The Houthis, a group of Shia rebels, seized control of multiple Yemeni cities, forcing the new president to flee and plunging the country into civil war.

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In 2015, Saudi Arabia, backed by the United States and other countries, started air strikes against the Houthis. A humanitarian crisis ensued. According to the United Nations, nearly 18,000 civilians have been killed so far, and 3.3 million are currently displaced.

Al-Sharif isn’t interested in statistics, either. She is dismayed at Westerners’ appetite for photographs of Yemenis who, deprived of food during the ongoing crisis, have been reduced to desperate skeletons. She tells me about people who have not received their salaries in five years, whose lives are now consumed by the basics. Finding food. Scavenging in dumps. Avoiding disease.

A Yemeni soldier with an Emirati-backed separatist militia remembers the 2015 attack on the southern port city of Aden. More than 60,000 people—both combatants and civilians—have been killed in the war in Yemen while some 85,000 children under the age of five have died from extreme hunger or disease.

Cholera is rampant among Yemenis, fueled by close living conditions, immune systems weakened by starvation, and a lack of information on prevention and treatment. In 2017, more than a million Yemenis caught cholera, and the disease is again on the rise. Nearly half of the cases are in children 14 years and younger.

But Al-Sharif is uninterested in highlighting those facets of Yemeni life. She prefers her photographs of Yemenis going about their business, children at school and at play, women living and loving, flowers blooming. She captures the light in Yemen that stubbornly persists in the shadows of war.

Children play in the aftermath of a bombardment on their neighborhood in the Yemeni capital of Sana’a.

“I’m so happy in Yemen,” Al-Sharif says. “I’m free in Yemen.” She tells me about her family’s nonstop celebrations, her friends, the beauty of Jabal Haraz, a mountain region where villages are nestled high in the mist.

Al-Sharif’s choice to focus on hope within despair is strategic. “Everybody has their own miseries,” she says. “They don’t want to see other miseries.” She hopes her photos can short-circuit the impulse to look away. Yet she fears she isn’t doing enough.

“People communicate to strength,” she says. “To hope. To life. To blooming. To resilience. People want light.”

A woman calms a horse against the backdrop of the Red Sea in Hodeidah.

Amira Al-Sharif is a Yemeni photographer who focuses on women's issues and social taboos, particularly in Yemen. See more of her work by following her on Instagram.

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