No-where man v Hero of fitness

Walk around NYC and you'd be forgiven for thinking the US election is already a done deal with Obama

To judge from the level of interest their city is giving the two candidates, New Yorkers could be forgiven for thinking the election is already over.

Everywhere you go, you'll find evidence of the rise of Barack Obama. His face is on t-shirts in shop windows, his name on banners on the side of buildings. At newstands, he can be seen smiling down from copies of The Source, Vibe, Newsweek, Rolling Stone, and (my favourite, this) Men's Health, where he's ranked as 'one of 20 'heroes of fitness'.

John McCain, meanwhile, is ... nowhere. No t-shirts, no magazines, no campaign posters. In two days the only oblique reference I noted was a sign on a building reading (and I quote) 'CON$ervative governMENt'.

Even among the city's conservatives, support for McCain is distinctly flaccid. John Martin is exactly the kind of guy who should be his natural constituency. He's a fiscal consevative, a Republican and a law student; he serves in the Navy reserve, and last year spent six months in Afghanistan.

Yet he's voting for the Democrat. What's more, he's campaigning for his fellow party members to do the same, under the label Republicans for Obama.

'The Republicans have created an environment in which people feel comfortable voting for a Democrat,' he says. 'Barack Obama doesn't demonise republicans - he has the same cross party appeal that Ronald Reagan had.'

Martin gives a couple of reasons for his support. Firstly, despite the Senator's liberal voting record, he's been impressed by his bi-partisan rhetoric, and his ability to work with conservatives like Tom Coburn; an Obama cabinet would contain plenty of Republicans, he thinks. Secondly, he likes his family values, citing his willingness to tell black fathers to take more responsibility for raising their kids, despite (or perhaps because) of the fact it brought steam shooting from Jesse Jackson's ears.

The biggest reason for his defection, though, is his anger at McCain for selling out to the Palin wing of the party. He's had hate mail since coming out for Obama; but even before that he had been called a 'Rino' (Republican in Name Only) and been made to feel distinctly unwelcome in the party. McCain had a chance to put a stop to that, reclaim the centre ground, by picking former Democrat Senator Joe Lieberman as his running mate. Instead, he picked Palin.

Martin isn't the only one that's riled up about this. Several defecting conservatives - among them Christopher Buckley and Colin Powell - have cited Palin as the reason they've thrown their support behind Obama. (As Buckley said, "I didn't leave the party - it left me.") In a bar on Saturday night, a friend of mine told me that the Palin pick had pushed his conservative hedge fund-employed wife firmly into the Obama camp. "She shored up the base," he said. "But it's killed him with the independents and moderates you need to actually win an election."

The more people like this that leave the Republican party - membership has dropped by a quarter in four years - the more it'll be dominated by its evangelical wing. That may make it ideologically purer. But it'll also make it harder to win.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric. He is on Twitter, far too much, as @JonnElledge.

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“Journalists are too scared to come”: Refugees on the forgotten war in Yemen

Only the few who have managed to flee the war-torn country can reveal the suffering of those left behind.

Last weekend’s BBC Our World report on the humanitarian crisis caused by the Yemen civil war highlighted that not only is the conflict a forgotten war, it is also an unknown war. Since war broke out 18 months ago in March 2015, surprisingly little has been written about the conflict, despite its similarity to ongoing and widely-reported other conflicts in the region, such as the Syrian crisis.

The main conflict in Yemen is taking place between forces allied to the President, Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi, and those loyal to Zaidi Shia rebels known as Houthis, who forced Hadi to flee the capital city Sana’a in February. The loyalties of Yemen’s security forces are split, with some units backing President Hadi and others his predecessor Ali Abdullah Saleh, who is seen as the leader of the Houthi forces.

While these two forces have been at war, separate terrorist groups have been gaining more and more influence on the ground. Opposed by both the Houthis and Hadi’s forces, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) have staged deadly attacks from strongholds in the south and south-east. They are also opposed by Islamic State, which has claimed responsibility for a number of suicide bombings in Sana’a.

After rebel forces closed in on the president's southern stronghold of Aden in late March, a coalition led by Saudi Arabia responded to a request by Hadi to intervene and launched air strikes on Houthi targets.

I have spent the last couple of months working in the “Jungle” refugee camp in Calais, home to refugees from Sudan, Afghanistan, Syria, Iraq, Eritrea, Somalia – to name just a few. Having heard very little about the civil war, I was surprised to meet a handful of Yemeni men living inside the camp.

Hussein*, 28, is a film producer and dancer from Yemen who fled the country two years ago and has travelled through 11 countries to reach the Calais camp, where he has been living for just over a month. In a mixture of English and French, he tells me how groups of Houthi militia forcibly try to confiscate cameras and notebooks from both local and international journalists. He knows local journalists, friends of his, who have been threatened, tortured and even killed by Houthi forces.

He pulls out his phone and shows me a picture of his friend, Mohammed, who worked as a photojournalist, documenting brutality as a result of the war. Mohammed’s friends and family have not heard from him since April; the best-case scenario is that he is being detained, but Hussein seems pretty certain that he is dead. As a result, many who otherwise would have reported on the conflict have fled from besieged cities such as Sana’a, Aden and Taiz to the relative safety of the countryside in the north of the country, or have left Yemen altogether.

His friend Jamil, with whom he shares a tent, adds: “from other countries journalists [they are] too scared to come”. He claims that there are only “five or seven” foreign journalists in the capital city, Sana’a and tells me about journalists from the UK, France and the US who, after spending days being held up by countless militarised checkpoints while trying to reach the main cities, are then interrogated and detained by Houthi forces. If they are let go, they are harassed throughout their visit by National Security officers.

After watching his mother die during an airstrike in the city of Hodaida in January, Jamil took the decision to flee Yemen and claim asylum in Europe. He is worried about his father and his friends who are still in Yemen, especially after hearing reports that random border closures and cancelled domestic flights have been preventing crucial aid convoys of food, medical supplies and trained aid workers from accessing the citizens who are desperately in need of humanitarian assistance. Jamil reminds me that Yemen was in economic crisis even before war broke out, with widespread famine and limited access to healthcare or clean water.

Movement within the country is restricted and dangerous, and in the last twelve months alone, four Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) facilities have been attacked and destroyed by airstrikes. Writing on 15 September 15, MSF head of mission in Yemen, Hassan Bouceninem spoke of:

“Other health centers, schools, markets, bridges . . . [that] have been attacked and destroyed by airstrikes, shelling, or bombs. Such attacks create direct victims but the war (economic failure, access problems, closing of hospitals, no health staff etc.) also causes a lot of indirect victims within the population.”

Such widespread instability and the resultant lack of access for journalists and aid workers means that it is difficult for the world to know how much Yemen is suffering. Only by speaking to the few who have managed to flee can even begin to grasp the realities of daily life for those left behind.

*Names have been changed to protect the identities of our sources.

Neha Shah has been volunteering in the Calais camp.