NS Christmas campaign: Show your solidarity for Azza Hilal Ahmad Suleiman

The Egyptian activist was beaten by soldiers as she tried to come to a woman's aid during last year's protests in Tahrir Square.

It was the quest for freedom, justice and democracy which spurred thousands, like Azza Hilal Ahmad Suleiman to protest in the streets of Cairo and elsewhere across Egypt last year.

Determined to dwell in a country based on human rights and democracy, ordinary men and women gathered in Tahrir Square to call for the overthrow of President Mubarak and for a new regime across Egypt. 

For many Egyptians, including Azza, the demise of President Mubarak provided a sense of relief and the promise of the beginning of a more just and fair society.

It is tragic then to see how the recent actions of current ruler, President Morsi have compelled thousands of Egyptians to return to Tahrir Square once again to reiterate demands for the freedoms for which they so bitterly fought last year.

Azza is one of the thousands who suffered at the hands of the security forces in Egypt last year. In spite of her own physical and emotional trauma she has returned to Cairo’s Tahrir Square to fight again.

On 17 December 2011 – exactly one year ago - Azza was brutally attacked by soldiers in Egypt. She was in Tahrir Square when she saw soldiers attacking another woman – stripping her of her clothes and beating her.

Immediately, Azza and a few other demonstrators rushed to the woman and tried to carry her away from the attacking soldiers.

Enraged, the soldiers turned their fury towards Azza. They beat her so viciously that she fell to the ground unconscious. Azza ended up with her skull fractured in two places, and she now suffers from severe memory loss as a result.  

She is still waiting for justice from the authorities for this violent attack.

Today Azza fights two battles. On one hand, Azza still demands justice and democracy for Egypt. On the other she is also fighting for justice in her own case.

As one of the cases featured in Amnesty’s Write for Rights Campaign, Azza’s case has already received attention from several quarters including Dame Vivienne Westwood. 

“Empathy is what makes us human,” Vivienne Westwood tell us in a new Amnesty film (see below).

She later told us, “The bravery shown by Azza Suleiman who dared to stand up for another woman who was being beaten, and paid a heavy price in doing so, is both awe-inspiring and humbling.”

Show your empathy by taking action for Azza at www.amnesty.org.uk/azza

Azza Hilal Ahmad Suleiman is still fighting for democracy in Egypt and also justice in her own case.

Eulette Ewart is a press officer for Amnesty International UK.  Follow Amnesty's media team on Twitter @newsfromamnesty.

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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.