Nadine Drummond risked her life in Yemen to revolutionise the way in which Non-Governmental Organisations (NG0s) told their stories, reaching a wider audience and raising much-needed funding.
Smuggling herself out of Ethiopia during a state of emergency during an uprising between tribes was not enough to deter Nadine from life-or-death situations. The former producer at Al Jazeera Network and a self-termed activist journalist took her filmmaking skills to report on the Yemen crisis. The ongoing conflict that began in 2015 is between two factions: the Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi led Yemeni government and the Houthi armed movement, along with their supporters and allies. Both claim to constitute the official government of Yemen
There, working for The Save The Children Fund she revolutionised the way in which the non-governmental organisation told its stories, reaching a wider audience and raising much-needed funding.
You do not see many black war correspondents or is this something not well known?
Yemen was a really powerful experience for the people that I worked with because NGO comms is usually what white people do. Black people don’t do NGO crisis comms. I just think they don’t know that it exists; it’s just not something that’s broadcast. There are no books on NGO comms. People don’t know that it’s a profession that they can do. Most of the people are going to be African black people, and they tend to be in select supply chain grants, fundraising, that type of stuff, at least, in my experience.
It’s usually white men that do my job and few white women, but it’s usually white men. When I went to Yemen, people were shocked because most of the people that look like me occupy the lowest stratum of the Yemeni society. Women that were cleaners, maids or assistants in my building or even in the house I lived in, all looked like me. They are black and Arab mixes, variations, some of them are of Ethiopian descent from a hundred years ago, and some of them are of straight Yemeni descent. It was difficult for some people to take direction. I was offended by the way I was treated on many occasions but that’s part and parcel of being a black woman when you occupy spaces that you are not meant to.
Is it hard to remain objective?
Traditional journalist teaching is that you remain objective. I don’t believe in objectivity, anymore. I believe that as individuals, we have to acknowledge our biases and as long as you acknowledge them and you know what they are, then you can try and write objectively or not, but you have to be very clear with your intentions. The idea that we are objective is ridiculous and this was underscored in my experience in Yemen.
When you’re embedded, your life is in the hands of the people that you’re in; my life was in the hands of our security guy. Anybody that used to give me a hard time or was unfair to me, I just used to talk to him and he would take care of my issues. You become aligned with the goals often of the people that you work with and this isn’t something that’s often spoken about. When you’re embedded, you’re burrowed in a situation. You don’t just parachute in and leave; you’re in it for the long haul. It changes you. It’s very hard as a journalist.
When you work for an organisation that is focused on children and their families and you have access issues, you have distribution blockages, your school that refurbished that week has been bombed, the kids that you got into school can’t go to school. That means they probably won’t eat for that week. Then kids you saw last week are dead. You can’t use their material in any promotional material anymore because they’re dead.
The families had to move for security reasons or because there’s no food. Whatever it is, it affects you. Then, add to that, you’re being bombed. It’s not like you go to work, then you go to the Green Zone and have a nice dinner and watch a nice show with your friends and maybe drink wine. It’s not like that. The Green Zone is an area that the warring parties and the U.N. and other humanitarian actors in the field agree should not be a target of any military offensive. However, in Yemen, the Saudi Emirati led coalition didn’t respect that to the levels that they should have and they would bomb right on the border.
It was really terrifying. I had in three-inch-thick iron plates on my window that you close at night then bolt them down. There would be shrapnel from other exploded houses, a missile or bomb or whatever, up against my iron window. Sometimes, it might be in the daytime, there would be running gun battles in the street and you have hit the floor and you have to wait for the battle to stop in case a bullet flies in from somewhere. I was always scared but your body learns to cope with stress. So even though you’re scared, you function.
Were you ever tempted to leave Yemen out of fear?
You’re working with people with a salary of maybe $500 five a month is taking care of 20 or 30 family members because civil service workers haven’t been paid in Yemen, at that stage, for every year. You see your staff having to raise their families, care for their families, their extended families, financially, they don’t live in a Green Zone and they come to work every day and do their best.
They give you that the inspiration and motivation to keep going because at least we have the pseudo protection of the Green Zone. The bombs would drop usually from about 11.00 PM for maybe for an hour, then they start again at 2:00 AM. It’s interrupted sleep or you don’t sleep, you’re not able to regenerate in the same way. So, my sleep would be split into two. I’d go to bed at 9.00 pm and I’d be woken up at 11:00 PM. I’d work from 11.00 PM until 2:00 AM and that bombing raid is done, I’d go back to bed.
Sometimes they bomb mountains where they said the smuggling routes were and where weapons were being smuggled. At that time, Yemen was the second most armed country in the world behind the United States.
They would bomb buildings where people live; they would bomb schools, at hospitals. It’s not by accident. I don’t know how you can bomb a funeral or a wedding and kill a hundred people and say that it is an accident. I don’t know how you can bomb wells and say that’s an accident because once the wells were infected, people got cholera and hundreds died. You have human targets but when you bomb the infrastructure you destroy the education, work, the currency of the country. It’s a war on many fronts.
Did you ever have a breakdown?
Your body functions on a different level, your brain synapses and your brain patterns change. Now, obviously now gone back to normal. I recognise there was a switch and I was running on adrenaline. There were times when the planes would fly so low; it felt like I could hear the hatch open and then the bomb would drop. At one time they started bombing in the afternoon in one of the first days of EiD, the celebration after Ramadan to mess up people’s shopping or preparations. I was so annoyed, I was just like, well, if they’re just going to bother me, I’m just going to die, because if I go downstairs into the basement, then my dad’s never going to get my body.
So when the bombing raids start or when we are going to have security that is going to be really bad then all of the staff members in the house had to go down into the basement, which is a bomb shelter. But it’s not a bomb shelter. It’s a basement. If we were bombed and the house did collapse, we would be stuck there because they don’t even have the infrastructure or the digging stuff to get us out. We would be just buried under the rubble. That particular day, I reached a limit where I just said, if the bomb drops and I, my dad’s going to have a chance to get my body back. So, I just didn’t go down, which was complete breaking protocol.
I could have gotten into a lot of trouble for that but everyone was just so exhausted. We were just happy that we just didn’t get bombed. It was a constant state of fear. I started working out really hard because I decided that if I needed to jump from my window to the tree and scale into the next compound if our compound became overrun and they decided they wanted to use us as human shields or ransom us for money, whatever it was, I just knew I needed to give myself the best chance to getaway. My whole thought process was geared to survival and trying to stay alive, even though it was out of my control.
What was the hardest time in Yemen?
The air, sea and land blockade in the summer of 2017 meant that nobody was allowed in or out of Yemen. I was stuck. For three months. It was the hardest time. I was surprisingly calm. I just knew that I wasn’t going to die either. I knew this was not the end of my journey, that we just had to just keep doing what we were doing.
What was happening day-to-day during that time?
Going to work. Bombs. Going to work. Bombs. We were just be bombed all of the time. It was a relentless bombing campaign that was real. I can’t even we’ll see. When we were driving between states it was like the movies bombed out, destroyed buildings. It was like the movies. It was like being in the movies. People have to live, work where they can, hustle money, they have to feed their children, their families.
What’s the one thing that you learnt coming out of that?
My values or my ethics as a journalist are more important to me than they’ve ever been. Not that I wasn’t ethical, I was always ethical. You don’t have any respect as a journalist if you’re not ethical. But now, I wouldn’t do anything that I think is unethical. I will not compromise my journalistic values. I am in love with my craft. The amount of respect I have for journalists and people that do the work that we do has never been higher. I feel like it’s a personal calling and we are the defenders of democracies. But for us, we will be run over by tyrants and it’s our job to tell the stories of people that don’t have the ability or the access to tell their stories. It’s our job to be a check and balance on government power.
We have – not the Piers Morgans of the world but the honourable – a duty to protect. We are the guardians of our democracies. It’s our job to use our words as a shield to protect the weak among us. So for me, I’d do the most. Admirable job in the once defined sense,
Do you sometimes feel you’re fighting a losing battle?
No. I maybe would have said that if I hadn’t gone to Yemen, the Central African Republic and Ethiopia. When you’re a desktop journalist and you sit behind a desk and you work from wires and you understand the political nuances and it can make you feel powerless because, you know, you’ve got a great story and for whatever reason, your story didn’t make it and that day.
But once you’re in the field, and once you understand in real terms like the work that needs to be done and what your work has the power to do, I don’t feel that way at all. And what I learnt from the NGO sector is that everything is incremental. Each thing builds another thing and you have a much longer-term vision. So, where I would have fought to get stories out, now, I have a much broader kind of framework. If you do not want to publish my story that’s ok, I am still going to write it. I will develop my own platform and publish it there or save it for another day.