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Alex Potter's Photos Bear Witness To Yemen's Civil War


Twenty-five-year-old Alex Potter grew up in a small town in southwest Minnesota. After college, she moved across the world to Sanaa, the capital of Yemen. Her plan was to become a photographer.

ALEX POTTER: I guess when I started working here about three years ago, Yemen had just come off a revolution, and it was actually a pretty peaceful, hopeful time.

MARTIN: Alex took photos of her neighborhood, of weddings, children playing in the street. But in February of this year, her personal adventure became something much different. Houthi rebels ousted Yemen's government. Saudi Arabia began bombing the country, hoping to force the rebels to retreat.

POTTER: I was actually outside when the war broke out, and I was - I tried to get back in as soon as I could because I knew there were no - there were very few other journalists still left in the country.

MARTIN: She wanted to bear witness to what was happening. In June, a bomb landed not far from where Alex Potter lives in Sanaa, a place where the sculpted sandstone buildings date back centuries.

POTTER: Where the airstrike was is a neighborhood in the old city called al-Qasimi. The old city itself is very beautiful. It's a UNESCO World Heritage site. And I wouldn't live anywhere else in Sanaa because it's a very family-oriented place. Your neighbors take care of you. It's a beautiful site. Life is simple.

MARTIN: So when the bomb hit that night, those neighbors poured out of their homes, many still wearing nightgowns and slippers. In her photo essay, which is posted on our website, Alex writes, there was no rescue crew, just dozens of men trying to pull their friends from the rubble. They had no more than flashlights and shovels. In one of Alex's photos, there's a man caked in dirt and blood. He's just been freed from the debris. His eyes are closed.

POTTER: We saw each other in the street every once in a while. His name is Shawki Qalala. He was a doctor.

MARTIN: He was killed, along with four of his family members. More than 4,000 people have died in Yemen's civil war. With its port cities under attack, little humanitarian aid can get in, and few refugees can get out. The U.N. says the country is on the verge of famine. Alex Potter's photos bear witness to this suffering, a young man in shock after a car bombing, a mother holding her malnourished baby, a father weeping at the graves of his two sons. I asked her why she stays.

What is it about this place that has kept you there so long?

POTTER: Yemenis have always made me feel like I belong with them. They don't make you feel like you're different, you know? They make you feel like you're family. For example, I have friends in different governorates that are being completely destroyed by airstrikes and conflict. And they've left their homes for somewhere else. I've called them to see how they are, and they ask me, like, do you need anything? Do you need any money or a house or a car or petrol? I'm like, this is ridiculous (laughter). You're the one who's displaced. I should be asking you if you need anything.

MARTIN: Is there one image that stays with you?

POTTER: There is this one of the boy, where one is cleaning the other one's wounds. Ahmad Asaba, he and his brother Mohammad (ph) were pretty badly burned when a car bomb went off near a mosque. I think it killed two people and injured about a dozen. His friend is cleaning his burns, debriding them, like, helping him pull out the shrapnel, etc. And the next week, by the time Ahmad could walk again and could do those for himself, Dadik (ph) burned his hands trying to fix a car. And so when Dadik was at his house, Ahmad was the one who was feeding him and helping him. That speaks to me about the Yemeni people and how they are - they'll always care about each other, you know?

MARTIN: Alex Potter, you can see her photographs of Yemen's civil war on our website, npr.org/yemen. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.