Photographing the Cost of War in Yemen

Dec 08, 2015

The earth erupted and rubble fell. The airstrike had just hit the Old City, 100 meters from Alex Potter's home in Sana’a, Yemen. Already, the photographer's neighbors were spilling into the night in bedclothes, in sandals. “They had probably been hiding in their basements with flashlights and shovels, ready to start digging people out right away,” she tells TIME.

For the five hours she photographed the strike’s aftermath, and for the next day, the community worked ceaselessly to extricate survivors. As some dug into the wreckage, others brought meals and water. To those whose homes had crumbled, all the neighbors said, “Here, you can come live with us, of course.”

This outpouring of communal support, Potter realized, was the only possible response to the relentless destruction. Since March, the Saudi-led, U.S.-backed coalition’s airstrikes in Yemen have landed about as often as the sun has risen. Nearly 6,000 have been killed and 2.3 million are internally displaced, according to data from the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs and the World Health Organization. With more than 80 percent of the country severely in need of aid, the United Nations has designated Yemen alongside Syria, Iraq, and South Sudan on its list of highest-level humanitarian crises.

Originally from Minnesota, Potter trained as a registered nurse and graduated from Bethel University in 2011, but wanted to transition to photojournalism. “I had studied abroad in Jordan and spoke some Arabic,” she says. “I thought the 2012 presidential election in Yemen would be a good place to start.” Since then, she has been largely based in Sana’a, focusing her work on the role of change in community, family, and tribe, and the effect of conflict on future generations.

The civilian impact of the war in Yemen has been chronically underreported in quantity and quality, she says, as the living and working conditions continue to deteriorate. Potter's most recent work was photographed between May and August, even as blockades paralyzed the flow of vital supplies and bombs demolished infrastructure, making access to basic necessities a daily struggle. “Back when times were good, we had maybe eight to 12 hours of electricity a day,” she says. “Now, there’s almost no electricity. It’s just unreal.”

According to Potter, Yemen’s community-oriented social structure has helped dramatically to stretch remaining resources. Of the 2.3 million internally displaced Yemenis, few live in camps because most have been invited into other families’ homes, she says. Every day, mosques and wealthier Yemenis donate trucks of water to hundreds of people waiting with empty buckets in hand. Friends visit to dress each other’s wounds, make meals and help with daily tasks. “In Yemen, if you see your neighbor needs something, you always share,” Potter says. “Even if you have just one sandwich, you give half to someone else.”

But no amount of collective resourcefulness will prevent many lasting consequences. Starved of resource and food shipments, the country faces imminent famine, the UN warns. The wounded face long-term serious disability because the hospitals are closing down. “There’s been no school in session since March,” says Potter. “Imagine if this continues for years. There will be an entire uneducated generation.”

Potter hopes her coverage will help people outside of Yemen wake up to the reality on the ground. “Yemen has a reputation for being very lawless. It has never had a strong centralized government, or a strong ‘democracy’ as the West would see it,” she says. “But in the rural areas, which is how the majority of people live, there’s tribal law and moral and religious codes of conduct. They tend to govern themselves quite well. The problem is when outsiders try to solve Yemen’s political problems.”

Alex Potter is a photographer based in the Middle East.

Alice Gabriner, who edited this photo essay, is TIME's Intertnational Photo Editor.

Jen Tse is a photo editor and contributor to TIME LightBox. Follow her on Twitter @jentse and Instagram.

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