The Backstory: Vivian Salama

Salama discusses how she approached the topic of drone strikes and PTSD while reporting from Yemen.

After working as a freelance foreign correspondent for several years, Vivian Salama became the Baghdad Bureau Chief of the Associated Press this past June. In this Backstory, Salama discusses how she approached the sensitive topic of drone strikes and PTSD within the Yemeni population in her Investigative Fund story for Rolling Stone, “Death from Above.” She speaks to me from Baghdad. — Summer Concepcion

Summer Concepcion: Thank you so much for speaking with me today, I really appreciate it. I know that there’s a lot going on right now [in Iraq]. I wanted to start off with your piece in Rolling Stone: how did you end up taking the angle of the deep psychological costs that drones have on the Yemeni people?

Vivian Salama: On a previous trip in Yemen I started to notice that this was an issue that kept coming up a lot in my interviews with people. I had gone almost a year earlier — almost to the day — exploring civilian casualties. I had a big article in the Atlantic and the psychological toll was something that really came up a lot in my discussions with people. But because I’ve been out primarily to talk about civilian casualties, I didn’t really get too much into it. As I thought about it for months afterward, I approached The Nation Institute and they have a [grant] with The Investigative Fund and they were really interested in this particular angle. So bouncing back and forth with my editors, we really striked that angle in. And the result was that story in Rolling Stone.

Concepcion: And the Rolling Stone editors were very welcoming to the idea?

Salama: Yeah, they were keen from the start. I think for an angle like psychological impact, it’s very difficult to prove it and so I think their main concern was, you know, how are we going to prove it? So it was really about a) finding enough scientific information that could really back up what I was arguing in the story and b) speak to as many people as possible so that we could really identify a trend legitimately, not just saying, “Oh, only one or two people are depressed and have anxiety,” because that’s not efficient enough.

Concepcion: Speaking of interviewing all of these people, how did you go about gathering all of these sources?

Salama: I always rely on a lot of local NGOs and activists. Especially in a place like Yemen, it’s hard to get around — it’s a very tribal society. People view outsiders with great suspicion. So it was through organizations that had really built and gained the trust in those societies that I sort of used as a connection to access the people that I met. Keep in mind that I’ve already been to Yemen several times and so I have a relationship with a lot of those activists and those NGOs that have been building over time not just while I’ve been in Yemen, but by keeping in touch with them with what’s happening there. It’s helped me that they trust me and they’re happy to take me along with them to dangerous areas to work together so that’s what we did.

Concepcion: Even though you built up a lot of trust prior to the reporting of this piece, how did you go about approaching this sensitive topic of PTSD when speaking to your sources, especially when it came to the children that you interviewed?

Salama: A lot of these people, you know, their education is very limited. They don’t tell me, “we have PTSD,” or anything like that. They’ll explain to me what they’re feeling. I’ll ask them, “How do you feel today? How did you feel yesterday? When you felt your worst, how were you feeling that day? When you felt your best, what was going on?” So I could see if I could link that to proximity and also, time-wise, to the attacks that have happened. I mean it was a very obvious trend — the kids were not sleeping, they were not able to focus in school, they were very short-tempered, people were very anxious all the time and they were becoming distrusting of everybody. So that’s really how it went. The other thing is that I didn’t just stick to one geographic area, which for a place like Yemen is very important. I covered many different areas in the north, south, east, west to try to be able to identify a link to the drone strikes that were happening and see if there were any common trends in those geographical areas — and there were, big time. I felt confident.

Concepcion: That’s interesting because I was also wondering how you were able to distinguish someone was suffering from PTSD especially when you only meet them once or twice. But it’s also interesting when you’re talking about how you explored different regions of Yemen and you can clearly see the symptoms. So throughout the story you switch between the individual and the collective effects of PTSD especially with the psychological effects many Yemenis face. Would you say that there were challenges in weaving in personal accounts along with the politics going on in Yemen?

Salama: Oh yeah, absolutely. Personal politics or personal accounts and just the general politics going on, you know, if I’m answering your question correctly, they completely conflict each other because thus far, the Yemeni government — and when I say the government I mean the previous administration and before it that basically got kicked out of office — they’ve been very supportive of drones. They’ve been partners with America in this whole entire program because they probably feel that they cannot effectively take care of their militant problem on their own. So the people I spoke with, you know, they’re very, very turned off by their government. They’re very, very disappointed in the way their government has handled things. Most of the time, to my surprise — and it’s not just with this recent visit with the Rolling Stone article, but even with my previous trips — it really surprised me in the beginning to see how they really blame their own government before anyone else. They say, “The enemy you know than the enemy you don’t know.” They point directly to the government and Sana’a, the capital of Yemen, and say it’s their responsibility to protect us and they don’t. They do the exact opposite. So it was really interesting to see that. We thought there would be a shift between the old government and the new government in terms of policy, or at least in terms of the way people viewed the new president, but it’s quite the contrary and it would astonish me. I didn’t really get into it in this article, but what astonished me is that when I was going through villages there were pictures of the old president that started to pop up. People essentially hated the guy and yet pictures started popping up because they just hate the new government even more. So it’s just interesting to see how that’s kind of playing a part in everything that’s happened here.

Concepcion: As much as you talked about how they’re turned off by their own government, do you feel that the people you interviewed expressed any anger towards the US directly?

Salama: Sure, they are. Somebody called the US president a “dog.” She was a 12-year-old girl. You know, there’s tremendous anger towards the US, but they really point the finger first to their own government because they say the government of Sana’a opens their size to the Americans.

Concepcion: Why do you think that the psychological effects of the drone strikes hasn’t gained as much media attention as it should?

Salama: Because it’s hard to prove. I was very fortunate because of the fact I had an [Investigative Fund grant]. I was able to really get on the ground and report for several weeks — not just for a week or two. Unfortunately, the nature of the media culture today is not very conducive to a long term, in-depth reporting unless you get some sort of a fellowship or unless you’re based in the country. Oftentimes, when you’re based in the country, there’s so many other stories to be doing that you don’t want to dedicate three weeks at a time. Most people who live in Yemen are freelancers and so, you know, they have to really produce stories in order to make a living. That’s more of a comment directed at our industry right now. So I was very lucky to have that time to really just dig on this one topic for several weeks and I think it’s the kind of topic that would be short-changed otherwise.

Concepcion: How many weeks did you spend there?

Salama: It feels like ages ago — I believe I was there for three-and-a-half weeks this time. So close to a month, which is great. Yemen is probably the most remarkable place I’ve ever visited and I love going there so that’s never enough in my mind. But it was a good enough time that I was a little bit under the gun to get everything I needed but I got it.

Concepcion: Was there a particular person who touched you the most when they described their situation? Or is that hard to figure out?

Salama: Everybody touches me in a different way, I suppose. I interviewed so many people and, as you know, I’m in Iraq right now and people touch my life on a daily basis because of everything they go through. In Yemen, yeah sure, and the wedding strike I talk about .

There is one person that really touched me for that story and I’ve been in touch with that person since. He’s the brother of one of the victims of the drone strikes. I talk a lot about his children, about his nieces and nephews in the story, but I also talk about him in the story as well. His name is Mohammed Al-Qawly, and he’s a remarkable human being. He really is. He and his family in general. Mohammed was a civil servant and he has his whole family, and his brother there was suddenly killed by a drone and proved to be a civilian casualty of drone strikes. He basically just waged this huge campaign that has gone international now, fighting for the rights of civilian drone casualties. Not only that, but he’s also had to take in — because it’s usually the duty in the Arab culture if the male, the breadwinner, dies then a male relative usually steps in to take care of the family — so now he takes care of his own family and his brother’s family and he does all this amazing work that has made him go from this tribal man who doesn’t speak any English, who has no access to anyone outside of his village, to this sort of internationally known activist fighting for the rights of drone victims. So yeah, I’m sorry I didn’t think about him right off the bat — it’s been a couple months now — but he’s an amazing human being.

Concepcion: How often are you in touch with him still?

Salama: He added me on Facebook, so every now and then he’ll check on me especially now that I’m in Baghdad — he’s very worried about me in Baghdad. He’ll check on me every now and then, wishing me well on things like that and he’ll also send me news if there’s news about NGOs. He launched an NGO a couple months ago — I actually mention it [in the article]. It just got launched just when my story was going to press so I was able to sneak a reference to it right at the end. He will occasionally let me know what his NGO is up to and things like that as well.

Concepcion: That’s great. What would you say was the most difficult part in reporting this story? Did you ever feel afraid while you were reporting the piece? I know that the subject you just talked about, who you’re still in contact with, is worried about you now in Iraq, but were you even worried for yourself when you were in Yemen?

Salama: No, and it’s amazing because every single time I go to Yemen or Iraq or wherever I go — a lot of places that I travel to — people will usually try to talk me out of it, they’ll tell me it’s too dangerous, they’ll ask me not to go, my family gets worried and things like that. But at the end of the day, I might have some anxiety about actually going to a place because people get into your head a little bit, but the minute I get there I feel perfectly safe. Perhaps that’s not a good thing, but the minute that you’re confronted with this enormous and this immense kindness that these people are able to show you — unfortunately that is not a side of Yemen or Iraq or other places that is commonly seen in the media. The hospitality, the kindness, and the kindheartedness of these people is just so enormous and it’s so constant around you. It’s usually overwhelming and I just never — once I’m there I feel like I’d rather not be anywhere else.

Concepcion: Is there anything else you’d like to add or talk about from your experience of reporting there?

Salama: You know, I’m grateful for the opportunity. I’ve had some amazing opportunities especially since I’m not a freelancer anymore — I’m newly hired for [The Associated Press] — and so it changes the nature of what I do and it makes me more comfortable and secure in my ability to report. But organizations like The Nation Institute and others that support freelancers — it’s not just about supporting individuals, it’s about supporting our industry and I’m a very big advocate of this because freelancers have it harder now than ever and they provide an absolutely essential service that people with staff jobs could not. They usually have the ability to take greater risks, they have the ability to spend more time on stories and they sometimes even have a lot more editorial freedom in a way. So I’m so grateful to have had that opportunity. It was tremendous and I hope that everybody — a lot of freelancers — get the same opportunity that I did.

Concepcion: Thank you for taking time out of your busy schedule. I know it wasn’t easy to schedule this in so thank you so much again.

Salama: No problem. Take care, and I say hi to everyone.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

About the reporter

Vivian Salama

Vivian Salama

Vivian Salama is a freelance foreign correspondent who has spent the past decade reporting mainly from the Middle East and North Africa.