One-time KP resident Luke Somers was a teacher and photojournalist in Yemen when he was abducted and killed by al-Qaida.
The Key Center Library will host an exhibit in February of photographs from Yemen taken by the late photojournalist Luke Somers. Somers, who lived in Palmer Lake from 2009 to 2011, was abducted by al-Qaida in Yemen in 2013 and died during a failed rescue attempt by U.S. forces in December 2014. He was 33 years old.
His mother Paula Somers, 72, of Lake Holiday, has lived on the KP for 12 years. She and her son, Jordan Somers of Seattle, have organized five exhibits of Luke’s work already. The first in the Northwest was at Seattle University in 2017.
“It was three days and it was so much work,” Paula said. “But we didn’t want to leave. We were thinking of bringing sleeping bags because it felt just so good there, surrounded by Luke.”
Luke spent hours documenting everything he could find, she said, ranging from protesters in the street to a women’s bowling team; from Yemen’s former president to children suffering malnutrition.
The first exhibit was “spectacular,” Paula said. “We had Luke’s photos and testimonials from his friends and their pictures and newspaper articles. They did an eight-page article in a newspaper in Yemen just on Luke.”
Some visitors had heard of him, some hadn’t, she said, “But they love it (the exhibit). Some people are in tears by the time they finish it, and some people are beaming, saying ‘I want to be like him.’ ”
The Somers family also met Aisha Jumaan at the first exhibit, of the Yemen Relief and Reconstruction Foundation. Jumaan organized more shows and now a portion of the proceeds from any photos sold go to her charity to feed families in Yemen.
Luke lived with his mother in Palmer Lake while taking a course to learn how to teach English in a foreign country and developing his photography skills. He went to high school in Renton and attended Beloit University, where he graduated in 2008 after studying abroad in Morocco and Egypt. He worked in various parts of the United States, including Washington, D.C., and Alaska, and had volunteered abroad, when he decided to teach overseas.
Luke saw an advertisement for a job teaching English in Yemen at the time of the Arab Spring and was excited to go.
“I had the fortune to arrive in Sana’a, Yemen in later February 2011 — just as tents were being erected and as rallying cries were growing loud and clear,” he wrote. “I found myself within walking distance of the epicenter of a remarkable revolutionary movement in its earliest stages.”
Luke was popular with his students and colleagues, but gradually shifted his focus to become a full-time freelance journalist working for Yemeni newspapers. He went on to sell photos to The New York Times, Al-Jazeera and the BBC. He also exhibited his work in Granada, Spain, in a 2011 show called “Women and the Arab Spring” and in a show called “Yemen: An Ongoing Retrospective” in Brussels in 2012.
Paula said Luke felt at home in Yemen. “He loved the people. He took pictures of lots of everyday sorts of things that other journalists weren’t doing,” she said.
In 2012, Luke began work as a copy editor and photographer for the National Dialogue Conference between local and foreign government officials and tribal leaders working on a peace agreement.
He was preparing to come home for a visit when he was abducted in September 2013. He and a second hostage were killed in December 2014 during a rescue attempt.
“It’s difficult for me to have another exhibition; it’s bittersweet,” Paula said. “I want people to remember Luke but then it makes me sad to see his pictures. But people knew him, he was here and he was part of the community.
“Of course, we don’t have anything from after 2013 and a lot has happened to Yemen since then,” she said.
The exhibit opens at the library Feb. 3 with a reception in the Brones Room Feb. 15 at 2 p.m. with Yemeni coffee, tea and hors d’oeuvres.
Yemen at a Glance
Yemen is located on the southwest corner of the Arabian Peninsula south of Saudi Arabia and west of Oman, with 1,200 miles of strategically valuable coastline along the Red Sea and the Arabian Sea. In ancient times, it was home to the Sabaeans, who founded the kingdom of Saba’ in 1200 BCE, the biblical land of Sheba.
The name Yemen is thought to come from “yamn” or “yumn,” meaning felicity or blessed. The Romans called it “Arabia felix” — fertile Arabia.
Yemen was divided and controlled by imperial and regional powers from the turn of the 20th century until two separate countries coalesced in the 1960s. North and South Yemen were united in 1990 under the first president of the new Republic of Yemen, a former army officer named Ali Abdullah Saleh.
Protests against President Saleh’s 21-year rule began in 2011 with the advent of the Arab Spring. Saleh stepped down and Vice President Abd Rabbuh Mansour Hadi was elected president in February 2012 in a one-candidate election.
The chaotic transition created an opportunity for insurgent groups such as the Houthi rebels of Ansar Allah, the al-Islah militia and Al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula.
The Houthi rebels, officially called Ansar Allah (“Supporters of God”) but known simply as Houthi, are a largely Shia Islamist political movement backed by Iran that began in northern Yemen in the 1990s. Its founder is from the Houthi tribe. Al-Islah (“Congregation for Reform”) is a loose coalition of Sunni tribal and religious groups supported by Saudi Arabia.
In September 2014, the Houthis took over the capital of Sana’a with the help of former president Saleh and set up a new government. Saleh broke away from the Houthis and was assassinated by them in December 2017, setting off a Saudi-led military intervention to return President Hadi to power. The United Arab Emirates joined Saudi Arabia’s fight against the Houthis in the north but also supported a separatist movement fighting Hadi in the south with the goal of restoring an independent South Yemen.
Six years on, the United Nations reported that Yemen, already one of the poorest nations on the planet, is suffering the worst humanitarian crisis in the world, with 80 percent of the population — 24.1 million people — in need. The fighting has killed 100,000 people since 2015, according to the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data project, including 12,000 civilian deaths in directly targeted attacks, largely destroying the country’s infrastructure and creating a famine. A lack of safe drinking water caused the largest cholera outbreak in modern history, with the number of suspected cases approaching 1 million. Over 2,000 people have died of the disease since April 2017.
In August 2019, UAE-backed southern separatists took control of Aden, the home of the UN-recognized Hadi government.
In November, Saudi Arabia brokered a power-sharing agreement between President Hadi and the separatists to halt fighting in south Yemen and concentrate on the Iranian-backed Houthi forces that control Sana’a and the north where the Houthi have consolidated their power and launched missile attacks against targets inside Saudi Arabia.