What makes me most sad about this Yemen war is the waste of lives, the waste of talent, so badly needed in Yemen. This week there was another report of about Abduallah Al Sanbani, the talented 15 year old who had won a coveted science prize – his reward was a 5 day visit to NASA. His ambition was to be the first Yemeni astronaut. When a wedding party was bombed by the Saudi-led coalition in his village a month or so back, he was unfortunate enough to be there. The village was thought to be safe, as the villagers had a pact not to take any ‘side’ in this war, but to remain neutral; they had no militias or weapons there. It was not to be. Abdullah is now in Jordan receiving medical care for severe burns affecting 75% of his body, and this week surgeons have amputated his foot and his fingers of his right hand. Many of his relatives died.
He is one example amongst many talented children who have lost their homes, their parents and siblings, their friends, their health, their lives, their right to education, and their futures in this disgusting war. Schooling in wartime is challenging and for some, non-existent, and also many have had their university degree courses forcibly terminated due to the hostiltiies. Every day I get requests for help – the most heart-breaking cases are those who thought they would be taking their university finals this year, only to have their colleges bombed or otherwise destroyed after four or five years of study, with no possibility of verification of their existing studies, and no money to pay course fees to start their studies all over again overseas. There is so little I can do, except to offer encouragement, or maybe check any applications for overseas courses if they have enough money to pay for it.
But not only has future talent has been taken from Yemen; the educated sections of its population are like everyone else in Yemen starving, ill, stressed – and unemployed. There is the man who wrote to say he was a journalist with many years of experience working for an English language on line newspaper – now unemployed at the very time news needs to get out of Yemen – and more to the point, without a salary. There is a long list of engineers who have contacted me– civil engineers, mechanical engineers, whose employment was curtailed by the war, and now, have no hope of getting employment anywhere inside Yemen. One, who has worked in a senior project manager for many years, said “I must go overseas or we will die – we can’t get enough food. I have no money. I am willing to work at cleaning cars, anything.” I have heard this so many times – if we don’t go, we will die. When the war first started and people lost their jobs, they lived on their savings. Now their savings are diminished or have gone, and the costs of living are escalating. Getting out of Yemen – so difficult and so expensive to do – is the only option left for them. There are so many refugees, and with such a movement of people from the Middle East, there is less chance of finding work anywhere – but they still see this as their only chance of staying alive.
The list goes on. An experienced teacher, with a Master’s degree and a doctorate – he has no work. Another English teacher, excellent language skills, with a Master’s degree – working but fearful of her life due to the ferocity of the bombs – she wants to leave. An economist, just the skills that Yemen will need after the war to help its recovery – now no employment – his uncle has an English passport and asked if that would entitle him to bring his nephew to UK. An army officer, seriously depressed because of the fighting, wants to leave because he fears for the safety of his two small children – and also for their educational prospects if he stays in Yemen. A successful Yemeni businessman, his business closed due to the war, is now trying to find work in Kuala Lumpur. A Yemeni doctor, now working in Amman, Jordan; she used to work in a hospital in Sanaa that was closed down. A businessman who had a British passport in 1967, but lost it over forty years ago; he has not felt the need to apply for another passport until now, but wonders if he could get it renewed after such a long gap. The list is endless. They are all people that have been educated in Yemeni universities, who now see their only chance of staying alive is to somehow leave the country of their birth, and try their chance overseas. This waste of talent, of education, is more than Yemen can bear to lose; it is in addition to the loss of its infrastructure and its industries.
The rest of the news – as all warring parties are preparing themselves for the peace talks that are scheduled for next week, they are all trying to make big gains to put themselves into a better position at the start of those talks. The Saudi-led coalition is throwing everything they have at trying to capture Taiz from the Houthi-Saleh alliance, which in turn is trying to recapture towns and cities in the southwest that it had previously lost to the Saudi-led coalition, and has also captured a town in southwest Saudi Arabia. Of course, in Yemen that means that civilians are suffering from bombs from overhead, shelling on the ground, and the effects of the blockade. Dhale in the southwest for example has seen 95 people killed in the last five days.
As well as the war, Yemen has suffered its second cyclone in ten days – an unprecedented occurrence. Cyclone Megh followed Cyclone Chapala, both of them striking the Island of Socatra most severely. This island, used to fierce winds, has now suffered massive loss of housing, and also has lost some of its unique vegetation that draws in tourists as well as scientists that help boost its economy. And apparently, the excessive moisture is likely to cause desert locusts early next year in Yemen; a small swarm of them consume as much as a town of 35,000 people. Is there any other disaster that can befall this troubled land
For those in UK who like me hate war, the news that will make you totally aghast are the recent statements by Phillip Hammond, the defence secretary. He states that he wants UK to sell weapons to Saudi Arabia (that is clear because we are) and goes on to say there needs to be ‘proper investigations’ into misuse of weapons and added “…we need to work with the Saudis to establish that humanitarian law has been complied with…we regularly intervene with the Saudis to encourage them to be transparent with us.” I find this incomprehensible. There have been reports by Human Rights Watch, Amnesty and others claiming that Saudi Arabia has used illegal weapons in this war, detailing when and where and with photographs, and also these organisations claim the Saudi-led coalition is guilty of war crimes. But it seems that the UK government is going to take the word of the Saudis that they are behaving legally and humanely. Hammond does not object to weapons being used to kill Yemeni people – he says that is what weapons are for. This makes me ashamed of my own government – are these the ‘British values’ we want people in our communities to aspire to?
Another week in Yemen. More sad news. I hope that I can report positive outcomes from the peace conference next week, but I am not optimistic. And I guess few in Yemen are.
The estimates of numbers killed in this terrible war have varied from website to website. On the 31st July FARS news agency reported the number killed as 5313 people, most of them women and children. Al Jazeera quoted UN statistics on 27th July, stating that 3,640 have died altogether, about half of them civilians deaths. I believe both of these numbers hide the truth, and the number of those who have died is much, much higher.
Systems of recording deaths in Yemen during the war are not straightforward, hence the differences in death counts. Some agencies count deaths that have been reported in the media, but this is a multi-focal war, with both militia activity and air assaults by the coalition happening in all of the areas except Hadramaut, and journalists cannot access all areas where people are being attacked. As the war progresses, deaths in Yemen have become less newsworthy as it has become so commonplace and the Western media have not seriously tried to give the war in Yemen the coverage it deserves. Furthermore, militias and fighting forces have an interest in under-reporting any of their own fighters killed by the other ‘side’ as militia and military deaths have a propaganda purpose; these deaths can only be estimated.
Another way of collecting information about those killed is from hospitals and medical sources. However, many hospitals have themselves been out of action, either because of destruction caused by war activity, because of loss of personnel due to the conflict, or because they have run out of medical equipment and may have disruption of water and electricity supplies making it impossible to function. Additionally, many who died at the site of an attack will not be included in hospital statistics
Then there is the nature of Yemen itself. In rural mountainous areas Yemeni families bury the deceased in their own villages, and with the ongoing conflict there is no system for these deaths to be immediately recorded. In some areas, especially the north-west, villages are inside conflict zones and not excluded from serious effects of warfare. The lack of fuel also means that moving injured to hospital is a challenge, for example, a recent report from journalist Mathieu Aikins “Yemen’s Hidden War” published by Rollingstone, stated that whilst he was in Yemen injured people were bought into a hospital in Saada from a village – he pointed to the difficulties in getting the casualties to hospital, with little petrol available, and for many the cost prohibits access to petrol. Apart from the blockade by Saudi Arabia, 180 petrol stations have been bombed in Saada area. For those few who manage to get their injured loved ones to hospital, inevitably many others will have failed and the injured may have died from lack of medical care.
Aikins also points out that in the areas he passed through in the Sana’a and northwest areas almost all bridges have been bombed, making communication and movement extremely difficult. In a radio report on Radio 4 on 27th July, MSF British doctor Natalie Roberts confirmed this and also stated that it is extremely dangerous to drive along roads, because so many cars and trucks – even those with no military use – are regularly targeted. No-one will use roads for routine issues such as reporting deaths, and with severe electricity shortages there may be no means for some villages to communicate with the outside world.
The siege has also made it impossible to obtain medicines and medical equipment. This has particularly affected those with chronic illnesses. At times, medicines have been in very limited supply and even the black market has been unable to provide them. This has meant that those with chronic diseases have been at risk, and many have died. Friends have reported that most people on dialysis have died in Sana’a, and also people who need medicines such as insulin have found it difficult to obtain essential medication. Sometimes this has meant that they have had to lower their dosage or change to an alternative medication, often without access to medical advice. Because of the war, non-emergency medical treatment is restricted in many areas; it is hard to imagine that this has not resulted in deaths. These early deaths would have been recorded as due to natural causes, whereas they were due to unnatural warfare and siege conditions under which most Yemeni people are now forced to live.
Examples include a 24 year old man in Aden I know, previously very healthy, who died of malaria because he was not able to obtain medical supplies. In the Guardian newspaper it was reported that an obstetrician stated that two women had died from complications during childbirth, who would not have died but for the war. Some women will no doubt be giving birth at home because it is impossible to get to hospital, increasing risk to mothers and babies. These deaths are hidden from war statistics.
Sources reporting the humanitarian situation in Yemen point to the precarious water supply. Yemen, already short of water, has now moved into an era of critical water shortage since the beginning of war. On 26th May Oxfam reported that two thirds of people in Yemen no longer had access to clean water, and expected that this would cause deaths fromwater borne diseases. The situation has worsened since then, as some water tanks have suffered bomb damage, and the petrol needed to pump water from deep wells is in even shorter supply. Another problem is a lack of baby milk. It was reported from Yemen sources recently that only 11.9% of Yemeni women are able to exclusively breast feed, a significant fall since last year. The shortage of water, shortage of food and ongoing stress will make it more difficult for women to produce sufficient milk for their babies. The reduction in breast feeding is life threatening for Yemeni babies, especially when it is combined with low availability of milk powders, unclean water supplies, and shortage of fuel to boil water for sterilisation purposes.
Food is also becoming a severe problem as normally 90% of food is imported into Yemen, and the country is under siege making imports impossible. Humanitarian aid delivery is restricted by a Saudi led blockade. Tariq Riebl of Oxfam pointed out that “People are resorting to extreme measures, principally begging. You’ll see this especially with the 1.5 million displaced people…many that have fled suddenly when airstrikes or ground combat erupted. They are leaving behind all their belongings and having no revenue source or income.” Riebl stated that it is difficult to know how many people are dying from the effects of food deprivation because many parts of the country are not accessible and he continued: “The airstrikes have covered the entire country…so it’s difficult to give you an exact figure. In terms of classification, right now 10 out of 22 governorates are classified as Level 4. Level 5 would be famine. Level 4 is critical emergency level. And the rest of the country is in Level 3, which also would be already considered past the emergency threshold. Yemen is one of the most food insecure countries in the world, if not the most.”
As the blockade has reached its fourth month, the effects of the blockade are now causing severe disruption to the food supply and much suffering, and inevitably deaths. Humanitarian aid is said to be arriving in Aden but people there are telling me, and many others tweeting, that they have not yet received help. Food is increasingly expensive in the capital Sana’a, and most residents there are without employment or income, relying on savings. Those who still draw government salaries are mostly not working, and fear their salary will stop as the Houthi led administration is running out of money due to the blockade. Food trucks moving in Amran province have been regularly bombed, according to Natalie Roberts of MSF, creating a disastrous food situation there. The only area which is not under strict blockade is in Hadramaut, where food is entering via Mukalla. The east has a low population as it is a largely a desert region. Although many internally displaced have moved there, this area is not receiving any humanitarian aid. Displaced people in Hadramaut are mostly living on limited savings, rents are extremely high, and food is very expensive, so even in the most stable area in Yemen food security is an important issue.
The ongoing Saudi air bombardment is also causing many deaths, most of them civilian. No area is spared except for Hadramaut in the east, which has had minimal bombing raids so far. For example, in Mocha on the Red Sea coast on 24th July a bombing raid killed between 60-120 civilians, and injured many more, some of whom are seriously ill and with the shortage of medical care it is likely that the death toll will rise. This was not an area where Houthi militias were found; the persons living there worked in an electricity power plant.
Does this amount to genocide? According to the UN:
Genocide is defined in Article 2 of the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide (1948) as“any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical,racial or religious group, as such: killing members of the group; causing serious bodily or mental harm tomembers of the group; deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part1; imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group; [and]forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.”
The Saudis are particularly targeting the Zaidi population in the northwest of Yemen, destroying homes, schools, petrol stations, hospitals, roads, factories, shops, mosques, historical artefacts, a refugee camp and vehicles. Although it was reported that those in Saada were given notice that their homes were about to be destroyed by leafleting prior to main bombing raids, the people living there had few choices. Some organisations claim that the bomb damage in the northwest amounts to war crimes. The majority of people in targeted areas lost their homes, belongings, sources of employment, and income. The destruction of their homes destroyed shelter for families in a hot desert region in midsummer; in winter, high mountainous areas can also experience cold conditions and night frosts, making life without shelter challenging all year round. With the loss of their homes, families also lost access to water, electricity, and cooking facilities. Whilst some of the displaced have moved to the capital Sana’a and other cities, they would not be able to escape to the more stable area of Hadramaut due to their tribal and religious identity, as that area is controlled by extremist Sunni militias with strong anti-Shia sentiments and a fear of Zaidi spies. A large proportion of the displaced from Saada area have remained in the northwest, finding or building temporary shelter with limited resources. Some have formed camps near to the Saudi border, as many have relatives in Jizan and Najran who might offer them sanctuary, but currently I understand they are denied entry into Saudi Arabia, and a wall prevents them from crossing the border.
Many that remain in the northwest are now trapped, as the severe shortage of petrol, the high cost of travel by bus, and the targeting of vehicles for air attacks on all local roads means that escape is challenging even if living conditions are life threatening. The low numbers of refugees crossing borders only reflects severe travel restrictions, and does not imply that the conditions in Yemen are better than in other war-torn countries such as Syria. The northwest of Yemen is suffering severe problems with food and water supplies, not only because of the Saudi led blockade that is affecting all of west Yemen, but also because of damage to roads, and targeting of food trucks. Despite the extensive damage here, the bombing raids continue and like those living all over Yemen the Zaidis are suffering severe stress as they listen to the warplanes circling overhead on a daily, even hourly, basis.
It is difficult to argue that these conditions are compatible with life, and desperate appeals have been put out by a number of organisations, including Oxfam, UN, and WFP, ensuring that Saudi Arabia and its coalition partners, including US and UK, must be aware of the seriousness of this man-made crisis. Particularly the lives of the very young, the very old, and disabled have been and are seriously at risk. Additionally, with many hospitals and clinics destroyed, there is little medical input to help the vulnerable overcome these threats, and as the siege proceeds more of the population will become vulnerable. It is hard to argue that continued military strikes and ongoing siege in the face of this evidence can be anything other than intentional, as described in the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide (1948).
There is impelling evidence that members of the Zaidi population have been killed, and most have suffered serious bodily and mental harm by the destruction of their homes and the on-going blockade, and continued bombing attacks. It is hard to understand the purpose of the air attacks unless it was calculated to inflict on the Zaidi conditions of life that would bring about their physical destruction, in whole or in part. Additionally, the nearest border is the Saudi border, and the desperate and displaced are not allowed to cross it.
There are also many reported civilian deaths at the hands of the various militias, including the Houthis, in areas of conflict. This has resulted in damage to a significant numbers of homes and other buildings, reduced access to fuel, food, water, and medical assistance, and some civilians have been killed by militias, as well as militias killed whilst fighting each other. Also, many families in the southwest are displaced because of militia activity, and found it difficult to escape horrendous living conditions because of the conflict and siege, as to escape they had to pass through dangerous areas where militias were fighting each other. All of these factors have resulted in Yemeni deaths and suffering, particularly in Aden, Lahj and Taiz. Whilst the actions of militias were often inhumane and brutal, it is more difficult to link this to genocidal intent, as all militia fighting on the ground is primarily designed to control through war rather than to eliminate any particular group within the population. Opposing militias were fighting each other, and additionally, these areas were also subject to air attacks by the Saudi coalition and the Saudi led blockade; hence it is far less clear where boundaries for responsibilities lie.
Meanwhile, in UK, the Disasters Emergency Committee has not yet had a charitable appeal to help the severe disaster that has been inflicted on Yemeni men, women and children. Politicians and the media are not telling it how it is. I find this inexplicable.
Big day – early this morning UK time, Sameera and her daughters packed up their lifetime in a suitcase, and left Yemen for Malaysia. What a loss to Yemen, but it is their only chance of her children completing their university studies that were permanently terminated due to the war, and their only chance of remaining safe as all parts of Yemen are increasingly at risk. This is Sameera and her eldest daughter Ghosoon when they came to visit me in UK 2 years ago. Safe journey to all, and I am sure that your different future will hold many wonders and you will continue to be a credit to the world. Thank you for your friendship, my wonderful, amazing sister Sameera.
“…when I go to work there is nothing to do. I feel I ought to do something, but I can’t motivate myself to start doing anything….” “…I can’t think, plan or act, all I do is sit around waiting for what tomorrow will bring…” “…my children’s school has closed, but they won’t do any schoolwork at home…” “…I seem to have lost the will to do anything…” The suddenness of the change from peace to brutal, deadly war in Yemen has put the whole population into a state of stupefied shock.
Yemen’s millions of underclasses were struggling to survive long before the war, with very little to lose and very little hope of gain. In 2014 54% of Yemenis lived below the poverty line; unemployment was 40%, with youth unemployment set at 60%. An estimated 58% of Yemen’s population – or 14.7 million people – were already in crisis, with food insecurity, child malnutrition, and suffering rights violations such as exploitation and displacement. Over 13 million did not have access to safe water supplies, and over 8.6 million were without basic health care. 500,000 people were already internally displaced or returnees (ie., Yemenis who were forced to leave another country where they had been residing and/or working). The 2014 Human Response Plan for Yemen, issued by the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, attributed the large proportion of the population living at crisis point to endemic poverty, long-standing under-development, poor governance, environmental stress, demographic pressures, continued political instability and conflict. The lives of Yemen’s chronic poor maybe less comfortable due to the escalation of the conflict, they will undoubtedly have moments of terror, and a larger proportion may be displaced and food insecure. A small proportion of them may be injured or killed. But in the main, their previously miserable and insecure lives continue, but rather more miserably, and much less securely.
The wealth gap is as large in Yemen as elsewhere in the world. There are areas in Yemen with ornate mansions that rival any in the wealthy cities and states of the Middle East. Just as anywhere else in the world, the rich have more choices; to leave or stay; and if they decide to stay, they can afford to pay the black-market prices for everyday comforts and for extra security at home and at work. But the middle classes who have worked to buy their homes, who have studied to educate themselves and their children; they are the ones who have lost most. In some cases, they have seen everything they own, everything they worked for over many decades, destroyed. They have lost their homes, their businesses or their employment, and they and their children have had their only chance of education severely disrupted or terminated due to the conflict. The war has for them been a cataclysmic event; a life changing tsunami.
Statements reflect their inability to control anything. This was directly addressed by R (translator, Sana’a): “You can’t defeat this war nor control it; you just have to submit yourself to it…” More commonly, people express their helplessness in describing situations. A British Yemeni with her family in under siege in Aden described her powerlessness: “We are still trying to get my granddaughter out (of Aden)…but it is the bus to Sana’a that is so risky…” Another friend (S, doctor) who had already fled from Aden and is now displaced in Hadramaut expressed similar feelings: “My friends in Aden are trapped there…the only thing I can do is pray for them…” A (teacher, Sana’a) stated “…the bombs are getting closer to our house now, we are all frightened, there is nothing we can do except pray…” Many also describe their powerlessness relating to their economic circumstances, many persons who are still employed in the public sector are still being paid at the moment, but most express concern as their workplaces are no longer functioning, and their only remaining source of income might cease. Those who are unemployed recognise that there is no hope for employment in the foreseeable future. A (engineer, Dhamar) “There is no point in seeking work in Yemen; there is none.” A future with no income and no savings looms in front of them; they are inside a trap of war with no ability to respond to any real threat to themselves and their family.
People describe even their inability to control the simplest things in life that are normally taken for granted. (R. translator, Sana’a) “When you are using water to bathe, or do the laundry, you are always worried that the water will end before you finish.” (A, teacher, Sana’a) “Food is very expensive and we are using up our savings, but we have no choice.” G (Dental Student, Aden), who was due to take her final examinations this year “I will never be able to finish my degree and become a dentist.” R. (translator, Sana’a) “… I worry about them (two boys, fourteen and ten) and their futures…we don’t know when they will go back to school…” F (student, Aden) “…we managed to find some vegetables, but when the militias saw us, they wouldn’t let us take them through…”
The loss of assets has affected the middle class disproportionately. In Aden, Lahj and Taiz in the south-west, and Saada in the north-west most people who owned their homes have lost them, either by destruction, or by being forced to flee with no hope of return. Parts of many other cities have also been destroyed. In a society that has no retirement income, sharing your home with grown up children provides security in old age; instead of facing a comfortable retirement surrounded by their family, when their home disappears and their children are forced to scatter, the future in retirement becomes bleak. If people have savings, they are worried about the viability of banks and they do not know whether to risk leaving the money there, or whether to risk leaving large amounts of cash in their home that could be destroyed without warning.
The lack of electricity, combined with the restriction to indoor living and the cessation of work and school has created monotony and boredom. Initially when there was limited electricity every few days people rushed to charge their phones so that they had some means of calling for help in emergencies, or responding to emergency calls of others. In many places now there is no electricity at all. People who had home generators found problems in purchasing diesel to run them; in Sana’a people queued for five days for five litres of diesel (A, teacher). Some managed to buy a solar panel which is sufficient to run a wireless router and a few low voltage gadgets (R, translator, Sana’a). Others charge their phones by going to local shops to pay for charging services (A, engineer, Dhamar).
Most people do not have sufficient electricity to access television programmes. “During Ramadhan, there are usually really good programmes on the TV, soap operas, that sort of thing, but this year there is no electricity so nothing to distract us…without things to do it makes everyone miserable.” (R, translator, Sana’a). Some people still use the radio for their source of news (A, teacher, Sana’a). Not surprisingly, bombing raids and rocket attacks have become a source of frightening entertainment for young people, especially young men; most days, I get a horrifying supply of photos of last night’s raids. When interviewing one Sana’a resident one evening, in the space of 45 minutes we counted six bombs, plus my interviewee described the sound of anti-aircraft fire over the roof of the house. There are often rumours that the raid tonight is going to be near your home (R, translator, Sana’a) which adds to stress. When the bombs are released, there is a whooshing sound, and during that moment people say their heart stops as they wait to see whether it will hit their home (H, activist, Sana’a). Others report frightening episodes: “…when my wife was in labour in the hospital, six rockets hit the building next door…” (A, engineer, Dhamar). This affects the ability to sleep; (A, translator, Sana’a) “… when you are fully submitted then you can finally sleep, but you don’t know if you will wake up again or not. Whether you will be in the next group of blown up houses and corpses.”
Not surprisingly, the stress results in difficulties with relationships in many families. Whilst many report an increase in petty arguments, others report more serious quarrels. (A, teacher, Sana’a) “We are lucky in our family, we don’t belong to political parties; the war has split some families. But when we talk about the war, the conversations can become very heated”. Sometimes the issues are related to whether to move overseas and claim asylum, or whether to stay in Yemen. “My father says it will be alright if we stay, but I don’t think there is any future for us in Yemen now. He was so angry, shouting at us.” (G., student, Tarim).
Almost everyone is considering whether to travel overseas. “I’m going to Oman to be a refugee; I hope to find work there in my speciality.” (A. Engineer, Dhamar). “Do you know if I could find a job overseas before I leave Yemen? I don’t want to be a refugee.” (A, teacher, Sana’a) “Someone I know went to Kuala Lumpur, he got a job quickly, and he doesn’t have my language skills; I am planning to go there.” (G. Student, Tarim). For the people who own their home, this is a challenging choice, as the legal system in Yemen is corrupt and there is no guarantee that the current owner can regain his asset if he returns. For those who still have a salary, going overseas will mean they will lose that income, with no certainty of work in their new home. These two issues distract some from travelling; “I will stay here in my home, to live or die, whatever happens,”, but it is less common to have already made a definite decision to stay put.
Refugees who flee Yemen will almost all be from the middle classes; those with enough money to travel overseas. Unlike Syria, it has no border where it is easy to cross into another country to claim asylum. The financial cost inhibits some from travelling. “…we have no water left in our village, we are being forced to leave. But where can we go, there are 26 of us…” (housewife, Hodeida). It costs $300US for a visa for each person wishing to travel through Oman, plus the cost of airfare to the next destination, plus money for rent and food until a job is found. The alternative is catching a boat to cross the Gulf of Aden to reach Somalia or Djibouti, more dangerous and still expensive. Currently shocked at the suddenness of the change in their circumstances, and still mourning their many losses, choosing to move seems to help middle class Yemenis regain something of their old ambitions and drive. These are the cream of Yemeni society, the ones who have suffered most, and the ones who have lost all hope of a future in Yemen; they see a new start somewhere else as their only chance to have a successful life.
When I decided to do a PhD to find out what influences Arab imagery in the British media, I hadt two main reasons that made me want to answer to that question.
The first was the occupation of South Lebanon by the Israelis that I witnessed in 1995-6. The second was seeing the Gulf Returnees in Hodeidah. What I witnessed with my own eyes, anyone could see, yet no-one had bothered to look or report it. Both were extraordinary. This is the story of the Gulf returnees.
When Yemen united in 1990, it joined together a communist state, the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen, known as the PDRY or South Yemen, and North Yemen, also called the Yemen Arab Republic, known as North Yemen, forming the Republic of Yemen. The PDRY was a communist state and following the collapse of the Soviet Union it seemed that unification with North Yemen was the best possible option. It was welcomed by the people of the North and the South. The two entities were very different in their philosophies, their education, and their culture. The only way to unite two very different countries was seen as encouraging an open democracy, and indeed, there were many positive steps forward. The media in newly united Yemen was seen as the most free and open media in the Arab world at that time.
Yemen also had the misfortune of being a rotating member of the UN Security Council that year. It was unfortunate because Iraq chose to invade Kuwait that year, and Yemen had to vote on whether or not to agree to what became known as the first Gulf War. At that time, the Yemeni government was caught in a particular way of responding by its own internal consideration – keeping the Yemeni people together. Its vote was also influenced by Yemen’s membership of an alliance of Iraq, Jordan and Egypt. In many senses Yemen tried to sit on the fence and condemn the actions of Iraq whilst stating that this was an Arab issue, despite pressures from Saudi Arabia and US to support the war.
After the vote, Yemen suffered huge financial penalties and it could be argued that it never recovered from them. The tourist industry in Yemen had started to blossom, but in many countries in the world Yemen was placed on a list of countries not recommended for tourists, which stopped tourism in its tracks. The aid packages that were agreed on unification by the IMF, the World Bank and the United States were immediately stopped. And the Yemeni nationals working in Saudi Arabia were expelled to Yemen. These became known as the Gulf Returnees.
Some men had only worked in Saudi for a relatively short time, sending their wages back to Yemen, the remittances being an important component of Yemen GDP; they and Yemen lost their income but at least they were able to return to their family home. But many returnees had lived in Saudi Arabia for generations and no longer had any family contacts in Yemen, and this population was treated so harshly that it was close to genocide. Many had done office jobs or worked as security guards, earning good wages and living a comfortable lifestyle. They were uprooted from their homes and forced to leave immediately, taking what possessions they could and selling the rest at a fraction of its value. They numbered 750,000 persons. The Yemeni government, suddenly facing a severe financial crisis, could not afford to offer any assistance. Unpublicised, no international aid agencies came to their rescue. They settled in an area around Hodeidah. When I saw them for the first time 8 years later, they were still living in tent-sized corrugated tin huts with no water or sanitation. Water was obtained from one single standpipe, surrounded by filthy water-saturated sand which people sank into as they approached it with their water containers. This was an area where summer temperatures often topped 50 degrees. Having worked in war zones in the Middle East and Africa, this was the worst living conditions of any that I had ever seen. America claimed that this was the most expensive vote in history.
The Yemen government, now deprived of most of its income, was poorer than many of the tribes within Yemen, which now had bigger artilleries than the national army. Additionally, after the Soviet Union withdrew its last forces from Afghanistan in 1989, many Yemenis who had been fighting on behalf of US as mujahedeen had returned to Yemen. They believed, and not without cause, that they had won the war there and caused the Soviet empire to fall. They returned to Yemen, battle hardened, confident warriors, and filled with rhetoric of their Saudi paymasters. The Yemeni government, deprived of conventional warfare due to the sanctions against them, used these mujahedeen to fight on their behalf to keep the tribes in order, and eventually, against the South in their battle for independence in 1994.
The rhetoric amongst these fighters became strongly anti-Western as they witnessed the plight of the returnees, and also the way their country and their countrymen were punished for taking an independent stance.
Saudi Arabia had succeeded in stopping a vibrant democracy in Yemen from developing on its border, and turned Yemen into a failing state.
I could not understand how this suffering had remained silent. Just as the terrible war inflicted on Yemen by Saudi Arabia is equally as silent today.
I am on the phone to a friend in Sanaa, when a bomb blast rocks her house. It is a bomb in a mosque 100 yards from the house where I used to live in Al Qaa. Today I read it is one of four mosque bombs, for which Islamic State claims responsibility. More victims. And more evidence of the spread of extremist Sunni militias in Yemen. It is only a few days since I first heard of Islamic State’s activity in Yemen. Now it is a new and frightening phase in the civil war in Yemen.
It is a problem getting through to friends, due to the erratic electricity supply. In parts of Sanaa they have had no electricity for seven days. When the electricity is turned on, everyone rushes to charge their phones and get to the nearest pump with their containers to get water. “You can live without electricity,” my friend says “but we are getting worried as it is impossible to manage without water.” Like many Yemeni families, hers are thinking they might have to travel overseas to seek refuge. Her parents own their own house, and other properties which they rent out as a source of income. At the moment, they are hosting three other displaced families in their home. Once they leave their house, they know it will be difficult to claim their own property back. Their choice is not an easy one. My friend tells me the water situation has been eased a little as some wealthy Yemenis have paid for water tanks to be delivered to the poorer areas of Sanaa, so they think they might stay a bit longer and see if things improve. One of the water tankers was delivering water and a bomb was dropped on them, killing the two drivers and injuring men and children who were queuing to fill their containers.
This friend, who has a degree in English and a Master’s degree in education, asks me if it would be possible for her to find work anywhere in UK. She is worried about the insecurity of travelling without work, and with limited savings, and she doesn’t want to be a refugee – she is a proud and industrious single woman, who worked as a translator and Arabic teacher even as a student to help pay her way through university; that was how I first met her. She has been in full time employment for more than fifteen years. I tell her that there is no chance of her working anywhere in Europe. She understands.
I get an email from a British friend who lives in Dubai with her Yemeni husband. He is worried about his sister and her family who live in Sanaa, and they have been trying to get them to Dubai. Jackie and her husband have their own company, and they have been applying for their relatives to get a visa. I wanted to hear the result of their efforts, because I too have residency in Dubai and I had been thinking I could try to get a work visa for my friend Sameera’s son. If Jackie has been successful, then I might try too. But no, they cannot get a visa. They have made many attempts, trying to be inventive to find a route that will unlock the door to Dubai. The answer is always no. Another avenue closed.
So I have to ring Sameera, whom I call her my sister – she is now living in a small flat in Tarim with 18 other displaced people – I tell her this news. She works for UNHCR, the refugee arm of the UN. The office in Aden is closed down, but she still gets updated on the situation there, and works on the Internet when the electricity allows. She tells me that the situation in Aden is critical. People are dying of starvation, dehydration, disease and conflict. There are no humanitarian agencies there because it is too dangerous. We discuss what her family will do next. She says that her son and son-in-law might travel to Malaysia, the only country that has offered three month visas to Yemenis escaping the war. We discuss whether her daughter, now pregnant because of the lack of available contraception, should go with them. I suggest to Sameera that she should go too – the whole family should travel together. I tell her, as an experienced doctor, she is the one who is most likely to find work, and her family need her. She is surprised at my suggestion, but after a few moments, I can tell that she is considering it. Once she leaves Yemen, her job with the UN will be terminated, and she will have no income at all; it’s risky. We discuss how her three children whose degree courses have been terminated due to the war can get qualified; they were studying dentistry, medicine and engineering. I promise to continue working on it; with little electricity and poor Wi-Fi, they rely on me to contact universities throughout the world.
In a text when she fled from Aden, Sameera said “My dear, for the first time, I feel so fragile and helpless. I can’t think, act or plan, all I do is cooking and wait for what tomorrow will bring. (War????? Peace????? Victory?????) My mind is completely paralysed. But God has sent me you to do the thinking, the planning, and the support”. This woman, who has single-handedly brought up a family of four amazing children and ensured that they all went to university, who worked in a senior post with the UN, who scrimped and saved to build her own beautiful house – now destroyed, who has lobbied and fought for the human rights of refugees, of women – to change laws so that they could have contraception without the permission of their husband, to prevent female genital mutilation. This woman; who set an example to other Yemeni women by just living her life; demonstrating that Yemeni women did not have to stay in violent or unsatisfactory marriages; they could be single and independent mothers, useful members of society, who are respected and loved.
I tell her, you will get through this, you will have a very different future, but it will still be happy and worthwhile. She says, if I travel to Malaysia, can you come to visit me? Of course.
I ring her daughter; she was due to take her final exams this year as a dentist. She is working as a volunteer, today assisting a surgeon who is working on the face of someone who had sustained severe injuries in the conflict. It was very interesting, she said. We discuss courses that she might be able to take in UK – she has had to accept she will never be a dentist now, as her faculty has been destroyed and she cannot get verification for nearly five years study. I have a positive lead for a Master’s degree in Public Health; she is pleased. We discuss her pregnancy. She is still feeling very sick; she thinks the nausea is aggravated by stress. If the baby is a girl, she is going to be named after me.
Another day for courageous and generous Yemenis, forced to make such difficult choices and just get on with living. And another day for one of the many people who have loved ones in Yemen. We will prevail.