“…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.