Yemen is naturally beautiful. With a population of around 26 million, it is the second largest country in the Arabian Peninsula. Saudi Arabia lies to its north, Oman to its east, and the sea envelops the south and west of this old nation. It has the tragic distinction of being the poorest country in the Arabian Peninsula; one of the poorest in the world, in fact.
Yemen has had a long and difficult history of neglect. Neglect by previous authorities, neglect by regional actors, and neglect by the so-called international community. This neglect continues in many ways. The greatest challenge currently facing Yemen is a war that was launched more than a year ago—a war in which all armed actors have, without exception, harmed people and vital civilian infrastructure like schools, hospitals, funeral halls, homes, and more. The reverberations of the violence have been widely felt. What has not been directly affected by the cruelty of the conflict is gradually decaying because of a lack of or restrictions on funds, resources and capabilities. The needs of the people are growing, and the country’s infrastructure strains and groans under this unceasing weight.
The international medical organization, Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), started working intermittently in Yemen in 1986, continually since 2007, and, more recently, has rapidly scaled up its activities in response to the eruption of all-out war and humanitarian disaster in mid-2015. MSF works in the north and south of the country, in eight out of the 22 Yemeni governorates on a range of activities that range from providing direct medical services—such as complex surgeries and pediatric care—to offering support in the form of financial incentives and/or training for the Yemeni Ministry of Health’s staff and providing basic medical supplies. From March 2015 to September 2016: 289,574 patients were received in emergency rooms; 24,326 surgeries were performed; 51,048 victims of war and violence were treated; 19,868 deliveries were performed; 19,862 children were admitted to pediatric care for non-violent cases; and more than 1,760 tons of medical supplies were sent by MSF. MSF projects unfold across the front lines of battles, and sometimes this has come at a great risk. MSF health facilities alone were hit four times in the past year, resulting in the loss of life for both patients and staff, and ended imperative free health care for thousands of people.
I was in Yemen—mainly based in the capital Sana’a—for more than two weeks to support MSF teams. I barely scratched the surface of the country. It was like looking through a half-blocked keyhole. Yet what I could see clearly from my highly-obscured perspective was a country populated with a people facing intense circumstances and conditions that have not withered their humbling courtesy, playful humor, and unquenchable desire to share scattered stories, whether banal or legendary.
Allow me to share some stories, snippets of dialogue, and scenarios with you, if only to provide a slight glimmer of the struggling and striving people behind the headlines and reports of misery, despair, and human failure.
“Your visa was delayed because of an airstrike.”
“Yes, an airstrike landed in front of the authority’s building.”
“My God. Is the team okay?”
“Yes, they are all well. They will return for your visa tomorrow.”
I had this exchange with a colleague nearly a week before I flew out of Beirut to Sana’a. The first thought I had, I’m almost sorry to say, was how this was one of the most surreal reasons I’ve been given for a delayed visa. I suppose it’s natural to have a silly reaction to an abnormal incident.
The second thing I experienced was fear. My family had asked me not to go—understandably. Some of my friends offered up concerned looks when I mentioned my upcoming trip. It didn’t help; I was already nervous. And the closer the time came for my departure, the harder it was for me to sleep comfortably. What to expect, what I’d see, what risks were ahead: I did not know. I decided to think less about it and follow the motions needed to function for work.
I finally found myself on an MSF plane bound from Djibouti to Sana'a. The fear of the unexpected remained. At that moment, I deluded myself into believing that I was only bothered by the turbulence that shook the small plane. Yes, just the turbulence. Let’s see what awaits me. The mountains below looked beautiful. Serene. Just turbulence. Yes, only the turbulence. Let’s see what awaits me.
“Welcome to Sana’a!” bellows a Yemeni colleague. We drive from the airport to the depths of Sana’a. On the way, we speak a bit about life in this city. He points out the sites of previous airstrikes that have struck the city over the course of the year. A morbid tour of the unhealed scars of war. Sections of buildings caved in by the brute force of missiles. Rubble and deformed metal. The sight is familiar to me. I’ve seen this in pictures and videos of Syria, in Palestine, in Lebanon, in Iraq, and elsewhere in the places the mandibles of war have mangled. The universality of rubble.
We drive forth into a bustling city—the tour continues: Here an airstrike, there an airstrike.
“You’re lucky,” a colleague chuckles at me. “It’s been quieter these days.”
“How was it before I arrived?”
“We would get a handful of very heavy airstrikes in Sana’a every day. The bed I slept on would shake. It got so bad that I would suddenly wake up from the sound of a passing car, thinking it was a passing plane. The anxiety. Perhaps this is like post-traumatic stress disorder in many ways.”
He pauses. “I’m better now. Passing cars don’t wake me anymore.” He chuckles again.
Later that night, lying in my bed: the night is quiet, punctured by the sound of dogs barking in the distance. Suddenly, the sound of a passing vehicle. My mind starts wondering, Will I, too, come to fear that sound?
I hear my first airstrike. It happens at night while speaking online with a friend thousands of miles away. I’ve heard airstrikes before, through computer and television screens. Being in proximity to such a thing, even though it is miles upon miles away and I’m fairly safe, is still not a comfortable experience.
It sounds like the deep rumble of thunder. Man-made thunder. I hesitate on the phone. My throat goes dry, my palms become slightly moist. I tell her to wait a moment as I strain to hear if another one will strike. Seconds slowly pass. Nothing. I continue my conversation. I am humbled by those who can maintain their composure under the bombs.
“I’m going to show you how difficult it can be for a Yemeni to leave the country,” a Yemeni colleague says to me.
We hop into a taxi and drive into the interior of Sana’a. We arrive to the Yemenia Airlines office. I follow her inside and we sit down with an employee.
“What airports are available for Yemenis to travel from?” she asks innocently.
“You’ve got two airports that are functioning in Yemen. Aden in the south and Sayun in the east in Hadhramaut.”
“And how much does it cost?” she asks.
“On average, you’re looking at around 260,000 Yemeni riyals to Jordan. That’s from Aden. It’s a bit more expensive traveling from Sayun because of the distance.”
“Are there spaces available to book?”
“Fully booked for the next few weeks. There is one seat available for mid-November,” the employee says after typing away on his computer.
My colleague thanks him and we walk out.
“Do you see?” she says. I do a quick mental calculation. If a ticket is around 250,000 Yemeni riyals, that converts to around US $1,000. A hefty sum for anyone, let alone those in Yemen, given the fact that the average income of a Yemeni citizen is estimated at around US $200 per month.
“Expensive,” I lamely remark.
“And this is only for a ticket to Jordan. Imagine how much more you have to pay if you want to fly somewhere else from Jordan, not to mention the expenses to stay in Jordan if that’s your destination. That’s only a simple example of the challenges here for the people.”
One night I hear a series of airstrikes in the far distance. It makes me uncomfortable and I go out to have a cigarette. I see one of the staff sitting comfortably by the door, unfazed.
“Did you hear those strikes?” I ask.
“Oh yes, yes. They are far away,” he responds, with a warm smile.
“How did you get used to them?”
He thinks for a moment, and then says: “I live in a small house up along one of the mountains. I have two very young children. Once, not far from my house, higher up on the other side of the mountain, there was a massive airstrike. It shook the house and slammed the front door shut, which was open to allow air in during the summer heat. My children screamed out and were so afraid. I held them together and I told them, ‘It’s okay baba, it’s okay, it’s just a loud sound nothing more. You must get used to them, baba.’”
“Why did you tell them to get used to it? It’s not normal having these airstrikes don’t you think?” I prod.
“True, you are right. They are not normal. But I tell them they must get used to them because they have to. What else can they do but adapt. Bigger men with more power are doing this. What else can my children do?”
“Where are you from?”
“Syria,” I say.
“Syria! Welcome! Syrians are wonderful and in our hearts. What is happening in Syria is terrible. Absolutely appalling.”
“And here in Yemen too, it’s a tragedy what’s happening in Yemen.”
“Yes, it is. But we stand with Syrians.”
More or less, this is how the conversation would go when a Yemeni would find out that I’m Syrian. We would both rush to give our condolences to one other. No pity in our exchange, refreshingly so; only the camaraderie of misery.
“Maybe we can get Yemenis to go and see Syria in the future,” a Yemeni colleague says hopefully.
“And maybe, at the same time, we can get all the Syrians to come to Yemen,” I respond.
“Wouldn’t that be something?”
“Hey Yazan, what do you think of this plan? Angelia Jolie, the big American movie star, loves to visit refugees and camps. Let’s bring her to Yemen to see the country and the people. Maybe that way people will pay more attention to us and our challenges.” Pause. “I wonder…would she chew qat with us?”
Hm. Good question. Will you come and see the people and the challenges they face in Yemen, Ms. Jolie? Will you be willing to sit, chew qat, and listen to their tales?
“There’s a Syrian close to here. Actually he owns the falafel shop across the street.”
“Really? I would like to meet him.” And a few days later, I do.
A lean, tall man with a wide smile. Immediately from my accent he knows I’m Syrian. I tell him I heard he makes a great falafel (he does, this is a fact), and I would like to have a taste. After an energetic back and forth during which he insists I not pay while I insist that I damn well must, a compromise is reached, and he gives me a discount. We speak.
“When did you come here?” I ask him.
“Akh, around four years ago. I’m from Idlib and I left because of the situation in Syria.” He stops for a moment and then grins. “Of course I didn’t know I would be stuck here with the situation in Yemen.”
“How is your family? Are they still there?”
“Yes, I don’t have the heart to bring my mother here. At least over there, despite the bombs, there is family with her. My sisters and brothers. Here, she would not be happy alone at home while I work. And work here is tough. It is drying up. So I told her to stay in Idlib.”
What irony, I think, to try and escape a war and find yourself in another one. How many Syrians are here under such circumstances? How many Yemenis in Syria are there under such circumstances?
“Have you heard the story of Makhtar?
"Makhtar is a man who lost his leg from a landmine.. Doctors worked on him, and stopped the bleeding and helped him heal. A prosthetic leg was made for him. He trained with physiotherapists and learned how to walk again. What did Makhtar decide to do? He decided to work with the hospital and the doctors to speak with other people who have lost limbs, to tell them not to give up, to show them that life goes on. There are many Makhtars in Yemen that you haven’t heard of for one reason or another, and they are the unknown heroes that keep Yemen alive no matter what.”
“Yalla, you are coming with me!” a doctor shouts excitedly. We are going on a quick tour of the three hospitals—Al-Kuwait University Hospital, Al-Thawra, and Al-Joumhouri—that MSF works with and supports in Sana’a. The doctor handles the referral system through which patients mainly outside of Sana’a are referred by MSF staff for treatment. The treatment, medicine, transportation, and costs of living are covered by MSF. I go with him to see the patients that come in.
It is a whirlwind tour. We see patient after patient and doctor after doctor. One patient is in a coma after falling down the stairs. Her father is with her and the doctors are trying to do what they can, but the prospects don’t look good.
Another patient is a young boy who survived a car crash. He has to lie on his stomach, his face to the side, and cannot move. He speaks bravely and listens well to the doctors.
Another patient has psychological problems. He was wandering around the streets of his village before a car hit him and drove off. He lies in dirty sheets, his hands tied to the sides of the bed, mumbling away. The doctor I’m with is furious, and demands that his caretakers change the mattress and provide him with clean clothes.
Another patient is a war-wounded man who just underwent surgery to remove a bullet. When I see him, he’s lost under the heavy spell of anesthesia, reliving a battle. “Braap, braap, watch out!” he repeats in a seemingly endless cycle. His friends cheer him on.
Another patient is a young farmer from Abs who survived an airstrike. Many thought he was dead when they brought him to the hospital. His body was black from the burns with smears of red blood in the cracks. But now, many surgeries later, the doctors are happier and happier with the results. “He’s seventy percent human now. With a bit more work he’ll be able to live a relatively normal life,” the doctor tells me. I see him: half his face is scarred and his eye is missing, but he will live and he will live better than others. That is the hope.
Another patient is a victim of torture. Arrested and subjected to severe abuse by the police, they only dumped him at the hospital after discovering that he has a virus that is considered taboo. MSF was called in to support his treatment. He lies in his bed, a shattered human being. We speak to him softly, and he responds in a hoarse voice. His mother is with us. A magnificent person who loves her son and doesn’t understand why the world has treated him so harshly. She is in disbelief over the fact that her husband doesn’t want their son to come back home. We tell her she is brave and to take heart that her ongoing support is amazing for her son. She trembles; her eyes tear up as she thanks the doctors for their work. My hands grip my notebook more tightly.
It goes on, and we see more and more patients. And more come in every day.
“I am proud of what we are achieving,” the doctor tells me at the end of the run. “We are helping people. But at the same time, I am sad too.”
“Why sad, ya doctor?”
“Because there is a lot to do and we can’t do everything. Every patient you see here, there are dozens more who we simply do not have the capabilities to help. Every time I visit, I see our patients, and think of the patients who lie next to them that we cannot help. We can’t do everything I know, but I still think about it all the time.”
“How are we supposed to live?” a nurse at one of the hospitals vents to me. The medical staff have not been paid for over two months now. The health ministry simply does not have the funds.
“I can’t take taxis or buses every day. I have a car but no money for gas. Tell me, how am I going to live? Eat? Survive?”
“Why do you come to the hospital to work if you have no money?” I ask.
“How could I not? I work in a hospital, how can I not come and work and help?”
Were it not for people like her, and there are plenty of them that keep the engines moving regardless of the difficulties, the humanitarian disaster in Yemen would have be unimaginably worse.
I am in the north, in the town of Khamr in the Amran governorate, around a two-hour drive from Sana’a that takes you past checkpoints manned by young fighters, lush green fields of qat, phenomenal mountain formations, and exquisite stone houses. It is colder here.
I am taken to a modest hospital in Khamr in which the MSF staff works. Inside I am shown the different departments and wards. We reach pediatrics and one of the nurses speaks to us about her frustrations.
“We’ve been having issues with some of the parents,” she tells us. “They want to leave the moment they get the chance and despite the fact that their babies haven’t concluded their treatments.”
It seems to be a pattern, and has been adding a lot to the great concerns of the medical staff. But why? Why would a parent endanger their child?
A doctor explains. “It’s because they are making a calculation. They come here to seek treatment for their child. Each moment away from home and work is a vital loss of time and money. They wait and wait, and when they hear that someone—a friend or stranger—is heading back to their homes they will take it because they don’t know when they’ll get another chance. They think of the other children they have to provide for. It is a calculation and a very difficult one.”
I walk into a ward in the Khamr hospital that deals with nutrition for children, often babies. There are plenty of cases of moderate malnutrition, and the staff tells me there is currently one case of severe malnutrition. I head into that patient’s room. I see her. She is lying to her side, her eyes are glassy and moving around wildly, searching for something, finding nothing. Plastic tubes that provide life-saving nutrients coil into her tiny nostrils. Her parents are there.
I speak to the father first. He is sitting on a bed perpendicular to the one his daughter is in. As he speaks to me, his eyes remain fixed on his child.
“I couldn’t come earlier.” He speaks so softly I have to lean in to hear. “I had not enough money. I can barely find work. I just couldn’t.”
His wife, the patient’s mother, is standing at the foot of her daughter’s bed, watching the nurse carefully treat her daughter. I speak with the mother, who responds more boldly and energetically than her husband.
“My daughter is two years old. My darling daughter who will be the death of me. What am I to do with her?”
“What is her name?”
“Her name is Masirah (she who marches), but we should have named her Saimeh (she who fasts),” she responds in a joking manner. I understand the impulse to joke. Humor, dark humor especially, is often the last refuge in dark times.
We silently watch as Masirah’s pupils roll aimlessly around, searching for something, landing on nothing.
Two men call me over. “Come, Yazan! Join us!” I am further north, in the small town of Huth.
“What are you barbequing out here?”
“Come and see!” I walk up to the two men crouched over a hole, wisps of smoke fluttering out of it. Ah, they are cooking grasshoppers that they were able to catch in the garden. They show me how they cook and peel the insect, not unlike what many do with shrimp. I’m tempted to taste, but I do not.
Instead I ask: “What does it taste like?”
“Like honey, my friend,” says one of the men.
“It’s funny,” says the other, “in most places in the world, farmers fear grasshoppers for eating their crops. Here, it is the other way around, we eat them!” We all laugh at the joke. We speak for a bit about the politics of food, and how each society negatively perceives the culinary habits of others.
“One day, we’ll all have to eat grasshoppers in the world. It’s a delicacy now, but with the food prices going up and the way things are heading, we’ll all be eating them as a necessity,” one of the men says contemplatively.
With a blink, my time in Yemen has come to a close. I am back on a plane, about the same size as the one I flew into the country on a few weeks before. My mind is racing with all that I’ve experienced over the course of my stay. The world feels changed, and indeed it is in some form—a new ‘leader’ for a superpower was elected while I was in Yemen. I’m a blended brew of thoughts and emotions. I feel guilty for my ability to come and go from Yemen while many others do not share that privilege. I feel guilty for arousing the concern of friends and family, even though I was fairly safe and comfortable throughout my stay, while millions in Yemen are not. I feel kinship to a society that is suffering the consequences of war, which has also afflicted my own country, and yet Yemenis were quick to show me kindness and empathy despite the numerous trials and tribulations they face. I feel anxious, nervous, frustrated, enraged. I feel useless. I feel hope.
I attempt to delude myself, as I did before, in order to ease the simmering internal turmoil as the plane took off, flying high and free above the mountains and clouds of Yemen. It must be the turbulence. Yes, I’m just worried about the turbulence.
But this time there was none.