Every day, I look for the latest news for my Facebook page, which does what it says – it provides the daily news headlines from various sources, showing a wide perspective on this catastrophic conflict in Yemen today. As the war intensifies, I’m finding more and more articles every day, most of them from Middle East sources; I am having to be selective. As someone who lived in Sana’a and felt it a privilege to be part of this ancient civilisation for a while, it is more and more depressing as I find articles showing me that Yemen is rapidly being destroyed by air strikes and militia activities, and Yemenis are suffering under a comprehensive blockade of food, petrol and aid, that even prevents them from running to safety. And now, as I read the news, I see this devastation is likely to move towards the capital, Sana’a.
Something else is happening. Every day, I have more and more Sana’ani people asking me to be their Facebook friend; people from all walks of life. University lecturers. An army officer. A few journalists. Some retired people. An unemployed engineer. Civil servants. An author. It is almost as if Sana’anis feel more secure if they have someone to contact from outside Sana’a; someone they think will pass on their story. They tell me about themselves and send me photos of their children. Some tell me of their financial problems accruing as the war goes on into its sixth month. They share their worries; the lack of education for their children, their insecurities concerning ongoing employment, the problems that arise when someone in their family needs health care. They tell me how they are managing their lives without electricity, and the challenges in providing food for their families – and most crucially, water. They share their thoughts on the war. Their views cross the spectrum of opinion, from those who still even now fully support the aerial bombardment in Sana’a, saying that whatever the cost, the Houthis must be dislodged. But most are tired of the non-stop assaults, the night and day explosions, the dust, the smell of war, the fear as bombs explode near their homes, the worry that they might be the next victim. Some are highly critical of Saudi Arabia or the Houthis; most are critical of all fighting forces; others make no comment. One said that he didn’t care who ruled Yemen as long as the war would stop; he wouldn’t even care if it was Israel. Very few tell me of their political leanings, although I can sometimes guess. Some tell me about the effects of the bombardment on their families, and on their own health. Most tell me of their fears for their future and their city. They are already weakened by six months of siege. I have been impressed with their courage and resilience.
Despite a prolonged aerial bombardment that has destroyed homes and infrastructure, Sana’a has not yet experienced fighting on the ground, but the inhabitants already know what happens elsewhere as militias and armies meet in conflict. They have heard so many stories of devastation. Fighting street by street means sniping, missile strikes, landmines, personal attacks, kidnapping, lynching, arson and looting – plus a continuation of the aerial attacks. One on hand, the Houthis and the Yemen army loyal to ex-President Saleh; on the other, militias including extremist Sunni militias – Islah, Al Qaeda and Da’esh, the army loyal to President Hadi, and the foreign troops of the Saudi-led coalition. In the modern context of war, cities have apparently had to be destroyed in order to save them, never mind that people have worked and saved for decades in order to create a home for their families. The losses have included many sites of historical importance, many of them bombed in air strikes that accompanied fighting on the ground. The Houthi alliance has been driven from Aden – the first city where the militias and armies met in combat – but weeks after the Houthi and Saleh alliance left it still has no governance; most of this port city is now ruled by militias, and some of them are fighting each other. Fifty percent of housing stock was destroyed in Aden; much of that remaining is also damaged. Landmines have been left behind everywhere. During the active fighting phase, food is inevitably in very short supply, people run out of money and cannot access banks, and those with cash in their homes often have it stolen by militias, many of whom are unpaid. Humanitarian agencies find working conditions extremely challenging and can only offer very limited assistance. Getting to a hospital if ill or injured is sometimes impossible, and always challenging due to lack of petrol, plus active warfare in the immediate vicinity. Phones and computers cannot be used. Illnesses such as malaria, dengue fever and water-borne diseases become endemic. This pattern of devastation in Aden followed in other cities as they one after another fell victim to ground war; the city of Lahj hardly has any building left standing; now Taiz, Hodeida and Marib are experiencing their share of this merciless conflict. Whilst the UN, the ICRC, Oxfam, Human Rights Watch, MSF and others put out desperate warnings as cities are besieged, hospitals close and children starve, these stories rarely make front page news and Western politicians ignore what is happening as if Yemen doesn’t exist. These are the forerunners that Sana’ani people stare at in horror, as they wait to find their own fate.
As the war seems to creep ever closer go the capital city, I can’t help but reminisce about my happy times there; I lived in an old part of Sana’a called Al Qaa, 20 minutes’ walk from the Old City; a city constantly inhabited for over 2,500 years. Not just the buildings, but also the knowledge of a way of life is held within it; if Old Sana’a is destroyed, with it will be a loss of the accumulated knowing of ancient ways that will be a tragedy for all humankind. This is a world UNESCO site, already severely damaged by recent coalition bomb strikes, with some of its ancient multi-story homes pulverised to dust, its civilian inhabitants killed. But when I lived there it was perfection; each symmetrical building exactly in tune with its ancient neighbour, as if some master planner had set out to design a paradise that fitted exactly within its rugged mountain landscape. There are 6,500 buildings that originated before the eleventh century, with mosques, bathhouses, a souk, and vegetable gardens, the whole city surrounded by an ancient wall. The soft brown buildings have ornate white gypsum embellishments and alabaster windows. Above each window is a gomeria, a fanlight of coloured glass. We loved to go there after nightfall and it was like walking around fairyland; the soft coloured lights from the gomerias illuminated the quiet streets for us. The history seeped into our souls as we explored those narrow lanes, and as we passed between the tall ancient buildings we always felt at peace; man and nature in perfect harmony. This is a precious, unique jewel that the world should cherish.
Most of all I think about the people who are still there. My neighbour Saeda looked after me as if she was my mother; one day I accidentally left my front door open when I went to work, but she entered, bolted the door behind her, and climbed over the back wall to get into her home so that my house was secure. Mohammed and Hassan were two very reliable guards at my workplace who unfailingly went about their duties with dignity and patience, and never complained despite their long hours of duty. Aziza, my hardworking English teacher, whose hospitable family cooked the most delicious food; a meat stew called salta, and a soft pastry with honey called bint sahn. My friend Ibtesam only spoke Arabic, so forced me to practice my hesitant language skills whilst we went on outings to explore Sana’a’s many ancient attractions. Sofia, then a small toddler, now an intelligent nine years old, who climbed up to her open window to wait for me when I visited her family, calling out my name whenever I came into sight. Ali was a pharmacist, who took me to visit his home village, and whose wife insisted on giving me her wedding dress as a gift. A female journalist interviewee told me that her ambition was to become the president of Yemen. A colleague, Eman had dedicated her life to caring for children with learning difficulties, and then despite having no sports training experience, she was persuaded to take on the training the Yemeni para-Olympic team, that ended up winning far more medals than their non-disabled counterparts. And there are so many more to whom I owe a debt of gratitude for their friendship and gracious support. They all knew this was where they belonged; they had a sense of place, an awareness and confidence that came from being part of this ancient culture, this land that was not carved by invaders, but has existed with more or less the same boundaries for more than ten thousand years. I recognised their pride in being Yemeni. All of the time I lived in Sanaa, despite its poverty, I never met anyone who wanted to leave.
Now they all want to leave, but where can they go? Queues are five kilometres long outside petrol stations, and anyway, the petrol pumps are empty. It’s too hot and dry to walk. Villages nearby are safer but have no access to water or food. Most routes out of Sana’a are blocked by war; in Hadramaut to the East they have long been suspicious of their northern counterparts, but now with influences from the expanding extremist Sunni militias, Hadramautis have already decided that they will not allow displaced people from Sana’a to seek refuge; they are also blocking the refugee route through Hadramaut to Oman. Aden, having itself suffered an unimaginably cruel blockade and war, now bans all northerners from entering their city, and even bans southerners who have been living and working in Sana’a from going there. So Sana’anis are trapped, forced to stay in their homes whatever the danger, waiting to see what the worst will mean for them. Unlike most other Yemeni cities which have largely homogenous population, Sana’a has attracted people from all over Yemen to live and work there. The previously religiously tolerant and generous Yemeni population that lived, worked and prayed side by side in peace is already becoming polarised and suspicious – neighbours are learning not to trust each other. The government, now just about functioning, will have to cease – anarchy and militia rule is likely to be the outcome.
It is hard to see how things can be improved. The exiled Hadi, himself living in luxury in Riyadh far away from conflict, is stating that he will not attend UN brokered peace talks. This, despite the UN special envoy stating that a solution is very near; the Houthi/Saleh alliance have already conceded most of what Hadi demanded. It will be much better for Sanaa and its people – and Yemen – to have a peaceful passage of government from one ruling group to another, rather than a military battle and victory that will inevitably destroy the administrative processes leading to chaos. As my friends in Sana’a keep saying, please pray for us. It is perhaps the only thing that we can do.