Once the great hope of the Arab Spring, Yemen is now mired in conflict. British-Yemeni journalist Nawal Al-Maghafi reports on the unspoken tragedy
My feet have always been in two different worlds. I was born in Sana’a, the capital of Yemen in 1990. My father, a diplomat, brought us to London for work when I was one, but we would spend every summer back in Yemen. We would stay with my grandparents and I’d wake to the smell of freshly baked bread and spend all day outside playing with my cousins.
When I was 11, we returned to Yemen and stayed for a year. I loved spending time with my cousins, but even at that age, it was clear that our lives were different. Everyone at school wore abayas (a full-length robe) and a headscarf, whereas I had been looking forward to showing off my new Gap jumper and jeans.
Back in England, we spoke Arabic at home and ate Yemeni food – lots of lamb, chicken and rice. My parents wanted us to be proud of our heritage. We knew Sana’a was beautiful – a Unesco world heritage site brimming with ancient monuments, such as the Great Mosque which dates back to the seventh century. Yet children today can’t visit such places, or play games on the streets as my cousins and I used to. In fact, for many the streets I once played on are a no-go zone, buildings razed to the ground, and gunshots and shelling frequently claiming civilian lives. For the past year and a half, Yemen has been in the grip of a bitter conflict between forces loyal to the government and those allied to the Houthi rebels.
In March 2015, the deposed President Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi asked Saudi Arabia to help kick the Houthis out of the country and within 48 hours Saudi was bombing Yemen, with the backing of the US and UK. The conflict is no nearer resolution. Fourteen million people are in desperate need of aid and 370,000 children are starving. Many children can no longer go to school because the buildings have been destroyed or are providing shelter to families who have lost their homes. “We are on the verge of a lost generation of children,” said Dr Peter Salama, Unicef regional director for the Middle East and North Africa. Yet, despite such horror, you rarely hear about it on the British news.
I have been reporting on the Yemeni crisis for the BBC, Channel 4 and Reuters since I was 19, because it felt as though no-one else was telling the world what was going on – the regional divisions and fighting, which has long been part of Yemeni life. I now live in London with my husband, Waleed, and when the war broke out on 25 March 2015, it was an ordinary day. I was asleep at the time but had been in Yemen three days earlier to report on the rising tensions, but no-one thought there was going to be a war. I panicked. My parents had moved back to Sana’a in 2012, and the airstrikes started next to their house. I called my dad and could hear bombs exploding in the background. I begged them to leave, but the Saudis had shut the airports to stop people getting in or out. I feared I might never see them again. My mum escaped to England three weeks later, but my dad and my granddad stayed. Their home means that much to them.
A month later, there was a huge airstrike in the neighbourhood of Faj Attan, which I heard about from a message on WhatsApp. Again, it was very close to where my family live. Their neighbours were killed. There were four of them, and only one child survived. She was at a shop buying sweets and came home to find her whole family dead. I was in London at the time and I rang my dad to check that he was safe, but his phone was off. My heart was racing. I held very little hope. For what seemed like a lifetime, my relatives in Yemen searched for him. I tried to keep calm for my mum, but I struggled. Like me, she assumed the worst. And then the unexpected happened. Dad sent me a text saying he was OK. He had made it out of the house with my granddad and driven to safety in the shell of his car – the windows and doors had been blown off in the blast. They were now at my uncle’s house 20 minutes away. As they were fleeing, people had tried to climb on their car to escape.
It’s all such a tragic contrast to where the country was five years ago. Back then, following the anti-authoritarian protests of the Arab Spring in 2011, there was so much hope for Yemen – and in particular its women. Businesses flourished and took on female workers, and women were encouraged to take up government roles. Attitudes were shifting and the mood was optimistic. Several of my female cousins started university, as did my 45-year-old aunt. She graduated with a business degree, only for war to break out a few days later. She has never had a chance to use her certificate. Now businesses have shut down, men and women are unemployed, and NGOs have pulled out as the situation is so dangerous. As airstrikes reduce buildings to dust, Houthi rebels and government forces engage in deadly fighting. The destruction to people’s homes and lives is ugly and alarming. Parts of the country have no electricity, and when the heat reaches 50°C, it is unbearable. Other areas have turned to rubble. Everyone is in survival mode. The brave new world that was opening up has been torn apart.
Currently, three million people have lost their homes and more than 10,000 people have been killed since the conflict began – 3,799 of them civilians according to the UN. Another 35,000 have been injured. Part of the problem is geographical. Yemen is bordered by Saudi Arabia to the north, Oman to the east, and the sea. Humanitarian organisations are unable to move freely because Saudi Arabia keeps closing the airspace, so it’s hard for them to deliver vital supplies.
Women are suffering terribly. Since the war started, 1.5 million Yemenis have lost their jobs. It has affected men and women, but it’s the wives who can be seen crouching on the streets or outside restaurants begging for money or leftovers. Men are too ashamed. Many of these women used to work as doctors or teachers. But while men can be part of the political process, women are very much silenced because society is so conservative – they just do what they can. They display awe-inspiring resourcefulness, resilience and patience. I met a mother who had three children and was forced to beg on the streets. The family used to live in a refugee camp, but it was bombed and her husband died in the blast. They don’t know what will happen to them.
Women and children like this are the reason I keep going back, despite the high risk of kidnap for foreigners and journalists from Al-Qaeda or tribal groups. I blend in more because I’m Yemeni, but I have stopped writing while I am out there and no longer do live broadcasts for my own safety. Their story must be heard, yet right now in Britain, Sana’a’s struggles are virtually unknown while Aleppo is front-page news. But I understand why. Syria had been a holiday destination for Britons before the war so it’s seen as more relatable.
Crucially, the Yemeni conflict also hasn’t hit the UK in the same way. We hear about Syrian migrants and refugees because many of them want to live here. Yemenis are trapped – the embassies have closed down so no-one can get a visa. Most can’t leave even if they want to. On top of this, there is a disturbing political reason – two of the countries the UK has particularly difficult diplomatic relationships with, Russia and Iran, are bombing Syria. But Saudi, who is bombing Yemen, is an ally of the UK. Bombs that were manufactured in Britain have been turning up in Yemen. Our involvement as a nation is complicated.
A heavy burden
I experienced my first airstrike minutes into my initial trip to report on the war for the BBC six months after it began. You hear the aeroplanes flying low at first. It builds a menacing suspense. There’s nothing you can do except keep away from windows, and you just hope it will soon be over. Afterwards, the ground shudders. Eventually, I stopped noticing the strikes because they were so common – there were a minimum of 30 airstrikes a day. But more recently, schools and hospitals have been hit, which I find terrifying.
My most recent trip to film Starving Yemen, a documentary for the BBC, was meant to last three weeks. But the crisis worsened – the Saudi-led coalition stepped up their attack, closing the airspace and shutting the airports – and I was stranded for three months. During that time, I was horrified by the things I saw. I met toddlers who are so malnourished they are unable to walk, and parents who wish their children would die so they no longer have to suffer. I have seen so many civilian casualties that it has stopped startling me. It’s the smell of the decaying bodies that I can’t handle. The Red Cross has had to supply hospitals with morgues in order to store the bodies. Children have become so used to the strikes that they play games, betting on when a bomb will hit. It’s their way of coping. But in reality, everyone’s life is in danger. Women now have little influence beyond their role as mothers, and that is an impossibly heavy burden when they are often incapable of feeding or caring for their children. I met a very sickly four-year-old boy on one trip – Shuaib had gone to hospital with a fever and diarrhoea. Before the war, he would have been given a simple antibiotic, but now few medicines can get into the country. There was nothing the doctors could do and so tragically he died.
Many of my relatives have fled to Jordan, Germany or the UK. But others will never leave Yemen – they are willing to die there. Even my family in the UK are suffering. My dad – who moved back to Britain last year – left the diplomatic service because he didn’t want to take sides in the political situation. My mum and my aunts find monitoring the news traumatising. They are always trying to work out if their friends and family are still safe. They are in distress.
I used to tell my relatives in Yemen everything I had found out from speaking to politicians or reporting on the ground, but the situation has become so bleak that I now just tell them that the conflict will eventually be resolved. The truth is too awful. If something isn’t done soon, the government could collapse and lawlessness could take over. Jean-Michel Grand, Action Against Hunger’s executive director, has warned that Yemen is at risk of becoming a “failed state”. There is also the very real risk of famine. Last year almost half of the country was described as one step away from starvation by the World Food Programme – and the situation is rapidly getting worse. We cannot let these innocent people remain forgotten. We must give them a voice, and hold leaders of all the groups involved accountable for the atrocities that are being committed. I pray for a miracle. In the meantime, nothing will stop me going back. Yemen is my home.