Passengers board a Yemenia airplane preparing to depart on September 8, 2018, from Sayoun International Airport in Hadramawt governorate, about 600 kilometers east of Sana’a // Photo: Sala al-Sakkaf
Commentary by Rim Mugahed
My work developing hotel profiles for online bookings brings me in direct contact with hotel owners and managers. The work is good, not boring, and I am friendly with our partners. Still, each time a hotel asks to charge for internet access in its rooms, I feel a rage stirred by the reminder of hotels where I stayed in Casablanca when war in Yemen erupted. I received the news about Yemen’s war on the morning of March 26, 2015, while walking out of the elevator toward the hotel reception, where internet service was free. In another hotel lobby that day, I received news that my cousin had been found dead in his room in Aden, which was bracing for Houthi forces that were approaching the city. Because of this, his body had not been discovered for days.
“I left on that day, which I remember well
As if it was just an hour ago (Saad), no more”
— Abdullah al-Baradouni, ‘Two Strangers, and They Were the Country”
I knew at the time a real war was brewing, but did not expect at all how the situation unfolded. On March 21, I left Yemen with my cousin and friend; I ate a piece of my birthday cake in the airport. We were smiling timidly because Sana’a’s land and sky were still stained with the blood of the victims of suicide bombings just the day before at Al-Badr and Al-Hashoosh mosques, which claimed 140 lives and wounded hundreds more, and Aden was preparing for the rebel attack. It was supposed to be a short trip that would last for four days. Like millions of others, I did not expect the turn of events that has kept me abroad ever since. And now, five years on, I ask myself: Would you have traveled if you had known the war would erupt? Or would you have stayed to share the same fate as those you love and to attend all the funerals that followed? Would you have taken more clothes, photo albums and perhaps something that reminds you of your mother? Would you have sought refuge abroad if you had known your soul would remain plagued by guilt, nostalgia and shame on the fifth anniversary, which still feels like the first day of war?
At this time every year, I remember with a laugh how I confidently tried to convince the man who rented us an apartment in Casablanca that the war in Yemen would last only a few days, so there was no need to pay an entire month’s rent. He refused because Ahmed al-Asiri, then-spokesman for the Saudi-led Coalition, hadn’t fooled him like he fooled us. We thus paid an entire month’s rent, and became officially known as those “stuck.” Our landlord counted the spoons and knives and listed the contents of the house in a little notebook. Before he left, he said he would come by later to check on the house and affirm that we were honest. We passed a month of the earlier days and nights of the war in that dirty apartment, watching on television news of the April 20 coalition airstrike that set off a huge explosion near an air base in the Faj Attan area of Sana’a, killing at least 25 people. We were at this same house when Moroccan security forces knocked on our door and ordered us to dress and accompany them to an unknown destination and in a cab for which we paid the fare. We do not know to this day why they interrogated us, why they took the names of our family members and their dates of birth, why they inquired about their political affiliations, why they took our Facebook and email accounts or why they needed our mugshots.
War is war. It’s the unarranged funerals and the hope of rescuers to find someone alive under the rubble. It’s the interruption of communication and loss of words. It’s that guilt and indignation. It’s the despair that uproots life from every soul, the tears ready to be shed when a new tragedy strikes – and aren’t they many! It sucks the life out of you with the deep, never-ending anxieties and the tears that only war can bring about.
These days, I try to look at the war from an objective perspective that’s not based on my personal experience. After five years of war, I tell myself it is time to believe that Yemen is just like any other country, it can engage in a civil war and others may launch a war against it. I would like to convince myself that, like others throughout human history, I have been displaced by war, but unlike millions of people, the war has not killed me or starved me. I must, therefore, believe that I am luckier. I, like many others who forcibly left their loved ones behind, must accept the idea that after years of war, grief and loss, my loved ones are no longer the same as when I last saw them – their faces are now streaked by wrinkles, their souls have withered. And like the case with many in exile, I must accept that despite this painful longing to see my loved ones, it will not be easy for me to return home to embrace them and kiss them. I must accept that for some of them, death came faster than me, and it’s too late to show them my love and affection. After these five years of war, I want to be able to talk about my experience without my words suffocating me and bringing tears to my eyes – tears I realize are tears of self-pity.
After five years of war, I now live in a safe country. I work from home where the internet never disconnects. I ask myself: how come, no matter where I go and no matter how my life changes for the best, war is branded on my heart and soul? Is it because I did not properly say “goodbye” to my family before leaving quietly at night so I wouldn’t wake them up? Sometimes I think the answer is what a Cuban girl once told me in the Czech language class when our teacher asked us why we chose the Czech Republic to seek refuge. Despite the lighthearted atmosphere, I broke down in tears when it was my turn to speak because I revisit this truth with the exact same pain every time. The Cuban girl patted me on the shoulder and said confidently: nostalgia.
On this fifth anniversary, and as all humanity braces for a horrendous test, I receive funny messages that coronavirus does not scare Yemenis because death is nothing new to us. We are inevitably survivors. We survived malaria, typhoid, dengue fever, cholera and swine flu. We survived stray bullets fired at weddings, we survived battles and abductions in cities. We survived compulsory recruitment and our calamitous roads. We survived medical errors and the lack of available beds at intensive care units. We survived dying from anguish, and most importantly, we survived war! We survived the airstrikes, which did not spare our museums and history, the bullets of the snipers who are entertained by targeting children in alleys, the siege, the treachery of brothers from the same blood and land, the mercenaries, the ready-made accusations, the polarization, the rumors and a biased press. After five years of struggle, it would be a shame if we “survivors” were to die of the novel coronavirus!
Rim Mugahed is a sociologist, novelist and non-resident researcher at the Sana’a Center for Strategic Studies. Her work on Yemen includes research into women’s issues, especially pertaining to police and prisons, and transitional justice.
This commentary appeared in Five Years Since Decisive Storm – The Yemen Review, March 2020.
The Sana’a Center for Strategic Studies is an independent think-tank that seeks to foster change through knowledge production with a focus on Yemen and the surrounding region. The Center’s publications and programs, offered in both Arabic and English, cover diplomatic, political, social, economic, military, security, humanitarian and human rights related developments, aiming to impact policy locally, regionally, and internationally.