Yemen


WARNING! This post is LOOOOOOONG. So much to say!

I finally had a work trip to Yemen to run a training course, which was rather arduous to organise – first the visa didn’t come through, so we had to cancel the planned trip and reschedule. Then the visa came but it wasn’t printed in time to get a flight. So we rescheduled it again. Then I got a flight, but it was cancelled. Then I got another flight and that was also cancelled (both were issues with the plane, which is never reassuring…).

Eventually I managed to get on a flight, and we re-scheduled the training for the 3rd time (each time the participants had to get Government permits to travel to the training).

I flew via Amman, then took the UNHAS (UN Humanitarian Air Service) flight to Sana’a. There are no commercial flights allowed in or out of Yemen, except for UNHAS once a day. They alternate so one day they will fly to Djibouti, and the next day via Amman. They also don’t confirm the flight time until about 12 hours beforehand, because they have to get a deconflicted notification from Saudi Arabia – in other words to check nobody’s planning to shoot down any planes at that particular departure time. Not surprisingly the military don’t like to publish their plans too far in advance, so you have to be ready for last minute changes. Which is also why you almost always need to plan to stay overnight at the stopover destination (Amman or Djibouti), as you never really know when your connecting flight to or from Sana’a will arrive/takeoff.

As I flew in over Sana’a I was kicking myself that I didn’t have my camera handy – it was in the overhead locker, and it was too late to get it out. I had not expected what I would see as we descended over the runway. Tried to take some pictures on the way out, but didn’t have quite such a good view on the way up.

The airport was a major target during the conflict, and so most of the buildings and hangers have been completely destroyed. As you come in towards the runway, you can see the burnt-out carcasses of planes and helicopters – some commercial, some military. Bit of helicopters and fighter jets litter the grass around the runway, and it is hard to imagine that they were just parked there on the grass right next to the runway – most must have been shot down on take off and landing. Which makes coming in to land over so many of them really quite terrifying.

I could only get a few photos, but there was around 20 of these dead planes and helicopters…

Of course it is safe – UNHAS have negotiated permission to fly in and out and they are the only ones using this runway now, so they are not a target (in theory) and both sides know when flights are expected.

Still, it makes for an uneasy and unsettling landing.

The part of the airport that is still functioning was a strange building. In parts, huge marble halls of what clearly used to be a very nice and modern airport. However the signs of disrepair and neglect are everywhere – polystyrene ceiling tiles are hanging down all over the place, dust and dirt, and a lot of stray cats wandering the cavernous empty halls.

Airport cats…

Don’t worry, there’s no actual glass in this door, so the cats can come and go as they please

My flight in had only about 10 passengers, so we queued up to get our visas, and have our bags x-ray’d, but it felt very strange to be such a small number of people in a huge and totally empty airport.

The drive down to the office was uneventful – strict security means you cannot travel through the city at all so we went the long way driving all the way around the outside of the city to our offices. Sana’a is at quite high altitude, so most people coming in tend to be a bit tired, headachey and altitude sick for the first day or two.

On arrival the security guards come out and check under the car for bombs before opening the gates and letting the car enter. We repeated this procedure every time we went anywhere in the car, which left me wondering what happens if they actually find a bomb – presumably jump out of the car and run!

The main risks for foreigners currently in Yemen are airstrikes and kidnapping, so although I had already had security briefings prior to arrival we went over these again – for kidnapping, the main issues are ensuring that you are getting in and out of cars inside the gates if at all possible and not on the road, or if you are for example being dropped off at the shop or hotel, to get inside quickly and don’t wait around outside in full view. They also advise trying to take different routes to and from places, and try not to have predictable patterns, so for example, don’t always go to the supermarket on a Monday, and drive different routes if you are going to the same place every day.

The kidnap risk is high enough in Yemen that we are not allowed to walk to the office, even though the guesthouse is LITERALLY next door to the office. We have to get in the car, seatbelts on, call security dispatch, then they open the gates and we drive NEXT DOOR where they come and check the car for bombs before letting us in. It seems utterly mad, but on the other hand better safe than sorry! They also told me that a week before I arrived, a truck had stopped outside the office and taken some photos. They had reported it to the authorities, but were taking extra precautions just in case someone was casing the place.

When it comes to airstrikes, the office is located outside of the city, as most of the city centre is a potential target. Usually civilian targets are supposed to be avoided, and most airstrikes are aimed at military bases, however

  • most of the military bases and places of importance are scattered around the city, so anywhere in the city is probably 1-2km from the nearest military target
  • sometimes they miss their targets (though not usually)
  • Yemen has frequently seen the deliberate targeting of schools, hospitals, markets and other civilian targets, so the rules don’t really apply.

Both our guesthouse and our office has a safe room in the basement and sirens to alert everyone if there is a raid, so everyone knows where to go and what to do.

I have to be honest and say that I have never seen a country office take security so seriously, and although it’s rather alarming it’s also very reassuring!

We did have some airstrikes during the first week I was in Yemen. We were at the hotel in the middle of our training, when my colleague received a call that there may be some airstrikes soon (I assume the UN get tip-offs to these kind of things), and if so we should go downstairs. Sure enough, about 2 mins after telling us that, we heard (and felt) the boom of an airstrike (it was faint, so clearly not very close, but close enough to feel the vibrations from the explosion). We all trooped downstairs, with most of the participants complaining about it all – I suspect most of them are so used to it that they wouldn’t normally bother going anywhere, but I was determined to follow the protocol, so used my best no-nonsense teacher voice and insisted we all go. The hotel didn’t have a basement so we all sat in a safe room in the lobby that was the next best thing (internal room with no windows, as blast shrapnel from windows is one of the most common injuries from airstrikes). We got some chairs and managed to carry on with the training discussions for about an hour until we got the all clear and went back upstairs. I am happy to report the all clear came at exactly 1pm, which was our planned lunch break, so the airstrikes didn’t even interfere with my lesson plan!

I must say the day after the airstrikes, I was at home and kept hearing planes going overhead. Knowing that UNHAS only flies once a day, and they don’t fly on Fridays, they could only be military planes or drones, which was very disconcerting. And every single night loud fireworks are going off somewhere in the city, while all of us lie in bed thinking “gunshot? firework…  gunshot? firework”.

The training itself was great – the staff were all wonderfully friendly and welcoming and very quick to pick things up. The food here is fab, and everyone was so sweet and kind and lovely! Here I am in my abaya and hijab with my colleague who helped me facilitate the training.

Rocking the hijab

Most of the women in the training were wearing long black abayas (full-length loose black dresses with long sleeves) and hijabs (headscarves), A few women showed their faces, but most of them also wore niqabs (face veils) so you could only see their eyes through a small slit. Although I was wearing long loose skirts and loose, long-sleeved tops AND a headscarf, so only my feet, hands and face were visible, I felt remarkably exposed when most of the other women didn’t have their faces showing. Not sure if it was because I’m a foreigner, and therefore more conscious of it, but after a few days of staring at niqabs, showing my face felt downright brazen!

I chatted with a few ladies during lunch times, and asked about why some people wore it and some didn’t. Even the ladies who only had a headscarf on explained that they wore full niqabs when going outside, as if you don’t cover your face you’ll get harassed by the men. A very sad thought indeed, that showing one’s face means you are laying yourself open to abuse. It struck me that almost every culture seems to have some sort of a line about what women wear, whether it is a short skirt or revealing your face, that seems to mean it is ok to harass or shout abuse. And also interesting that most of these women were wearing it not because their husbands told them to (“our husbands don’t care at all if we wear it” they told me) but because covering their face provides them with a layer of protection from all the arseholes out there. Sad but true.

Here is an extremely dodgy-looking wall opposite our training venue… Does not seem at all secure.

Some of the buildings here are quite elaborate with ornate plaster-work inside, and one of the most defining things about Yemen seems to be the stained glass windows, mostly semi-circular, which adorn every room.These windows are utterly stunning, and I took so many pictures of them. From the outside, they have a distinctive pattern made in concrete I think, then a layer of coloured glass, and then a different pattern made of plaster on the inside. Utterly stunning.

I was originally supposed to only be in Yemen for a week, but in the end after all the flight cancellations and changes I hadn’t been able to get booked onto the right return flight, so ended up spending an extra week in the office supporting the team on some other technical stuff as well.

Seeing as I had an extra week, and was besotted with the glorious windows, I decided to find out what kind of trinkets or souvenirs I could buy (you KNOW I have a hardcore shopping addiction and I LOVE buying tat). To my utter delight I discovered you could get these gorgeous small candle holders or pen holders, made of plaster with mini stained glass windows. They are gorgeous, would make awesome presents, and are the perfect reminder of Yemen and it’s wonderful windows!

But then I was told you usually get these down in the old city, a place EVERYONE said I must try to visit, but which is completely out of bounds these days for security reasons. I was undeterred by my inability to reach the shops, and started asking where else I could get them, or whether the drivers might be able to go on my behalf. Soon enough I discovered that one of our partners, a local NGOs that supports vulnerable women, actually makes these lovely things as part of a handicrafts-livelihoods project, and they had a catalogue! I browsed away happily and ordered a selection to take home as gifts.

Not only would I be satiating my shopping addiction, but also supporting some vulnerable women we work with at the same time! Win-win!

Sadly when they arrived, I discovered a small problem… They were MUCH bigger than the pictures in the catalogue had implied, so instead of small trinkets I now had some gorgeous but LARGE and HEAVY pieces of incredibly delicate glass and plaster. How on earth was I going to get them home? UNHAS has very strict limits on baggage, so I had to dump a load of stuff to make room, and hope they won’t all break in my suitcase!

To make matters worse, a very sweet and well-meaning colleague was sad I wouldn’t get to see the old city, so gave me as a gift an ENORMOUS plaster replica of the old city! It’s so sweet but no way I can take it with me and fit all my other crap as well!

Anyhow, eventually I made it home, and incredibly only two of the candle holders broke!

Here are a few final pics from Yemen:

This is the biggest bunch of grapes I’ve ever seen

Me and my colleagues in the office

Doing some laundry in an old-fashioned twin tub machine! (Manually filling it with a hose from the tap)

Ran out of books to read and was very disappointed with the selection in the guesthouse! Seriously who wants to read the Geneva Conventions for pleasure?? Or Soccernomics?

Driving back to the airport

And flying back to Amman – here’s the view over Yemen

And Jordan

Actual crop circles!

Farming in Jordan

Amman

If you’re still reading after this epic post, and if you’re like me and have no idea what’s happening in Yemen politically, this short video is a very useful and simple explanation of what’s been going on…

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