By Helene Aecherli
When I woke up to the news last Friday that five houses in the Old City of Sana’a had been allegedly hit by a Saudi led coalition airstrike and turned into ashes and rubble, it felt, as if I had been hit myself. The Saudis were quick to deny the claims and blamed the Houthi rebels for the collapse of the buildings. But whether it were the Saudis, the Houthis or both: The strike killed at least six people and destroyed houses that had been some of the jewels of Islamic-urban landscape, breathing 2500 years of Yemeni history. And I repeat: I felt as if I had been hurt myself.
I don’t know how many times I have roamed through the narrow alleys of the al-Qasimi quarter in Old Sana’a, admiring the ancient buildings that are unique in the world, having tea with fresh cardamom in some of their hidden gardens, spending hours in a Maglis, a traditional Yemeni sitting room, discussing politics and human relationships and the challenges of the Arabic language and yes, trying my first chews of Qat green leaves.
Reveling in those memories I wondered if these were just the musings of a romanticized Western woman, but then I realized that my Yemeni friends in Sana’a felt the same: their posts and comments expressed nothing but horror, shock and grief. “Old Sana’a belongs to the entire mankind”, said Abdo Ramadan, a business man and close friend of mine, during one of our WhatsApp discussions. He feels that this airstrike against the site that is inscribed on the UNESCO’s World Heritage list even is a blow against mankind and humanity.
“Why cry over some collapsed buildings when people are dying in Yemen?”, You might ask now. You are right. I was asking this myself over and over again. It’s possible to carefully reconstruct historic buildings and let them shine anew; but if a life is lost, it’s lost forever. Up till today over two thousand men, women and children have been killed in the war that has been going on since March. Bombing, robbery, looting, kidnapping, sniper fire and increasingly, sexual violence have become a horrid daily business in the capital Sana’a and above all in Aden, but also in Taiz, Hodeida and Saada.
Why then cry over ancient stones turned rubble?
In view of the humanitarian disaster, that threatens eighty percent of the Yemeni population and which is worsened by a naval blockade imposed by the Saudis to cut off arms supplies to rebel forces, this seems almost absurd. But taking a closer look at it, you feel that you have the right to cry when history is smashed to pieces.
Because the destruction of a people’s cultural heritage is explicitly aimed at destroying a people’s dignity, its pride and its soul. More so: It’s aimed at destroying its roots and memories. The same thing was done to the Afghan people when the Taliban in collaboration with the Pakistani secret service blew up the Buddha statues in the province of Bamyan. It’s being done now in the Syrian city Palmyra, where the so called Islamic State ardently demolishes some of the most valuable historical sites of the Syrians. And – as we know – it’s being done in Yemen.
The historic buildings in Sana’a are just the last on the list so far. Fighting Houthi rebels, the Saudi-led coalition have hit Marib Dam, one of the engineering wonders of the ancient world and a central part of the South Arabian civilization, the Museum of Dhamar with its 12000 artifacts as well as the Medieval Palace in Taiz. And they aimed at Dar al-Hajar, also called Rock Palace, as it is built on a single rock, one of Yemen’s most impressive landmarks located North of the capital. The missiles missed it by 350 meters.
“It’s a must to defend the Old City, as well as other archeological places, cities and sites and to bandage its wounds”, Mokhtar Ramadan, a young translator from Sana’a, commented on my Facebook page. And with this he also meant to bandage the wounds of the Yemeni people – the wounds that are caused by the silence of the international community. Abdo Ramadan sums it up: “The silence of the world is killing me. It’s a real shock for me.”
Yes, the war in Yemen hasn’t stirred a lot of international attention. Here, in Switzerland it hardly makes it in the news, and as far as I can see Yemen rarely is the source of headlines elsewhere in the West. Yemen is not on the radar of public attention – unless it comes to kidnappings, al-Qaeda, US drones strikes and the rankings of the World Bank which place Yemen as one of the poorest countries in the world (while according to the United Nations Security Council former president Ali Abdullah Saleh said to have amassed a personal fortune, with at least thirty billion Dollars). But apart from that, Yemen figures as a remote, enigmatic country somewhere in Arabia. A surprising number of people don’t even know, where Yemen is situated.
This is a pity. And a waste. As I keep saying: Yemen doesn’t have to be poor and off radar or simply associated with terrorism and bleak poverty. Yemen with its talented people and cultural heritage has all the potentials to be a blossoming nation. It could be a first class tourist destination, the best place for students to study Arabic and an inspiring place for artists to meet. It could become a hub for coffee-growth, and an excellent location for regional and international trade. It could even be a political showcase, either by introducing federalism or going through a mutually respectful divorce between the South and the North. But instead there is illiteracy, tribalism, religious fundamentalism, corruption, lawlessness, violence, increasing sectarianism and an erratic national and international power struggle that clings to a convenient Sunni-Shia narrative to legitimize it.
There is a myriad of reasons and causes for this, of course. But I dare say, it’s also a result of failed leadership and of a horrid mismanagement of the country, if you allow me to use a term from the business world.
What to do?
There is first and foremost a lack of true and responsible leadership, my Yemeni friends tell me. Yemen needs a leader or leaders, who care for their people. Who work on developing the country. Who are at least as interested in the wealth of their people as they are in their own and who make education a priority rather than the accumulation of arms. And having said that they emphasize, that Yemeni politics is such delicate and intricate an issue that hardly anybody who isn’t Yemeni is able to grasp what is really going on.
Very true. Yemeni politics are even so complicated, that you have to grab a huge piece of paper and start to sketch it, Amal Basha, one of Yemen’s strongest advocates for human rights, once told me. And believe me: I have sketched a lot so far, but still only grasped the “ear of the camel” – to quote a Yemeni saying.
As nobody understands Yemen as well as Yemenis, ” Yemenis should also solve this ongoing political crisis by themselves”, Hana states, a young teacher from Sanaa and one of the brightest women I have ever met. “They should do this without any interference by international powers.”
“What steps do you suggest to get Yemen out of this war?”, I ask her.
She answers immediately, writing frantically against the fading batteries of her laptop:
“Political negotiation need to take place.”
“I would call for urgent peace and take ex-president Ali Abdullah Saleh out of Yemen.”
“I would ask the Houthis to form a political party. If they keep being a militia, the war will never stop. They really need to form a party and get into politics .”
“I would get the institution finalized and agreed upon.”
“And then go for presidential elections.”
“You should be at the negotiation table”, I said. I was joking, but then again, I was not. At the UN-led peace talks in Geneva men only represent the different parties and interests. Hopes are low that they will come up with an agreement that would end the war. It would even be a success, if they manage to sit at one table and talk to each other face to face, commentators say.
Maybe it’s time indeed to get women on board as well. Yemen has great female leaders who are experienced in human rights issues, in peace and security, in business and negotiations. And who are highly skilled in the arts of survival. To get women at the negotiation table should be seriously considered. It’s a well-established fact, also in the business world, that mixed teams fare better. They might be able to make a difference. Because Yemen has no time to wait and no time to lose. As the talks are going on the country is being bombed ruthlessly.
“The social fabric is starting to crumble”, Hana says. “Everything is collapsing.”
The rubble of the destroyed historic homes in the Old City of Sana’a is a depressing symbol of that.