OP-ED

Life After The 26th Of March: What Was It Like To Be In Yemen

National Yemen
Women and children filling containers from water tanks
Written by Fakhri Al-Arashi
By Esra’ AlNajjar

A distant sound woke me up at 3am, March 26th. It was a rainy night so I took it for thunder. Then a second and a third followed. I heard my family leaving their rooms so I followed suit. We were all gathered in the living room when the phone rang. It was my aunt, “Are you all alright? Yemen is under attack!”

By the end of the Houthi insurgency that started in 2011, I was relieved that the troubles of Yemenis have finally come to an end, sadly I was wrong. It was only the beginning of a series of misfortunes. The electricity blackouts, the shortage of oil products and most importantly the many deaths that occurred during those dreadful days of the insurgency were only an introduction to what is to happen in 2015.

The dream of a new Yemen that surfaced during the Houthi insurgency of 2011 was demolished entirely on the night of the 26th of March 2015, the night the air strikes by the Saudi-led coalition started. It is true that by the time the fighting parties and the coalition strikes broke out the country has already been suffering for four years, but this attack was the icing on the cake.

At first, I thought that it was a matter of days like all the other riots (Arab Spring) that have been rising since 2011. This was different. This was a real local war that will extend until those with the heavy weaponry decide to end it.

Gradually, my life went from bad to worse. It was not only the air strikes that showered us morning, noon and night, but also the suffering that came along with it. For those who lived in Faj Attan area of Sana’a, things were so unfortunate. Needless to say, Faj Attan, where I live, has been and still is the most targeted area in Sana’a. The strikes were thundering in the first weeks, but knowing that the attacks were on arms storage depots in the surrounding mountains made it bearable. Despite that, we could not sleep well and we lost our appetite. I would gather with my sisters in the living room and we would spend the night there. My parents would join too when the strikes intensified. The nights were very hard but we would eventually fall asleep with the first rays of sunlight. Mornings were so quiet at the beginning to the extent that it was so hard to believe that my country was being struck by air strikes. It was that huge air strike, which happened in broad daylight, that made me realize that my life and that of those around me were in real danger. My house was damaged and we had to move out to a more secure place. We moved twice among friends and family. Both areas were targeted so we had to look for another haven. Of course it was unrealistic to consider this since no place was now safe. Finally, we left for Beit Bouss, a better area but not too secure either. Those shifts were very tiring. It has affected my family both emotionally and financially. Personally, it was hard to adapt. I was annoyed by the fact that the minute I settle in one place we would have to pack and leave for another.

This, however, was not the worst part. After the first three weeks of the war, we woke up in total darkness. The electricity had been cut off. The nightmare of living without electricity that we suffered in 2011 was renewed, but on a much higher level. There would be no electricity for six days in a row then we’d get half an hour, or an hour if lucky. The blackouts got worse day by day and after a while I forgot what it is like to have the lights on. It was really hard to absorb the fact that I am part of a world that existed in the 21st century when I was deprived of the simple pleasures of life represented in TV, internet, water heaters etc. During the winter, it was very hard to wash my hands or take a bath. The water was so cold I would have to boil it for my regular use. As an adult, it was very hard for me to cope alone when there are children to take care of. I always wondered how mothers managed with their children. Heating water before use also bore expenses on the behalf of gas. Gas cylinders – now purchased for 5000YR (~ $25 USD) – would be consumed faster than usual because of this issue.

The problem does not end here, electricity blackouts came hand in hand with the shortage of oil products. Since 2011, the alternative to electricity was generators. We used our stored petrol for the generator, but no matter the quantity it was bound to end. The prices of oil products increased dramatically and the black markets made their grand entrance to the streets of Sana’a. When generators could not be fueled by oil nor by gas, we were confronted by darkness. People who could purchase from the black markets would do and leave the little amount of fuel for water pumps. Others would have to carry gallons of water all the way up. No electricity meant no refrigerators. Refrigerators were emptied and the food was spoiled. The shortage of oil reflected negatively on many other things. Prices of rations and vegetables as well as that of transportation doubled immediately, and so the necessities were all that is to be purchased.

The same scenario of 2011 was repeated through the petrol stations queues. Stations were empty at times for months and those that had petrol would have cars line up waiting for a refill. Every once in a while, the stations would fill up with fuel. The queues would go as far as my eyes can take me. One of the stations was limited to women’s use. My sister would take the car and wait in a very long queue. If she is lucky she would it would only take 8 – 10 hours, or she would just leave the car until the next day.

The air strikes continued to affect us. My three sisters lost their jobs due to the closure of schools and the layoff that some companies had to do given the circumstances. There was no other place to apply since jobs barely kept up with their former employees. I also had to stop my work as a journalist trainee because of the war. The financial problem that we faced was not the only problem. Waking up every day with nothing to do had its effect on my sisters and myself, as it did to many other Yemenis.

All this was not my main concern. What worried me the most that I had to stop my year at university. I was half way through my third year when this started. Classes stopped and my exams were postponed many times. When classes resumed I had already moved many times and my life was a total mess. Moreover, the circumstances made it harder. There was no electricity to study and the transportation was too expensive and too far to attend. Not to mention the untimed strikes all around Sana’a. So I was forced to drop when I was so close to graduating. I had to put my dreams on hold till politicians shake hands and decide they have had enough.

The news was also an issue. International media turned a blind eye to what was happening in Yemen. There were no figures and not a sign of any attempts to stopping the air strikes or at least a chance of fruitful negotiations.

I spent the first nine months of war at home. Staying at home kept me isolated from the world outside. I was not only afraid of being too exposed to the air strikes, but I was also afraid to see what the war has left behind. The war was evident on the streets. The faces of people, the long queues at petrol stations and the piled garbage reminded me of the tragedy my country has been suffering since March. Even children looked different. They played aimlessly in the streets. After all, schools were closed and there was no place for them to go. Adults too roamed around the streets absentmindedly. Stress lined their tired faces. But Yemenis would always surprise others with their attitude. With all that is going on, they never lose hope. You would hear them promising that things will be okay again and life would go back to normal.

At last, I was lucky to get a chance to leave. Leaving one’s own country and under such circumstances was never easy. One leaves the life she/he has always known for the hope of a better one somewhere else. Leaving my friends and other members of family behind was hard, but living the life that was imposed on us back home was even harder.

Today, the civil war and air strikes exceeded 9 months, and there are no signs of it ending anytime soon. Life in Yemen was never perfect, but I was content with the little I had. Yemen lacked a lot of things of the current century but I loved it. The things that were considered as necessities in other countries were farfetched luxuries in mine, but we did manage until 9 months ago. The situation is terrible now, but the dream of a better future and a decent life never fades away. We dream of a Yemen where justice prevails and equality has its way. This dream will only materialize if all fighting factions stop and the prevailing regime put the will of the people before its own.

End. This reported published in cooperation with  Sincere Dating