The risks of development work in Yemen

National Yemen

A Yemeni female face

by Martin Jerrett

Despite largely falling out of the headlines after the popular uprisings of 2011, Yemen remains the poorest country in the Middle East and continues to suffer from widespread insecurity. In this climate, kidnappings have become increasingly prevalent as both a remunerative and a political tool. This blog post by Martin Jerrett, Programme Manager for an international NGO and a resident of Sana’a since 2012, offers a personal insight into some of the realities of life in the capital and a reminder of the daily risks taken by those involved in international development programmes in the country.

Martin Jerrett

My house is perhaps 200 years old and sits squarely in the centre of the second oldest neighbourhood in Sana’a. I stand on the doorstep and look up the street to my left towards the government building. I see the man who is always there selling corn from his small cart. I look to my right, towards the corner shop next to the girls’ school. I look back up the street to my left. I don’t see anyone waiting in a parked car that I don’t recognize. I don’t see someone unfamiliar on his mobile phone and looking at me while I wait to move. I close the door behind me and walk around the corner to where my car is parked. I greet the familiar faces on the street with a nod of the head. Good security starts with good neighbours after all.

Then I unlock my car, all the while taking note of who is around, who might be in a vehicle I’ve missed further down the street. I’m ready to run if there is someone who approaches me suddenly.

I get in the car, click the central locking and then decide which of my four primary routes I should take to work. Scanning. Scanning. I try and remember faces. Which face fits with which shop? Which face is usually sat on which street corner? Which face is out of place? Of course I can’t remember the women; they’re all in niqabs and I’m not attuned to the small differences.

The level of concentration extends to the roads. I’m looking just as much in my rear view mirror as I am ahead of me. I try to memorise which cars are behind me to see if there might be someone following. I feel like Sisyphus. This task has to be repeated every morning anew. And in reverse on my way home from work.

Yemen seems to be on its way to becoming the kidnap capital of the world. At least for internationals. Yemenis get kidnapped too but we don’t know in what numbers. Often it seems the sons of prominent businessmen or politicians are taken. There is also a worrying new trend – the kidnapping of daughters of politicians. Kidnapping has a long history in Yemen, hundreds of years in fact. Imams would hold hostage the eldest sons of tribal leaders to ensure good behavior. However, the kidnapping of girls is something that goes against tribal customs and social norms.

In 2013 there was a kidnapping or an attempted kidnapping every three weeks in Sana’a, a huge leap on the previous year. This year the trend is even worse. It feels like its just a matter of time rather than a matter of bad luck or being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Many of the kidnappings have a feeling of amateurishness about them. People have been grabbed outside supermarkets, rolled up in carpets and thrown into a car boot. One lucky individual managed to make enough noise at a check point to alert the usually comatose soldiers. Other kidnappings are far more professional.

The implication is that it is senior military figures and politicians behind the kidnappings and their motivation is financial reward. Rumours abound over large sums of money – millions of dollars – that international oil companies, or the Qataris, have paid to release internationals. It is testament to the Yemeni people as a whole, in a country mired in poverty and suffering huge rates of malnutrition, that it’s only a tiny minority actively engaged in this criminal activity.

Trying to concentrate on work is pushed into third place behind the focus on one’s physical security and the consequent pressures on one’s mental health. Despite this environment, I love Yemen. Its people are stoic in the face of increased insecurity and fear. They retain a deep sense of personal integrity and dignity. Even on the rare occasion a young lad with Huthi leanings will harangue me and repeat the party mantra “Death to America, death to Israel!” he will immediately grin at me, apologise and say it’s nothing personal. I’ll laugh, shout back that I’m neither American nor Israeli and we’ll wave goodbye.

Yemenis are good, generous people, struggling to make sense of the political disruption around them and seeking a way to make some money for a bit of food and the all important afternoon qat. I just wish that this small minority involved in kidnappings would let me drive to work in peace, without me worrying that I’m going to spend the next year of my life in a remote village improving my stuttering Yemeni Arabic.