Landmines and wheelchairs in Sanaá

There is one basic fact difficult to divulge and get through: prior to the aggression on Yemen by Saudi Arabia and coalition of mercenaries with the silent approval and support of US Intelligence, situation in Yemen was already unbearably difficult.
What is known as the current Yemen had been a battle field of almost 20 conflicts, some overlapping, others extremely long, few still continuing.
A General I briefly met in 2011 prior to the revolution which ousted President Ali Abdullah Saleh told me his job was to ´mine-clear certain areas of Yemen´. He had been working on it since 1992, almost 20 years.

A report by OCHA on children tormented by landmines dated July 2013 states: ´Landmines have plagued the people of Yemen for decades. In the 1960s, they were laid along the border that separated the north and south of the country, and they were a tragic feature of tensions throughout the 1990s.
More recently, Government and militant forces have been accused of using landmines between 2004 and 2011 in conflicts in Sa’ada Governorate in the north and Abyan Governorate in the south. In 2011 and 2012, antipersonnel mines were reportedly also used in and around Sana’a, and in March 2012, Yemen’s Ministry of Defense reported landmine casualties in Hajjah Governorate on the country’s north-west coast.
The number of mine-related civilian casualties climbed significantly in the third quarter of 2012, following an announcement by the military in June that they had ousted militants from Abyan. As a result, thousands of people who had fled the conflict returned home to areas that had been heavily mined.´

In the same report:  ´The Yemen Executive Mine Action Centre (YEMAC) is doing much of this work with the support of the UN Development Progamme […]. Between July 2011 and February 2012, YEMAC and its partners destroyed almost 290,000 explosive remnants of war, including almost 90,000 anti-personnel mines as well as anti-vehicle mines, shells and improvised explosive devices´.

We are talking about thousands of bombs, with no exaggeration. This, prior to the war on Yemen in 2015.
Let it sink in that what has come after will require decades, if not a century, to assess, digest and clear.

Every personal memory now makes reference to prior and during the war (during because the war is still raging on Yemen).
There is one scene I have clear in mind. It belongs to the end of 2014.
As part of a national effort to reach those less fortunate, the Yemeni government had bought wheelchairs, crutches, walkers, prostethics and cranes for the disabled and was doing medical checkups in Sanaá. Those who could not be helped in Yemen were going to be flown either to India or Egypt for medical treatment.
The maimed were all from prior wars. Sanaá had been invaded by buses coming from almost all the governorates.
In our hotel we were hosting  people coming from the villages (mainly  from Hajjah and Amran). Some could barely walk, others were crawling. Limbs were missing in children and adults alike (mines do not stop exploding simply because a war is declared over).
In the lobby, in our offices, we had mountains of folded, shining, new wheelchairs ready to be distributed.
It was hectic, with loud voices.
Until I heard no more: before my eyes  the scene of mothers  taking pictures of the family united in front of the new gift, the wheel chair. They were smiling, they were joyous.
Who, in Europe, would take a selfie with a wheelchair?
I had to rush to the back of the  office crying and suffocating in tears. I was strangling myself with tears. I had just realised some families required 2, 3, 4 wheelchairs just for their children.

These same people are being bombed, every day, in Yemen. With an abundance of infamous, internationally banned cluster bombs.
Alhmdulillah, Yemenis say.

Yemeni children take death as a part of life

No food, no medical aid and medicines allowed to enter Yemen thanks to the Saudi-led land-air-sea siege on Yemen. A siege which has entered its second year, just like the war.
What was meant to be a brief military campaign carried out mainly by airstrikes, has turnt into a catastrophe which is paving the way to a genocide.

Yemeni children wonder what have they done wrong to the King of Saudi Arabia and how they, just children, can pose a threat to the Kingdom´s security.
Many children have starved to death, 320.000 are food insecure and malnourished and many children have already died of illnesses. Hard to get any more horrific than this in a country where, since memorable times, 58% of the population lives with less than 2$ per day.
Yemen is rich in culture, history, scenery, landscapes, traditions but when it comes to money, the vast majority of its inhabitants barely reach the end of the day while next meal remains uncertain.

According to the synthesis of the latest UNICEF´s report on the impact of the war on Yemeni children on NPR´s The Deadly Consequences To Children Of Yemen’s War :

At least 6 is the number of children killed or maimed daily.
934 the number of children killed during the past year as a result of “grave violations.” One thousand three hundred fifty-six were injured. 
10,000 approximate number of children under five years old who died over the past year “from preventable diseases as a result of the decline in key health services such as immunization against vaccine preventable diseases and the treatment of diarrhoea and pneumonia.”
848 U.Ndocumented cases of child recruitment for the fighting.
51 U.N.documented cases of attacks on education facilities.
At least 6 million children living in poverty
320,000 children facing severe malnutrition
10.2 million  children at risk of “going without safe drinking water and sanitation.”
More than 1.8 million number of children “forced out of school” because of the violence.
1,600 schools that are closed because of the fighting.

To keep on bombing and wage war on the country, with this reality on the ground, implies a will to destroy Yemen. Thoroughly.
Yemenis may be strong and resilient. They accept anything as everything is a will of God, but the country collapsed immediately during the first month of bombardments.
Numbers and statistics are appalling.

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In Sanaá, the story of  Ahmed is just emblematic of the situation inside Yemen.
He is thirteen years old. He has experienced, already, being under thousands of bombs since the war on his country erupted. He has experienced enough fear, sadness and desperation since March 26 of last year.
But Ahmed is not like any other kid. He has hepatitis and no medicine in sight. Ahmed has grown fast and accepts his fate. There are no medicines in the few operating and still standing hospitals in Yemen (95% of hospitals have either been bombed or had to shut down due to lack of gasoline, water and medicines) and clock is ticking against him.
Absurd as it seems, there is no way of helping him.
Most likely Ahmed will leave us and the world will never know that there was a kid called Ahmed, Yemeni, and had dreams like any other kid and that our silence against this genocide inflicted on the Yemeni population helped him on his last journey.
Someone will have to explain all this to his parents.
Ahmed, on the contrary, accepts his fate. The afterlife cannot be worse than this last year.

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Abdullah
and Ali Qassim are two Yemeni brothers, both with cancer.
Luckily, they managed to leave Yemen and are currently being treated in Jordan.
Today, Friday, the first Friday of the month of Rajab which marks the anniversary of Yemenis entering Islam, some  called on the nation to pray for them.
Abdullah and Ali are fighting a double battle: beat the cancer and, once they return to Yemen, survive the war.
They accept whatever comes and never complain.

And then there is Ammal Awaddh. Her words would break any soul.
Take a deep breath, read and look at those eyes.
You may cry, afterwards

‘My father bought me these new earrings for Eid.

I convinced him to let me wear them today because no one knows if I will still be alive when Eid comes’
(Ammal Awaddh, 5 years old)

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With Qassim Alshawee from Sanaá

Can you stand my gaze?

I may not be able to neither read nor write, but like my country fellows, I know the alphabet of a decent human being, my alif-ba-ta.
I know what is haram and what is halal, forbidden and lawful.
I know where I come from: I come from Yemen, thousands year old land which was here before all of  your tribes made their appearence.
I stand on my soil, my valleys, my desert, rivers, mountains, peaks and seas.
In my blood I carry the history of humankind: your caravans had to cross  my land to reach destination, your boats had to kiss our shores to escape the solitude of the sea.
My queens have taught the world the basics of governance.
We taught you the art of hospitality, how to count, how to irrigate unfriendly scorching desert, build damns and houses scratching the sky from what the earth gave us.
Remember these words, young man: I stand with my people. We are one firm nation.
Together, we stand with each martyr of ours. Our heartbeats speak of Yemen, over and over again.
It´s my nation which gives me strength. It´s my God which gives me hope.
I may be homeless, wounded, widowed, childless, but I know no foreigner shall ever hold dominion over Yemen.
I know my alif-ba-ta, young man.

Look at me, straight in the eyes and ask yourself if you can stand my gaze.
The gaze of all the blood spilt.
I speak for every mother made childless, every child made futureless, every man made martyr, every home turnt into rubble, every child born dumb, blind, defectful because of your bombs.
I speak in the name of the Yemeni people and remind you that you can take this anniversary of yours, March 26, and celebrate your own downfall.
You may U-turn your war-planes, silence your cannons, sink your warships and swallow your bombs.
I speak for Yemen, young man. We are here to stay.

(short collection of brief sentences I have been told by elderly Yemeni women commencing on March 26 2015 to March 25 2016)

photo: Yusra Ahmad

Tareq Abdullah and no chance of survival in war-torn Yemen

Tareq Abdullah is only 10 years old.
He comes from an extremely indigent family of Hodeidah, Westerm Yemen, and  life has balanced the lack of money in his days with abundancy of illnesses and grief.
Tareq happens to be deaf, suffers from renal failure and has an enlarged heart.
With such a clinical record, chances of survival in war-torn Yemen are close to nil.
Chances of having a decent life in the current situation, none.

In Yemen, devastated by daily bombardments, the few hospitals still operating are on the brink of collapsing and there would not be, anyhow, a way of treating him. The country is under an air-land-sea siege and little or close to nothing, including medicines, are allowed to enter.
More than 20 million people, 80 per cent of the population, require humanitarian assistance.
So far, the request of humanitarian aid of $ 1.800 million for 2016, released the past month of February, has received a mere 12 %.

Tareq´s days are counted.
Tareq cannot afford even to dream. The world is distant to him and has failed him from birth, from day one.

We do not want Tareq to be forgotten. We do not want Tareq´s case to be considered a collateral damage of the war.
Is there, somewhere, in the world, someone out of the 7 billion people, who can help us?
Tareq´s case has been documented by the Rehabilitation and care Fund for people with disabilities in Sanaá (Bayt Meyad – behind the office of Education – Al-Sabyen Directorate Tel: 00967-1-619774 Fax: 00967-1-619231/5) and we hope, so hope, our plea will be heard.

Manal, a light for thousands of Yemeni disabled

Manal is in her mid-twenties, an active, passionate and smart young woman. Yemeni, she holds a University degree from the Faculty of Arts in Sanaá in English literature and, indeed, she masters perfect English. The feeling you have when you talk to her, see her moving around, watch her dealing with people and friends, is that Manal is full of energy, determined though extremely humble.

´´I am planning to study abroad. I would like to have a master degree in management, one day´´, she says but her situation is not easy. She does not know when she will ever be able to travel abroad as she is looking for a ´´scholarship anywhere´´ whilst no one helps Yemeni students, especially these days. Born in the 90s, she has already witnessed a war in 1994 between South and North Yemen, the Arab Spring of 2011, the revolution in 2014, a coup d´etat in January 2015, countless number of terroristic attacks and almost one year of aggression against her country. Not a simple aggression: Manal, like all Yemenis, has been under airstrikes almost every day since 2am of March 26, 2015 when neighbouring Saudi Arabia, along with a coalition of nine countries, decided to restore the government of fugitive president Abd Rabbuh Mansoor Hadi. No matter the circumstances, the sleepless nights because of the missiles pouring from the sky, you know tomorrow morning Manal will be at the office working – restlessly – with her best smile, paying attention to virtually everyone, running around.

When I first met Manal, she apologised she could not send me an email: her office was in an area under air-strikes. I received the email the day after, and it was Friday, weekend for her.

Sometimes I wonder if she gets any sleep at all. Manal has opened a group in Facebook: Yemeni Peace & Coexistence where peace and coexistence are words she personally chose (and she likes to stress it) and is busy online till late, discussing important issues, never forgetting anyone´s birthday or need, uniting Yemenis.

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One year ago Manal started working, as Project Manager, at the Rehabilitation and Care Fund for People with Disabilities in Sanaá. The job would be difficult in any moment in a country like Yemen where there is virtually no national health service, 50% of the population lives below the poverty line, where lack of food, water, electricity, basic infrastructure is the reality on the ground. The incomprehensible war waged on her country has basically devastated everything. According to the United Nations, Yemen is witnessing the worst humanitarian crises of our times.

Her enthusiasm, when talking about her job, what she sees every day, is cracked by a deep sorrow: ´´The tragedy of this aggression on people with disabilities in Yemen is apocalyptic. They are suffering and have been forced to face many obstacles during these past, harsh, twelve months. It´s like a horrible, nightmarish year with the killing of thousands of innocent people.´´

´´I am particularly concerned about the impact of this war on people who have to deal with physical disabilities for the rest of their life and this includes visual and hearing disabilities. We had an unprecedented increase in auditory disabilities, for instance, and it is a result of the pressure generated by massive explosions. Visual disabilities are usually a result of sharpers and cluster bombs which cause strong pressure leading to the explosion of windows with a direct attack on one or both eyes.

Physical disabilities regard, mainly, amputation of legs or hands as a result of direct injuries, that is: being hit by flying fragments or collapsing buildings. Many of the people seeking help – and now considered handicapped – were injured by the internationally banned cluster bombs.

Appalling, for the first time in our history, we have started witnessing new-born babies with birth defects, babies mentally impaired or even having cancer due to the gases and toxic emissions of bombs dropped on the entire country´´.

Manal gains strength when she talks about the Fund´s role: ´´We offer all the requirements needed, starting from basic prosthetic devices such as bathroom chairs, crutches, medical mattresses to avoid skin ulcer, walkers, optical sticks for blind people. We provide medicines for most of the disabled who are registered with the Fund and arrange for surgeries in public and private hospitals, all sponsored by us. When possible, we finance medical trips abroad if the disability or the case cannot be handled in Yemen.´´

She adds that the Fund sponsors and provides physical therapy services throughout a network of over 25 centres in various governatorates. Educational services are a huge pride for Manal: ´´We take care of circa 120 associations and centres which provide an academic platform allowing the disabled to study. The project stretches throughout large portions of Yemen and grants scholarships for postgraduated studies.´´ When I ask her who is financing all these activities, Manal replies: ´´The Fund used to generate its income from donating companies and here comes the disaster! Most of the companies have been destroyed by the air strikes and we lost all the support. We can no longer offer even the basic assistance to anyone and the main issue is that the number of disabled people is increasing due to this unjust war.´´ Every day Manal goes to her office and knows there will be something like 100 new people asking for help. ´´It is heartbreaking´´, she admits, ´´when you know you can do little for anyone´´. But she is never discouraged, at least not for long. Manal has been writing to all organisations abroad. Personal letters, signed with her name, asking for help in the name of the Fund.

Today Manal has been busy with one of the biggest achievements of the Fund: the graduation party for 26 hearing impaired students who graduated in architecture and engineering. Thinking all this happened in Yemen, one of the poorest countries in the world, and in time of war, you can only shiver with pride and emotion.
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´´There are so many things I want to accomplish in the future. I want to continue working in the humanitarian field, especially relating to people with the special needs, especially working close to the poor with disabilities. I want to travel abroad, have a master degree in management, gain many information from different important people, return to Yemen and help my country.´´

When I ask her if I could use her real name, Manal, in the article, she smiles: ´´You can use my real name and my last name too. My name is Manal Al Marwani. ´´

Rehabilitation and care Fund for people with disabilities Republic of Yemen-Sana’a Bayt Meyad – behind the office of Education – Al-Sabyen Directorate Tel: 00967-1-619774 Fax: 00967-1-619231/5

December 5, 2013

Before the bombs and the fights
Before us entertaining the children
with popcorn and fried bread
to keep them away from the failures of humankind.
Before the broken glasses and the
replacement of windows.
Before us mourning the friends we lost
and the ones who became so after reading their stories on the papers
Before the world going
even madder.
Before it’s too late
can´t we,
simply,
live in peace?
Before it’s too late
can we,
for a change,
divert our efforts to
helping
the famined,
the raped,
the ill,
the sad,
the neighbours,
the displaced,
the wounded?
Before it’s too late
can we,
for once,
do differently?

When the war happened, we had no more money for popcorn to entertain the children.
Or oil to fry the bread.

 

photo via Te Conozco Bacalo

 

 

Elena

My dead people usually never talk to me. They never appear, guide me. They never even smile to me, in my dreams.
Once my people leave, they leave for something like forever. The rest of my lifetime without them is the eternity  I face.
Last time we met was in the 90s, just before Christmas. We never managed to fix a cracked relationship, though.
Relatives got in our way I believe, or other people: all strangers to me.
You were not an easy Grandmother, I was not a delightful member of the family.
You were a conservative, I found out later in life; at the time, to me, you were just different from my friends´ grandmothers.
You were the one who tried to explain to me that no, squatters are not entitled to homes just because they have no job and those bedsheets hanging out of windows stating ´Homes for all´ mean nothing if you do not pay the rent. And your tone meant ´Period´.
Two decades later you bought the apartment upstairs just to get rid of noisy tenants who used to party till late. An empty apartment to give room to silence.
When you asked about the newspaper I was writing on, I rushed with words. I was so proud to tell you it was financed by the provincial Communist party: it gave officiality to the project.
Your mouth moved and I made things worse adding ´´The place where we meet is very basic. Just chairs and a table. There is a poster of Ho Chi Minh..´´. I told you you were different: you knew who he was.
To you I was an activist just because for Christmas my cards were bought from Greenpeace. But you were proud I remembered Christmas and sent my cards at the beginning of December so to make sure the receivers felt thought. Etiquette .
Thanks to you and Grandpa, I managed to have a different perspective on the world and do things unthinkable to my friends.
If I can walk well now I owe it to you: you always took care of my orthopedic shoes. I hated them. I wanted to have shoes like yours: normal, light.
My passion for books comes also from you but I did not share your passion for hiking and skiing.
I remember your perfume, in this moment. And your skin. Our holidays together, your stories from what seems to be another world.
You passed away and no one had any reason to inform me. I found out after long.
We had not spoken in more than a decade.
My dead people usually never talk to me.
But you did appear in my dream. In a night when the planes seemed just over my head, when I felt I was forgotten by everyone, when I was thinking that if it had to end that same night, I would not be able to understand the meaning of life.
A night I was hugging the dogs and falling asleep every now and then to wake up to the sound of the missiles.
You appeared sitting in my room, on the corner of a bed I had placed close to the window to feel, stupidly, more protected while I was sleeping on the floor.
You were wearing a red jersey dress, Grandma. You looked just the same: skinny and classy.
While holding a piece of paper with some telephone numbers, you looked at me and said: ´´I will protect you´´.
Now I know you have never abandoned me and you know what I do in life. You know I have fallen in love with a far away land, its history and people. You know I am looking for kindness and compassion in the world, that I am still an idealist, support all the lost causes, never keep quiet, have never compromised. You know how tough it has been, at times.
I am aware I am not whom you wanted me to be, Grandma. But do not worry: I am not a squatter.
I have always paid my rent.

picture: Atlantic Monthly. CA Illustration Annual, 2007, Chris Lyons

Those who help

“When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’
To this day, especially in times of ‘disaster,’ I remember my mother’s words, and I am always comforted by realizing that there are still so many helpers – so many caring people in this world.” – Fred Rogers

June 12 2015 was the closest a missile reached us, a row of houses in front of ours.
We lost 7 neighbors. Three houses, hundreds of years old, collapsed disfiguring a landmark of the Old City of Sana’a. Forever gone, nebulized.
The world, soon after, expressed outrage because the airstrike had hit a UNESCO protected site.
But they don’t know.

Every one has a particular memory of that night: rushing down the stair, holding the knees, rocking the babies, praying, being splashed cold water on the face. Everyone remembers something different, same way everyone was asking forgiveness for everything done in life. In some cases, for future sins. Just in case.
Some were swearing and cursing the aggressor.
The missile did not explode. It had simply thrashed pulverizing the houses, dissolving them.
Jets were still flying and the men simply rushed to the site. They helped. For hours at a time, in the dust and rubbles, they dag bare-handed with the shemag, the scarf, tight around the mouth. With flip-flops or slippers. Or bare-feet. They never stopped. Never, for days.
Friends living 20 kms away, were trying to find gasoline, a carpool, to come and help.
The whole city turnt to our neighbourhood. Everyone offered help.
My phone rang with voices apologizing I had to be trapped in a war no one wanted, I had to witness rock bottom of humanity.
Indeed, there are always helpers. There is always someone paying attention, rushing, digging in the debris.
There is always someone shooting a series of gunshots with Kalashnikov saluting the corpses, once found; someone preparing a cup of tea for you and asking ‘Are you hungry?’, someone praying for the dead and their soul, someone lending the car to rush to hospital with a survivor who, at the end, did not survive long.
There is always someone telling you the story of the Japanese expatriate who used to live in one of the demolished houses and ‘heaven, he must be ever so sad to find out his house is no longer here’.

There will always be nightmares relating to the war, but they will always be balanced by the memories of those who did everything they could to help.
There will, I know.

(In the picture: what was left of  one of the homes of my neighbours. Memories)

You are there, in my war frame

They sent me this picture of you, Tnseem. I filed it in ‘My World’ folder.
You are smiling. At last I see you smile.
I am sure before the war started, our paths had crossed ways.
We must have met on the stairs or during Eid. Or on a Friday, weekend day, when you used to come and visit your family. Extended family. When it comes to families, in Yemen, I always lose count and thread.
I am sure I must have complimented you for your beautiful dress.
We must have kissed, as well. Many times, I am sure.
You must have made fun of my Arabic. I am equally sure.
But I do not recall ever meeting you before. Before the war, that is.
My memories of you belong to the war; they are relegated there.
You appear within my war frame.
I remember your perfume, your combed hair and pink clothes. I remember your voice, strident with happiness. Cannot expect anything different from an 8 year old who was eager to meet a young sister coming to life: your mum was expecting and I was praying she was not going to lose the baby because of the airstrikes. Because of fear, uncertainty. Because when you are pregnant and they are bombing, you might fall trying to find a safe place.
I remember you, indeed, but in the days of the bombings, never before.

I feel uncomfortable now, looking at your picture. Not because you seem serene, but because of the load of my memories with you. The contingency of the moment.
I remember one night, during an air raid close to us, in Al Qyadah st, when you rushed to me and said: “Can I call my Dad?” and there were no words to tell you, no hugs enough, no way of hiding my sorrow. I passed you my phone praying your father was going to answer immediately. Praying you would, eventually, forget this same night. And even me.
I remember you hugging a teddy bear, another night (always at night) when we had to take shelter downstairs at the palace entrance while the house was shaking.
I was sure we were not going to make it. We did. The night ended, our lives continued.
During the day, when the airstrikes were fewer, you used to make fun of me, not understanding why I could not cook or make bread. Perhaps you will never find anyone as bad in cooking as me.

I see you smile, at last, my little Tnseam
You are holding your litter sister Lougean in front of the world.
Do tell her we are doing our best to change everything.
Starting from this horrible war because, since she was born, she has witnessed only war.