How Families of the Victims Live .. a Visit to Yemen



By Fiona Ehlers

Hussein Tayeb, 38, leads the way into a sparsely furnished living room and serves tea and sweet sesame bread on the earthen floor. He pulls his mobile phone out of the pocket of his dishdasha and plays back a couple of videos he filmed himself. To the beat of traditional drums, three boys can be seen dancing wearing floor-length, ochre-colored robes. “They liked to dance so much,” Tayeb says. He smiles, though it’s unclear whether it is out of awkwardness or pleasure at the memory. Either way, it’s not enough to hide the deep grief written across his haggard face.

He pulls the ochre robes out of a plastic bag and breathes in the scent of his sons, their names written on the collars: Ali, 9, the ambitious one with Dumbo ears and a strong will. Ahmed, 11, the best in his class who wrote, “I love my country” in his homework folder alongside a drawing of the flag of united Yemen. And Yusuf, 14, the first-born son and the pride of his father.

Hussein Tayeb’s three sons are all dead. At around 9 a.m. on August 9, the bus they were riding in was struck by a bomb in Dahyan, a village in the Saada province of North Yemen. It exploded on impact. A total of 51 people died in the blast, including 40 children.

News of the attack quickly spread around the world, briefly shining a spotlight on the disastrous situation in Yemen, where Houthi rebels have spent years battling government forces as a coalition under the leadership of Saudi Arabia bombs the country into rubble.

A short time later, Yemen disappeared from the headlines, once again becoming an invisible, forgotten war. There are two reasons for this invisibility: Hardly anyone is allowed into this civil war-ravaged country, particularly not journalists from the West; and almost nobody is allowed out. In part because hardly any refugees from Yemen make it to Europe, we have learned very little about the war.

Hussein Tayeb is telling his story to a foreign journalist for the first time. Only three weeks have passed since the bombing, but he nevertheless speaks calmly and quietly. A stonemason, much of his trade involves engraving gravestones. Business has been good.

On the morning his sons died, Tayeb drove them to the bus on his motorcycle for a school trip to the Saada mosque, which the boys had been looking forward to for days. One after the other, they kissed their father’s forehead and climbed into the bus. Tayeb had just climbed back onto his motorcycle when a bomb fell without warning. Once he could see through the dust, Tayeb ran to the burning bus and pulled out the first body he could reach. It was Ahmed, his middle son. He was no longer breathing.

Tayeb tells his story while sitting on the floor of his mudbrick home — in the same spot where he had laid out his sons’ bodies so he and his wife could mourn them. He is surrounded by neighbor children. When a dull explosion is heard in the distance, they all flinch and cover their ears with their hands. Ali, the young Houthi rebel who drove us here, is standing in the doorway. Tayeb’s youngest son Mohammed, 4, is the only child he has left. He is wearing a camouflage uniform, carrying a plastic rifle and seems distraught. He sees the burned-out bus on his father’s mobile phone display and asks: “Papa, when is the next bus coming? I want to go to my brothers.”

Ali, says it is time to get going. A curved dagger known as a jambiya is jammed into his belt and an embroidered scarf is draped around his shoulders. Ali drives the foreigners in a Hyundai through the rubble, which he calls “my home.” On the dashboard waves a red-and-green pennant printed with the kind of slogans one sees on almost every building wall, whether destroyed or intact. “Death to the USA,” and “Death to Israel,” “Curse the Jews,” and “Victory for Islam.”

The street is lined on both sides with centuries-old mudbrick buildings in all imaginable shades of ochre – all of which have fallen into themselves like houses of cards. The government quarter of the provincial capital of Saada, cradle of the Houthi movement that officially calls itself Ansar Allah, is little more than a pile of rubble. Only the great mosque is still standing, its minaret like a finger pointing to the heavens. Pictures of young martyrs are everywhere, young men who have lost their lives in the fight against the Saudis. Soon, photos of Hussein Tayeb’s three boys will join them. Dozens of ragged refugee children from the embattled port city of Hudaida are hanging around in front of the two or three grill stands begging the few guests for leftovers. Ali is generous with handouts, but he won’t tolerate any Coke of Pepsi cans. “That is how America finances its weapons,” he says.

Until just a few months ago, 29-year-old Ali also used to fight for the Houthis. Standing on the back of a flatbed truck at the front, he would fire his Kalashnikov at the enemy – before the rebels ordered him to Saada. Now that he has become a chronicler of this war, he says, words have become his weapons.

Ali keeps a diary on his laptop, recording every bomb that explodes and noting down who was killed or wounded in each house. On this day in early September, there have already been three bombs and by evening, the total will rise to 20. Ali as two mobile phones, and one of them is constantly stuck to his ear. He has set up a kind of hotline so that the people of Saada can report the most recent bomb explosions. He shoots videos with the survivors and writes articles for the local news. If he has free time in the evenings, he’ll relax with a bit of khat, the green leaves chewed in the region that act as a mild stimulant.

A few weeks ago, the Houthis received an important guest in Saada: UN Humanitarian Coordinator Lise Grande from the U.S. She visited survivors of the bus attack in two hospitals just a few days after the air strike. The Saudis initially justified the attack by saying they had though the bus was full of rebels and not children. It was only at the beginning of the September that the coalition admitted the attack had been “a mistake.”

Grande is an in-your-face Texan. Her appearance might be reminiscent of Doris Day, but that is merely a disguise. For the last half a year, she has been working in Yemen from her office in the Houthi-occupied capital of Sanaa, protected by barbed wire and steel doors. She does not speak publicly about the proxy war, about the politics behind the slaughter. Her focus in the war is elsewhere: on the people who are suffering from starvation and cholera.

Grande, too, is a chronicler of this war and can rattle off numbers like a machine. Her totals so far: around 10,000 dead; every 10 minutes a child under the age of five dies; more than two-thirds of the country’s population of 28 million are dependent on aid deliveries. Around 8.5 million people don’t know where their next meal is coming from. “By the end the year,” Grande says, “there could be 10 million more.”

Grande has worked for the UN for the last 25 years and has been stationed in plenty of other catastrophic locations, like South Sudan, Iraq and Haiti. Nowhere, though, has she seen such widespread misery. “We are experiencing the largest humanitarian catastrophe of the 21st century,” she says. And it is one, she adds, for which people are entirely responsible. There has been no flood, no draught to cause the suffering in Yemen. The famine here is completely due to the war, as are the numerous cases of cholera.

“The risk of a country-wide cholera outbreak was at 85 to 90 percent,” Grande says. “We’re not yet out of the woods,” though she says that things are beginning to look better. Her emergency teams have “worked miracles,” she says, having managed to repair much of the dilapidated water supply system and sterilizing everything they could find with chlorine.

The consequences of the war as described by Grande can be seen clearly in the town of Chamir, located about halfway between Saada and Saana. The town is where Salam, the Peace Hospital, is located. Ever since the healthcare system in North Yemen collapsed and, because of the trade blockade, even pain medication has become difficult to obtain, people have to embark on extended journeys to the hospitals.


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