Yemen: children “living in a nightmare”
Fatima Al-Ajel works in communications, media and advocacy for Save the Children Yemen. She recently returned home after two and a half months in exile, due to the conflict there.
Whenever I have to travel abroad for work, I’ve always looked forward to returning to my country.
But I would never have expected my last trip to turn out like it did.
At the end of March this year I was working in Jakarta, Indonesia. It was the last day of my meeting and I was excited at the thought of returning home and seeing my family the very next day.
That day though, I received news that a Saudi-led military coalition was going to start an airstrike campaign on Yemen. As soon as I heard the news I went into a state of shock.
Nowhere is safe
I called my mother and I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. She was crying, saying she didn’t know what was going on: there had been bombings and airstrikes all over the city the night before. “Nowhere in Sana’a is safe,” she told me.
And this was how my two and a half months in exile from my country started.
I know I am one of the lucky ones. Save the Children made sure I was well looked after in Jordan and the country treated us well as Yemenis.
I made myself busy in Amman, remotely managing my team in Yemen who were bravely going out to take photos and collect stories from Save the Children’s work in response to the emergency on the ground.
I also set up an initiative with a group of young people in Amman to support other Yemenis who were stuck in Jordan and could not afford basic necessities such as food, accommodation and medicine.
We set up a database to record the basic needs of the families stuck in Amman and coordinated with businessmen and other donors to make sure their needs were met.
At the time this activism, both on a professional and personal level, meant that I was too busy to stress too much over the situation in Yemen.
I would speak to my family first thing in the morning and last thing at night to make sure they were ok and then get on with my day. In the back of my mind I knew that I would go back to Sana’a the first opportunity I got, to be close to my family in their time of need.
I almost feel guilty saying it now, but I sometimes wonder if it was the right decision to come back.
“You can’t predict how you will react”
Finally the day arrived when the airport was reopened and I was able to get a seat on a flight to Yemen.
I was excited to go back and see my family and do whatever I could to help my country.
The moment I landed in Sana’a, four airstrikes hit in Faj Attan, Noqam and the Adheen mountains.
I was shocked. Hearing about it from afar and witnessing it first-hand are two different things. You think you will be strong but you can’t predict how you will react.
The excitement of returning home to see my family was shattered with feelings of fear and anxiety.
The situation in Sana’a was too dangerous for us to stay there and so as soon as I reached home, my family packed everything into a car and drove to a village about an hour away from the city.
In the village I had no connection, no internet and no electricity. I felt absolutely helpless knowing what is going on in my country but not even being able to carry on with my normal work.
At least in Amman I was able to help people and make a difference to the situation. Here, I was cut off from everything and everyone, except for my family and the sound of the bombing.
Spending time with my nine nieces and nephews made me realise how seriously this war is impacting children.
Even in the village where we were not close to the airstrikes, the children refused to leave the house. We would try and encourage them to go into the garden to get some fresh air but they would say “No we don’t want to get killed because a plane might come and bomb us.”
My brother’s son is six years old and every time he hears any sort of loud noise, even if it’s a door slamming, he starts screaming “There’s a plane coming!” and runs to find his mother.
Children now know the difference between the sounds of a plane and an airstrike. It just doesn’t feel right.
My other nephew is developing health problems due to the stress of living in this nightmare.
My seven-year-old niece keeps her ears covered all day with her hands. In the daytime when we tell her she can take her hands off her ears because the explosions only come at night she says she doesn’t want to in case a bomb strikes. She doesn’t want to hear it.
After about a week in the village we were able to return to Sana’a. On my first day back in my city there was a heavy explosion near my house because the Ministry of Defence is just behind it.
Home is a fearful place
On my second day back I gathered the courage to go to work in the office. Our beautiful spacious office had been hit in an airstrike, so we’d moved into a tiny office where everyone was crammed into one room.
It was sad to see: not only are we displaced from our homes, we are displaced at work as well.
The reality of what my mother told me suddenly hit me. Literally nowhere in Sana’a is safe.
Every time we hear explosions from the airstrikes or shooting we huddle into the centre of the room all together. It’s really hard to concentrate. It’s difficult to find the motivation to work.
Sometimes I wonder if I cope less well than others who have been in Yemen for the past two months, because they have become used to it.
It’s just that Sana’a no longer feels like my city. My city, where people usually greet each so warmly, has now turned into a fearful and sad place.
People’s first question to each other when they see each other is “Where was the bombing last night? How many people were killed?”
The only thing to look forward to now is the day when the warm greeting return, and people ask each other how they are, instead of asking who was killed the night before.