Looking upwards and outwards

A review of my time in Yemen. And here's a photo of Sana'a, Yemen's capital, as it was then

Imagine sitting on an uninhabited white sandy beach, with a turquoise sea and a turquoise sky. It sounds idyllic.

Indeed, it should have been. But we were only on the beach as a bolt hole, for fear we would be shot at, like our colleagues the day before, some of whom were killed. We were each sitting in a tent- I think there were about 12 of us- at Bab al Mandeb - which is a strait between Yemen on the Arabian Peninsula and Djibouti and Eritrea in the Horn of Africa. We were there contemplating life, how to best live, if we wanted to at all. Nothing focuses the mind better. In silence, and knowing you could die, the only thing that matters is how best to live.

This was Yemen in 1999 and the events of that year were well publicized. A group of tourists were kidnapped crossing the wadi, or desert from Aden to Sana'a- the capital- where we were to catch an aeroplane back to the United Kingdom. Six land rovers had been travelling in convoy, with about four of us in each land rover (plus the driver, with a janbiyar, or dagger, and Klashnikov for protection) – it was safer to drive in convoy in that country. Yemen was well known for kidnapping. Indeed, I had taken out kidnap insurance while in the UK- until then I didn't even know that it even existed. It is designed to protect individuals and corporations operating in high-risk areas around the world.

Before we set off, we knew the risk of kidnapping. A high percentage of tourists were kidnapped in Yemen, usually by tribesman, but for the most part, they had been treated well and after money had been extracted from the government, often for schools, they were released. The likelihood of someone being killed was rare.

Three land rovers had led the way, and we our small group- we were travelling with a different tour operator- were spending an extra night in Yemen. I remember eating fried fish in a small café, if you could call it that, which cost an insignificant amount of money. It was delicious- dirty plates and all. I must have been hungry. We got back to the hotel late, after walking along the beachfront.

But we were woken up early the next morning and we all had to meet in the foyer. We knew something was wrong, but we assumed that one of the team members had not returned from the night before. That was possible. We were shocked to learn the people with whom we had been travelling only the day before had been captured and were holed up somewhere in a cave in the wadi. That was all we knew. We were also told to telephone any important family and friends, to let them know we were OK. Of course, I telephoned my parents in New Zealand, and just as well I did, because news of the Yemen kidnapping came on the BBC about the same time.

We were told we were going to make a detour and spend a couple of extra days at the beach, accompanied by a couple of army cadets, who must have been only 15 or 16 years and were more frightened than we were. They were carrying klashnikovs too. So, we set off to the beach wondering what we were going to do next. On the beach, we set up a tent each and contemplated life.

I remember huddling round the radio- we didn't have smart phones then- and listening to what had happened to the others. We learned the tour group had been used as human shields and in a botched rescue attempt by the army, four tourists had been killed, three Britons and an Australian (out of 16) by an Islamic terrorist group.

We thought they thought they had captured Americans. They asked for passports but it was likely they didn't know the difference between different nationalities. Certainly, holding a New Zealand passport wouldn't have helped.

The terrorist who led the ambush, Abu Hamza Al Masri- a radical Muslim cleric born in Egypt and then went to the United States, who was in the United Kingdom, at Finsbury Park Mosque in North London. In 2012 he was extradited from the UK to the US. The terrorists, three I think, were captured and under trial were given death sentences. They were saved from execution by pleas for mercy by their victims' relatives, who didn't believe in the death penalty.

At the beach in a tent, we had to decide how we would best live. Should we travel alone? Should we travel in a group? We had to get to back to Sana'a because we had a flight booked in five days. What was the best way to do it? Should we change flights? Should we leave earlier and fly back to the UK if we could travel alone? As it happened, it wasn't possible to do that we could not get another flight out. There was only Yemen Air.

We travelled by convoy the next day, three land rovers, with a klashnikov next to the driver. I remember the army cadets ran away because they feared getting shot at as we crossed the mountainous, arid country where the kidnapping took place. There was absolute silence for 20 minutes or so, as we headed towards Sana'a, crossing where the kidnapping had taken place. It was probably the scariest 20 minutes of my life, not knowing whether you would live or die.

We arrived back to Sana'a, staying at the Movenpick, one of the best hotels in town. There were camera crew staying there too, as well as the survivors of the kidnapping and the botched rescue attempt two days before. That night, which happened to be New Years' Eve, was party time. We danced throughout the night, as much out of relief as wanting to have a good time. The survivors got the first plane out, the next day. We were a day later.

I arrived back to my house with so many messages on my answer phone. Everyone had heard about the kidnappings, and was relieved I was OK.

I read about a very different Yemen today. At that time, the civil war, between North and South Yemen, had ended and tour groups like ours had just started going back to the country. The men sat and chewed khat- the flowering bush that WHO has classified as a drug - while the women, who wore bright clothes, often red and orange with uncovered faces, did the work. Now, with the influence of Saudi Arabia, women wear black, their faces are covered, and they are more likely to be killed, or die of famine, than to be seen on the hilltops tilling crops.

The war between the Houthis and the Saudi-led coalition has raged for three years with no end in sight. An increasing number of people are dying everyday- the official figure stood at 10,000 2 years ago, and it still stands. The real figure, unconfirmed, is that the number of people killed is about 85,000. Millions are being denied food as the Saudi- coalition, which includes troops from the UAE, vie to take control of the government.

The problem will not be resolved quickly. But for those who could be killed any day, they will only be looking for the best way for themselves and their families to survive. Like I did.

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Wednesday, 12 December 2018