Escaping war: Yemen's forgotten refugees balance life and death
When airstrikes began pounding Yemeni soil, few expected them to continue for more than 13 months – and counting. "I never imagined it would last for this long," Riyam Ali said, a 22-year-old British Yemeni who has lived in Aden all her life.
Riyam was in the comfort of her home when she heard the first sounds of war. Gunshot rounds, young men chanting, cars swerving and finally, a bomb that destroyed the building next door. A deafening silence followed as the factory went up in flames. Time froze. Heart beats pumped in slow motion. Thoughts went blank.
The next few days would throw Riyam and her family through experiences about which they had never dreamt. The family had a pretty average lifestyle in the coastal city; school, university, trips to the beach, a walk around the mall and sleep-overs with the girls. But on 5 April 2015 – almost a month after a Saudi-led coalition declared war on the Houthi rebels – they were forced to make a life or death decision.
"It was around 12:00am when we started hearing our neighbours screaming our names from outside," she told The New Arab. "We just took our essential documents and left the house, we thought our home would catch fire too… We spent the night with relatives but my father said it wouldn't be safe to go back home."
Rumours quickly spread on ships preparing to dock at the local port to help residents flee the conflict. For the family of Britons, the news was both a relief and a burden. "We headed towards the port the next morning where we said goodbye to our father," she said. He is the only member of the family who doesn't hold British citizenship. "We didn't know when – or if – we would see him again, that wasn’t easy."
'Seeking refuge in my own city' To date, more than 6,400 people have been killed in the Saudi-led war against the Houthi rebels, but millions more have been forced to flee their homes in an attempt to save their lives. Although a few were lucky enough to venture out of the nation's borders, most Yemenis could only travel from city to city or from area to area.
Mariam, another young Aden resident, was one of these people.
"When the clashes escalated we packed our bags and went to my sister's home in al-Mansoora," she said, referring to an area just ten minutes away from where she lived.
"The entire street was like a ghost-town, everyone left Khormaksar, we just couldn't stay any longer. We had to leave our own homes to go elsewhere, we were refugees in our home city."
In September last year, hundreds of Houthis, backed by former president Ali Abdullah Saleh, stormed the capital in what many describe as a coup d'etat. Even the government, headed by Saleh's former deputy, was forced to evacuate to a safer part of the country. Aden, established as the temporary capital of the internationally recognised government of Yemen, became the latest theatre of conflict. Houthi boots marched into the otherwise-calm coastal city and local resistance groups were forced to take up arms.
International media zoomed in on scenes of clashes across the entire city that left hundreds of young locals dead as they battled to protect Aden.
But behind the camera, families were stocking up on the little food they could get their hands on; others were packing prised possessions into bags, mothers were gathering their children as men attempted to soak up as much petrol as possible from the local stations as explosions rocked every direction. Sailing into the horizon
"Because of the constant bombings and explosions it wasn't safe for the ship to enter the port or for the small boats to sail out to the ship," Riyam recalled.
"We had to stay at the port overnight just in case there was a moment of calm that would allow us to quickly board, but at 2:00am, an explosion shook the old building we were in and again, we had to go find somewhere safer."
By 7:00am, Riyam and her family were on a small boat heading out towards a ship used to transfer petroleum. Several boats carrying large group of Russians, Americans and Indians had gone back and forth to transfer people from the conflict-ridden land to what seemed to be the only portal to safety.
"We waited on the ship for eight hours before it started moving," she said.
"There were no cabins and no roof to protect us from the sun, nothing. We sat on the rusty floor until we arrived in Djibouti 24 hours later."
I never realised how much I loved my city until I came back
North of Yemen is Saudi Arabia, the nation leading the war. Towards the east is Oman, a country deemed to be the regional mediator between warring factions. To the west is the Red Sea, which eventually ends in Egypt – all of which are dead end options for refugees attempting to flee Yemen.
In fact, travelling south towards the Horn of Africa is the only option for Yemenis escaping war, with Djibouti being the only neighbouring country accepting them.
Djibouti – a relatively stable country on the Horn – prepared itself for an influx of more than 30,000 Yemenis seeking refuge, most of which have ended up in makeshift tents at the Markazi Camp.
Many refugees are traumatised upon arrival, Abdul Rahman Mnawar, community services officer at the camp confirms. One of the most urgent issues is providing counselling and emotional support.
Amenities and services provided are shared out between the thousands of people at the camp, while the unbearable heat forces many to sleep outside of the tents. Those who can do so have been allowed to enter the capital city to attempt to start a new life, find employment and a more appropriate place to live. The comforts of home
Others have returned to face the drums of war in Aden and other parts of Yemen, where they say life is more bearable, despite the ongoing chaos as the coalition forces continue their aerial bombing campaign up above.
For Riyam, even returning to Yemen after five months in comfortable Britain was a relief.
"We were lucky to be able to spend our time away in a place like the UK – but it was just never home," she said. "I would break down into tears and be constantly frustrated due to the homesickness. When we finally got back to Yemen in September 2015, it felt like my heart had started beating again," she added.
"I never realised how much I loved my city until I came back, I felt like I was finally home, safe, relieved."
Thirteen months into the conflict, Yemen's warring factions have finally taken steps towards peace with meetings being held in Kuwait. Members of the internationally recognised government, as well as opposing Houthi rebels arrived in the Gulf state last Thursday to work towards identifying a resolution to a conflict that has both wrecked the lives of millions and taken thousands of others.