Friday, 3 July 2015

Heartbroken Yemen

These children are re-enacting a battle that took place in their neighbourhood, one boy arriving to fight with his friend but then falling down after being shot. Their school had been closed after their teacher, Uncle Mohammed, had been killed in a battle with the Houthis. Abdulmajid asks "If this is how kids play in their childhood, what do you expect of their future? They will grow into frustrated adults with no hope for peace."

I began tweeting for Yemen as the Saudi led coalition started their bombardment in March,  just over 3 months ago. I am strongly opposed to airstrikes, anywhere. I believe they lead to the loss of many innocent lives and always result in a worsening situation and escalation of conflict for those on the ground.

Whilst I felt I could comfortably oppose the bombing, believing there is always a better way forward than airstrikes, I felt I was not in a situation to tweet about the infighting within Yemen. I felt that as an 'outsider' with little understanding of the conflict within the country to begin with, it was not my place to do that - instead I retweeted voices in Yemen as much as possible. I did find however that some voices were expressing (understandable) hatred, and my aim is not to stoke further hatred but rather find a path to peace, so I avoided as much as I could any tweets that may have been seen as me 'taking sides' within Yemen itself - although by not siding against the Houthis it was perceived that I was aligned with the Houthis (which I am not) . I also chose not to tweet graphic photos of the dead, regardless of how they had been killed, either by airstrikes or shelling. Of course the evidence needs to be shown, but it is not my place to anger people even further.

Another thing I always try to do is to understand why people are doing what they are doing, even if their actions are clearly very wrong. This goes as far as even trying to understand why people join ISIS, for example. This is in no way justifying crimes that are being committed, but I believe solutions are found only through understanding the problem in the first place. I had heard much about how stupid and evil the Houthis were, but what I wanted to know is what is it that leads a person to pick up a gun and kill a fellow countryman? What had happened to the Houthis that they would kill their neighbours? What lies had they been told? This doesn't mean I support the Houthis or am looking to justify their actions, but I want to try and understand and I always try to promote understanding. I do however realise that for those people living through war, experiencing death of family members first hand, this is likely to cause upset. For sure if it was my family being killed, the last thing I would want to hear is someone trying to promote understanding of my enemy. But still, this is what I am about, and I must persist, because I believe it is the only path to peace.

Abdulmajid is one such person who has been living through Hell in Yemen, and his pain deserves to be heard. It would have been far too easy to block him and him me when we clearly expressed differing perspectives on Twitter, but thankfully we had a chat instead and he kindly took the time to explain to me his story. It left me with a much greater understanding of his suffering, and I thank him for that.

Abdulmajid agreed to me publishing what he told me, so at least people will know of the sacrifice made by his family to defend their land. Here is his story:

"In 2011, Houthis attacked Al Jouf city. My mother's family lives there. People there refused to let the Houthis take their land and properties. The people there are poor and Wallah (I swear) they haven't even been supplied with electricity since 1979. So the people decided to defend their land.  
When the Houthis attacked the city of Al Jouf they called anyone that stood against them Jews and Israelis. In this way they legalise their forces to destroy the houses of anyone who defends their city. They killed my older uncle Ahmed who left behind him 16 children. Just imagine who is going to take care of them? People decided to never give up no matter what they lose. 
Month after month, families lost so many of their fathers, brothers and sons, just because they chose to never be ruled by terrorists who called the civilian defenders 'Jews'. In the same way in which ISIS call their victims 'Kafer', Houthis called their victims 'Jews' and 'American agents'! 
People in Al Jouf started forming a unified resistance and my uncle was one of the leaders. They used to meet in the mud houses to discuss how to manage the battles. Every fighter was given 2 days off each week. One day the battle escalated; the Houthis had called on many forces and brought the 'death detachment' from their city Sada. The next day was time for my uncle's two day break so the leaders told him to prepare himself to return to his family during the night. Just as he was getting ready to leave his friend called to him and said "Ahmed, we are going to be killed", so he refused to go back home. He took his own gun and returned to the battlefield in order to protect his friend. The battle lasted two hours. His friend survived but my uncle did not. 
My mum has high blood pressure, diabetes and high cholesterol, so when she heard what had happened she fainted. I was so scared that I was going to lose both my mum and uncle on the same day. Alhamdulillah she survived, but she was crying all the week, she felt like she had lost everything worth living for. 
That was the most tragic day of my life, watching my mother, my brothers and sisters, my grandmother and cousins all crying, with broken hearts and pain that will never be forgotten. 
Just one week later another of my uncles was also killed. It was my younger uncle Jameel. He had promised that he would not return home until he had kicked the Houthis out of Al Jouf or else die like his brothers. Whilst he was standing with a young relative observing the Houthi forces, he was shot by a Houthi sniper through his heart and died. The younger relative who was standing with him was also severely wounded and lost his eyes. 
Three months later the Houthis returned to their city Sada and the battle came to an end.
Life was so tough then. It was time for Eid but no one showed any happiness. My mother refused to put on her eyeliner. She didn't show anything to suggest it was Eid, for her it was just another sad day the same as the day before. 
Almost two years later the Houthis attacked Al Jouf again. My uncles' family again participated in the resistance to defend their city. On the first day I lost one of my closest friends and relatives. He was my older uncle's son, his name is Abdulwahab. He was married with one child age 5 years old. When the people came to console his family they tried to comfort his son, telling him that his dad would be in Heaven because he was a hero. Since that day the boy says "I don't like Heaven because my father left us to go there. I hate Heaven.". Who will take care of him? Was his dad an Israeli like the ignorant terrorist Houthis say? They use any way that they can to justify their crimes. We have a saying in Yemen that "Houthis lie more than they breathe". 
The tragedy doesn't end there, I lost my Uncle Mohammed during the last Ramadan! He was also defending his land as his brothers and nephew were, in Al Jouf, but a different place. 
Al Jouf did remain free of Houthi forces until just four weeks ago when they overtook the city, but insha'Allah they will never enjoy living on our heroes' land. Many people had to leave their houses and sent their children to live in other cities where they had relatives. The orphans that my uncle left behind are suffering, they had to leave their mud houses and are now living far away in tents. They survive by borrowing money and only buy the most essential items to survive. 
My mother lives with my family in Marib which remained relatively safe, but now the Houthis are starting to attack there now too. My mum hasn't been the same since her brothers were killed. She used to smile and joke with us, but now she sits down all day, constantly reminding us of our uncles. 
Now I am a student in Dubai. I last saw my family 7 months ago. I usually visit them at the end of the term, but now I don't know if I will even see them again. I am alone here. I wish I was with my family. I can't do anything for them here. I would at least want to face the same destiny as them. I would rather die before I receive any more sad news about them."

Just one hour after talking to Abdulmajid, he received more sad news that he had been dreading from his family. Yet another family member had been killed just before Iftar. His response:

"I don't know what to say! I'm totally heartbroken. I called my brother and asked him what happened. Everything is going badly".

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