Since my recent return from Yemen after an Amnesty International research visit there – my first – people keep asking me for my impressions of the country.
My answer, in short, is that I was overwhelmingly moved by the people, in particular the many traumatized families we met who had reached the capital after gruelling journeys to escape conflict in the north.
They had fled months of aerial bombardments of their villages in the Sa’dah region by Yemeni and Saudi Arabian planes, bombardments that went largely unreported outside the region.
One group stands out. Sitting in a stuffy, dusty room, surrounded by their children and elderly relatives, many with hacking coughs, all gaunt, two women described the flight of their families from Sa’dah over several mountains to safety.
This was no “Sound of Music” experience. For two weeks they ate nothing, surviving on water and coffee. During the other long months on the road they ate weeds, or tomatoes ground onto dried bread they had brought from home. Occasionally, villagers would give them handfuls of flour.
Their journey was not without casualties. A baby born on the roadside hours after a particularly intense bombing survived only hours. Another died a week after birth. One boy had been left deaf by a bombardment. A girl, her skin and eyes yellow from sickness, sat in a corner rigid and mute with fear.
So why did they flee? One of the women explained:
“The bombardment was day and night, worse than the world wars. Everything was bombed, houses, markets, bridges… The sickness in children started in Dhu al-Hijjah [Muslim month which lasted from around 18 November to 17 December in 2009]. People said it was measles but it was not like measles. Children suffered temperature, they lost consciousness, some regained consciousness, then they started bleeding from the mouth, eyes, nose and ears and then they died, some after a week or so.”
These people were far from the only Yemenis who moved me. There were the children on most street corners of Sana’a who have to beg or sell chewing gum to survive ¬– well over half of all children in Yemen are malnourished.
And the women we spoke to, most wearing face veils, who defy expectations and often their culture to fight for their cause or justice for their relatives.
And the passionate lawyers, journalists and human rights defenders who will not let intimidation stop their work.
And the many people who put themselves at risk to tell us about abuses – the woman who described how soldiers had raided their house just days earlier and shot dead her husband in front of their children; the two angry men who became bashful when showing us wounds sustained when they were shot during peaceful demonstrations; the trembling fathers and mothers who explained how their sons had disappeared after arrest, or had been tortured, or were going hungry in jail.
In fact, virtually all the people we met had a spirit of generosity that shone out whatever the context, including the state officials who were not always delivering a message we wanted to hear!