Yemenis stranded in Egypt yearn for return to war-torn country

Estimated to number nearly 10,000, the Yemeni community in Egypt remains divided over the political upheaval tearing their country apart. Yet they are also overwhelmingly united in the goal of returning to their country, homes and families left behind.

While many Yemeni refugees and asylum seekers fleeing their war-torn country dread returning, thousands of others — expat workers, students, businessmen, medical patients and tourists, among others — find themselves stranded in Egypt unable to go home or even communicate with their kin.

Over a month and half of Saudi-led aerial bombardments, coupled with local factions’ armed attacks and battles over Yemen’s strategic airports and seaports, have made travel to or from the country nearly impossible.

The destruction of electricity grids, civilian infrastructure and communication networks has also meant that staying in contact with loved ones or others in Yemen is a daunting task.

Video courtesy of Sarah Ishaq and Rawan Shaif.

Since the beginning of the Saudi-led “Operation Decisive Storm,” on March 25, throngs of Yemenis have been queuing outside their embassy in Cairo’s Dokki district demanding the right to return to their country.

“In these worrisome conditions, we demand to be reunited with our families, to assist in evacuating and relocating them to safer places in the country or abroad,” says Omar Rasheed, a Yemeni from Hodaida Governorate. “If we can’t get our families out of harm’s way, then at least we can live and die by their sides.”

In Hodaida, civilian targets have been recently bombed — as in many other parts of Yemen — including the international airport, factories, roads and other infrastructure.

Holding his eight-year-old son in his arm, Rasheed adds: “We’ve been calling on Yemeni and Egyptian authorities to send us back home via naval vessels, since the airports there are out of service.”

On May 5, dozens of Yemenis angered by the perceived lack of assistance from their embassy marched to Egypt’s Foreign Ministry, where officials reportedly pledged to assist them in returning home. This is despite the fact that Egypt closed its embassy in the Yemeni capital Sanaa and pulled out its diplomatic mission there on February 23 — owing to the deteriorating security condition.

Dressed in civilian attire, a senior Egyptian security official standing outside the Yemeni Embassy says: “Despite all the dangers involved, the foreign ministry is working with its counterpart in Yemen to resolve their problems and work out secure means to repatriate those who want to return.”

This official, who asks to remain anonymous because he is not authorized to speak to the media, adds: “The question is: How can we safely send civilians back into war zones to risk their lives and those of their dependents? We don’t want to contribute to a bigger humanitarian crisis. This is why the authorities are exploring all avenues to ease the suffering of the Yemen civilian population.”   

However, much of the Yemeni community is growing impatient with the embassy’s and the Egyptian foreign minister’s unresponsiveness.

“We’ve received pledges of assistance from our embassy and from the Egyptian Foreign Ministry, but not much more,” says Fathy al-Shuwaitar, a Yemeni PhD candidate at Cairo University’s School of Law.

Standing outside his embassy, he adds: “Many Yemeni students are stuck here. Our return tickets have expired since the airports back home have been bombed and rendered inaccessible.”

Shuwaitar says he encounters difficulties attempting to contact his family. “My hometown is suffering from a chronic shortage of electricity, and fuel for generators, along with other essential goods.”

Hailing from the Yemeni Governorate of Ibb, he says he hopes to return home via seaports, adding however that naval blockades and battles for their control are rendering them inaccessible also.

“We are also confronted with many bureaucratic obstacles — including the filing of new paperwork, along with procuring visas to neighboring states and other necessary documents,” he explains.

Yemenis are required to procure visas to enter any country in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) including neighboring Saudi Arabia and Oman. Such visas may take weeks or even months to receive.

A common but indirect route for Yemenis attempting to return home is via airports and seaports in Oman — the only GCC country not involved in bombing Yemen. A list of dates and times for transport to Oman are posted on the walls of Cairo’s Yemeni Embassy.

“If [President Abdel Fattah] al-Sisi was sincere in repatriating us, he could easily send us off on a big naval vessel to Yemen or Oman,” says Ahmed Abdi, a Yemeni expat worker from Taiz Governorate.

Abdi condemned Operations “Decisive Storm” and “Restoring Hope,” which commenced on April 22, describing them as “cowardly acts of terrorism against the impoverished Yemeni populace.”

“What hope are they aiming to restore by destroying our country and killing our people?” he asks.

Abdi adds that the nine Arab states involved in the Saudi-led coalition “claim to be fighting an expanding Iranian presence in the region, but there is not a single Iranian soldier operating in Yemen.”

On May 3, Egypt extended its military mission (aerial and naval operations) in Yemen for another three months — or until the Saudi-led operations end. 

The UN and human rights organizations also appear to be casting doubt on Yemen’s prospects. One of the world’s most impoverished countries even prior to the Saudi-led war, Yemen ranked 154 out of 187 on the human development index of the United Nation’s Development Program. Saudi Arabia ranked number 30 on the same list.

On May 9, the UN’s Humanitarian Coordinator for Yemen declared that Saudi-led airstrikes on Yemen are indiscriminate and in breach of international humanitarian law.

According to UN estimates, since late March the conflict in Yemen has resulted over in 1,400 deaths (up to half of which are civilian non-combatants), the internal displacement of some 300,000 civilians, and critical shortages of fuel, food, drinking water, medicine and other essential supplies.

Moreover, Human Rights Watch (HRW) reported that the Saudi Air Force has used banned American-made cluster bomb munitions, which could have a negative long-term effect on Yemen’s future development in the form of unexploded ordinances.           

The Houthi rebels, who took over the state in September 2014, have also been accused of war crimes against civilians. HRW reported they are responsible for killing and detaining civilian non-combatants and aid workers.

“The Saudis and other GCC members are our brothers from the Arabian Peninsula with whom we have a shared border, history, language, religious beliefs and customs. We are all Sunni Muslim Arabs,” says Mohamed Abdel Jawwad, a Yemeni medical student at Cairo University. “However, Iran is seeking to expand its influence throughout the region with the aim of establishing a Shiite crescent.”

“The Houthis killed my brother last month in his home, as they were shelling residential districts of Aden,” he shouts. He was not able to return to attend the funeral.

“The Houthis are coup-leaders, mercenaries and agents fighting for Iran’s expansionistic interests, plus they are allied to loyalists of [ousted President] Ali Abdallah Saleh, who has been attempting to destabilize Yemen since his ouster,” adds Abdel Jawwad.

Rasheed says he trusts that his Arab brothers will liberate Yemen from the “traitors.” He also expresses faith in Sisi, describing Egypt as the fortress of Arab unity.

“Together we will rebuild Yemen,” he says.

Adel Mahmoud, a worker at a Yemeni restaurant in Dokki, comments: “I have faith that the Arab coalition will restore Abd-Rabbuh Mansour Hadi, as he is Yemen’s legitimate and democratically elected president.”

Hadi was vice-president under Saleh, his predecessor. Saleh had agreed to pass his authority on to Hadi in light of a GCC deal for transfer of political power signed in Saudi Arabia on November 23, 2011.

When questioned as to whether the referendum on Hadi — the only candidate nominated in February 2012 — qualifies as a democratic election, Mahmoud backtracks: “He is at least elected, unlike the Houthis who seized power in an armed coup.”

Yasser Nussair, standing nearby outside Yemen’s embassy, says that Hadi’s two-year presidential mandate expired in early 2014, “So he is no longer Yemen’s legitimate president. He is an illegitimate ruler propped-up by Arab Gulf monarchies.”  

He adds that Hadi is “the worst ruler that Yemen has ever had, and likely the most abominable of God’s creatures as he has brought death and destruction to our homes.”                  

Despite their polar differences, Nussair and Rasheed agree that the war in Yemen only serves to keep them and countless others apart from their homes and families.

“We want this bloody war to end so we can again be united with our families,” Nussair comments. “We Yemenis need to stopping fighting and start talking if we want to resolve our differences and save our country.”

Rasheed concludes: “War is not the solution to any of our problems, only a step in the direction of peaceful negotiations. We can only resolve this conflict through a national dialogue of Yemen’s loyal sons.”

Rasheed pins his hopes on Yemeni peace talks, proposed to commence on May 17.

Jano Charbel 

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