The War in Yemen is Worse Than you Thought

Warning: Links in this post contain disturbing pictures. Click at your own risk. 
“My cousin’s husband is in prison. He’s an imam and one day, after the prayer, he told people to avoid certain neighbourhoods because they were dangerous. The police came and took him away to prison. You know Kate, we was not allowed to visit, but one day they were telling us that we can visit. So my wife make some food and we go to the prison, but they told us to come back the next day. So we went back the next day, and they told us again to come back the next day. We didn’t go back, because we knew they were lying. Maybe they moved him or something – I don’t know. Or maybe they were doing the thing, you know Kate, with the electric wire, you know put the electric wire on the foot and BLLZZHRT…”

This was one of the earlier conversations I had with Hussein. The political situation in Yemen has always been a thread that runs through our discussions. Hussein brings it up like it’s the most normal thing in the world, before segueing on to other topics that are actually normal or maybe (like camel jumping) just a little bit weird.

In our last conversation, he said, “You know Kate, things in Yemen is not so good right now.” He paused. This was the first time he’d said anything like this; he’d mentioned the war before, how his children cry during the bombings and how it’s impossible to go to Saudi Arabia to see relatives now, but always with a sort of incongruous cheerfulness. (Bedouin people traditionally roamed all throughout the desert between Saudi Arabia and Yemen. Hussein was even born in Saudi Arabia, but ultimately ended up with Yemeni citizenship while many of his close family members became Saudi Arabians).

That day, Hussein’s cheerful demeanor seemed to have dimmed. The pause lasted for a few seconds as he shook his head.

“But Kate!” he said, recovering himself “You know, I have neighbour and he is a Jewish. You know, Kate, there is no problem Muslim Jewish in Sanaa. No problem! Usually the Muslims are loving the Jewish and the Jewish are loving the Muslims. But the Jewish, you know they have a very old Torah. And there were some Muslims – not all Muslims, bad Muslims – they were trying to burn the Torah of the Jewish. So the Jewish, they wanted to bring the Torah to Israel. And –,” he looked gleeful, “I helped them!”

Hussein works at the airport. I won’t give any more details because he’s asked that I don’t reveal his identity (as before, his name and a few other identifying details have been changed.) However, having access to the airport in Sanaa gives one a big advantage: namely, you can find ways to transport things in and out of Yemen. It’s not a privilege that many Yemenis have and it’s a privilege that seems to have kept Hussein and his family in good shape even while malnutrition and poverty ravage the country at rates that, by some estimates, are twice as high as they were before the war.

“So yes, Kate” Hussein continued, “My neighbour – the Jewish – he said he would pay me but I didn’t take any money. I said I only needed the money to bribe the baggage handler! So I gave the baggage handler 500 USD and then pointed out which bag he shouldn’t check and then they got the bag to Jordan. I said that I couldn’t help them after Jordan, but they said it was fine. The Israel embassy would pick it up! So in Jordan, the Israeli embassy picked it up, and there are even some pictures of the Israeli prime minister reading the Torah!”

He sent me a few photos.

One of the pictures he sent. Source appears to be Breaking Israel News.

One of the pictures he sent. Source appears to be Breaking Israel News.

“Could the baggage handler see what was in the bag?” I asked. “He knew it wasn’t a bomb or something?”
“Yes, of course. He knew it is not bomb. Anyway, Yemen doesn’t have a real government really, so no problem. No problem!”

I made a mental note to myself that flying in or out of Yemen was to be done at my own risk. Not that that wasn’t already kind of obvious.

“Anyway, it was good to take it out of Yemen because it would be bad to burn it.” Hussein continued, “And then after, all of the people who worked on the plane or who could have maybe smuggled the thing were taken to the police station. And they asked us if we knew anything and I said no. They let me go. Anyway, the man who asked me to help him – he is safe in Israel now so they can’t get him.”

“Also Kate,” he said, “I just found out that my wife is – you know what is the thing when you have a baby?”


“Yes! Pregnant. She is pregnant. She is starting to have some, you know, sickness. So she went to the doctor and the doctor said she is pregnant.”

Immediately after we hung up, I googled the Torah only to learn that most of the remaining Jews in Yemen had made Aliyah to Israel around the same time, and that it was widely reported in the Jewish press that at least one or two people had gone to prison over the smuggling of the scroll. I didn’t see Hussein pop up on Skype the whole week, and started to worry. Had he been called back into the police station for a course of electric shock torture? Had his house been damaged and family crushed in airstrikes?

I sent him a message on Skype. There was no answer.

Two days later I sent him an e-mail and got a response. “Thank you Kate, we are fine. We can talk tomorrow, if you have time.”

He rang me the next day, back to his normal jovial self. “I have a question for you Kate. You know, in Islam we are praying five times a day. In Christianity, what is the prayer schedule?”

I stumbled through an explanation of how it was basically different for everybody and that the many Christian denominations are quite diverse.

“Oh yes Kate! I am loving this word “diversity.” Thank you for teaching it to me! So you know, Kate, in Islam we have to pray five times per day. But you know, that is a lot. And you have to get up very early. Sometimes I do it … like once in one day. And sometimes just once a week! One time I asked a cleric man about this and he said that I had to pray five times per day. So I told him, ‘well, it is easy for you! You are cleric man. This is your job and you get paid for it. But me, I am busy!’ The cleric man, you know – well, he is a cleric – and he told me that maybe I would go to hell. But I don’t think that God would do that. He knows who is a good person and who isn’t a good person.”

The conversation turned to Hussein’s other main vice, alcohol. “Okay, you know Kate,” said Hussein, “alcohol, it is not allowed in Islam. But you know, the reason it is not allowed is because maybe if you get drunk you will get angry and kill someone! I think this is kind of wrong because I don’t get angry, I get calm. Also Kate, whenever I am speaking English and I have drunk two or three beers, I am so good at speaking English! I am not even nervous. What about you? When you talk to people like me and correct them, I am not sure how you are patient. Maybe if you had a drink before you would be even more calm?”

Before leaving, Hussein showed me a few bottles of olive oil from Jordan that he’d sourced through his aerial shipping networks. “Look Kate, these are some olive oil. I bought them for my neighbours because they are poor.”

Very little has been written in the media about Yemen, though since I started talking to Hussein I’ve tried to stay abreast of the conflict. Food insecurity was one theme of the week; photographs of a starving five month old baby, skin stretched tight over tiny bones like a sick parody of an 80 year old man, lying in a Yemeni hospital before his death were plastered across one article, which stated that an estimated 1.3 million children are suffering from malnutrition in Yemen and that 10 of Yemen’s provinces are one classification away from “famine.” Not only that, malnutrition rates have apparently doubled since last year, largely due to a Saudi-led naval embargo.

Another article this week: “Responsibility when it suits us,” (original article in French, all translations by me.) The article is about Canada’s foreign affairs policy and essentially states that the official position of the Canadian government is that, while we care about the human rights of our citizens, that shouldn’t prevent us from engaging with countries that don’t. Many of these countries are major global actors, and it would be irresponsible to ignore them.
According to Stéphane Dion, it would be irresponsible to break a contract that we have to sell light armoured vehicles to Saudi Arabia because they are not respecting human rights in Yemen. To wit, Saudi Arabia is not simply targeting military targets, but has also bombed civilian neighbourhoods in Sanaa.
I got angrier and angrier as I read through the article. Apparently, refusing to sell LAVs to Saudi Arabia could result in thousands of lost jobs and a loss to Canada’s credibility. That’s right – Canada might be perceived as a commercial partner incapable of keeping their word for refusing to sell arms to a country engaging in what are recognized by the UN as war crimes.

I told Hussein about it. “I’m really ashamed to say this,” I said, “but Canada sells weapons to Saudi Arabia.”

Hussein did not react the way I expected. “Kate! You know, this is just business! No problem! Just business!” An emphatic denial of what I consider distinctly unethical. Sure, having trade relations with Saudi Arabia might be okay if we were selling wheat or something, but selling weapons that would likely be used to perpetuate human rights abuses? Hussein didn’t agree with me, but that did not change my opinion.

As Canadians, we are not just responsible when it suits us. In the face of over a million malnourished children, I daresay that Canada can lose 3000 jobs. Of course I recognize that Saudi Arabia is not the only actor in the war, but their entry into the conflict appears to have caused more problems than it’s solved.

Hussein wasn’t done talking about bringing things across borders. “You know Kate,” he said, “in Yemen, we have the qat – you know, it is a drug and it is getting us high. But it is illegal in other countries. If you want to bring some to other countries you have to make it very dry and put it in teabags. Then they will look at it when you get to the other country and they will think, ‘this is only tea!’

Paper giving an allure of legitimacy to a harmful substance. It seemed a darkly amusing metaphor for Canada’s contract with Saudi Arabia, but maybe that was just me.

If you’re Canadian, letters protesting this can be addressed to

The Honorable Stéphane Dion
House of Commons
Ottawa, Ontario
K1A 0A6

Postage is not required. Simply drop your letter in the nearest post box.

**By the way, if you’re American or French you sell even more arms to Saudi Arabia than Canadians. Please feel free to write to your appropriate representatives to protest your involvement.

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  1. Paul says:

    Brilliant piece.


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