On the road: from Sana'a to Hajjah

I’ll never forget this moment. It would be hard to imagine a better welcome to a place where I’ll be spending the next six months. You don’t get a second chance to make a good first impression.

You never get a second chance to make a good first impression ... I was careful to take the cheeses that I brought from Montreal out of the refrigerator and place them beside my bag in the trunk of our Toyota Hilux. It seems that this is the type of attentiveness that instantly fills the hearts of expats with joy, after they’ve spent months spreading the laughing cow substitute or local feta on a small piece of round bread.

I ask Bea if she prefers the front or the back for the three-hour trip from Sana’a to Hajjah. “The security protocol requires that the person with the highest level of responsibility sit next to the driver in order to be able to better monitor the road and be able to intervene quickly, when needed,” she replies. It appears that Bea outranks me. So I take my place behind her and our driver makes sure that I buckle up before he turns the key to start the engine.

Beatriz had arrived in Sana’a a week previously for her R&R time. This was the perfect opportunity for us to get to know one another. Originally from Spain, with a finely featured face and a very thick accent, she is a woman of natural authority, endowed with unparalleled energy. She tells me about her work experience in the humanitarian field, following a career in marketing. She has a long history of involvement with the International Red Cross, notably in Haiti in 2012 (following the earthquakes of 2010) and in Niger (with projects involving sexual health, menstrual hygiene, malnutrition and sanitation - WASH). She then joined Médecins du monde, spending two years in Burkina Faso dealing with issues surrounding female genital mutilation, malnutrition and conjugal violence. Following her 16-month mission with MSF in the Central African Republic, she has been in Hajjah since January, acting as a FieldCo, Project Coordinator. The stories she tells with passion and humour are full of the lessons she has learned and are routinely punctuated with numerous utterances of ostias, which remind me of the ostie that we hear in Quebec so frequently. Bea likes to share her knowledge in the form of coaching and it’s a bargain for a “1st missioner” such as myself. With me and all my many questions, the gaps in our conversations are as rare as snowflakes in Vietnam.  

For the authorities, control of their territory is the key element in the puzzle that is a country at war. We set off at 7:50 a.m. On the dashboard there are at least a dozen photocopies of the travel permit, and these will be given out at checkpoints along the road. Each one represents a hurdle that we will have to cross, however difficult, before we get to the expected finish line in Hajjah. We are warned that the first one, just as we leave Sana’a, will be a critical one. The level of nervousness goes up a notch as we approach the checkpoint and it is here that I can barely make out, in the distance, the limits to my comfort zone, which I just left. Even with our official pass, it seems that you can never be sure of anything when it comes to dealing with the Yemeni authorities, and even less so when Covid adds ever-tightening restrictions on travel between governorates. “A Salam Alaykum,” barks the soldier in the black and blue military uniform at our driver through the partially open window. “Wa-Alaykum Salam,” we respond almost in harmony, in a Franco-Spanish cacophony. The driver hands over the all-important ticket, along with our passports. “He’s going to check our documents,” advises the driver, who is now also our translator for the time being. After some thirty long minutes which sees the soldier making endless telephone calls, I tell myself that if we aren’t allowed through, this may perhaps be the ultimate indication that we have to admit it: that Hajjah doesn’t want to see me! He finally comes back and I understand that we now have the green light. The driver sends this information back to our radio operator, who is responsible for tracking our movements remotely, as per the security protocols, which he will be doing for each of the next checkpoints. “Yallah!” he shouts out. “Yallah!” we respond with a joy that comes with being freed.

I don’t need anything to keep my eyelids propped up during the ride. Departing Sana’a, we cross through the arid mountainous country and villages of varying sizes as we approach the country’s northern border. At each village, there is a tiny, bustling market, where various fruits and vegetables are sold at the roadside, but these are not as popular as the stalls selling khat, the locally popular leaves that a very large portion of people chew on, beginning in the early afternoon. I’ll get back to that later. As I observe the people attentively, I find some of the details surprising.

It seems that only the men are actually allowed to shop, and some are even carrying Kalachnikovs strapped over their shoulders, like shopping bags. It’s not surprising, given that Yemen has one of the highest per-capita rates of gun ownership in the world. Now used to seeing them everywhere, my eyes are starting to adjust to the reality of the surroundings.  The connection among men is remarkable, as they often hug, and sometimes even hold hands. Their clothes are remarkably elegant. Suit jackets, thoobs (a unique item of clothing, most often white, consisting of a shirt and a type of long skirt that goes down to the ankles), and open sandals. And a woven scarf meticulously wound around the hair or simply draped over the shoulders, one of which I bought on a visit to a merchant in the house at Sana’a. Then there’s the gold belt they wear around the waist, proudly displaying the jambiya, the traditional long dagger in its colourful sheath. The further we get from Sana’a the more often we observe women dressed in the niqab, which are mostly black in colour; this is the type of clothing that covers their entire body from head to toe, with only their eyes and hands being distinguishable. It is not uncommon to see them working in the khat plantations on the terraced portions of the mountains, with baskets on their heads, accompanied by their children and a herd of skinny goats.

The rules of the road appear to be non-existent, just as there are no limits to the number of people allowed on motorcycles or in the trunks of the Hiluxes. The Japanese manufacturer has clearly cornered the market for pick-ups here. Kids compete to see who will get to touch the hand of the youngest driver, and I come to realize why road accidents account for one of the major reasons for admission to my future hospital. But Bea tells me that there is less traffic than usual because regulations on restricting movement are just now starting to come into force. But that doesn’t prevent us from travelling at lower speeds in one of the villages, because there are pedestrians almost constantly around the car. Suddenly, there is a tap on my window. I look directly into the face of a little girl, probably about five years old, with piercing dark brown eyes and mid-length black hair. She shouts out words in her own language that I don’t understand, but her outstretched hand, along with her words, leave no doubt as to what she wants. I can’t maintain my glance. I swallow hard. The little girl keeps on trying her luck all around the car for 300 metres, trying again and again, her cries contrasting with the emotional silence inside the car. And I let my thoughts wander, asking myself what sort of future one can look forward to when one has known nothing but war since taking their first breath.

“Look, this viewpoint used to be a must stop for tourists,” Bea tells me suddenly in the middle of one of our lengthy discussions. I have no problem imagining large numbers of cars stopped on the ledge to take in the breathtaking mountain panorama from behind the safety of the railing.

It saddens me to know that the world is now cut off from these marvels, at a time when the Yemeni economy has been deprived of the revenues it used to see from the hoards of curious tourists.

The sides of the lookout have long since been plastered with the logos and slogans of the Houti factions that control large portions of the Northern Territory. The further along we go, the more we see evidence of their presence--on posters, paintings, and pictures of soldier heroes who gave their lives in defence of the cause.

“And there’s Hajjah!” shouts Bea, happy to catch a glimpse of her “bubble” as she often likes to call it, pointing out the town visible among the mountains that we will soon be climbing. “There’s the isolation centre that is planned for use in managing the Covid epidemic, if needed,” she tells me as we pass by an abandoned school. As we near the finish line, I discover an amazing city, built literally into the side of the mountains. There are a lot of small merchants, and large numbers of pedestrians snaking their way among the motorcycles and cars bogged down in traffic, all against a constant background of honking horns. Life here, it seems, continues non-stop. The buildings, with their architecture representative of an era, are superimposed, one on top of the other, in typical fashion. I am now able to better understand the reasons for the large number of injured who are brought to the hospital as a result of falls, in addition to the wounded soldiers brought back from the front lines.

As we arrive in front of the hospital, I am fluctuating back and forth between excitement and trepidation. I had been so much looking forward to this moment. Obviously, it doesn’t look anything like what I had pictured in my mind. Our driver greets the guards at the main entrance, which serves as a signal for them to manually open the large green sliding gate. “Hey, our logo isn’t showing at the entrance,” I blurt out in astonishment. “That’s because this isn’t an MSF hospital, we’re only here to support operations, remember. I’ll explain it to you later in detail,” Bea replies. Our Hilux arrives in the hospital’s inner courtyard. “There’s our offices!” Yes, this time, the logo is fully evident as I glance toward my left. After a slight amount of manoeuvring, we come to a stop. I get out of the car and go around the front of it.

And ... there they all are. They have come out to meet me, introducing themselves, one after another: there’s Anwar, Ibrahim, Omar, Aida, Abdulkarim, Shirley, Bruno, Ekaterine, Jairam...and all the rest. They greet me with words and with broad smiles, some even offering a hug. The names on the org chart now all have faces!

I’ll never forget this moment. It would be hard to imagine a better welcome to a place where I’ll be spending the next six months. You don’t get a second chance to make a good first impression.