It’s already hot at 7:30 a.m. when we get into the minivan headed for the small airport in the Horn of Africa city of Djibouti. I’m surrounded by MSF colleagues, whom I met the night before at the guesthouse where I stayed for two nights. Sleep didn’t come easily those two nights, what with the time difference and the overall excitement preventing me from dropping off like I had wanted. Djibouti is a hub for most of the expats from or headed to Yemen on the small plane that shuttles back and forth to Sana’a, the capital, and also to Aden, the port city in the extreme south, where we have a number of projects. I need to go to Djibouti so that I can get my visa for the southern part of Yemen. The visa for there can be gotten much faster than one for the north, because of the recent attack. But also to see the smiles and experience the warmth of the locals, where you’re always greeted with a “hello” walking about with Canadian and Spanish colleagues to sample the excellent local cuisine inspired by their Ethiopian neighbours.
After 15 minutes in the small waiting room, where we appear to be the only travellers, the stewardess shouts “MSF!” and we descend the few steps to the tarmac. We pass a group of men in suits lined up in front of the cameras near the white tent that I had gone through two days earlier on my arrival to have my temperature quickly taken. I say to myself that the coronavirus obviously has all its papers in order, allowing it to travel so quickly. And then I see it, just a few metres away, and it was then that I realized why we’re only allowed 20 kilos for baggage, including cabin items. Our little aircraft is there, waiting for us, proudly displaying the red and white logo. As if to remind myself of my aeronautical background, I ask the pilot the model of the aircraft. This little, 16-seat Beechcraft 1900D, with two rows of seats sits there, ready to make the short 1.5-hour hop across the Red Sea to Sana’a. Feeling like I’m in a mock-up of a small plane cabin, I peer out the window as we take off, and start listening to Jean-Michel Blais on my headphones before I close my eyes. I’m feeling a sense of calm. We’re off.
My heart begins to beat faster as we approach the airport once the curtains open. I have a front-row seat to a sadly all-too-real spectacle. The buildings, some of which are charred, have been destroyed, and I am able to see into the empty hangars because the roofs and windows have been blown off. What is even more striking are the burnt-out frames of civilian and military aircraft that have literally been chopped in two, lying lifeless and looking like they are waiting in vain to be evacuated. This is a strange welcome to what looks to be an open museum, a vestige of war. The aircraft comes to a stop not far from a number of buildings still left standing. My female colleagues don their abayas, the black garment they use to cover themselves from top to bottom, and their hijabs, the scarf they use to cover their hair. As we disembark from the plane, I’m surprised at how much more temperate the weather is than it was in Djibouti and I’m told that Sanaa is situated at an altitude of 2,300 metres.
Because the airport is only open to aircraft from MSF, the International Red Cross and the UN, the line-up for immigration is not long. An immigration officer takes my passport and says to wait. I take the opportunity to sit down and observe the surroundings: ceiling tiles that have been shattered, a clock with its hands frozen in time, and an old ad for the Mercure Hotel, which appears to be competing with its neighbours in a contest to see which one is the dustiest. It’s at this point that Nasser comes and introduces himself to me in a very friendly tone, and in perfect English: “Thomas? How are you?” He’s part of the MSF HR team and is a liaison officer responsible for facilitating relations with the local authorities, specifically with regard to visas. He is accompanied by an Immigration Officer who asks me some questions and then clears me 20 minutes later, my passport and dual visa in hand. What a relief! I get into the back of the Toyota Hilux with the MSF logo on the top after greeting our driver. On the 25-minute trip to the offices and expat houses, which are separated by a single lane, I discuss a few things with Nasser. He undertakes the first act of Yemeni hospitality, something that I had heard so much about. In response to my first question as to whether he likes working for MSF, he replies without batting an eye: “It’s a matter of pride, because one really feels that they are making a difference in the field, after all these problem-plagued years.”
Introduction to the field's context
The offices, which are quite spacious, are shared with teams from MSF OCA (Operational Center Amsterdam). They house all departments supporting the various projects, including the project I will be going to in Hajjah. I do the rounds of the teams with Yaka, an Ivorian with a broad smile, who is my HRCO (HR Coordinator) and has been on the mission for a year. “We’re happy to finally have you with us,” says Caroline, the only French national, who has been the Head of Mission for the past year and a half. The purpose of going around to the various coordination teams is to receive briefings on how the mission operates. This is very reassuring and gives you a greater feeling of trust. I spend time with the officials in charge of the various departments—Finance, HR, obviously, Medical, Logistics (where I am given a very thorough security briefing) and Supply Chain. During the very interesting cultural briefing with Marwan, advisor to the Head of Mission, I turn down the cuffs of my pants that had been rolled up to the calf after I was informed that this practice is the same as one used by a certain religious group. In theory, the stopover here is supposed to be for two days, but I quickly learn that it’s going to be different for me. Since COVID-19 has also decided to join the party, I find out the next day that I will have to stay here for at least 14 days.
I’m spending 95 percent of my time at Sana’a in the house. The house is located in the diplomatic quarter, and MSF came to be here several years ago, at a time when diplomats were leaving - a consequence of the crisis. It’s a three-storey house with an incalculable number of rooms that houses expats coming and going from the country, as well as those coming here for their R&R (Rest & Recovery) time, a practice that is being used recently to allow breathing room away from the intense pace of life in the projects. This is a way for workers to relearn how to walk after being so used to running.
On the roof, I see the huge MSF logo, along with its Arab translation, heralding our presence. “I can assure you that our security strategy is not based solely on this logo!” Roger tells me, laughing. He knows what he’s talking about. He’s from Catalan. In his late thirties. He is the head of emergency operations at the mission and assistant Chef de Mission. This is his second tour in Yemen. On the first one, in 2016, he was instrumental in helping to reopen our hospital in ABS, in the northern part of the governorate of Hajjah. The area had been bombed intentionally—actions that have been denounced publicly. With an energy that is quite incredible and rarely shaken, his natural leadership abilities are reassuring, and I like his ability to downplay a situation with humour, which is so important. And also he was the only familiar face I saw when I arrived here because he was one of the speakers at the PPDs in Barcelona!
As for the five percent of the time that I am allowed out, Roger suggested that I go and see the old city in the one and a half hours I am allowed. I didn’t hesitate very long.
This was an opportunity to convert into pictures what I had read in the books and articles I had seen prior to the mission.
The trip takes fifteen minutes. My eyes take in everything in the city and what life is like there. Sana’a is built on a strange plateau surrounded by mountains that give it an unnatural beauty. Our route is chosen with care, as the driver lets us off. We meet up with Abdullah, our accountant in charge, who is very familiar with the old city for having grown up here and he is happy to be able to show us around. It doesn’t take long to understand why. I see a city the likes of which I have only rarely ever seen before. From the rooftop of one of the only hotels still open, I see a marvel of ancient architecture reminiscent of the tales of the thousand and one nights.
Light- beige-coloured houses, windows adorned with intricate geometric designs, meticulously sculpted fringes around the flat roofs, and strangely beautiful mosques visible in the distance, with mountains in the background. “There, a shell just exploded,” Abdullah calmly explains, as I follow where he is pointing off in the distance. Fortunately, there is only a small number of these still left in the old city. Walking through one of the city’s oldest markets, I see a great deal of activity in the narrow streets lined with merchants of all kinds. Despite all the unimaginable tragedies they’ve experienced, an economy that is struggling badly, and a health-care system that is on its knees, I see that in spite of everything, life goes on.
Five days after my arrival, I receive my laptop from Hajjah. Now I can finally dive deeper into the business of my project. I read all the policies, I scan the budget, I read through emails, and I am in contact with the people on-site. Saddam, who is normally based in Sana’a and who is filling in for me, is preparing a very good handover plan with a high level of detail and professionalism. "I will always be in contact if you need anything,” he tells me on one of my calls.
My time in Sana’a will have made it possible to make a softer than normal landing at my first mission, even though the days will be very full. Two weeks after landing there, the person in charge of logistics advises me that my authorization for travel to Hajjah has finally come through. I will be leaving by road on Wednesday, March 25, 2020.