As the large wooden boat pulled alongside the docks of Makha, a port city in Yemen, two four-wheel-drive pickups appeared, mounted with large Russian guns called duskhas pointed straight at us. This wasn’t quite the welcome I was hoping for. I thought—even the United Nations thought—that the Houthi rebels were not in Makha. I cursed under my breath—well, here goes—as I gathered my camera gear and prepared to disembark.
Welcome to Yemen.
In January, Yemen’s government fell to the Houthis, a predominately Shia Muslim group thought to be backed by Iran, though the group denies that it is taking orders from Tehran. This was viewed as a threat to Saudi Arabia and the neighboring Sunni states, which formed a coalition and began bombing campaigns in the capital, Sana’a, and Aden, a port city, where a resistance force was battling the Houthis. Shortly thereafter I started looked into ways to get into Yemen: I wanted to be among the first wave of reporters to cover the war
A Yemeni home with shattered windows from airstrikes. Yemen has been pounded almost every day by missile strikes from Saudi Arabia. Photo: Sharaff al-Mahdi
My colleague Lindsey Snell, who works for Vocativ, was working on the visas. She was in touch with a fixer on the ground who was asking for extortive amounts of money to arrange our passage into the country. I was in Istanbul, using my connections with humanitarian groups and the U.N. to gain access in Yemen. Together we had been struggling for more than a week to make this happen.
The emails went back and forth. The only solution was to travel to Djibouti, from which humanitarian aid organizations were sending boats to Yemen. Unfortunately I couldn’t get reliable information on when the boats departed until I read about them in press releases long after. We talked about renting a boat, but that would be costly and tough to justify on my freelance wages. Conflicts these days are increasingly covered by freelance journalists and photographers like me, as big media outlets balk at the cost and danger of sending their own people.
Eventually we heard that the UN’s World Food Programme (WFP) would be running flights from Djibouti to Sana’a. We boarded the red eye flight from Istanbul to Djibouti, packing our bags lightly. Djibouti is a small African country, once colonized by the French when foreign powers were staking out claims in the Horn of Africa. It is an expensive place to travel, largely because many foreign nations, including the United States, have military bases there. As I disembarked from my flight I could see drones parked in hangars on the edge of the tarmac.
A Yemeni civilian home struck by a missile strike in Sana’a. Photo: Sharaff al-Mahdi
BBC, Sky News, the L.A. Times, and the New York Times had already arrived. We waited in the airport for the flight to Sana’a, dozing on chairs. Over four hours passed and there was still no sign of our flight. Our morale dropped, and Candy Crush was no longer helping bide the time. Finally George, the WFP coordinator, announced that they could no longer take us.
I made inquires to Doctors Without Borders and the Red Cross to find an alternative solution. Finally, a Doctors Without Borders staff member broke it to me: Saudi Arabian officials were monitoring who was getting on flights or boats. If a journalist went along, the NGOs would be denied access to the country.
Saudi Arabia was cutting access to electricity, food, oil, gas, and medical supplies in Yemen. The strategy seemed to be to starve the population of some 26 million people until the people turned against the new Houthi government.
By now it was mid-May. We reported a few stories in Djibouti about the refugee crisis as we looked for other options to get into Yemen. Hundred of Yemenis who were American citizens trying to flee to the U.S. sat idly in a large warehouse on the docks, waiting for transport out of Djibouti. It was there that they told us they managed to jump on a large dhow boat from Yemen to Djibouti. The boat ride would be around 16 hours—a grueling 16 hours under the equatorial sun.