Sleepless in Yemen: Living in fear of Saudi air strikes

Sanaa’s residents live amid constant threat of air raids, fuel shortages and uncertainty over when the war will end.

People ride a motorbike past a building hit by air strikes two years ago in Sanaa

This article was based on audio diaries used for a The Debrief podcast episode, Sleepless in Yemen, which was made in collaboration with Save the Children.

The hum of warplanes over Sanaa’s sky is almost constant, stalking Anas Shahari’s thoughts as he tries to maintain his daily routine in the face of Yemen’s war.

It is not the murmur of jet engines flying thousands of feet above him that keep the 30-year-old awake at night, but rather the fear of a more consuming sound – that of an explosion.

“We’ve had enough,” he tells Al Jazeera. “We’ve had experiences where the aeroplanes kill our loved ones. We just pray that we’re not the next.”

Since a Saudi-led coalition went to war against Houthi fighters and their allies in 2015, air strikes have become a recurring feature of life in Yemen’s rebel-held capital. Attacks have resulted in mass civilian casualties; even weddings, medical facilities  and funerals have not been spared.

This, combined with the possibility of armed clashes breaking out at any time, has instilled a pervasive fear of death among residents, even as they carry out their simplest errands.

“The people who travelled [to areas of relative safety], the people who stayed – they just want to know [whether] this war is going to end,” Shahari says. “Or is it basically going to continue [until it] kills everyone?”

Hiding indoors

An aid worker for Save the Children by day, Shahari has a one-year-old daughter who wants and needs open places to play, but parks are out of the question.

Of the two public parks Shahari is familiar with, one is near military positions that are likely high up on the list of air raid targets. The other was recently hit by an explosion.

“Staying home is very boring for children,” he laments. “My daughter wants to go out, [but] I cannot take her out because her safety comes first.”

Since 2015, air raids have dictated the pace of life for Yemenis. Routine tasks must factor in the areas expected to be targeted, and the likely times the missiles will fall.

This means avoiding roads next to military installations or other possible targets, and only venturing out at times when the coalition is less likely to launch raids.

Saudi-led coalition air strikes have decimated Yemen's capital, Sanaa [Courtesy of Al Masirah]
Saudi-led coalition air strikes have decimated Yemen’s capital, Sanaa [Courtesy of Al Masirah]

For lunch, Shahari reaches an area previously targeted by strikes that is filled with restaurant-goers.

“Markets are busy, restaurants are busy; you can see that business is going [on],” he says. “It’s unfortunate that after a few hours, these streets will be dead again.”

Life under the threat of bombardment is about much more than avoiding explosions and death. A coalition blockade of rebel-held territory makes essentials, such as fuel and food, harder and harder to come by.

Since 2015, the Saudi-led coalition has restricted the entry of commercial products into the country through the two main rebel-held ports of entry: Sanaa airport and Hodeidah port.

Shahari says the resulting shortages have driven prices up, forcing Yemenis to come up with creative ways to make sure the essentials last.

“I see people riding bicycles instead of cars … sometimes motorcycles because they’re more economic. I don’t drive fast to save fuel.”

We have no heaters. It is so cold. It's not even funny. I honestly wear double socks, two pants and many, many layers.

by Sukaina Sharafuddin, Save the Children

Despite the difficult circumstances, normal life – or at least some semblance of it – continues for many.

Sukaina Sharafuddin, a 27-year-old colleague of Shahari at Save the Children, plans for a friend’s wedding, takes trips to the bank to withdraw money for her mother and thinks of ways to keep her two-year-old son entertained.

As she scrambles to find dresses for the big wedding, she realises that her clothes are scattered across the many houses she has had to move from to avoid strikes.

“I’ve [relocated] my family to the third house,” she says. “We’ve been evacuated, one house to another, searching for a better and safer place – but unfortunately, here in Yemen, no place is safe. Everywhere you go, there’s a street that’s been targeted. Everywhere you go, you find the destruction in the streets.”

While trying to run a quick errand to the bank on the weekend to withdraw some much-needed cash for her mother, she confronts unexpected early closing times.

“The bank is closed, so basically I just wasted fuel for no reason,” she laments. “My god, I cannot believe I drove all the way here for nothing.”

Yemen's capital, Sanaa, has been held by the Houthis and their allies since 2014 [Khaled Abdullah/Reuters]
Yemen’s capital, Sanaa, has been held by the Houthis and their allies since 2014 [Khaled Abdullah/Reuters]

On top of that, she is ridden with guilt for not being able to allow her child to play outside. Her two-year-old son spends days at a time cooped up in a basement to avoid the dangers above, and Sharafuddin often comes home from work to witness his frustration.

But the young mother is also facing her own frustrations over how the simplest comforts, taken for granted before the war, now seem so distant.

Coalition bombardment and the blockade have left the country’s electricity grid unable to provide energy to Sanaa’s residents, and generators run dry because of the lack of fuel.

That leaves millions at the mercy of Yemen’s winter, which can cause temperatures to drop to close to freezing at night. Many do not have access to clean water, and for those who do, hot water is a scarcity.


Showering and washing her face in the morning has become a mental challenge, Sharafuddin says.

“We have no heaters. It is so cold. It’s not even funny,” she says. “I honestly wear double socks, two pants and many, many layers.”

It has been almost three years since they last had access to regular power and electricity, but both Sharafuddin and Shahari have found a way to deal with the lack of power.

They are two of the few who have a solar power system that grants them electricity for six hours maximum each day. Shahari is aware of his own privilege.

“The weather is cold, and I have a solar system. I can use it to light up the room … I can only charge my phone and use it for lighting. I cannot turn on the heater. I cannot turn on the refrigerator. Nothing at all,” he says, adding with a sarcastic note: “Well, sometimes we can charge our phones. That’s lucky, right?”

Both aid workers tend to suppress many of their complaints, knowing that many in the country live in far worse conditions – and by the standards of Yemen’s war, they consider themselves the lucky ones.

“I am a lucky person,” Sharafuddin says. “I’m considered one of the minority groups here who are very, very lucky. I mean, I have a salary, I have a fixed income, thank god … At least I have a house that’s very [well] sheltered … I’m not sleeping outside like many families are now doing, unfortunately.”

You've got the Saudi coalition air strikes, you've got the poor sanitation systems ... People don't have access to clean water, including more than eight million children.

by Nadine Drummond, Save the Children

Shahari and Sharafuddin are also confronted with the human cost of war on a daily basis. Sharafuddin has seen children who have lost limbs or been blinded by the fighting and air raids, but she remains optimistic that better days are ahead.

“They have nothing to do with this [war],” she says. “Their future is taken away from them, and they have nothing to do with politics. I pray that Yemen becomes safe, and I’m very optimistic about that. I really feel that things will just get better.”

According to Save the Children, around 77 percent of Yemen’s population needs humanitarian aid, with the United Nations warning that the country is at risk of famine.

More than 2.5 million children are not being educated because of the war, while damage to sanitation infrastructure has allowed cholera to affect more than a million people.

“The UN and NGOs in Yemen actually keep a significant portion of the population alive,” says Save the Children’s Yemen spokesperson, Nadine Drummond. “You’ve got the Saudi coalition air strikes, you’ve got the poor sanitation systems … People don’t have access to clean water, including more than eight million children.

“There is a fuel crisis, which is still a problem within the country … [besides travel], the fuel is needed to power generators – the generators that are used for the pumps, to keep water clean,” she adds. “So Yemenis can’t catch a break at any opportunity.”

Follow Jasmin Bauomy on Twitter: @jasminbauomy

Source: Al Jazeera