A girl and her lost city: Nada Al-Thawr '19 remembers wartime in Yemen

GRAPHIC BY CASEY LINENBERG '19

GRAPHIC BY CASEY LINENBERG '19

 

BY SHELL LIN '17

It was 2 a.m. on March 26, 2015, in Sanaa, the capital of Yemen. In early spring’s chilly air, the street was empty and quiet, with only a few street lamps flickering dusky lights. Inside a warmly- lit room with four windows, Nada Al-Thawr ’19 was lying on her purple cotton sheets and flannel blanket, scrolling down Facebook, too bored to sleep. Suddenly, streetlights went off. Her phone stopped charging. In the complete darkness, she heard a distant sound like a car crash.

Al-Thawr was searching for a torch when her 17-year-old brother ran into her room. “Did you hear it?” he asked. “It sounds weird.” Her other two younger brothers, 7 and 9 years old, were still sound asleep. Al-Thawr could not access electricity to check news, nor was it a proper time for her to call anyone. But her phone rang immediately. The number was her dad, who had stayed in his office that night. In hushed tones, Al-Thawr overheard his colleagues calling their families, saying they were leaving the office, immediately.

“Saudi is air-striking the airport,” her dad said. Nada laughed hard. It must be a joke.


Electricity came back the next morning. Al-Thawr’s mother prepared breakfast, and her little brothers rejoiced at having a day off from school.
Al-Thawr charged her phone. Countless unanswered calls and messages crammed on her screen. They were from her Yemeni friends abroad, checking to see if she was alive. Her family turned on TV. Every channel was broadcasting the same news: The night before, a coalition of 10 Arab countries had bombed Yemen.

Since that morning, fighter jets growled into Faj Attan, which means “The Mountain” in Arabic, a civilian area where Al-Thawr’s family lived. Whistling sounds soared and missiles fell, hitting the ground like an earthquake. In her shaking house, Al-Thawr stumbled to the window and saw the hump-shaped “Boobie Mountains,” a signature site in central Sanaa, burning in a fireball. She ran with her family to the basement and suffered the whole night through in deafening bangs and pungent smoke. The next morning, they jumped in their car and raced to Al-Thawr’s grandparents’ house.

Two weeks later, on April 20, 2015, a deadly airstrike flattened most homes in Faj Attan and killed at least 25 civilians, according to a New York Times report that same day.


When the war started, we all thought: It’s going to end next week!” Al-Thawr, now a sophomore at Mount Holyoke College, smiled across a café table in the library atrium. A half-cup of coffee, an unopened Red Bull and books with library labels lay scattered around her laptop. She wore a pair of translucent-frame glasses and a white knit sweater — comfy, clean and smart. Her curly hair was tied into two buns, making her big eyes appear still brighter.

On the day we met, 696 days had elapsed since the Saudi-Arabia-led coalition of 10 Arab countries launched the first airstrike at the Sana’a International Airport — a 45-minute drive from Al-Thawr’s house — marking the start of the war in Yemen.

A month-long national revolution in which the Houthi rebels took over the Ye- men government became a 2-year continuous war. Warplanes and ground forces from Saudi Arabia and nine other Middle Eastern countries, and logistical and intelligence support from western countries including the U.S. and the UK were soon engaged in the conflict.

“After the revolution, Yemen was in an unstable stage because we were hav- ing a transition government. We had little problems one after another. Many people thought the only way for Yemen to get completely xed is for war to erupt,” Al- Thawr said across the table, shaking her head. “But no one, no one was expecting a war lasting that long.”

As of Jan. 17, more than 10,000 civilians have been killed, 40,000 wounded, and 10 million displaced, the United Nation’s humanitarian aid officials in Yemen reported to Al Jazeera. In the war, Al- Thawr’s family lost their home.


After the deadly airstrike in Faj Attan, Al-Thawr went back once with her family to the destroyed site. On the ground where her neighbors’ houses used to stand, there was no trace of life. But her house was still there — or its skeleton was. The once eight-room house, now devoid of doors and windows, stood on teetering stairs and shattered glass. Nada entered her room and saw four bleak holes in the wall — her four windows where sunlight used to flood in with warmth. Curtains lay on the floor like deserted plastic bags, except for one still attached to the pole, floating in the wind like the smoke of gunfire that never dissipated. Dust covered her handpicked fuzzy carpet, sheets and quilts, electronic keyboard, black real-wood bed and closet and laundry basket where her cotton shirts used to hang.

“It became dirty,” Al-Thawr later recalled the scene at her old house, paused, “Not nastily dirty, but you can see the dust and the pain.” She often likened it to a photo she once saw of a little Yemeni boy in the war, to whom viewers commented, “You look like your home — beautiful, dirty and tired.”

At that time, looking at the broken furniture, which clashed and rested on top of each other, Al-Thawr heard airplanes hovering overhead. Her dad patted on her shoulder: “It’s ok, time to leave.”


Four months after the war broke out; it was time for Al-Thawr to leave for the U.S. for college. Formerly a medical student studying in Prague, Al-Thawr changed her field of study to international relations. Scalpels and gauze could save individual lives, but politics could save a country.

After the airstrike, the Sanaa International Airport shut down for months. When Nada was already preparing to take a flight in Oman, it reopened for one month for the stranded, offering only one flight to Jordan. An airline ticket used to cost equivalent to $300 round trip. During the war, the only option was $2000 on way, not including $300 insurance. A normally 3-hour flight was extended to 8 hours, with a mandatory stop in Saudi Arabia for a security inspection “To make sure we are not terrorists,” Al-Thawr said dryly.

On July 30, 2015, Al-Thawr boarded one of these flights to find that adversity came not only in the form of financial difficulty, but also in people’s hostility. During her connection in Jordan, Al- Thawr said the airport guards removed Yemeni passengers’ bags intentionally, making it difficult for many to find their luggage.

“Everybody is contributing to this war in their own ways,” Al-Thawr reflected. “When you look at a Yemeni person condescendingly, you are adding to the hardship these people face.”

Many neighboring and western countries closed borders to Yemen, and even Jordan refused Yemenis for long-term stay. To apply for a U.S. visa, Nada emailed four U.S. embassies, including Jordan, Egypt, Oman, and Malaysia. The last was the only one to reply. Granted the right to stay for up to three months, Al-Thawr flew to Malaysia from Jordan to apply for an F-1 student visa, which she later found was only valid for one year.

She did not know at the time that a journey back home would now cost $7000, nor did she forsee the increased dif culty for Yemeni travellers under President Trump’s immigration ban.

She finally arrived in the US.


"People always assume: You are all safe now. You are all good.” Al-Thawr looked into the distance.

“Not really. I’m not part of this life. I’m part of another life. While I’m physically here, I’m mentally back home. I live with them every minute.”

Al-Thawr opened her Facebook page, where every post on her timeline contains the word “Yemen.” Among them were videos of the ancient city Old Sana’a, a UNESCO world heritage site and Al-Thawr’s paradise. Staring at the screen, Al-Thawr whispered as if to her- self: “I keep watching it like I’ve never been there before.”

In the video, the more than 2,500-year old city, sitting 2,200 meters above sea level, woke up to the first beam of sunlight. Camel-colored, sharp-edged earthy brick buildings jostled like children’s clay work. On the aged walls, unbridled ivory-white geometric patterns — bells, minarets, diamonds and arcs — preserve a sense of primitive innocence, while the meticulously calculated shapes testify to an architectural mastership.

From the buildings walked old women in layers of dark-colored embroidery scarves and veils and men with bright horn-shaped knives on their belts. Al-Thawr used to mingle with the crowd in the market. Wandering down the stone-paved alleyways, amid the hustle and bustle, she could see blacksmiths striking chisels against the fire in a brick stove, white-crowned bakers sending raised dough into a clay furnace with a long pole and turban-wearing peddlers hawking piles of local raisins. In the warm halo of the afternoon sun, under the shadow of verdurous palm trees, it was an all-too-casual weekend in her first 18 years of life. “People feel the sense of belonging no matter they are from. It’s beautiful and it’s home,” she reminisced. “You just feel comfortable to simply exist there.”

In June 2015, an attack launched by Saudi Arabia destroyed part of Old Sana’a, the New York Times reported. Several historical buildings were stripped of their exquisitely crafted walls, exposing pale plasters like inerasable scars. Al-Thawr was too afraid to ask her parents about the status of her cherished city. By herself, she watched the videos of old residents fixing their broken windows again and again.

On the wall of her college dorm room, Nada hung up her Sitara, a Yemeni traditional silk scarf that showcases a mixture of cerulean checks and verdant and scarlet prints. She encircled it with a chain of lights. Beside the lights is a quote from a poem written during Yemen’s civil war in 1994 in Arabic, which reads: “Sana'a is a must.”

“Sana’a is a pure woman, an ener- getic child and a struggling old lady.” Al-Thawr translated a comment under a video of Sana’a. “It has everything in it, so it encompasses everyone.”

“I always loved Sana’a, but I never felt the extreme sense of belonging like I do now.” Al-Thawr’s voice softened, her eyes closed. “I know it’s with us. We are all struggling together.”

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