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Story Publication logo February 14, 2020

From Yemen: The Great Escape

Photo by Juyoung Choi. South Korea, 2019.

In the summer of 2019, more than 500 Yemenis refugees arrived at Jeju Island, South Korea. With...

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Multiple Authors
Salem with his son Hamza in Jeju Island. Image by Saad Ejaz. South Korea, 2019.
Salem with his son Hamza in Jeju Island. Image by Saad Ejaz. South Korea, 2019.

Mohammed Salem is a refugee in South Korea. He escaped the gruesome civil war in Yemen in 2015 and then lived illegally in Malaysia for years. He now lives in Jeju Island, South Korea, with his wife and two children. This is the first part of his story.

The civil war in Yemen had raged on for six months. Mohammed Salem had left Sana'a, Yemen's capital, for the safety of Ghwader, his father's village. Time was running out.

With him was his wife Rehan—they had married just nine months prior—as well as his father, brother, and sister. Money was running low, the Houthis were inching closer, and his father desperately needed medicine and a heart surgery.

A year ago, Salem had walked up the stairs to his apartment. On the way up, he smelled food and followed the scent until he was at his future wife's doorstep. His dad had been pestering him to get married for years. When Salem mentioned the incident to him, he quickly arranged for the two to meet.

"When I saw her, I saw life. I saw my life in front of me. For that, I said yes, this is the lady I was looking for her," Salem recalled as he spun his wedding ring around his finger.

Three months had passed at Ghwader. Rehan sat across from Salem, with velvet lined jewelry boxes between them, and offered him a solution.

"Don't think a lot. Take this gold and sell it," she said.

Salem hesitated. He had bought the jewelry as a wedding gift for her. Rehan had never had the chance to wear any of it.

The bus from Hudaydah, a port city in western Yemen, was en route to the border with Oman. Salem sat among 45 others, a mix of both Yemenis and foreigners, all with the same goal. There were no commercial flights operating out of the country. Flying out of Salalah International Airport in Oman, 1100 miles away, was the only way out.

The bus approached the rocky hills at Nihm, 24 miles east of Sana'a, when it was forced to stop. Salem reluctantly stepped outside, under orders from the Houthi rebels, and lined up with the other passengers. With kalashnikovs slung menacingly around their shoulders, the rebels began interrogating them.

Salem was at Sana'a International Airport when Saudi Arabia first took direct action against the Houthi rebels. He was a transit services officer at the time, assisting passengers in making their connections, when the adjacent al-Daylami airbase, under Houthi control, was bombed.

"It was late at night. It was so quiet. Then the bombs fell. The sky was red, so red," he said.

Panic broke out at the airport. By the time Salem came out, his heart pounding, the buses and taxis had already scrambled. A friend was outside, kickstarting his motorbike, and offered to drop Salem home. They rode past the flames and smoke that had engulfed the airbase. Salem saw the military helicopters and airplanes the Saudis had destroyed.

"It was like I was in an American action film," he said.

It was now Salem's turn to be questioned. One of the rebels skimmed through his passport. Nihm was at the frontline of the conflict between the Houthis and the Saudi-backed government.

"It says here you were born in Saudi Arabia," said the Houthi soldier, "Maybe you support the Saudis?"

He scanned Salem's face, looking for a brief expression of dishonesty that would give away a regime sympathizer or Saudi spy. Both of these were grounds for a swift execution. Salem was quick to deny these charges. If anything, he was more sympathetic to the Houthi cause, he explained, since his mother was Shia.

"Then you can stay here and fight for us," said the soldier, "You are still young."

Salem had no interest in fighting nor could he stay in Yemen. He had to find work abroad to support his family's needs and a safe place for them to escape to. He looked along the line of captive passengers, and he caught sight of an old woman asleep on the ground, too frail to stand up.

"I have to take my aunt to Hadhramaut," he lied, "She is too sick to travel alone."

Hours later, the Houthis allowed Salem to leave with the passengers who were foreign, old, or sick. The 20 young men who were on the bus were detained.

"They didn't want to fight with this group or that group," said Salem, "They wanted to save themselves. And everyone of them had family and a story like mine."

Salem walked along the highway, hoping to hitchhike the rest of the way. He smelled the body before he saw it. A man lay by the side of the road. His body bloated and eyes missing. Salem stood over it, as insects devoured what was left.

No one will take him home or make a grave for him, Salem thought to himself. The same could happen to him and his family would never know. There was no cellphone reception or an internet connection. He was walking along desert roads, sometimes sleeping on their side, hundreds of miles away from his destination, at the mercy of complete strangers.

"I was scared. A lot. Many times not for myself. If I was dead, I was dead," he said.

He was worried constantly for the family he had left at Gwadher. He would remember their faces when he told them he was going to leave Yemen. His father was heartbroken.

"Don't be long. I will be waiting for you," Rehan had said the morning he left.

The pick-up truck raced through the Yemeni countryside. The cargo bed was full of sheep. Sleeping snuggly between them was Salem. It was the first time he had properly slept in three days.

"The sheep were like my friends. They were more kind than some people I had met," he said.

Salem felt relieved in the back of that truck. He would soon be at Hadramaut City, where he would be safe. Before he could relax, he was overwhelmed with panic once more.

"I said to myself, 'Hey, where are you going? You don't have any plan,'" he said.

Five days had passed since Salem had arrived at Hadramaut City. He had paid 450 USD for an expediated transit visa to Oman that should have arrived days ago. He had missed three flights to Malaysia because of this, costing him hundreds of dollars in the meager funds he had from selling Rehan's wedding jewelry.

Before the war, the visa itself would have cost him only 13 USD but Salem was in no position to argue with the travel agent. The devastation he had seen on the way, the uncertainty of his future and the helplessness he felt in ensuring his family's wellbeing had taken a toll on his mind.

"I was going to be crazy that day, that time. I was having mental problems. I was talking to myself," he said.

Salem was at Salalah International Airport, walking towards his gate. He would board the flight to Doha, and then onwards to Kuala Lumpur. He had been to Malaysia seven times before this but this time he was terrified. He was no longer a tourist, looking for a good time, but a refugee, in search for a life, he said. Despite his fears, he soldiered on.

"It was because I cared about another four people at home, waiting for me and looking for me," he said. "I was their only chance to be in a good situation."


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