The author, a Yemeni journalist, asked that her name be withheld for the security of her family.
Our correspondent pauses to watch tracer fire arc into the evening sky from her home in Sana'a, Yemen's capital, before fleeing with her children by bus to Saudi Arabia.
Driving to the Saudi Arabian border is an arduous trip for Yemenis under normal circumstances, and this particular trip has the added hardship of war, occasional outbursts of gunfire and checkpoints set up by former Yemeni President Saleh and the Houthi rebels adding fear and terror to those of us fleeing the fighting.
The passengers on the bus are a mix of Yemenis and nationals of other countries, and at every stop, the foreigners are interrogated. The interrogators are from the security bodies and Houthi forces, and focus their attention on a British national. They grill her husband: “What passport do you have? Why are you leaving? What do you do?” Finally, they tell the couple to wait until she is cleared to travel.
Passengers from Egypt, Syria, Jordan and other countries taking part in the Saudi-led Operation Decisive Storm are stopped, the bus having to wait for hours until the interrogators and fighters receive permission from their commander, as they claim, to allow us to move on.
On April 14, when we make the trip, the road to the Saudi border has 13 checkpoints. Through the first 10, the driver is able to present the manifest and the bus crosses in peace, but there are three more that require interrogation and searches, especially at the last Yemeni checkpoint, just before the official border with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, in Haradh City. The bus is stopped from 11pm to 3:20am.
Shakedown at the Crossing
The bus reaches the border and is stopped by the Yemeni Customs and Border Authority. The situation is no better than at the checkpoints. The bus arrives at 5am and is held until 10am because of the presence of foreigners. Some are forced to pay off the soldiers so they can be allowed to pass.
With its load of frustrated and exhausted passengers, the bus finally pulls into Saudi customs at the Al-Tiwal crossing. Everyone breathes a sign of relief: “We have arrived, thank God!” The passengers enter the security area, and each group is met by a sponsor. They complete the arrival procedures and have some tea, juice and food offered for free by Saudi Customs as a courtesy to passengers.
Within a few hours, with the sun moving higher in the sky, everyone has left the border crossing and are finally in Saudi territory, having escaped death. Some have a long and tough airplane flight ahead, and others want to perform Umrah (the minor pilgrimage in Mecca). Everyone wants to rest. But the transit visa usually granted to travelers is only valid for only two weeks, after which all travelers – Yemenis and other nationals alike – must leave the Saudi kingdom.
The Saudi Airport Trap
Once at the airport, everything changes and becomes very difficult again: Departing to any third country requires a visa. Even Egypt, to which Yemenis travel regularly, requires a visa that needs two weeks processing at least – time the travelers do not have. Moreover, getting a security clearance for an extension of one’s stay in Saudi Arabia requires an entire month, which means that Yemeni travelers fall into a trap of staying illegally in Saudi territory or returning to Yemen’s war zone.
The family of A.R. (who asked not to be further identified for the family’s safety) is turned back from the airport. They frantically pursue all channels, but with no luck. A colleague of mine – another journalist, residing in Cairo – learns that his wife and four children are stranded in Jedda, a Saudi city on the Red Sea, for the same reasons.
I have brought my three children. I acquire a Russian visa, and I have a 15-day transit visa from the Al-Tiwal border crossing and must leave before it expires. Emirates Airlines stops us from flying to a city in northern Russia, so I have to change the reservation, paying the change and cancellation fees. I decided to take a Saudi domestic flight from Jedda to Dammam and then fly Royal Dutch Airlines instead.
Luck was not on our side: Everyone here requires a transit visa for all connecting flights, which made matters more complicated. The Yemeni Embassy is unable to help, and neither are the embassies I visit. My only option is to return to Yemen – specifically southern Yemen and Aden, where I live. Aden is the same city declared by the minister of human rights as a disaster zone, where street fighting still rages.
My money runs out, between covering the costs of traveling, hotels, food, water and transportation. My situation becomes desperate. There are problems on the border the day we attempt to cross, and clashes had erupted between the Houthis and Saudi forces.
An Expired Visa, a Roll of the Dice
On the 17th day of my transit visa, I am now illegally in Saudi territory, which puts both myself and my sponsor at risk, because the law is not lenient at all. Nevertheless, I take the risk and stay, trying to reach all the Yemeni and Saudi contacts I can, only to be met with rejection and/or an inability to help.
I have been working as an active journalist in Yemen, and had visited the Yemeni prime minister, Khaled Bahah, when he was under siege in Sana’a. He is now in Saudi Arabia, recently named Yemen’s vice president, and I hope he will support my children and me, but my hopes vanish into thin air when his office informs me that they are unable to help. Thus ends another attempt.
I don’t give up, and continue contacting everyone I can think of until I finally receive the news I had been long waiting for from an activist in Yemen’s Southern Movement, who contacts me and tells me that I can be a member of a broadcast media team covering Yemen from exile, the “Aden Channel,” broadcasting from Saudi Arabia, and that this will take care of my [immigration] status. My eyes fill with tears of joy: I only have 100 Saudi Riyals left, and was convinced I would have to take my children back to Yemen, crossing the border to face death and terror, returning to Aden, where the street fighting is now forcing people to flee their homes.
My children and I are awaiting the paperwork to take care of our residence status. Meanwhile, so many Yemeni families remain in limbo, stuck in Saudi Arabian airports because Yemen’s airports have been shut down, the runways bombed by Saudi fighter jets.
Translated by Lana Ayyad, who has been a conference interpreter at the United Nations Secretariat in New York for the past nine years, following work as a media analyst in Jordan specializing in the Levant and Gulf regions. She holds a masters degree in conflict analysis and resolution from Carleton University's Norman Paterson School of International Affairs.