Militias, flash floods, and landslides: The risks of travelling in Yemen

Yemen - GETTY
6 min read
18 October, 2021
In-depth: Seven years of war have devastated Yemen and left the country fragmented, with travel between cities and regions now carrying a myriad of risks.

Travelling between Yemen's cities is no longer a simple matter. Seven years of war have left deep scars on the country's landscape and made many of the old transport routes obsolete, rendering even the simplest journey an ordeal fraught with danger which few dare to embark on except in cases of absolute necessity.

'Senseless brutality': Family visit ends in death

On 10 September, the brutal murder of Abdul-Malek Al-Sanabani, a young Yemeni-American returning to visit his family, shone a light on the extreme vulnerability of those travelling across the country.

Members of a militia belonging to the United Arab Emirates-backed Southern Transitional Council (STC) abducted Al-Sanabani at a security checkpoint in Tor al-Baha, an area in Lahj province, as he was making his way from Aden International Airport to the capital Sanaa. He was going to visit his family after seven years living in the United States. 

"On 10 September the brutal murder of Abdul-Malek al-Sanabani, a young Yemeni-American returning to visit his family, shone a light on the extreme vulnerability of those travelling across the country"

At the checkpoint, Al-Sanabani was accused of supporting the Houthis before being arrested and detained by the '9th Strike Force Brigade'. Two days later his body was found, showing clear signs of torture and gunshot wounds.

After widespread public pressure, the STC acknowledged the incident, announcing that they had formed a committee to investigate the circumstances around the killing. They stated that individuals involved would be prosecuted at a military court.

"If the Yemeni people were able to focus public attention onto the tragedy of Al-Sanabani, I believe this shows genuine potential for the start of a collective human awareness which could pave the way for a rejection of the senseless brutality which the souls of the Yemeni people are being forced to endure," journalist Sami Al-Kaf, told Al-Araby Al-Jadeed, The New Arab's Arabic-language sister publication.

A country fragmented by war

The war in Yemen has fragmented the country, leaving different regions and cities controlled by various armed factions. The international roads connecting the main cities have been closed off and the damage to airports has left most of them non-functional, ending the internal flights which used to allow travellers to move from one city to another in under an hour.

4x4 vehicles are necessary on the steep mountain roads in some parts of the country, which are sometimes blocked by rockfall [Getty Images]

On the alternative, overland routes, Yemenis require at least half a day to travel from one city to another, especially when going from the north to the south.

They also need 4x4 vehicles able to manage the river crossings formed from rocks and boulders which have become a mainstay of these alternative roads following the destruction of the main bridges. They equally need to be able to handle roads through mountainous and rural terrain, which now form the main transport routes in many areas, like in Taiz city.

The journey from Sanaa to Aden or Taiz in southern Yemen takes ten hours at least: five hours more than it would have taken before the war. Muhammed Al-Dub'i, who works in a private business in Sanaa, said: "I visited my family in Taiz last Eid al-Adha, and the journey took more than 10 hours.

"As well as the physical hardship and the risks from the poor state of the roads, travellers are under huge psychological pressure whenever they are stopped at checkpoints belonging to either side of the conflict, where they face questions about their identity, where they are going and why.

"As well as the physical hardships and the risks from the poor state of the roads, travellers are under huge psychological pressure whenever they are stopped at checkpoints belonging to either side of the conflict, where they face questions about their identity"

Some will be arrested because of the region they're from or because of suspicions about their political sympathies".

Torrential rains cause flooding and landslides 

From Sanaa to Aden, travellers are forced to travel through Taiz, and from there head through the often flooded roads of Hayfan. They then need nine hours to cross the city of Al-Turbah and travel the precipitous and dangerously winding road of Hayjat Al-Abed, which will take them into Lahj.

Vehicles passing this way may need to contend with widespread flooding in Al Maqatirah District which is in the administrative district of Lahj, especially in the rainy season, with rainfall usually occurring after midday every day.

"The torrential rains coming from the towering heights of Al Maqatirah have already washed away a number of cars this year. Even after the rain stops, it can cause landslides on the neighbouring mountains which can block the roads," Taxi driver Hani Al-Azazi said.

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"It usually takes between 45 minutes to an hour for a car to pass through the Al Maqatirah road. However, it is impossible for the driver to predict what might happen in terms of rainfall or flash floods from other areas where it has rained, which could leave him trapped. We are risking our lives – but we don’t have another choice due to the Houthi siege".

State of disrepair: Potholes primary cause of traffic accidents

Another risk factor, aside from dangerous mountain slopes and flash flooding, are the potholes that abound on asphalt roads, most of which have not had maintenance work done on them since the war began. These are the primary cause of traffic accidents which have led to thousands of deaths and left thousands more injured.

Official statistics reveal that traffic accidents killed more than 17,000 people in 2020, the majority of which were in the Houthi-controlled areas the north and west of the country. The Subayha road linking Taiz and Aden and the road between Marib and Hadhramaut are considered the most dangerous for travellers.

On the Subayha road, in particular, hundreds of accidents are caused as cars travelling at high-speed attempt to avoid the many large potholes, leading to frequent collisions. In the middle of 2021, the road was the site of a catastrophic accident in which 11 people died after two passenger buses crashed and caught fire attempting to avoid a large pothole in the middle of the highway.

A man and children walk through a flooded street following heavy rainfall in Yemen's capital Sanaa. The rainy season in Yemen often leads to widespread flooding which hinders travel on the country's already precarious roads [AFP via Getty Images]

Violations rampant at security checkpoints

Aside from the state of disrepair of Yemen's roads, being forced to travel through flooded areas and on steep mountain passes, those travelling between Yemeni cities also fall victim to arbitrary abuse at the many checkpoints belonging to different factions.

Many of the militants or gangs manning these checkpoints verbally abuse those passing through, insulting them based on the regions they come from. Travellers have reported arbitrary measures and violations against them at checkpoints under the control of all sides of the conflict: the Houthis, the UAE-backed STC and government forces.

On the Taiz-Aden road, there are more than 20 military checkpoints, some of which belong to government forces and others to the STC. On the Aden-Mukalla route, there are more than 30 checkpoints. Many of them are simply looking to charge a crossing fee, however, travellers are subject to the whim of whoever is manning the checkpoint. They may face interrogation, the ransacking of their belongings and even arrest, or they may be allowed to cross peacefully with no problems.

"Official statistics reveal that traffic accidents killed more than 17,000 people in 2020"

Muhammed Haddad, who lives in Al-Alam, said: "I was verbally abused by the soldiers at a checkpoint when they realised I was from Taiz". Heading from Seiyun Airport, Haddad had decided to avoid travelling through Marib, fearful of being caught in militant crossfire or being abused by soldiers at Al-Falaj checkpoint.

However, he didn't manage to avoid being stopped for one and a half hours at an STC-manned checkpoint, at which his mobile phone was confiscated and searched.

"They were looking for any evidence that I was opposed to the STC which would have provided them with an excuse to arrest me".

This is an edited translation from our Arabic edition. To read the original article click here.

Translated by Rose Chacko