People inspect the rubble of a prison facility hit by a Saudi-led coalition airstrike in a stronghold of Houthi rebels on the border with Saudi Arabia, in the northern Saada province of Yemen, Jan. 22, 2022. Internet access remained largely down for four

Yemenis struggle to maintain contact with loved ones amid attacks, internet blackout

The Saudi-led coalition carried out airstrikes in Yemen last Friday, hitting two separate targets: a detention center, where migrants are held, and a telecommunications tower, cutting off internet access for most of the country for four days. At least 60 people were killed in the attack, including three children.

The World

People inspect the rubble of a prison facility hit by a Saudi-led coalition airstrike in a stronghold of Houthi rebels on the border with Saudi Arabia, in the northern Saada province of Yemen, Jan. 22, 2022. Internet access remained largely down for four days after another Saudi-led coalition airstrike hit a telecommunications center Friday at the Red Sea port city of Hodeida.

Hani Mohammed/AP

Until recently, Hadil al-Mowafak, a Yemeni who lives in California, hadn’t heard from her brother who lives in Sana’a, Yemen’s capital, in days. Usually, she touches base with him pretty regularly. 

Mowafak describes her brother, who has a wife and kids, as “just a normal guy, trying to live a normal life.”

But life in Yemen is far from normal. A seven-year war has devastated the people and the economy. Now, it seems the conflict is escalating.

Related: US Special Envoy for Yemen Tim Lenderking says the solution to the war in Yemen is diplomatic, not militaristic

The Saudi-led coalition carried out airstrikes in Yemen last Friday, hitting two separate targets: a detention center, where migrants are held, and a telecommunications tower, cutting off internet access for most of the country for four days. At least 60 people were killed in the attack, including three children.

During the blackout, Yemenis in diaspora, like Mowafak, a research fellow with the Yemen Policy Center, a think tank based in Germany, are desperately trying to get news about their loved ones.

“I’ve been concerned the whole time, just not knowing what’s going on,” Mowafak said.

It’s been a stressful couple of days for Shireen al-Adeimi as well. She is an assistant professor at Michigan State University’s College of Education. Her mother was on the phone with a relative, and their call was interrupted as the bombs fell on Friday.

“One of the airstrikes was close to my mom’s aunt’s house,” she said. “It was actually across the street from the telecommunications buildings, and she had to be rescued in the middle of the airstrikes by another cousin.”

After the attacks, she lost touch with her family.

“Messages were left unread, everybody just went silent online.”

Shireen al-Adeimi, Michigan State University’s College of Education, assistant professor

“Messages were left unread, everybody just went silent online.”

Related: A rusting oil tanker off Yemen’s coast is at risk of exploding. It could cut off humanitarian aid to millions.

Later, Adeimi’s mother was able to reach her aunt on a landline. She was unhurt, but her home was damaged. There was broken glass everywhere, she said.

Turning to comic relief 

Mowafak said it can be difficult to get the world to pay attention to the ongoing war in Yemen.

So, at the start of the pandemic, Mowafak decided to film a series of videos about the war and post them on YouTube. She uses comedy to broach the subject.

In one, posted in May 2020, she plays the role of a news anchor. She looks into the camera directly and reads the headline: “Breaking news: In [a] one-of-a-kind incident in Yemen, a Yemeni citizen dares to enjoy life.”

“I realized that comedy is one of the best ways to transfer messages to people across the political divide. That’s why I chose this medium,” she said.

Related: Saudi Arabia is 'desperate to get out' of Yemen's yearslong civil war

In other videos, Mowafak talks about the Houthis (the main group fighting in Yemen), or about US foreign policy in Yemen.

“On the rare occasion that the world focuses on Yemen, there is this tendency to either support one party over the other. If people really wanted to support the Yemenis, they would call for accountability on all sides.”

Hadil Almowafak, Yemeni in California

“On the rare occasion that the world focuses on Yemen, there is this tendency to either support one party over the other,” she said. “If people really wanted to support the Yemenis, they would call for accountability on all sides.”

Mowafak said she has received a lot of support. She does get occasional negative comments, but overall, the videos have been well-received, she said.

The project is on pause, for now, she said — she hasn’t had as much time for it lately, juggling work, but she hopes to go back to producing videos again soon.

High tensions, weapons sales and terror designation

The war in Yemen includes many different sides. The Saudi-led coalition includes several actors, including the United Arab Emirates. The Houthis are supported by Iran.

In the past few weeks, tensions between the Houthis and the UAE have intensified. The Houthis were poised to control two major energy hubs in Yemen — Marib and Shabwa. These oil-producing areas are strategically important for the Houthis — or anyone looking to gain the upper hand in the conflict.

Related: In Ethiopia, a taste of home for displaced Yemenis

But there was a campaign by Saudi Arabia and the UAE to push the Houthis out of these areas. The Houthis responded by targeting an oil field and an airport in the UAE, killing three people on Jan. 17. On Monday, they fired missiles at the UAE again. This time, the US Air Force said it intervened and intercepted missiles.

In response to the attacks by the Houthis, President Joe Biden is now considering designating the group as a terrorist organization, which would be a reversal of his earlier decision to delist the group.

Baraa Shiban, a caseworker with the human rights group Reprieve in London, said millions of Yemenis live in areas under Houthi control and a terrorist designation could be devastating for them. He pointed out that Yemen imports almost 80% of its food from outside, which arrives on ships that need to buy insurance.

“The insurance companies will fear any trade in regards to Yemen. This will basically result in food prices to skyrocket.” 

Baraa Shiban, Reprieve, caseworker

“The insurance companies will fear any trade in regards to Yemen. This will basically result in food prices to skyrocket,” he said.

Aid organizations working in Houthi territory could also face complications, he said, unless there are clear exemptions. Shiban said the last time the Houthis were designated as a terrorist group under the Trump administration, there were no clear humanitarian exemptions.

It is not clear yet if Biden will in fact go through with this decision.

But Adeimi, the education professor in Michigan, said the last thing people in Yemen need right now is to lose access to vital aid and food from outside.

“It’s essentially a death sentence for millions of Yemenis if Biden goes through with this,” she said.

What would help the Yemeni people, Adeimi said, is for the Biden administration to stop selling weapons to the Saudis and the UAE.