Hani Mohammed / AP

Stranded Yemeni-Americans consider alternate escape routes

Two stranded Yemeni-Americans consider fleeing by sea or dangerous back roads as airstrikes grip Sanaa and Aden

Desperate Yemeni-Americans who find themselves stranded in Yemen due to a no-fly zone and hijacked main roads say they have begun to consider alternate means of escape, including smuggling themselves to East Africa by sea or driving through dangerous back roads that lead to neighboring Oman. 

Yemen is gripped by political violence. Saudi Arabia launched airstrikes this week in the capital, Sanaa, aimed at pushing back Houthi rebels, who overran Yemen's government in February and led president Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi to flee the capital.

Saudi Arabia — which views the Houthi takeover as an attempt by Iran to establish a proxy on the kingdom's southern border — assembled a 10-country coalition this week to conduct airstrikes against the rebels. As part of its military campaign, Saudi Arabia imposed a no-fly zone over Yemen, shutting down airports and major seaports.

In addition to being virtually landlocked, Yemeni-Americans face a possible witch-hunt following a call issued by the Houthis to report individuals suspected of being U.S. or Saudi agents.

Having received no warning of Saudi Arabia's military campaign, which was coordinated with assistance from the U.S. government, Yemeni-Americans who spoke to Al Jazeera say they are terrified that they will become targets by virtue of their citizenship.

To protect themselves, some have taken up arms, according to San Francisco native Mokhtar Alkhanshali, who is in Sanaa. "Many of us have to be strapped with weapons at all times,” the 26 year-old said.

Alkhansali, who has been in Yemen for a year, runs a project for farmers with some collaboration with U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), the federal agency responsible for administering civilian foreign aid.

Alkhanshali has been training local farmers to grow sustainable coffee crops in a bid to strengthen Yemen's coffee sector and local economy. He said he first learned of the Saudi campaign when he awoke to loud explosions and anti-aircraft fire.

"You have Houthi bases located in the middle of heavily populated neighborhoods,” he said. “My hometown of San Francisco has a population of 750,000. Imagine bombing a city with twice that population. They're placing all of us at risk."  

He added: "I know dozens of families in Sanaa trying to get out."

To protect himself from potential crossfire, Alkhanshali said he keeps the lights turned off in his home and stays clear of windows.

At night, he retires to the basement with his family members. "People keep family photos near their bed,” he said. “I've come to sleep next to several firearms." 

People keep family photos near their bed, I've come to sleep next to several firearms.

Mokhtar Alkhanshali

In Aden — the southern port city Hadi escaped to and declared as the temporary capital — Bronx native Summer Nasser said she and her 16 year-old sister Mona take shifts at night staying awake to protect their home from looters. 

"I keep a gun in my purse and take shifts with my sister at night. It's emotionally draining," she said. "Our youngest sister runs to the corner to hide whenever she hears tank fire."  

Nasser, who traveled to Yemen last month to wed her fiancé, is stranded in Aden with her mother and 5 siblings.  

Like Sanaa, Aden has been paralyzed by violence. The coastal city is the site of fierce street battles between pro-Hadi military units and militiamen loyal to former president and strongman Ali Abdullah Saleh, who has allied himself with the Houthis.

Additionally, there are fears that the battle will only intensify, as locals await the arrival of pro-Saleh fighters, currently moving through southern Abyan province toward Aden with the aim of reinforcing fighters already in the city, according to Yemeni security officials.

Nasser has postponed her wedding, originally scheduled for next week. "My priority right now is to get my family the hell out of Yemen," said the 20 year-old. 

Both Nasser and Alkhanshali, along with relatives in the U.S., have reached out to the State Department to request their evacuation, to no avail. "We have contacted them several times but they say they can't help," Nasser said.

Alkhanshali, who said he never received a response from the department, called their indifference a "slap in the face," particularly given the U.S. role in coordinating the Saudi air campaign. 

"The U.S. coordinated with Saudi on logistics, so they must have been aware of what was coming,” said an exasperated Alkhanshali. “And yet we received no warning. If India and Somalia can find a way to evacuate their nationals, why can't the U.S.?"

He was referring to India and Somalia's announcements on Friday to evacuate their citizens.

I keep a gun in my purse and take shifts with my sister at night. It's emotionally draining.

Summer Nasser

Al Jazeera contacted the State Department for comment and was referred to a travel advisory issued February urging Americans in Yemen to leave the country. The advisory also noted that U.S. government-facilitated evacuations occur only when no safe commercial alternatives exist. 

But with no access to the airport or main roads, Nasser said there is no safe means of escape. 

Left to fend for themselves, she along with other Yemeni-Americans in Aden have created a support network to keep tabs on one another. “We keep in touch through WhatsApp and send each other videos of nearby clashes to try and determine which direction it’s coming from,” said Nasser.

With Saudi and Egyptian warships deployed to Yemen in anticipation of a ground mission, she worries that their window of opportunity to flee is quickly closing.

Nasser and several other Yemeni-Americans are now considering driving east toward neighboring Oman — a perilous 17-hour journey through dangerous back roads occupied by rebels and tribal fighters. 

"The roads are not safe, but we have no choice as we're running out of time," Nasser said. 

Alkhanshali said he is scheduled to speak at a cupping event for Yemeni coffee in Seattle next week, at a conference hosted by the Specialty Coffee Association of America. He hopes to raise awareness for Yemen's coffee farmers. It’s a conference he is determined to make.

If the airports don't reopen soon, Alkhanshali said he is considering taking a boat to Djibouti or Somalia. If that doesn't work, he says he may head through the empty quarter desert to Oman.

But until then, Alkhanshali said that he will lie awake listening to the explosions. "You don't see the aircrafts so you never know where they're coming from – that's the scary part. You just hear them," he said.

He added: "Hopefully, we live to see the morning."

With The Associated Press

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