A Tough Ticket to Get: One Man's Harrowing Path Out of Yemen

(Bloomberg) -- Mohammed al-Jabry wanted to save his cancer-stricken grandfather. That meant getting the 69-year-old out of one of the world’s most overlooked war zones: Yemen.

It would require venturing through a country al-Jabry barely recognized after years of living abroad. Yemen has been decimated by the conflict pitting Saudi Arabia against rebels linked to Iran.

A Tough Ticket to Get: One Man's Harrowing Path Out of Yemen

From his adopted home in Amman, Jordan, al-Jabry surveyed the grim options. People-smugglers ply the narrow sea route from Yemen to Djibouti in Africa. Those who are desperate enough sometimes risk a treacherous crossing of the heavily fortified land border with Saudi Arabia.

But there’s really just one practical way: a coveted seat on Yemenia, the national carrier. Long after other airlines gave up, Yemenia’s ageing fleet is still -- intermittently -- flying. But “getting a reservation is sort of a mafia these days,” al-Jabry said.

His odyssey casts light on a war that bears the signature of Saudi Arabia’s young crown prince. Mohammed Bin Salman has grand plans: to diversify the kingdom’s economy, reform its religion, and build a high-tech city from scratch in the desert. Yet after almost three years of bombing, he has little to show from his U.S.-backed campaign in the Arab world’s poorest nation.

It’s also a conflict that gets scant international attention. Unlike millions of displaced Syrians who have sought refuge in neighboring countries and Europe, Yemen’s 28 million people -- more than the population of Australia or Taiwan -- are trapped by their geography. Only some 180,000 have left.

For those who can’t, the toll is growing. In addition to at least 14,000 people killed or wounded, aid agencies are increasingly alarmed by the spread of malnutrition and risk of famine. Nearly 1 million people have contracted cholera, and 3 million are internally displaced.

Expensive Ambulance

Yemenis, even those in urgent need, have few options for medical help. So Yemenia flights often double up as an expensive ambulance service -- for those lucky enough to get seats.

Al-Jabry’s story begins in Amman, where the 22-year-old had been studying since before the war, and now works at a shipping company. His parents joined him there, unintentionally, after the conflict broke out. They’d meant to make a brief visit to see their son during an Islamic holiday, but they got stranded when the airport in Yemen’s capital, Sana’a, was closed to civilian traffic, blocking their return flight. Jordan is among the few regional countries where Yemenis can achieve official status as refugees via the United Nations.

Al-Jabry’s grandfather was stuck back in the capital, Sana’a. The city of 1.9 million has come under heavy bombardment. Its airport is still closed (and was bombed by the Saudi-led coalition this week). The nearest functioning one was a day’s drive away, in Sayoun. Al-Jabry knew his grandfather wouldn’t manage that journey alone, so he decided to go in and retrieve him -- ignoring pleas from his parents.

A Tough Ticket to Get: One Man's Harrowing Path Out of Yemen

In August, he went to the Yemenia office in Amman, telling them he needed to travel urgently. He paid $630 for a one-way ticket, significantly more than a round-trip used to cost. But he was only given a seat for a flight in November, which was no use to him.

“Yemenia is now exploiting the situation -- that they’re the only airline that’s going,” he said.

He’s hardly alone in such feelings. Yemenia’s Facebook page is a litany of customer complaints. “Epic fail” and “the worst airline administration on earth” are among recent, typical comments.

Yet the carrier is operating in extreme circumstances, of a kind that few airlines face. It’s flying out of a war zone and can’t use the country’s main airport. (Right now, it can’t fly at all; earlier this month, all flights were halted; the Saudis said Monday that some airports would soon reopen). It also needs to get a green light for each takeoff from the Saudi-led coalition. Sometimes, permission is withheld -- and then Yemenia posts a note of apology, triggering Facebook fury, though there are sympathetic responses too.

Yemenia’s offices in Sana’a, Aden, Amman, Dubai and Cairo didn’t answer repeated requests for comment.

Through Firefights

Al-Jabry resorted to an acquaintance who had connections at the airline and was able to push his flight forward. His ticket appeared in the form of a photo, via WhatsApp, and he flew to Sayoun on Aug. 28. The plane was mostly full of students returning home, from Malaysia, Egypt and elsewhere, for the Eid religious holiday.

On arrival, al-Jabry hired a driver for the 21-hour journey to Sana’a. Their pickup truck passed through a slew of checkpoints manned by armed fighters -- alternately from the Saudi coalition and the Houthi rebels. The trip passed without any scares.

(That’s not everyone’s experience. Taha Yaseen, a student returning from Qatar, made the same trip in July. He said gunmen at one of the checkpoints hauled passengers off the bus for hours of questioning. Ilham, a single mother living in Jordan since February this year, had to get a bus from Sana’a to Aden, on the south coast, for her flight out. She described a terrifying day-long journey, repeatedly passing through firefights that left at least one passenger injured.)

In Sana’a, al-Jabry took his grandfather to the doctor to prepare for the road-trip back to the airport. But the doctor advised waiting a few days: The older man had a blood clot, and a long drive could worsen his condition. Al-Jabry, sensing urgency, said he then reached out to friends with United Nations connections -- in case his grandfather could get on a UN flight out of Sana’a.

It was too late.

“He died that night,” al-Jabry said. “I spent around six hours with him. And then he died.”

Funeral Bombs

The family held a service two days later. Funeral receptions traditionally last about three days -- a hall is booked, and visitors flow in and out. But a lot more Yemenis are dying these days. Plus, a funeral hall was bombed by Saudi planes in October last year, killing more than 140 people -- one of the war’s worst attacks on civilians.

Al-Jabry insisted on the full observance -- and won the argument with his relatives, who said no one does three-day funerals anymore because they’re too expensive and dangerous.

It was one of many changes that shocked him. Sana’a -- an ancient city inhabited for more than 2,500 years -- was barely recognizable. The conflict has turned the capital’s cultural relics to ruins, and left a hungry population plagued by armed gangs and militias. Al-Jabry wanted to get out fast.

“It was frustrating what I saw -- unlivable,” he said. “You see your family and everyone’s poor, everyone’s fed up, they don’t do anything, they don’t work, they don’t have salaries. They don’t have anything to live for.”

‘He Has People’

Still mourning his grandfather, al-Jabry called his contact at the Yemenia office in Amman, saying he needed a one-way ticket out. He was told he’d have to buy a roundtrip, even though he had a residence permit in Jordan. The contact said he would reserve a seat on a half-empty flight a few days later.

Yemenia couldn’t get a permit from the Saudis that day, and the flight was canceled. The contact said he’d book al-Jabry on the following Friday -- then called back: “I’m going to be honest with you, I couldn’t manage to get you a seat.” Stand-by was a possibility; but with a 21-hour drive involved, al-Jabry didn’t want to risk it.

He resorted to another connection -- a businessman in Amman who reserves Yemenia seats in bulk, then resells for a commission. “He has people in Sana’a,” who showed up to collect the cash, al-Jabry said. “I was so desperate, I had to leave.” And he did -- at a price: $630 for the ticket, $150 for the middleman’s cut, 10,000 Yemeni riyals in airline penalties, another 200,000 riyals ($800) for a truck-driver back to Sayoun, and 12,000 riyals for a night at the Sayoun Plaza hotel, where he joined dozens of passengers waiting for the flight.

Al-Jabry’s family is prosperous by Yemeni standards. “Financially, we are blessed,” he said. “But there are people who are suffering” from the Sana’a airport closure, and who can’t afford the alternatives. The average annual income is below $1,000.

‘Being a Woman’

Ilham, the single mother, sold jewelry to pay for tickets to Amman for herself and her daughter at $1,200 each. When she went to collect them at the Yemenia office, a full-scale brawl was in progress, as would-be passengers fought to get to the front of the line. They were all men -- so Ilham took advantage of the differential treatment that women sometimes get in conservative Muslim societies.

A Tough Ticket to Get: One Man's Harrowing Path Out of Yemen

“Being a woman, I wouldn’t get into such fights,” she said. “I walked straight to the front.”

The Sayoun airport was bustling with soldiers when al-Jabry got there. He brandished the WhatsApp photo of his ticket. His plane was full of people traveling to work in Jordan and Iraq; and families headed further afield, including to the U.S. (That journey’s getting harder: Yemen is one of the countries included in President Donald Trump’s travel ban.)

After takeoff, flight attendants announced that no food or drink would be allowed into Jordan, because of Yemen’s cholera epidemic. Almost everyone seemed to have food with them -- likely intended as gifts -- so they shared it in an impromptu feast. “Three hours of eating,” al-Jabry said.

A Tough Ticket to Get: One Man's Harrowing Path Out of Yemen

‘Another Planet’

When they arrived in Amman, the plane taxied far from the terminal, and passengers were decanted into three buses. In scorching summer heat, officials wearing gloves and face-masks inspected each vehicle for traces of food -- or cholera.

“Like we came from another planet,” recalls al-Jabry, recounting the whole story in late September outside a kebab stall in Amman.

He has no plans to go back to his home country anytime soon. But the treasure-hunt for Yemenia tickets is still on -- and now al-Jabry, as someone who managed to get one, has become a recourse for others.

“Just two hours ago, a guy called me. He said, ‘Remember the guy who booked you the tickets to Sayoun? I need three tickets for my father and his friends’,” al-Jabry said. “To get a ticket, you need to know people.”

(Reporting for this article was supported by a media fellowship through the Center for the Study of Social Difference at Columbia University.)

©2017 Bloomberg L.P.