Blog post

ETC IM mission: Touching down in Sana'a

For some reason I hadn’t expected the weather in Yemen to be so perfect in July. But at 2,325 metres above sea level, Sana’a is actually one of the world’s highest capital cities (seventh, to be exact) and it was 24 degrees, so said the pilot – a good 20 degrees cooler than Djibouti where we had started.

From turbulent skies, the tiny WFP plane descended into Sana’a International Airport, passing over an aircraft graveyard where husks of planes lay on the ground, the remnants of airstrikes, before bouncing theatrically onto the runway. It was an inauspicious start.

What followed was an intense Q&A session with immigration officials who had come across visas for Iran, Iraq, Kuwait and one for Saudi which, to make matters worse, had been issued by the crown prince himself. While briefly regretting my time spent as a journalist, I was finally allowed to enter Yemen for the first IM & Comms mission for the Emergency Telecommunications Cluster (ETC). In convoy, we headed through downtown Sana’a, somewhere I had been desperate to visit for years.

The streets were relatively busy with people getting on with their daily lives: countless carts piled high with sticky green prickly pears and mangoes; kids in too-big jackets chasing each other; scrawny, hopeful dogs; Yemeni men with giant, glinting janbiyas (traditional curved knife) stuffed into cloth belts; a falafel shop; a tiny boy with a shock of black hair sitting in a pile of slate grey rubbish; and magical glimpses of the famed burnt brick architecture of the Old City. Even today, with much of it damaged, you can see Sana’a is pretty special.

We drove past the National Museum, its geometric patterns still icing white and along a road that seemed to be full of endless bridal shops. I love this. In the three refugee camps I have been fortunate to visit in Iraq and Jordan, there is always a bridal shop open for business. Wedding dresses seem to be a universal symbol of life going on; of the future.

A large, leafy park came into view and even though the colours of the paint had faded, if not flaked off altogether, children were playing on the swings and I saw a very small figure making its way to the top of a yellow slide.

Sometime later we arrived at the fortified walls of the UN Common Accommodation Facility (UNCAF) where we went through security and checked in. The first thing I saw at the check in was a large ETC banner advertising its increasingly popular Internet service. Staff who had been without Internet access since their hotel in Djibouti – a good four hours ago – finally got that magic little symbol on their phones and at the tap of a screen, were back in the world.

By Suzanne Fenton, ETC IMO on mission in Yemen