Many Yemenis find themselves forced to take up farming for a living
“This country is terrifying its citizens. It has never occurred to me, not even in my worst nightmares, that a moment would come and force me to take the decision of returning to my far away village, where diseases are spread and health supplies are nonexistent. I left it ten years ago to settle in Sana’a the capital, relying on my government salary, which I get paid for doing administrative tasks in the office of the education ministry.”
With those words, public servant Hani Saad explained to Newsweek Middle East his decision.
His face had lines of sorrow drawn all over it as he was packing his luggage and getting ready to leave with his wife and two children back to their home village of Kuhlan Al Sharaf in Hajjah Province.
Kuhlan Al Sharaf is a village out of time; the moment you step foot into this mountain village, you delve into another world. There is no trace of modern life except cell phones, which only receive coverage at night.
“I used to walk daily to the only school in the village. It took me an hour and a half to go and two hours to come back, in order to finish high school and get into college and be able to get a job in the public sector.”
People in Yemen prefer jobs in the public sector because that offers steady paychecks that are guaranteed by the state.
Yemenis actually have a saying: “To go a foot’s length with the state is better than an arm’s length with the generous.” The generous being private sector companies.
“My wish came true, I got a government job with a salary of YER60,000 [$200] per month, and settled in the city with my family. But when [public sector] employees’ salaries were halted for three months, I was forced to return to the village, escaping my debt. I could no longer pay my home’s rent or pay off the grocery bill.”
It is in that sense that Saad has decided to go back to his roots.
“I decided to return to farm the small plot of land I inherited from my father to feed my children from what the earth has to offer.”
And Saad isn’t the only one. Mohammed Al Qidasi, who is an IT officer at the Ministry of Local Administration — and whose salary was YER90,000 [$300] per month — also returned to his village, Qaidas, in Arahab region, 45 km north of Sana’a.
With high morale and clear excitement, Al Qidasi tells Newsweek Middle East: “Indeed my return to the village was because my salary was halted. I left the home I had rented and went back to be a farmer in the village, after I was an IT Engineer.”
However, Qidasi says he likes “this shift very much. I feel good about returning to the village, to the fresh air and the intimacy between man and land.”
Despite this radical shift in the engineer’s lifestyle, he has decided to embrace it.
“Our land is fertile and giving, and the harder you work in ploughing it, the better its produce will be. There is nothing more beautiful than living simply and discovering how our ancestors lived. They used to farm the land in order for us to eat from it without relying on importing our basic food needs from abroad.”
Arahab is famed for its fertile land. Unfortunately qat, a narcotic plant, covers 85 percent of the fields, it being the most profitable plant that is grown locally.
“I’m happy here with my five children, but my wife is not happy. She is not used to the village life yet. She has to live here just like me, there is no use in complaining,” Qidasi adds with a smile.
When asked what is the biggest problem he faces, his smile fades away and his face becomes serious.
“The only thing upsetting me is my children’s education. The school they frequent now is bad on every level, but we can’t help it.” According to Agricultural Engineer Abdulkafi Al Fatesh, “returning to the village is a very positive phenomenon that will be beneficial for the farmlands.”
“Farming in Yemen has suffered great negligence after farmers moved to the city, choosing its lifestyle and forgetting that one of the main pillars in a country’s economy is agriculture,” he tells Newsweek Middle East.
“People have started to rehabilitate their farmlands and depend on the harvest, expecting things worse than salaries not coming, such as famine or a full scale embargo which includes basic foodstuffs. We should learn from this crisis and grow basic crops such as wheat and other grains and replace qat, which consumes our water supply and income without benefiting us in anyway,” adds Fatesh
There are heavy taxes imposed by the Houthis on qat dealers, estimated at a daily YER100 million. But this figure is not sent to the state’s treasury to cover some of the weaknesses in the public budget. On the contrary, it is allocated to the Houthis’ “war efforts” to support their warfronts, according to economic analyst Adel Bauqib.
Bauqib claims “Saleh Al Sammad, the head of the so-called Higher Political Council (HPC), promised, during several speeches since September, that he will pay off employees’ salaries, but all these promises were in vain.”
The situation of salaries in the HPC’s territories, controlled by the Houthis, is similar to that of salaries in President Abd Rabou Mansur Hadi’s territories.
Both sides promise salaries but are actually incapable of paying the monthly YER75 billion ($250 million), to the 1.2 million public sector employees, including those in the military and civil service.
While villages are a safe haven for some employees who are without salaries during this period, there are still those who are suffering equally and with nowhere to turn to.
Many have previously sold their farmlands and have nothing to fall back on, as is the case with Adnan Thabet.
“I leave my house veiled, ashamed of the creditors from whom I have borrowed large sums of money and am unable to pay back despite my large salary, which used to be YER250 thousand ($833),” says Thabet.
“I used to work in the Public Prosecution, Department of Financial Affairs in Sana’a,” he adds.
“Nothing is more humiliating than watching my four children in need of the most basic things that I used to provide them with… One of my kids has a brain-related illness and needs monthly medications costing YER20,000 ($66),” Thabet says, as he tries to to hold back his tears.
He adds, “The biggest mistake in my life was cutting ties with my village after my father passed away, and selling my farmland without anticipating these dark circumstances I am currently living through.”
Sumaya Mujahed, a widow that left Sana’a City and went to the village to escape poverty, says she had to move from Sana’a to Wesab Al Aali village in Dhamar Province to her in-laws’ home, in order to “save” her three children from starvation.
“I’m their sole provider and the salary is my sole income,” the math teacher, at an all-girls school, tells Newsweek Middle East.
“We arrived in a village that lays between mountains that suffers from water shortages. I had to walk for 40 minutes to reach an unclean well and wait for about an hour only to get 20 liters of water because the well is crowded with all the village’s girls trying to get water,” she says.
When Mujahed talks about her children and how they are fairing at the village, she draws a deep breath, waits for a moment, then with a sad tone says: “My children could not accept moving to the village and leaving their schools and friends behind. What I fear the most is for them to become depressed.
They are always crying. I sit next to them and tell them tales of patience…”
The Houthis have paid off salaries for the army and other security forces in November.
That was interpreted by observers as a way the Houthis keep the soldiers loyal to them, especially when there is a large number of fighters who are official Yemeni army soldiers fighting for the Houthis along several fronts, including the Yemeni-Saudi border.
Some other public sectors employees received half of their salaries this month.
Many in the Houthi-controlled areas are selling everything they have to make ends meet.
They sell cars, homes and furniture. Sadly, they have to sell their possessions at much lower prices than deserved because they know everyone is in need of money and buying furniture is not a priority currently.