Yemen’s war is taking its toll on love. But some couples are fighting back
Turbulent waves along Yemen’s El Mandeb Strait were breaking the twilight calm on the Friday before St. Valentine’s Day. Imad Wajdi Anwar, 27, was about to surprise Ayat Husain Al Authali, 24 with an engagement ring, surrounded by close friends and colleagues. Dramatic oranges and greys shone in the sky—a prelude to the unexpected evening that was to unfold.
There were nerves, there was tension, but soon, there would be laughter. Her response was an unequivocal ‘Yes.’
“We didn’t have a table for the ring, so Amar, the shortest person in the group served as a table, and we put the box on top of his head,“ Authali said with a laugh. “It was a beautiful day, filled with happiness and the love of our people,” she added, still flushed with excitement from that day.
The anxiety was inexplicable, but Authali felt reassured with Anwar by her side. “He looked into my eyes. For a moment, I thought he was going to say something romantic. Then he said I am going to be engaged to a crazy person who is stubborn and bad tempered. Maybe I will have to reconsider, and then he laughed,” she said.
Authali and Anwar’s relationship has been fraught with uncertainty from the start. They met in the sweltering heat of August, a fortnight after the seaport city of Aden was liberated from the Houthi rebels with the help of a Saudi-led airstrike campaign. The couple were volunteering with the Emirates Red Crescent, distributing aid to the war torn city’s vulnerable elderly and orphans.
After eleven months of war, the southern town remains fragile, wracked by unemployment, insecurity and the uncontrollable rise of militant groups. On Friday, masked gunmen stormed Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity retirement home in Aden, handcuffed and killed 16 people, including four catholic nuns caring for the elderly. In December, Major General Jaafar Mohammed Saad, Aden’s former governor and five of his bodyguards were killed in a car bomb targeting his convoy. In the same month, unknown assailants killed Ahmed Al Idrisi, a top commander in the pro-government Popular Southern Resistance.
Love Against All Odds
Against a backdrop of civilian casualties and bombings, Authali admits the journey has been complex. “Aden is still suffering. But we cannot forget, Aden taught us to love regardless of the circumstances. So this is an external factor and doesn’t really impact our relationship.”
She blamed widespread extremism and lack of security on Yemen’s former President Ali Abdullah Saleh. Authali said that the terrorist attacks were aimed at destabilizing Aden and disrupting residents’ day-to-day lives. “As relief workers, terrorists call us infidels and we have received innumerable threats from extremist groups who call us street bandits. They fight us with hate, but we fight them with love. The righteous will always win,” Authali added.
A shy and reserved Anwar, employed by the Endowment Ministry in Aden, spent three months planning the engagement party. “We were a bit afraid about the response from our families,” she admitted, but since then they have been overjoyed. “I don’t think in Aden it is difficult for people to fall in love. A lot of relationships developed during the war. Many people got engaged.” At the same time, she added, “there are a lot of girls who sacrificed their wedding celebrations as they were unable to get married.”
March will mark a year since the Saudi-led coalition launched its campaign against the Houthi rebels. To date, more than 21.2 million people have been internally displaced and nearly 6,100 civilians have been killed, according to the United Nations.
War Widows and Divorce
While the war has brought couples together amidst the hardship and ruins, it has inflicted a strain on other marriages. The exact number of families torn apart by divorce or death is unknown.
Naseem Fadhl, in her forties, still can’t come to terms with the loss of her husband, Osamah Al Khaibah, of 20 years. He was killed in their home’s backyard by a rocket as fighting between the Houthis and the Saudi-allied Southern Resistance fighters worsened in September 2015. She was left to care for their four daughters and two sons.
Fearing another reprisal, Fadhl moved in with her parents to the Al Masaged village in Al Shimayateen district. “Since then, my children are suffering because they are not accustomed to living in the village,” she said. Despite her tragedy, she acknowledges the silver lining: her children are still alive and have a home. But Fadhl cannot help but reminisce about days when the family was together. “No one can replace my husband in my heart, even if I live with my parents,” she said. Fadhl is not planning to remarry.
Unable to cope with the pressures of unemployment, the rising cost of living and food shortage some marriages have ended in divorce. For the young couple Atef and Enas Al Adimi, who married in 2008, the cracks started to appear after the former was made redundant from his job as an accountant with Haza’a Taha Nagi Company, in Taiz, Yemen’s third largest city. Some of his colleagues were transferred to another city, but Atef was forced out. Unable to afford his life in the city, Atef and his wife relocated to his village Adim in Al Shimayateen district, 70 kilometers away from Taiz, to live with his parents.
In only two months, he exhausted his savings. This compelled him to turn to his retired father Mohammed, to support his family, to Enas’ dismay. “The problem between me and my wife started in June, when she insisted [on leaving] my father’s house, demanding [that I] to rent a separate house for us in any city. I couldn’t afford to rent without an income,” Ademi said. The friction between the couple ensued for the next two months, after which Enas took their only daughter and went to live with her father. “Her father refused that she returns to my father’s house, so I [was] forced to divorce her because of the lack of money,” he said.
Ademi longs to see his daughter, but with no end in sight to the war, the prospects are slim. “I know that she can eat and sleep very well, but I cannot guarantee that she does not long for me and her grandfather. I hope that the war ends and then I can get a job and bring my wife and daughter again to live with me in a separate house.
“Any woman needs money to live with her husband, but also the wife has to appreciate her husband in [a] difficult situation. I cannot understand what happened with me, even my wife was impatient,” he said.
Anwar and Authali married on February 29, in an intimate ceremony surrounded by close friends and family. “It’s a unique date, but that’s what makes it special,” she laughs, looking forward to their anniversary every four years. Imad cannot imagine his life without Authali. “Love definitely exists, and love restores hope and life,” she believes, keen to rebuild their lives and of those around them.