Explorer Mikael Strandberg

Yemen – how dangerous in reality?

The seven o´clock muezzin just took tone and the prayers from the holy Koran spreads across the darkness which dominates the old city of Sanaa…it is the day before Sunday (Friday here) and I wouldn´t like to be in any other place at the moment….

The traditional jambiyya knife, can like the one you see on the photo be hundreds of yeras old and have a handle from the black rhinoceros.
The traditional jambiyya knife, can like the one you see on the photo be hundreds of yeras old and have a handle from the black rhinoceros.

On the other hand, some professional opinion makers think that Yemen is on the brink of war. That Yemen could turn into a new global tragedy like Somalia, a country dominated by violence between armed fractions belonging to different tribes and where a solution right now seems almost impossible. And there´s no doubt that the situation is dire. The local newspapers,Yemen Post, Yemen Observer and Yemen Times are full of bad news regarding the conflicts within the country and when you read the editorials, yes, it can well be said to be a slightly unstable and dangerous country. A country where kidnapping seems to be a national sport. According to the Yemen Observer there’s been more than 200 separate kidnapping incidents the last 15 years.

But if you, like me, an independent visitor walk the streets of the capital Sanaa, it is almost impossible to believe that the country is considered by many as one of the most dangerous countries in the world. If that means the traffic, yes, I would definitely agree, but just cruising the streets, it is hard to believe. I know that the conflict is in other areas of the country, but still, I see very few armed people….well, most Yemeni men in traditional dress wear the fearful jambiyya, but they feel just symbolic….and the people are so friendly and relaxed that it seems impossible. War planes pass my head a few times a day, just to remind me that there´s a conflict and people, everyone you meet, talks about the situation, but it is hard to spot with the bare eye. If you for example pass a government office or building, it is guarded, but the guards seem to spend more time chewing kat, than to be observant. They sleuth and chew and greet you with a big smile.

The souk of the Old City of Sanaa during another power break...
The souk of the Old City of Sanaa during another power break…

Nonetheless, I have before passed through areas on conflict in Baluchistan just below the Afghani border and Central America, well, I remember Nicaragua very well which I passed on a bicycle early 1987. At that time the country weren´t on the brink of war, they were fighting mercilessly from both sides, the Sandinistas against the contras. It was, I thought at that time, an exiting place to be. It was full of personalities in the shape of aid workers, nuns, mercenaries, travellers, adventurers, Russian and American soldiers and spooks and even though the military presence and the amount of security police was heavy, I managed to cycle across the country and loved that atmosphere that existed. That time I was too young to see all the overwhelmingly negative aspects of war, as violence, terror, evilness and suffering people. But I have a strong memory that local people were great but terrified.

A kat chewer taking life easy in the belt souk of the old city of Sanaa
A kat chewer taking life easy in the belt souk of the old city of Sanaa

Another two hour electricity break there…this does remind me of a war torn  Nicaragua. Really what I want to say about the situation is that I wouldn´t like to be in another place right now and I can honestly say I feel safer here than any other country I have visited. Including my native Sweden. And as everything else in life, life in Yemen presented through Western media, well in this case, global media, whom I know well, and reality is often very different. I have looked closer at these kidnappings that has happened to foreigners and if you look at it clearly, there´s only two kidnappings which has gone wrong. All other ones, the hostages have been released and spoken well about their captivators. The first time it was wrong, according to Yemen Observer, was in the south of Yemen 1999, where three Western tourists were killed in a shoot-out between kidnappers and government troops. The second time was just this past June, when two German nurses and a South-Korean teacher were found dead and six hostages are still not found. There´s a belief among many observers here that the culprits come from another country and belong to the infamous haters called al-Qaeda. It, if you look at history and have come across the Yemenis, it makes sense. For me.

alSOuk_by_night_baab_al_yemenAnd yes, there are areas which should be avoided, but some of the major tourist areas like The Old City of Sanaa and Hadramawt Wadi, Suqutra and the Haraz Mountains are still accessible.

So, I would definitely say to people who travel, Sanaa and Yemen is a paradise and has to be seen. Especially this amazing souk which has to be the most interesting place on earth. I will write more about this global giant soon!

Please visit my other blog for info about life before the old souk of Sanaa at http://preparingforthenextexpedition.blogspot.com/