I will never forget the phone call with a childhood friend who told me that Houthi child soldiers were patrolling the streets of Aden and that they were much worse than the Houthi adults who had taken control of most of the city.
“You can appeal to an adult,” she said. “Maybe even reason with them. But you cannot trust a scared child with a gun.” I still feel a harrowing chill down my spine at the memory of that call.
By that time, we had experienced weeks of nonstop bombing on Sanaa, where my husband and I lived in an apartment with windows so large they covered entire walls. The building stood tall on the corner and our apartment was on the second floor, with windows generous enough for sunlight to fill every space in the apartment. The view was magical, and we loved it.
Before the bombing, I would imagine looking out at the neighborhood through those tall windows with my soon-to-be born baby boy. I would imagine falling asleep in the sunlight with the baby beside me. I would imagine how peaceful that would be. Those romantic visions were shattered the first night I heard what reminded me of the car bombing at the Iranian Embassy some months earlier.
I tried to comfort myself that it was nothing, just some rolling thunder on an otherwise average midnight. I tried to go back to sleep, but the rumbling was insistent. When it started to fill the streets, I woke my husband up. When the explosions started shaking the floors, we both jumped out of bed.
I looked for the little red light above the light switch to indicate whether we had power. It was off, so we needed to turn the spare battery on. Almost eight months pregnant, I wobbled through the apartment, using the walls to guide me as my swollen feet carefully navigated the cool floor as I turned off the light switches. We didn’t want our house to suddenly light up in the middle of the dark neighborhood when my husband turned on the battery.
When he could connect to the internet, my husband told me that the Saudis were bombing us. He couldn’t believe what he was saying, and neither could I. But minutes later, we were certain. People all over Sanaa were waking up to the same news, same confusion and same panic.
I called my mother, who had heard the bombing but did not get out of bed. She said there was nothing we could do at this point and to call in the morning. “Stay strong,” she said after asking about my health and my husband’s safety. “In the morning,” she added. I wanted her to validate my fears. Instead she used her words to reassure me and virtually squeeze my hands in hers the way she would have done if we had been together. Her voice was the gentle squeeze I needed to help me stay grounded.
That night, my apartment became a deathtrap. The large, arching windows were no longer inviting. They were accomplices in our potential death. They were taunting me with each bomb and each tremble.
My husband opened the windows everywhere to relieve the pressure, shut off the gas canister in the kitchen, and dragged our mattress to the only place in the entire apartment surrounded by walls, the entry hallway. His presence of mind surprised me. Neither of us had ever experienced anything like this before. Yet he knew just what to do.
We lay in bed as he scrolled through Twitter. He was on his back and I on my side. I watched his face absorb the news, asking every now and then what was happening. The soft pale telephone light that shone highlighted the furrow he made when he was engrossed by something he was reading. The roaring outside did not cease.
To my left was the door and to my right were the sofa and armchairs in the living room. I tried to sleep. But every time I closed my eyes, I could see the windows in the living room framed through the armchairs that were our barricade. I could see the dark sky and feel my heart sink. I felt like I was drowning in an ocean and looking for the inevitable shark to strike. I quickly got up and ran to grab another sheet to throw over the furniture to block my view. My husband, incredulous, asked me what I was doing. I realized much later how ridiculous I must have looked. Large, barefooted, disheveled, in a pink and green muumuu, tottering around in the dark, placing a sheet on the armchairs to cover the space so that I could feel safer. I cried. I slept.
Three days later, the sheet still in place, my husband suggested we stay with family. When the bombing increased, my body tensed. He tried to comfort me but he felt helpless. “Maali, maybe we should go stay with your mom,” he said. “If you go into labor, I wouldn’t know what to do.” A few weeks later, our apartment was severely damaged. Thankfully, we were not in it.
We moved four more times. We moved twice in the 10 days between the start of the attacks and when I gave birth at the hospital in April 2015, a month earlier than expected.
My doctor had warned me not to give birth at night because there were no hospitals open, and all staff would be sheltering at home, including her. If by some stroke of bad luck, I did go into labor at night, she told me that we could try the Saudi-German hospital 30 minutes away. There would be standby staff there but no surgeon or anesthesiologist. My baby was in breech position, and my doctor cautioned me not to attempt a home birth.
I did, in fact, go into labor at night. My baby had the patience to wait until the morning when life went back to as normal as possible before forcing me to the hospital, where I had an emergency C-section.
I blew out the candles, scooped up my son and sat in the dark room, hoping to evaporate into the darkness. As the droning above got louder, my heart raced and my body shrank. I was the antithesis of the warm, swaddled comfort that was my child. I wanted to put him down on the blanket next to me so I wouldn’t disrupt his sleep, but I didn’t trust the ground not to swallow him up whole. I didn’t trust the windows not to fly at him like a thousand purposeful daggers. I didn’t trust the walls, meant to protect and shelter, not to bury him in this room. Trembling, I held him and covered him with my flesh. I gathered him tightly against my still soft stomach that accommodated his small body. We rocked back and forth, ever so gently, as the warplanes preyed on the city where countless mothers were doing the same.
The violent episodes always began with a distant hum. A faint warning that disaster was impending. Eyes would meet. Acknowledging and validating that dreaded yes, once again. The louder it got, the faster people buzzed around the house, collecting little ones and supporting the elderly to whatever strategic position was deemed safest. When the droning reached a menacing crescendo, children cried, adults prayed, and the entire city collectively held its breath, anticipating death, waiting for the bomb to choose its next victims.
I listened intently for any footsteps, but my husband’s family was either asleep or quiet in bed assessing what kind of fear to be in.
It was not our time yet. The house shook just enough to cause the living room to shake but not enough to damage anything. My husband slept right through it, but his aunt came to check on me and the baby. She was the one who had helped and supported me from the moment I brought my son home from the hospital. This was particularly important because my dad had shingles and I couldn’t go near him for fear of spreading it to the baby. My parents had not yet properly met their 2-week-old grandchild even though we lived 15 minutes apart.
During the aftershock of the bombing, I felt guilt-tinged relief wash over me because I knew in a few hours, my social media feed would be flooded with another family’s tragedy. Maimed bodies, rubble, trauma. The Saudis would say the target was a Houthi base. A Houthi commander. A weapons depot. But most of us, even those who have never supported the Houthis like myself, understood that the Saudis were willing to flatten the entire city no matter the cost.
Time became irrelevant. The days and nights blurred together. We slept when we could or when there was no bombing. Sometimes we were so exhausted that we even slept through the bombing.
My parents’ home was not too far away from our apartment but the neighborhood was denser. Smaller yards, smaller windows. I think the fact that it was more enclosed explained why the house didn’t shake as much as our apartment had. Every day, my mom made rounds of calls to aunts, uncles, cousins and friends in Aden. They were battling a different war. The Houthis attacked civilians, sniped innocent people queuing up for bread and surrounded neighborhoods, cutting them off from the rest of the city. I remember my mother’s cousin crying on the phone once. Her and her family of five were stuck at home with no food and they couldn’t leave the house to get supplies because they were afraid of being sniped. Her children were sleeping naked on the marble floor because there was no water and no power and the scorching Aden heat was suffocating them in their own homes. Some answered and some didn’t. When they didn’t, she called more people to ask if they had heard from them, steeling herself for the worst. She was burning the candle at both ends, keeping us fed and calmed and secured, but everyone was so wrapped up in the birth of my baby, my recovery from the C-section, and my dad’s illness that we didn’t notice all the work my mom was doing. The war made no difference to her morning routine. She still woke at dawn to pray Fajr by candlelight, then got the breakfast ready whether we had gas for the stove or not, fed the cat sometimes with just leftovers, and ensured the house was clean by 8 am.
My mom was swift, steady and strong. We were used to leaning on her in calmer times and needed her even more during that chaotic period. I was struggling to be a mom to my newborn while my mother switched gears and embraced all of us. None of us ever asked her what she needed. We took her strength for granted.
My dad was never the same after the stroke he had shortly after the rebels took over Sanaa in 2014. Yet no matter what happened to his memories or perception of reality, his sweet disposition remained. I cherished the time I spent with him the most. He would come to check on me and my son when we were asleep. I heard his heavy tread and saw the beam of his flashlight as he checked to make sure we were comfortable while we slept. He always checked that my flashlight was charged because he knew I woke up a few times to feed or change my son. If we were having meat that day, he always saved the largest piece for me. Pain kept him awake some nights, and he used the dark waking hours to comfort others.
At the same time, his heart condition was getting worse, and we could not find his medicine. My dad often went without it for weeks at a time until one of the many pharmacies we visited finally had some. At one point, we were limited to only the handful of pharmacies within walking distance, which we called every day as there was no gas available and our car was useless. If we did go anywhere by car, it was a short purposeful trip. Each time, we saw more and more people living on the streets, more children begging for money at stoplights, and more shops closed down.
What I saw scared me into never leaving the house again. I wanted to feign ignorance even though we no longer had running water and instead placed a whole tub of hand sanitizer and wet wipes by the sinks. I wanted to pretend things could be normal even though the power was off, and we were entirely at the mercy of Sanaa’s fleeting sun to fill up the solar panels. Even though we had our meals, talked, watched something on a laptop or slept to the growling of the warplanes, the piercing shrieks of the bombs as they penetrated the air and the shaking of the houses, I wanted to shrink from the realities of the war. I retreated until I became the smallest part of the matryoshka doll, unwilling to let my family see how scared I was.
My son kept us busy. We all fussed over him. My brother watched him while I slept, mom wanted to change him, dad wanted to sing to him. It was a strange new reality with unpredictable and wildly different emotions from hour to hour.
Before bedtime I stacked up the blue divan pillow blocks one over the other, placing the large ones on top in the manner of a fort. My son’s baby mattress leaned against this wall of feathers, and the cushioned roof sheltered him in his little blue bassinet. Like a child, I sat in the little fort I made every night. Unlike a child whose fears are mostly imaginary, I hid from the reality preying upon us from the sky each night. I realized how juvenile that was, but there was no other way for me to feel less exposed.
I wanted to be unseen by the windows, and the childish fort helped. I tried not to imagine how disastrous a bomb would be no matter how many pillows I stacked. Every night I slept in the pillow fort with my son, and every morning I put everything back the way it was. I received good-natured ribbing from everyone except my dad. My husband tried gently explaining to me that my fort was about as effective as the sheet I had placed over the armchairs. “If you want to sleep in the hallway, I can arrange that for you,” he told me. I could tell he was worried about me.
Of course I knew how futile the fort was, but it was what I needed. I couldn’t control what I heard and what I felt, so I needed something safe for my eyes to see. I didn’t know how to explain that they all looked naked and vulnerable sleeping with only a blanket over their bodies, while I felt protected.
Unlike the others, my dad would check on me and my son in our little fort. At night, he would walk in and make sure the fort was snug after I was lying down. He would check that I had drinking water and a fully charged light. Sometimes he would even make sure the mosquito net over the bassinet was zipped tightly. He knew I was watching him. Sometimes, if I was lucky, his sense of humor would kick in and he’d make some silly joke about how I needed to up the fort’s security.
On a night when my son was about 8 weeks old, he heard me get up and came to sit with us. I told him I loved the new baby smell. He told me he loved the soft, tired morning pre-cry. I told him he should go back to sleep. He asked me to turn on the battery. He was having a tough night and wanted the company of the TV. I put my son down and switched on the power and TV for him, then helped him settle into his makeshift bed in the living room. I turned off the lights and watched as he almost instantly fell asleep, then switched the battery back off, kissed him on his forehead, and looked at him for a bit. He was always confused and in pain, but when he slept, he looked just like he had before the stroke. I wished that I could have carried him into the fort with us.
I looked at my husband who was sleeping on the sofa under the window. I wished I could have had his piece of mind. His strength was a source of comfort for me. He could see when my dad’s illness worried us, and he stepped in to talk to my dad with gentleness, making my dad laugh.
I sat in my own makeshift bed counting my blessings and hoping that tomorrow everything would be better. Thoughts started to fill my head, my mind’s resistance to rest. What happens if my son gets sick? What happens if someone gets shot? What happens if we can’t get water? As my anxiety started to bubble to the surface, I pulled the covers over my face and drifted off to sleep while the sky was still quiet.