Singaporean mum and kids back home after Yemen ordeal

Mum and four kids recount their hair-raising evacuation from war-torn country

Dizzy from relief and fatigue, Madam Sherin Fathimah took a few unsteady steps as she walked out of the arrival hall at Changi Airport yesterday afternoon.

After she and her four young children embraced the 20 relatives who were there to receive them, the 37-year-old told The Sunday Times: "I no longer need to worry about our lives."

Just three days ago, Madam Sherin and her children, aged between four and 13, began their hair-raising evacuation from Yemen, which has been rocked by fierce clashes between Shi'ite rebels and loyalist militia. They did not even dare speak a word as their car edged towards the port in Aden, where a Chinese ship they were due to escape on was docked.

"Tanks were firing at each other along the destroyed roads. The driver had to detour and use the small alleys to get to the port," said Madam Sherin, who had been living in Aden with her Yemeni husband since last September.

Her husband did not go through the ordeal as he had gone to Saudi Arabia for a pilgrimage before tensions heightened.

Unlike his mother who only managed weak smiles and tentative hugs as she was clearly shaken by the events of previous days, 13-year-old Ahmad Ramzy jumped and waved at relatives as he emerged from the hall.

Still, he admitted that the past week had been traumatising. Last Thursday, he rushed back home from school when the battle got too close for comfort. "I was walking into class to take the Turkish mid-year exam when I heard gunshots, so I ducked and ran out like all the other students," he said.

That was when his mother got worried and asked the Ministry of Foreign Affairs for help in getting out. The ministry eventually managed to secure places for her family on a Chinese vessel bound for the African state of Djibouti.

By then, the missile strikes were hitting so close that the building where they lived shook. Snipers took positions on the roof, ready to resist the rebels. Water, gas and electricity supplies were cut off for most of the day. Even going downstairs to buy water was a big risk, said Madam Sherin.

On the ship, they were five out of 225 people of 10 nationalities, including Britons and Turks. "I am really grateful to the Singapore Government for its help because I saw how others had to beg to get on the vessel but couldn't," said Madam Sherin.

The journey to Djibouti took about nine hours. Then, the family took a five-hour flight to Istanbul before a final 11-hour flight back to Singapore. "It is a miracle and I couldn't stop crying on the way back," she added.

Madam Sherin's mother, with whom she will be staying in the East Coast area, shuddered at the close shave her daughter and grandchildren had. "We didn't think the war would get so close to them, then it happened so suddenly. We prayed and left it in God's hands," said Madam Jeenathammal, 63.

Yesterday, the conflict escalated further, according to AFP. A Saudi-led coalition pounded Shi'ite Houthi rebel positions in Aden and dropped more arms to fighters loyal to President Abedrabbo Mansour Hadi, who fled to Saudi Arabia late last month. Pro-Hadi fighters were seen unpacking rifles from wooden crates dropped by parachute. "We thank the kingdom of Saudi Arabia and all the Gulf countries, as well as our brothers in Arab countries, for dropping supplies," said Mr Ahmad Qassem al-Shaawi, a local militia chief. "God willing, we will fight off any attack."

Aided by the strikes and arms drops, the pro-Hadi fighters have managed to drive the rebels back from some parts of central Aden, including the presidential palace, AFP reported.

At least 185 dead and 1,282 wounded from the clashes have been counted in hospitals in Aden since March 26, the city's health department director, Mr Al-Kheder Lassouar, said. Three-quarters were civilians, he added.

The toll does not include casualties among the Houthi rebels and their allies, who do not take their casualties to public hospitals, or victims of air raids.

The United Nations said on Thursday that 519 people had been killed and nearly 1,700 injured in two weeks of fighting around the country.

The UN Security Council was to meet later yesterday to discuss a Russian proposal for humanitarian pauses in the air war, diplomats in New York said.

The Red Cross said hospitals in Aden were overwhelmed by the casualties and fighting was making it nearly impossible for aid workers to move around. Two brothers working for the Yemen Red Crescent Society were shot dead on Friday in the southern city while evacuating the wounded, it said.

"In Yemen, we are seeing Red Crescent volunteers being deliberately killed as they strive to save others. This is the third senseless death in a single week. This is a very worrying trend and a tragic loss," said Mr Robert Mardini of the International Committee of the Red Cross.

Yemen, an impoverished state on the southern tip of the Arabian Peninsula, is the scene of the latest proxy struggle playing out between Middle East powers, after Syria and Iraq.

Iran, which backs the Houthis, has accused Sunni-ruled Saudi Arabia of sowing instability in the region. But it has rejected as "utter lies" accusations that it armed the rebels, who have allied with army units loyal to former president Ali Abdullah Saleh.

The turmoil has allowed Al-Qaeda to expand its foothold in the south-east of the deeply tribal country, which had been a key US ally in the war on the extremist network. On Friday, Al-Qaeda fighters captured the regional army headquarters in Mukalla, capital of the south-eastern province of Hadramawt.

In the southern town of Daleh, the Houthi rebels broke into a jail and freed more than 500 prisoners, according to a military source, who voiced fears of "widespread anarchy".

jantai@sph.com.sg