After an arduous journey, badly wounded soldiers from civil war-ravaged Yemen get a healing touch in India
IN 2015, MOHAMMED Omer Mohsin was conscripted, trained and sent to fight a bloody war by his army within a matter of weeks. Everything happened in a flash. Then a lanky 20-year-old interested in football, math and Islamic studies, his circumstances began to change rapidly. It was unsettling, the way his country transformed overnight. From his home north of Aden, the southern port city of Yemen, Mohsin had to pick up his guns and head for Ad Dhale, a town more than three hours away by road. There, he was meant to fight off a threat from rebel Houthi troops armed to the teeth in a civil war that continues to this day.
Lying in his hospital bed in south Delhi, Mohsin recalls the good old days back home as a student until the Arab Spring of 2011 spread across the Middle East and reached his country at the southern end of the Arabian peninsula. At first, there was hope. The elders were excited and he took their cue. Things were going to get better, they prayed. Protestors wanted Ali Abdullah Saleh, the long- time ruler of Yemen said to be steeped in corruption, to go—just as many others of his ilk had been either deposed or killed in the region—and let his deputy Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi take charge. Soon, however, things began to get worse, with oddly named militias, some of which had foreign fighters in their ranks, featuring in local radio news bulletins. Amid the chaos, the dreaded Al-Qaeda came out of the woodwork first and then came the Houthis with whom old rival Saleh and his band of army men briefly had a pact.
Saleh was deposed in 2012 (to be killed by rebels five years later), and the Houthi movement of the minority Zaidi Shia Muslim community in Yemen staged a resurgence once his successor Hadi came to power and the hostilities escalated into a Shia-Sunni civil war. By 2014, Hadi’s government too began to crumble. Within a year, bad days had descended upon a country that had been a trade hub for centuries and a fount of various ancient empires of diverse religious hues.
Mohsin remembers being part of a routine patrol when Houthis turned up in trucks out of nowhere. Did he panic when he came face to face with well-armed enemies? “I don’t remember. But before I knew what was happening, I was hit by a bullet on my right leg and I didn’t know what happened until I woke up in a nearby military hospital,” Mohsin tells me with the help of a translator in between smiles and chuckles. In his air-conditioned room, he likes to stay curled up in bed under a bedsheet which he lifts occasionally to show off his fully plastered right leg in need of surgery. The 23-year-old shares his room in Rockland Hospital in Delhi’s Qutub Institutional Area with two others, and the bathroom and toilets are customised for the physically disabled. He enjoys the hospitality and luxury, he says, a far cry from facilities in his poor country now ravaged by war.
The military hospital back home was a makeshift, under- equipped primary health centre. They removed the bullets and dressed his wounds, but there was nothing more they could do. They had no physiotherapists to assist a proper recovery. Whenever he was in pain, they would clean up his wounds and give him painkillers. He was glad just for being alive, while some of his comrades had been killed. “Anyhow, since then I have been waiting for better treatment. I never knew what my future was going to be with me not being able to walk properly, let alone play football. This trip was like a dream come true,” says the soldier who wanted to be either a teacher of religious texts, once a highly respected profession in Yemen, or a techie. When the government closed schools and colleges in light of the civil war, he was doing an infotech course at a local college.
Mohsin landed in Delhi after a tough journey—whose specifics he does not disclose—on July 3rd this year. He had mixed feelings: unlike many others on the flight, he had travelled on a plane earlier, once, to Jordan for a leg surgery that was unsuccessful. But although he was sure he would be taken care of, he had no idea what kind of country India was. He was anxious yet hopeful.
Mohsin was luckier than most of the 1,500 other wounded men and women, soldiers and civilians on the short list waiting back home for specialised treatment elsewhere. He is a beneficiary of an aid package offered by the UAE, which backs the Hadi regime against the Iran-supported Houthis in a conflict that mirrors an old divide between Islam’s two major sects and has had international intervention. A coalition led by Saudi Arabia, the UAE and seven other Arab states—assisted by logistical and intelligence inputs from the US, UK and France—has helped carry out air strikes on Al-Qaeda and Houthi positions in Yemen.
For security reasons, injured Yemenis are often forced to take circuitous routes to Delhi for treatment, typically via Dubai
The country’s chequered past as a haven for Islamists continues to impinge on its future. Grim reports have emerged from places such as Jaar, a small town in southwest Yemen, where rebels use local knowledge to trap coalition fighters. The rebels control many parts of its Saada province and neighbouring areas, while government forces try to make inroads by taking advantage of the fissures among militia groups.
“When I go back, I want to get back to studies, depending on how the situation is, and probably get married thereafter,” Mohsin says. He doesn’t have a girlfriend, though he had fancied one, he shyly admits. His optimism is contagious. His roommates and others around share a laugh, many of them patients and those accompanying them. In this contingent of early-July arrivals, 21 attendants came along with 53 patients.
In the weeks they have been here, they have got used to Indian cuisine, but the hospital takes care to serve them Arab food every alternate day. Most of them love Indian biryani, a variant of a dish they are familiar with in their country. Their own cuisine is relatively bland. While some have got used to spicy vegetarian fare, others stay away from ‘Indian masala’ to avoid ‘Delhi belly’, as one of the organisers of the programme tells me.
COMING FROM A poverty-ridden country where tap water and electricity have been luxuries ever since the war broke out, Mohammed Ali Hassan Fateni, 56, also among the Yemeni patients treated in Delhi over the past year-and-a-half, talks animatedly as he moves around in a wheelchair and shoots off queries. He offers me a wide smile and that sets the tone for our conversation.
Fateni doesn’t say where he exactly was when he and his fellow fighters suffered an ‘enemy’ ambush. He speaks via a translator, but his gestures convey what the translation fails to. He was in an open armoured car, manning the machine gun mounted atop, when the rebels came. He kept shooting, inflicting as much harm as he could. And then it happened: the car swerved onto a land mine that exploded. Of the seven soldiers in the car, two died on the spot and the others were grievously wounded. Fateni survived with a deep wound on his left leg, which had to be amputated. He was also treated for shrapnel, which had left his body and face slightly disfigured. Like Mohsin, a soldier half his age, the seasoned soldier Fateni also had to wait for three years before he could make it to India for advanced treatment.
Typically, according to intelligence sources, patients and their attendants are flown into Delhi from Yemen in military aircraft by the UAE. But for security reasons, it is said, government soldiers, injured civilians, including women and children, are often forced to take different routes, and challenging ones at that, to reach Dubai and then Delhi. Authorities and agencies hired to help with medical assistance are either tight-lipped or unaware of the itinerary. A few international observers contend it is often difficult to fly the injured from Yemen’s interiors to Aden for them to be airlifted to Delhi via Dubai. “Which means some of these wounded go through extreme stress … in transportation,” says a US-based intelligence officer. On their way back, patients and their escorts fly down to Mumbai from Delhi and then head for Aden via Dubai.
To Fateni, the violence back home wasn’t entirely unexpected. It had gone on for too long, and Islamism had added to the volatile sectarian strife. For a man who has to care for his wife and four daughters back in Aden, he bears the disposition of someone determined to overcome the harshest odds.
In Delhi, where one floor of Rockland hospital has been reserved for soldiers from Yemen, Fateni is happy mingling with others, listening to their experiences, sharing his, watching the movies of his favourite Bollywood stars, besides tuning into Arabic channels. Doctors attending to him are confident he is going to feel much better after a surgery followed by physiotherapy. Some of the patients, especially those in the first two batches, were in worse shape: many of them had high-degree burns and had lost limbs. Even they went back in better shape, doctors say.
As has always been said, no medicine can cure what happiness cannot, and Fateni affirms that. He listens to old Hindi songs for long hours; his favourite Hindi film stars include Amitabh Bachchan, Aamir Khan and Kareena Kapoor. Now Fateni wants to return to his brethren. He voices a term of blessing in the name of Allah as he departs, and I wish him well.
ZIAD KHALID IS only 12 years old. For security reasons, how he has been flown in and where he comes from cannot be disclosed here. Somewhere near Aden, he and his eight-year- old brother had been kicking around what they thought was a football in the winter of 2015. It was going well, and they were getting a bit competitive about who could dribble better. Pre-war exposure to global football on TV and in old sports magazines had stirred a passion for the game in them, and though they were playing close to their home, none of the elders found anything amiss. Khalid kicked the dusty ‘ball’ and it burst into flames and shrapnel. It was a landmine planted by rebel forces. As luck would have it, the younger brother escaped with minor injuries. Khalid survived, too, but what he found after the shock was that half his right leg was missing, massed up like a charred blob.
He had to wait more than two years before he could avail of specialised medical care. The football nut who was a promising student until schools were closed says he doesn’t think much about it. Lounging in his bed in the Delhi hospital, he longs to go around and take in the architectural marvels of Delhi, including India Gate, although he needs more surgeries on his badly mauled leg to be able to walk (for which he will need a walking stick). He also wants to shop for chocolates and chips. Within weeks, he has got used to rajma-rice and almost all kinds of Indian food.
Khalid considers himself lucky in a country where thousands of civilians have died in the civil war since 2005. But he sighs with regret that he can’t play football again. He wants to thank India for its hospitality and love. He knows that several cases dismissed by doctors in other countries, including a case of blindness caused by a landmine, were treated with success at VPS Rockland—which is part of the VPS Healthcare Group headed by Dr Shamsheer Vayalil and has been hired by UAE for its Red Crescent mission for Yemenis injured in the war. The UAE Red Crescent initiative has so far rehabilitated over 3,000 people, of whom nearly 300 were treated in India (a destination since April 2017). They include women with whom I was not allowed audience.
As I leave, Yemeni patients and their attendants sit watching an Arabic entertainment channel in meditative quietude. The next moment, I hear peals of laughter. It is indeed a triumph of spirit over a geopolitical tragedy that shows no sign of an early end.