Zim humanitarian worker narrates hijacking ordeal in Yemen

By Thembisani Maphosa

Two weeks after completing a mission visit to the field, we were en route from Al-Mukha Office to Aden. The mission had gone extremely well, and I was feeling at ease. We were part of a two vehicles convoy travelling in a uniform manner as per the organization’s security protocol. I was sitting at the rear end of the second vehicle.

As we approached Ras Al-Arah, at around 1130hrs a white Toyota Corolla saloon overtook us at somewhat abnormally high speed (for that type of road) prior to making an abrupt stop in front of our car blocking the way. The driver stopped the car and out of the corolla emerged three men armed with AK47 rifles. They pointed their barrels straight towards the driver, before forcing him out of the car, to which he complied with neither hesitation nor resistance.

One gunman took over the driver’s seat whilst his accomplice comfortably occupied the front passenger seat. Amid all this they had not realized that I was calmly sitting in the back seat, trying to process the whole incident as it unfolded. After pondering on all the possible scenarios and outcomes, only one thing dawned on me – ‘do my best to evade any chance of being kidnapped. It was at that moment that I unbuckled my seat belt and alighted before taking about 2- 3 steps from the vehicle, for I thought it better to be stranded in the middle of nowhere than to be kidnapped by three gun-wielding men. Little did I know that this move was going to enrage our attackers. The next moment I had the third perpetrator’s rifle pointed at my cranium demanding that I hand over my phone and all the money in my possession. Anything to save my life, I gracefully complied. 

It is very significant to note my thought process during the whole ordeal. I had never been in a real hijacking situation before, but in the heat of the moment I assumed a very calm demeanour, where one would have expected me to show overtly some signs of distress, I seemed quite indifferent outwardly. There were many things running through my mind of course. Firstly, I had to remember the tactics I was taught during the Hostile Environment Awareness Training (HEAT) in Ireland, way back in 2016. I had to replay them in a flash to keep myself alive. Secondly and most importantly was my family. When a man has a wife and children all his decisions are made with his posterity in mind. The end goal was to see my family again. To see them I had to keep myself alive, to keep myself alive I needed to make sure I do not get shot. To circumvent the bullets being driven through my head I had to make reasonable decisions, rationality was hard to tap into in such a dreadful circumstance, but the vivid image of my family kept me rational. At that moment I shrunk and the most significant thing in my life was as has always been, my family. 

All this took place in about five to seven minutes, it was a quick and meticulous job from the gunmen’s perspective. They sped off with all our belongings, and we were left stranded in the lonely desert. We had managed to evade the bullets, but now a more difficult task ensued: fighting the elements! It was scalding hot, and we had no water. As if this wasn’t enough, I was stuck with a colleague who could not utter a single word of English as he solely spoke Arabic. We had to conjure a sign language to communicate with each other. It took us time to get to a mutual understanding. I felt lost and hopeless, I hadn’t lost hope, but I was ‘feeling’ hopeless. Here I was, stranded in a foreign country with no one to speak to, having survived a hijacking and being baked to death by the desert sun. I had left my country to pursue service to humanity. In my estimate, it was the highest form of virtue, but all of it was recompensed by a dreadful experience, I felt betrayed. It was very confusing; I was trapped in an existential dilemma. It is then that I realized that being a humanitarian worker is no soft elitist kind of job. It requires an elastic heart and bravery of a lofty magnitude. It requires the subjugation of self and sacrificing one’s life for the greater good of others. When one is still able to signal on social media about the work they are doing in war-ridden countries, they have not become a true humanitarian. 

Having invented a way to communicate, our next task was to stop passing cars so we could at least get a phone and send a distress signal to the security personnel back at the office. Cars passed, one after the other, presumably because they could not trust us at that point of need. However, for those that stopped, it’s either their phones did not work, or they were not willing to give out their phones at all. At this moment the elements were not relenting. Add thirst, hunger, and stress into that you have two debilitated adults. Car after car, there was no hope. After a while, a car stopped, and the driver left us with a bottle of water. I cannot start to describe how it feels like to drink water at that kind of moment. After him, a Toyota Hilux ferrying goats came to our rescue. The driver offered to drop us at the nearby roadside complex, 5km away. Who cared if we were cramped up with goats and sitting on manure? all that mattered was being in a place to make a phone call.

Arriving at the complex we faced challenges as we tried to secure a phone, but after a while, we managed to call the office and a rescue car was sent for us. Subsequent days after the experience is when reality struck. I was bitter and depressed; therapy could not help either. What I needed was to go home and be with my wife and kids. It was a chilling experience that will be forever present in my mind, where I lost all my possessions, laptop, phone, a few greenbacks, and personal clothing. Thank God my life was spared. It’s here as I have propounded that I learnt that being a humanitarian is a call towards selflessness and sacrifice. This is a story of resilience highlighting that being a humanitarian worker is a call towards selflessness and sacrifice. It’s a story that I share with the world to conscientize the masses on the work done by humanitarians. In the same vein, through this story, I hope all humanitarian organizations and policymakers understand and appreciate the work that humanitarian workers do in the field.

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