A translated version of this piece is Available in: العربية (Arabic)
Since Mukalla was seized by terrorists in April 2015, al-Rayyan International Airport has been closed. Both freight and passenger traffic has stopped completely, and the airport is paralyzed after its facilities were looted and much of the equipment destroyed. After the liberation of the Hadramout coast on 24 April 2016, citizens waited for the airport to reopen, but disappointment awaited them as doors remained closed to air travel. Despite the repeated promises made by the government and local authorities in Hadramout, al-Rayyan International Airport remains closed for the fourth consecutive year. In recent years, the residents of the city and neighboring governorates have been deprived of access to their only means of outbound travel. The closure has been more critical for patients in need of medical treatment abroad.
Al-Dhaba Road, which links the city of Mukalla with the eastern regions, has also been closed to the community following the liberation of the city. According to the local authorities, its closure is due to security reasons and to secure the oil port. The road has been closed for two years but was partially reopened after community pressure.
At the heart of this social movement is the Hadramout Women’s Team for Peace, the first women’s organization to attempt to reopen al-Rayyan International Airport and al-Dhaba Road. Their work comes as an attempt to alleviate the human suffering caused by these closures and to communicate the issue to the necessary authorities. In addition, they are also involved in various activities that contribute to raising awareness and community advocacy.
The women’s team actions represent an addition to the record of Yemeni women in Hadramout. Through their participation in issues affecting civil life and resisting marginalization, they actively exercise their public right to address and fight for social causes. Collectively, they were able to lead and stand courageously in defense of their beliefs, making their strong presence felt along the way.
Recently, the team’s advocacy campaign has succeeded in partially reopening al-Dhaba Road and minimizing the impact of the remaining period of closure.
On using Shiher Sub-Road through Ghayl Ba Wazir instead of al-Dhaba Road, Sarah Mohammed, a student at the University of Hadramout, says, “We had to use the sub-road which in itself was a struggle because of the length and difficulty of the road, and the lack of road light at night. For a period of time it became our only option to reach the university in the absence of the al-Dhaba Road. We would leave our homes before sunrise and come back shortly before sunset. We would spend five hours on the road. It was as if it was day trip!”
Hadramout Women’s Team for Peace was founded in April 2018 as an outcome of the National Democratic Institute project to enhance the capacity of women to participate actively in peacemaking. The project involved the training and mentorship of eight women leaders in Hadramout governorate: Dr Abhaa Baaouidan, Raeda Ruwaishid, Abeer Babaeir, Amani Bakhraiba, Solaf al-Hanshi, Atiyat Badhawi, Dr Shaden Bazuhair and Aisha al-Jaidi. These efforts took place through four focus group discussions targeting the local authorities and the security leadership in Hadramout, as well as community figures, youth, political parties and media. The aim was to discuss the most urgent issues related to the lives of the local population. In light of this, the issue of reopening al-Rayyan International Airport and the eastern road of al-Dhaba was selected as pressing, affecting all segments of society.
Hadramout Women’s Team for Peace held several meetings with the Governor of Hadramout, Major General Faraj al-Bahsani, the Chief of Staff, and the local authorities to discuss the reasons for the closure of the airport and to seek their opinion on the issue, while presenting the humanitarian case.
In addition, the team carried out a number of workshops on the role of civil society organizations, youth initiatives, media, entrepreneurs, academics, political and security components, and religious, social and public figures in advocating for the reopening of al-Rayyan Airport and al-Dhaba Road. They also raised awareness and shaped public opinion in Hadramout. The team sought to expand the workshops to include judges, human rights activists, lawyers and media professionals for increased advocacy capacity. Alongside these efforts, the team held a supporting exhibition representing artists of all ages, including children, who expressed their feelings about the issue with outstanding contributions.
Hadramout Women’s Team for Peace organized several meetings with those affected by the closure of al-Rayyan International Airport. Their aim was to identify the community’s struggle with traveling and the right to access medical treatment and to involve them in the advocacy process. During the sessions, the speakers shared their experiences and the hardships of traveling abroad. Some had lost relatives while traveling on the road in an attempt reach Sayoun Airport. Consequently, the team produced a booklet titled ‘So We Don’t Forget’, which included personal stories from these meetings. The purpose of sharing these stories was to further convey the message to the authorities responsible for the suffering of the residents of the coast of Hadramout amid the continued closure of the airport. The booklet was printed in Arabic and translated into English. The team also produced a short film, titled ‘The Longest Way to Our Dreams’.
Alongside the exhibition and film, the team went to five community radio stations in Hadramout for a series of interviews. Later they also met with Saleh al-Jubwani, the Minister of Transport, in Mukalla. During the meeting they shared the suffering and struggle of the people and the negative effects of the closure.
At the beginning of its formation, the team faced obstacles, including a smear campaign on social media, and the credibility of their work was questioned. Commenting on that period, Atiyat Badhawi says, “Some political currents [were] not accepting the cause and its content as well as there being a lack of awareness”. For Abeer Babaeir, she believes that society’s limited view of women and their ability to interact and play their role in important social issues was one of the challenges facing the team. The smear campaign, she stated, “Would have destroyed our advocacy efforts from the beginning if not for the courage and determination of our team”. “The team received threats and we were accused of having political motivations”, added Aisha al-Jaidi, “and the fear of our parents and relatives for being women put additional strain on us”.
Shaden Bazuhair regrets “the role of the media at the beginning of the advocacy campaign, although the cause belongs to everyone, big and small alike”. Aisha al-Jaidi attributed the lack of confidence in the team to the absence of a wider perspective. Nevertheless, after some time, everyone’s reaction changed after realizing the positive role of the campaign. Solaf al-Hanshi concluded, “Advocacy is a civil tool through which people can demand their rights and just causes. It comes to strengthen the role of local civil societies and help them find solutions.”
Hadramout Women’s Team for Peace have been able to breathe new life into the official authorities and engage them in efforts to reopen al-Rayyan International Airport, which has become the main issue in Hadramout, dominating the governorate’s official discourse. The team succeeded in forming a community committee to continue the advocacy work for the partial reopening of the road to traffic through the eastern districts. The team also accompanied Major General Faraj al-Bahsani during his visit to the international airport to overlook the progress of the work and a promise to reopen the airport soon.
Despite the failure to meet the dates set by the Hadramout governorate and the local authorities to open the airport, Hadramout Women’s Team for Peace have not yet raised the white flag. They are continuing their activity and maintaining their goal of opening the road entirely and fighting for further advocacy measures that will contribute to the reopening of al-Rayyan Airport.
Ahmed Boabes, Yemeni writer and Blogger