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Martha Myers: The Betrayed Doctor of Yemen

A translated version of this piece is Available in: العربية (Arabic)

For many years, Martha Myers lived in Yemen as a doctor at a hospital in the city of Jiblah, touring remote villages to treat women and children, providing free vaccinations and treatments, in addition to training families in medical care.

Known all over Yemen, she gained great popularity, real love and appreciation by citizens and patients who used to come for treatment from distant cities. After nearly 25 years of hard work in Yemen, on a bright Christmas day, Martha heard a noise outside the hospital conference room. Before she knew what was happening, a gunman entered the room and shot her with two bullets. His angry face was the last thing she saw in this life.

Jiblah Baptist Hospital

The Baptist Hospital was established in Jiblah in 1968, and one of its first founders was American doctor James Young (1924-2019), who worked there for many years as a surgeon and general practitioner, gaining wide fame and the love of hundreds of people.It had not been more than five years since the outbreak of the revolution in Yemen and the country was witnessing a radical change every day, as was the lives of its people, who for the first time had medical services that saved them from death by diseases that were no longer deadly in that era. United Nations reports at the time noted that Yemen had the world’s lowest number of doctors per capita, which encouraged many Western doctors with humanitarian inclinations to come and work in Yemen. At its peak, the hospital had about 80 beds and performed hundreds of surgeries per month, treating nearly 40,000 people a year and providing dozens of jobs. In his 63rd year, Dr. Young left Yemen and fellow American doctor Martha Myers succeeded him at the hospital, where she continued her work as a gynecologist and obstetrician with diligence and perseverance. She became well known during her long years of work, even becoming more famous than Young. However, Martha was not destined to leave Yemen and return to her family, nor to live as long as him; rather, she was killed along with some of her colleagues when she was 57 years old.

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Birth and Education

Martha was born on March 13, 1945 in Jefferson County, Alabama. Her father, Ira Myers, was a physician and director of the Alabama Department of Public Health, while her grandfather was a Baptist priest, which may have influenced Martha and her inclinations toward medicine and humanitarian missionary work. Martha had a sister, Joanna Kingry, and two brothers, Stephen and Grady. Her mother was Dorothy Myers. During her high school studies, which she completed in Montgomery in 1963, Martha showed remarkable excellence, winning several awards before attending the School of Art at Samford University, where she earned a bachelor’s degree. After graduating from medical school in 1971, she interned at the University of Alabama Medical Center until 1977. During this period, she also worked with the Cardiovascular Organization in Alabama while receiving religious studies at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Kansas City, Missouri. She also traveled to Britain to study Arabic at London’s Polyglot School.

Yemeni Beginnings

Martha first visited Yemen for three months in 1971 while volunteering at Jiblah Hospital through a Foreign Mission Board scholarship program while she was a medical student at the University of Alabama. During this visit, she contributed to the teaching and rehabilitation of the first batch of Yemeni nurses–all of whom were men. Among them was Taher Qassim, who later worked for many years in primary and general health care in the city of Liverpool local council. He was awarded the Medal of British Excellence (MBE) and founded a number of well-known organizations such as Liverpool Arab Arts Festival.

Qassim recalls how during that short period, Martha was able to “steal the hearts of everyone who dealt with her–from the medical and administrative staff to the people she met in the city,” adding that she did not leave that first visit to Yemen until she had determined to return. “She used to say, ‘I will come back and I will live here in Jiblah,’ and we thought this was a type of compliment, but she actually returned and worked at the same hospital for many years. Unfortunately, she also was killed and buried there.”

 

 

Martha and Yemen

The presence of a female doctor specializing in obstetrics and gynecology was important in a conservative society like Yemen, which lacks the most basic medical care. Martha often treated girls with diseases related to scant community health awareness and early marriage. During her 25 years there, thousands of children were born into her hands and hundreds of mothers’ lives were saved. Throughout the week, she split her duties between the hospital’s operating room and outpatient clinics in a diligent and continuous manner.

In addition to her work at the hospital, Martha visited patients at their homes in villages near and far, crisscrossing the Yemeni mountains in her trusty Toyota Land Cruiser, traversing hundreds of miles on rough roads to provide vaccinations to children, distribute ointments and eye drops, examine women, and train families in basic health care. She sometimes would arrive at distant villages late and work well into the evening, moving from house to house. She often had to walk on foot to those villages where her vehicle could not reach. It was her efforts outside the hospital that made her so popular and beloved, particularly by women and children.

Martha worked not only within Yemen, but she also played a major role in bringing medical aid to the country from abroad. In her last visit to the U.S. in 2001, she visited churches all over the state of Alabama, speaking about Yemen and the importance of supporting medical efforts there and collecting aid for the Yemeni people. During that trip, she collected 15 containers of aid to be sent back to Yemen.[1] Martha’s brother Grady told the Baptist Press that Martha spent most of her money to help the needy, noting that in the last years of her life, she even used her savings to help pay for a kidney transplant for a patient at Jiblah Hospital.

Pious and Ascetic

Martha was tall–at least to Yemenis–and slender, with a sharp face and large spectacles resting on a long, prominent nose. She usually covered her blond hair with a colorful scarf, as most rural women did, and always had a pure smile on her lips. Because the people were close to her, they simply called her Martha, without any other titles. Her life in the doctors’ dormitory at the hospital was modest. There were only the basics in her house, as most of her income went to humanitarian work and helping the poor. Professor Mahdi Qadri, a Yemeni doctor currently living and working in Germany, says Martha lived the life of saints and mystics with regard to her food and clothing, recalling that “She wore the same clothes for many months, washing them in the evening so they would be dry by morning and then wearing them again.”

 

Dangers and Inconveniences

 

Martha’s life and work in Yemen was not without problems or threats. She faced many harassments, especially in her latter years there, with the spread of extremist ideas adopted by the forces of political Islam and often supported by successive authorities. She and her fellow American doctors at the hospital frequently were accused of doing missionary work to spread Christianity among Yemenis. In fact, these accusations were not new. They had begun since the hospital was first established. Such accusations have not been proven and they have not received any real response from Yemeni citizens for whom the hospital and its services have become an integral and important part of their daily lives.

Although the hospital and its foreign medical staff are affiliated with the Council of International Mission, which is active in Christian humanitarian work in many regions of the world, their work was limited to providing medical care to Yemenis, and no missionary activity of any kind was recorded. However, the name of the hospital and the medical mission was enough to raise suspicions and prompt random accusations, and even extortion.

For nearly four decades, the hospital’s medical staff worked under difficult conditions, witnessing a civil war, a catastrophic fire, quite a few financial crises, and a constant shortage of staff, in addition to political pressures and legal battles that threatened to close the hospital more than once.

The medical staff faced such difficulties all while meeting the daily requirements and needs of the large number of patients coming to the small hospital for its distinguished medical services from varied social classes and from all over Yemen. The Birmingham News newspaper in Alabama reported the 1998 hijacking of Martha’s vehicle by armed men. On her way to a village, Martha had stopped at a petrol station to refuel when two men threatened her with weapons, tied her up, and put her in the back seat of the vehicle before they drove away.[2] The vehicle crashed after hitting a bump in the road, causing its engine to shut off. The kidnappers were unable to fix it and became worried, so they asked her to keep quiet and remain in place. However, she did not comply with their orders, telling them that she was not afraid, and that if they killed her, she “will be in heaven.”[3] The kidnappers left the vehicle and the incident ended in their arrest by citizens who handed them over to authorities. Numerous sources mention that Martha visited her captors in prison to tell them that she held no grudges against them and that she had forgiven them.

The Killing

It never occurred to Martha, who had become accustomed to her life in Jiblah and to the various challenges facing her work there, that she would not complete the Christmas festivities of 2002. On Monday, December 30 of that year–the day before the arranged transfer of hospital management was to be completed and handed over to the Yemeni Ministry of Health–the country was devastated by the horrific killing of Martha, hospital director Bill Koehn, and procurement director Kathleen Gariety. Pharmacist Donald Caswell was seriously injured.

It was an armed attack carried out by “Islamic militants,” as the Yemeni media described, adding that the killer, Abed Kamel, was able, according to witnesses, to bring a pistol wrapped in a children’s blanket to the hospital after tricking hospital security guards into believing that he was cradling his sick child. The media reported that Kamel confessed to the crime because he said the doctors proselytized among the poor Muslims of Jiblah and encouraged Yemeni women to control births.

According to his confession, which was published in some newspapers, Kamel first went to hospital director Koehn’s office, shooting him in the head and in the chest, then fired two bullets at Martha, and one at Gariety. He then ran out, entered the pharmacy, and fired another bullet at Caswell before he ran out of ammunition and surrendered to hospital security guards.

Martha died instantly, while hospital staff tried their best to save Gariety and Koehn, but to no avail.

Stories circulated that Kamel’s wife was one of the women who received care and treatment from Martha, and that she frequently had praised Martha’s noble human qualities in front of her husband, which only incited his anger and determination to commit this crime in an effort to prevent Christianity from spreading in Yemen and deceiving Muslims, as he believed.[4]

Yemeni media was still preoccupied with another assassination that terrified the country just two days before the killing of the Jiblah doctors: the killing of one of Yemen’s most prominent opposition politicians. On December 28, 2002, just moments after delivering a historic speech, assistant secretary general of the Yemeni Socialist Party Jarallah Omar, who was attending a general conference of the Islamic Reform Party–which was allied at the time with the Socialist Party–was assassinated. His killer, Ali Al-Sawani, shot him with two bullets in front of more than 3,000 people and in front of television screens and various media outlets.

Kamel admitted his relationship with Al-Sawani, who coordinated with him in the weeks prior to the jihad operation against the American Christians in Jiblah. According to other sources, Kamel further admitted to a relationship with a member of the Arab Mujahideen in Bosnia which four years earlier had killed three nuns working at a mental hospital in Hodeidah.

A Killer’s Execution

Marty Koehn, wife of Jiblah hospital director Bill–who crafted wooden toys in his spare time and distributed them to Yemeni children–was at home at the time of the killings. When she received the news, she rushed to the hospital and was able to speak to her husband before he died.

She then had to make a very difficult choice: Would she stay in Yemen, where she and her husband spent nearly 30 years, or return to her country? After a short visit to Texas to mourn with their two daughters, she decided to return to Yemen and work at the hospital, which resumed operating less than a month after the incident. Marty took over the purchasing manager position held by Gariety, who was killed. She continued working there until 2007 when she decided to return permanently to her family in Texas.

Whereas Marty made her difficult choice and returned to Yemen, she did not succeed in mediating with the Yemeni government to annul the death sentence handed down to her husband’s killer. Three years and two months after the murders, on February 27, 2006, Kamel was executed by firing squad in the yard of the central prison in Ibb.

Artwork by Ali al-Mabari

Mutual Love

Unfortunately, a new generation of Yemenis does not know much about Martha, her life, and the impressions she made during her long years in Yemen. Nor do they know the stories and memories circulated by the previous generation of Yemeni parents about her and her fellow doctors, who ultimately gave their lives for their work at the hospital in Jiblah. The very least that can be done is to document their noble lives and deeds so that it may be of interest to researchers and perhaps serve as an apology to the murdered hospital staff for the tragic end they suffered and the shameful oblivion with which they were met by Yemeni authorities and society.

“I would say that no prayers are wasted on Yemen or the other countries because the needs are so great,” Martha said to members of the International Mission Board at one of their annual meetings, adding, “I must say that the fields are white and ready for harvest, and how much we need to pray to the Lord of the harvest to send His servants to help!”[5]

Responding to the urging by some of her friends asking her to leave Yemen, she said, “I felt a special assurance from the Lord that this was where I would be and, single or not, I would be happy,” always emphasizing, “I am here in Yemen for a reason that only God knows. Only He can order me to go home.”

Following her death, Martha’s father Ira said of her, “She had an inexhaustible affection for people, especially those in need,” adding, “She is in heaven, without a doubt, so I have no fears because we will see her again. It is a question of who will get there first.”

Qassim remembers how he received the news of her death. “I was with my family vacationing in the Lake District when I heard on the television news about Yemen and the killing of some foreign doctors there. When I heard the name Jiblah, I was afraid, and when I knew that Martha had been killed, I froze in my place and tears streamed from my eyes, to the astonishment of my wife and daughters.”

Commenting on the doctors’ killing, Jiblah resident and student Ghaleb Al-Maqalah told Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper, “It is betrayal in its greatest form. Dr. Martha was like a mother to all of us and all the residents of Ibb. The person who committed this crime has also killed us.” As for Jiblah shop owner Abdulkarim Ali, he expressed that what happened was a “terrible shock,” noting that “the entire team of doctors was kind to us…No one here would have thought of doing this.”[6]

At Martha’s memorial ceremony—attended by more than 1,200 people–held at Dalraida Baptist Church in Montgomery, Martha’s sister Joanna spoke about how her sister, out of her love for Yemen, “became Yemeni,” and how Yemenis considered her one of them. She added that she understood why Martha requested burial in Yemen, as she once heard her declare, “If I am lucky enough, I will be here when I die.”[7]

God and Yemen

 

Confident in her message, Martha was happy with her job, which required her to leave her family and her life in America and dedicate her life to the humanitarian mission she believed was commanded by her God. However, she did not know that God had ordained for her to die in that country she loved, murdered by one of its “good sons,” as she always described them, whom He had sent her to help.

According to their wills, Martha and hospital director Koehn were buried in the backyard of the hospital at Jiblah in a solemn funeral attended by thousands of Yemeni men and women who lined up for hundreds of meters outside the hospital gates to offer their condolences. Some area residents still visit their shrines today and read Al-Fatihah upon their souls.

On the second floor of the Samford University Library is a life-size bronze statue of Martha Myers designed by American artist Glynn Acree. On the statue’s frame is the phrase, “She loves God,” written in Arabic–the same phrase written on her tombstone in Jiblah.

Those who knew Martha and her love for Yemen undoubtedly would agree with us that the most expressive phrase should have been, “She loves God and Yemen.”

 


[1] Erin Curry, “Martha Myers: a life dedicated to caring for the Yemeni people,” 31/12/2002, https://bit.ly/3y9RK4U

[2] [2] “So You Say You Want to Be a Missionary?” an article about Martha Myers, 15/10/2012, https://bit.ly/362mh8R

[3] Curry (n 1).

[4] Janella Martinez, Martha Myers Brief Biography, August 2016, at https://bit.ly/3ya4toa

[5] [5]Ivan Oransky, “Martha C Myers”, The Lancet, 9/3/2003, at https://bit.ly/366hseN

[6] Robert Mcfadden, Asharq Al-Awsat, 1/1/2003, at https://bit.ly/362tGVH

[7] Jennifer Davis Rash, “Physician Martha Myers’ life ‘exemplified Jesus Christ’, 6/1/2003, Baptist Press, at https://bit.ly/3hoou3A.

 

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Hamdan Dammag

Hamdan Dammag is a prize-winning novelist, poet and researcher with several publications. He received his PhD in computer science from the University of Reading, and since then he worked as an academic, researcher, journalist, translator, writer, human rights activist and political analyst. He has diverse research and writing interests, ranging from computing to Arabic literature and criticism. He worked as Managing Editor of Yemen Times newspaper and Chief Editor of Ghaiman literature journal. He has worked in various Academic insinuations, and in 2008 he was appointed as a Vice President of the Yemeni Center for Studies and Research in Sana’a. He is currently a member of the Board of Trustees of Liverpool Arab Art Festival, member of the Executive Committee of the British Yemeni Society, Co-Founder and member of the executive committee of Labour Friends of Yemen. Born in Ibb in 1973, he is the son of renowned Yemeni novelist Zayd Mutee Dammaj.

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