This is a true story, not one you would expect to hear. It is one I have hesitated to tell as I did not want to encourage others to follow my path. I also do not want to create a negative image of Yemen as its people are some of the most hospitable and welcoming people on the planet. This is the full story of my two-month adventure in Yemen which brought me overland across the Houthi and Coalition territories, trapped in the middle of the wars most intense conflicts, and ultimately landing myself in a rebel prison. It is not your average travel story, but it is the story of when a backpacker gets a little too arrogant.
This is the true account of what unfolded over the two months I traveled across Yemen in 2018. However, I will not be using the real names of any of the Yemeni’s I met as keeping their identities secret is for their own safety. I am sure many of you are wondering why it has taken me so long to tell this story. It’s for multiple reasons, but I feel no that travel blogging is shifting to become something new after the pandemic that now is a good time to show some of the realities behind what happened when you read all the happy stories on blogs.
Getting to Yemen
I love to tell this part of the story because it exposes all the travel bloggers claiming they went to Yemen legally. Whether you are talking about Drew…what’s his name or any wannabe blogger, they all entered Yemen illegally.
So, let’s get down to how it works. From Salalah, Oman, A “Fixer” from numerous but unregistered tour agencies in Yemen will pick you up and drive you to the border towns of Yemen/Oman. Here your fixer will get out and tell you that he is going to get your visa. What you do not see is he illegally bribes the Yemeni border guards who then stamp your passport with the old visa. How do I know this? We will get to that later in this story.
Chelsea my partner, Matt my cousin, and I did this and crossed into Yemen on its northern frontier border with Hadhramaut. This is the first point I began losing faith in my fixer, the border took forever and that is because he never arranged his bribe ahead of time to bribe and every good traveler knows that bribing on the spot requires lengthy negotiations.
The Manhattan of the Desert, Shibam
Thirteen long hours it took from the border town to Shibam. We passed through multiple military checkpoints to get there and do you know how? This is another thing all the blogger/YouTuber community will not tell you. Covering your faces and wearing local clothing is the only certain way not to get arrested and sent back to Oman… Oh, I forgot bribing as well, did I mention bribing yet?
Arriving late at night we were pushed into an old housing block that wreaked of sewage. This was our “hotel”. We later found out that we stayed here because there are no hotels in this area, and this broken-down housing unit was a secure place to house illegal tourists.
The next day we very discreetly visited many of the small towns in the area. Anytime we sat down for tea or to eat we would be pushed back into hidden areas and were told it was for security reasons, this is simply a lie, it is just because it is illegal for tourism, are you catching the pattern yet?
The ancient mud skyscraper town of Shibam was one of the places we could freely walk, however, and this is because there is almost zero police presence. So, next time you see those friendly white YouTubers saying how wonderful it is to visit while they walk around freely remember this true account.
Marib, The Front Line
We stayed two days in Hadhramout before heading to Marib. This is where tourists do not make it to, am I bragging? Might as well since I lived to tell the story. On route, we stopped to fill up with gas next to a truck bearing the ISIS flag filled with black-clothed youth warriors armed with Chinese machine guns…. Truly a safe region according to many.
Marib is the front line of the war, sniper fire and airstrikes are common in this area. There is also a plethora of historical sights dating back to the time of the Queen of Sheba.
Our guide Mohammed had Bedouin friends here who lived in compounds with more firepower than Saddam Hussein’s entire palace. These Bedouin, who before the civil war used to kidnap tourists for ransom money hosted us for two days and it was wonderful.
They fed us, taught us about Bedouin culture and the women attempted to shower Chelsea in gifts despite how little they had to offer. With (with armed convoys) took us to all the historical sights! I have fond memories of Marib, but this is truly when that feeling in the pit of your stomach telling you not to go further began. Did I listen, nope, I am an arrogant bastard who thinks nothing bad will ever happen.
Crossing the Front Line
Look on a map, from Marib to Sanaa is not a long-distance, but that is assuming you take the highway where tanks and barricades are lined up often firing at each other. It’s also where the main checkpoints are and as a tourist if you are caught here! Well, the outcome would be severely different from mine.
Using local clothing, fake documents, and what I assume was a lot of bribing, we took a remote mountain road crossing from Coalition into Houthi lead territory. I distinctly remember where the front line was. The checkpoints stopped and Mohammed told us that if we get out of the car a sniper will take our head clean of our shoulders, and Chelsea was instructed to wear her niqab and sit in the front seat to help our vehicle “blend in”. Outside the vehicle, there were craters from explosives and refuges children from Somalia living in absolutely terrifying conditions.
The first Houthi checkpoint was a ramshackle house with a giant picture of the Houthi Leader. The guards were children in military clothes armed to the teeth, the encounter was intense but friendly.
Sanaa the Capital of Yemen
It took twenty-one hours of driving to get from Marib to Sanaa. Thankfully, we arrived late at night, so our local disguises allowed us into the city! Mohammed lived in the old city of Sanaa, a UNESCO Heritage sights, and we were so excited to stay there!
Awakening early to the sound of AK47 firing, we peered out the window to find ourselves in an Arabian wonderland! Honestly, it was such an incredibly exciting moment!
Mohammed led us around the old city without any troubles at all over the next few days. The old city is filled with everything a traveler dreams of, spices spilling out of shops, vendors yelling out their wares in Arabic, and mudbrick building seven stories high!
Sanaa is truly an amazing destination, it conjures up images of the old Arabia, the one T.E Lawrence must have explored. The fact that I was able to visit it in my lifetime is quite possibly the best memory I have of my traveling.
In these days we left Sanaa and visited the Stone Palace, Dar Alhajar, and several smaller villages. It was everything I dreamt of seeing in Yemen. Our next destination was to be the Haraz mountains, but the local Houthi police had heard about us and requested that we drop by the station to say hi before we continued.
Jail and Interrogated in Yemen
This is where the story takes a sharp decline, what we thought was a friendly meeting at the Houthi police station quickly fell into a terrifying situation.
Our fixer entered the room for negotiations first while we were kept separate. When the head Houthi official that we referred to as “The General” arrived we all gathered into one room for interrogation. Here my fixers mood changed, he whimpered and cried as the General yelled Arabic at him. The General took all our belongings and pulled out the forms in which our fixer told us were permission from local police allowing us here.
The General told us the forms were fake, our visa was only awarded to us through bribery and ultimately was considered fraudulent. We were in Houthi territory illegally and had snuck in. Our fixer was then taken away and we were taken into custody being labeled as “Spies “.
The Houthi authorities brought us to a run-down hotel in which the top 5 floors were abandoned. We were locked in a dusty, run-down room on the top floor with an armed guard watching the room. The windows had bars making it confirmed this was a makeshift prison cell.
The next twelve days were absolute hell. We were not allowed to have any contact with the embassy, our families, or anyone outside the four prison walls we found ourselves in. Every second day we were separated for enhanced interrogation.
When I tell this story everyone loves to know how specifically the Houthi’s tortured us, they want the “shock value” to increase to keep them interested but if any of us were brutally physically tortured there is no way I would be openly discussing it. Most of the torture was psychological, it involved guns to your head, death sentences, showing me the tools they would use to get the information they needed, and of course giving me an ultimatum to admit my spy activities to save my partner and friend from their deaths. Early on I was struck a few times with a bottle and the back end of the pistol, they quit doing that as they saw it only filled me with rage and didn’t get me talking too much.
I think the entire duration was twelve days, but we did begin to lose count. On the final day, they brought me into a room and told me it was judgment day. If I could not prove my innocence, I was going to the firing squad.
The one thing I needed was the internet to prove I did not fake anything,
but they would not allow it as they thought I had access to some James Bond technology that would get them killed. On the final day, they allowed access to my phone with the supervision of course.
It took 2 minutes to prove our innocence and the General said to me “It appears some very compelling evidence will set you free today, I cannot say the same for your fixer, however”.
The night of our release the General asked us to chew Khat with him. We chewed the local narcotic until 3 am talking about religion, politics, and even the General telling us about his private life. It masked the monster he was only hours before and showed us he was a man doing his job.
The General told us one last thing before we were set free. “You all now know what hell is, even though you have escaped, I want you to always remember the hell you were in and why you got out.” The General was executed months later but his words have stuck with us until this very day, so much so that Chelsea had the words “remember hell” tattooed in Arabic on her back so she would never forget our time in Yemen.
In the morning we were introduced to Ahmed who became single handily our closest Yemeni friend. Ahmed worked as a tour guide before the civil war and was commissioned to us to guide us through Houthi territory only until the tourism authority of Yemen could find us a safe exit from the country.
The Haraz Mountains
The villages that cling to the Haraz mountains are all within Houthi territory and feeling like a child in a candy shop I now had access to the entirety of it. Ahmed with his reliable 4×4 was to take us into this Arabian wonderland the next day with zero restrictions! I think this adrenaline masked the horror we had just been through.
Before we left, we met with the tourism authority of Yemen, who was arranging us a flight from the Southern city of Aden to Egypt. We had many conversations about the future of Yemen and what the plan of tourism would be that night.
Over the next few days, we drove high into the mountains of Haraz. We stayed in the most amazing villages learning about the cultures that reside there. These mountain tops medieval villages seem to have never even seen the war and truly brought us back in time.
We even spent a few days hiking from one medieval cliff village to another staying with local families who took exceptionally good care of us.
In total, we spent a week up in the mountains awaiting our flight from Aden which was to happen within three days of our return to Sanaa.
The Battle of Sanaa
Returning to Sanaa we thought that we would be saying our goodbyes to our new friend Ahmed but we were about to, once again, be taken on another adventure. Our first obstacle was the coalition notifying the tourism authority that we were deemed enemies as we were “working” with the Houthi’s. This would stop us from traveling to Aden for our flight as it was in their territory.
Calling our embassy also seemed like a waste of time as they made it seem as if all they wanted was info on the Houthi general taking care of us. They refused to negotiate with the coalition and offered zero help to us, this is me being polite.
Meanwhile, Ahmed had brought us to meet new friends some of which were very wealthy and political individuals to help calm our nerves. On the fourth night back in Sanaa all hell broke loose.
You can Wikipedia “the battle of Sanaa” to learn more but we awoke to tanks, artillery, machine-gun fire, and airstrikes. Peering out of the hotel the skies of Sanaa were filled with tracer rounds, and buildings blazing with fire.
The next morning, we found out that the ex-president Abdul Suleh had betrayed the Houthi leaders and war broke out between the two parties.
From our hotel window, we witnessed the most violent part of the civil war in Yemen. Buildings were completely demolished, and fighting happened on the streets right below us. During one of the days watching the fighting from the balcony, a sniper even fired two shots at my cousin and I, just barely missing us.
After the sniper event, Ahmed came and picked us up so we could stay with him and his family as this was much safer than the hotel. The drive across town however was a very frightening experience. We even got stopped at one point by a teenager wielding a massive machine gun yelling to go the other way or would be killed.
Arriving safely at Ahmed’s house we waited another four days until the fighting subsided. During this time, a sadness swept over the nation as the people of Yemen mourned the loss of their ex-president.
The ICRC and Escaping Yemen
Over the next few weeks, it had become clear, we were not going to be leaving Yemen anytime soon. The Sanaa airport had been destroyed and as we were unable to leave Houthi territory, we were trapped. The fighting had stopped after the ex-president was killed in his house and we were left scrambling trying to find a way out.
Luckily, our Yemeni friends put together a meeting with the last remaining foreign organization in Yemen, the ICRC.
First, we met with a French woman who was extremely unfriendly and explained that the ICRC has no interest in helping people like us. Then we were brought to the security officer who had a much more friendly chap from Switzerland whose tone was completely different. He told us over the next few weeks he would keep looking for options.
Over these next few weeks, we spent exploring more parts of Houthi territory and even meeting with the ex-presidents second in command to have afternoon tea. Every moment we spent with Ahmed we grew closer to him and this wonderful country.
During another firefight between one rebel faction or another, an ICRC van was unfortunately to hit. Three members were killed, and the ICRC decided to completely pull out of Yemen.
Just over two full months in Yemen, our ICRC contact called us to tell us at 6 am the next day we were to arrive at Sanaa airport and leave Yemen on the last relief flight out.
In the morning Ahmed drove us to the airport, it was incredibly hard to say goodbye to him and Yemen, despite all that had happened.
The airport surprisingly functioned like a normal airport despite portions having been blown up. After boarding the flight, we were instructed that our destination would be Djibouti.
I hope you enjoyed a real-life account of one of the most insane adventures I have been on. I do not regret a single thing about this trip, but it really did change my perspective on this style of travel, although it has not impacted me on my sense of travel! Where I go next, who knows!