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Yemen: Father rescues family after journey from Morocco to Dammaj

26-11-2013 Feature

When Hajj Hatem learned that his son-in-law had died, and that his pregnant daughter and two grandchildren could not leave Dammaj because of the fighting, he vowed that he would travel there from his home in Morocco and lead them to safety.

"I will sit here, on this big stone, and wait until you bring my daughter," said the old man, choking on his tears. It was a long journey from his hometown – Fas, in Morocco – to Sa'ada, in northern Yemen, but nothing could have stopped 70-year-old Hatem Ben Hammou from getting his daughter Samira out of Dammaj, where she had been living for five years.

Hajj Hatem, as the locals called him, first learned about the death of his daughter's husband two months previously, when the girl he had not seen in years failed to join her family for Eid Al Fitr. His son-in-law had just died of injuries sustained when a mortar shell exploded next to him. He left behind a widow who was six months pregnant and two boys aged one and three.

"She told me she could not leave because of the fighting, so I promised her I would come get her," said Hajj Hatem.

It took the retired father of nine two months to obtain his Yemeni visa and many days of travel by road to reach Sa'ada from Sana'a. He was taken in by the local community and warmly welcomed in the mosque. He cried every day, as his hopes of getting his daughter back faded with each sniper bullet and with each mortar fired.

But he would not give up, and he managed, with no Arabic at all, little French and his native Berber to raise awareness of his plight among those around him. "I called everyone here. I called the embassy and I called the authorities. I told them: 'I am here, and I want my daughter'," he told the ICRC. "Some thought I was crazy, and told me that if I went there by myself I would die. I said: 'If I go back home without her, my heart is already dead'."

On 4 November, Hajj Hatem learned that an ICRC convoy would attempt to enter Dammaj to take the most critically wounded people to safety. When the convoy arrived at the Khaniq checkpoint, he pleaded with the head of the ICRC delegation to evacuate his pregnant daughter and her two children. He broke into tears and asked to be allowed to join the convoy – otherwise he would go alone, he said, on foot. The priority on that day, he was told, was to withdraw all critically injured people. Only a handful of cars were available. He nodded, and said he would sit and wait. He would not leave his "big stone" until his daughter was out of harm's way.

In the first round of evacuations, the ICRC managed to take 23 injured people to safety ... but not Samira, who was due to deliver soon, and whose father was still waiting in his sandy little corner.

It took several days before the ICRC could obtain the security guarantees necessary to enter Dammaj a second time. The plight of the old man who had crossed half the globe to take his daughter home had touched everyone so deeply that there was a consensus among all parties to the fighting that Samira must be part of the next group of evacuees, and the first unharmed civilian to be taken out.

On 8 November, Hajj Hatem was joined by his daughter and the two grandchildren he had never met before. They were evacuated by the second ICRC convoy to Dammaj, along with 44 casualties, and flown to Sana'a. From there, they headed back home with the help of the Moroccan embassy.

"Papa est là, tout ira bien, Al Hamdullilah," he repeated on the night of his departure, as his oldest grandson, giggling, pulled on his white beard.

On 24 November 2013, the ICRC entered Dammaj for the fourth time since the beginning of the month, and evacuated 21 injured people, among them a 10-year-old girl. As in all previous evacuations, the injured were airlifted to Sana'a to receive further treatment.


Photos

Sa'ada, Khaniq checkpoint. Hajj Hatem sitting on a stone and waiting for his daughter to be evacuated. 

Sa'ada, Khaniq checkpoint. Hajj Hatem sitting on a stone and waiting for his daughter to be evacuated.
© ICRC

Hajj Hatem walking to the car that is carrying his daughter, moments after her arrival at the checkpoint. 

Hajj Hatem walking to the car that is carrying his daughter, moments after her arrival at the checkpoint.
© ICRC

Hajj Hatem holding his daughter Samira and her baby at the Khaniq checkpoint. 

Hajj Hatem holding his daughter Samira and her baby at the Khaniq checkpoint.
© ICRC