Businessman Mokhtar Alkhanshali was used to the complications of traveling to Yemen. He’d been traveling there and back for years; sometimes the American Embassy would close for a few days amid turmoil, but it always opened back up.
But on March 27, the situation changed dramatically. “Overnight, the country went to war,” he says.
The Yemeni-American coffee importer had been in Sana’a, Yemen’s capital, on business when the city was rocked by explosions. He stepped outside at 2 a.m. to find anti-aircraft guns lighting up the night sky.
“It looked like Armageddon. All hell had broken loose,” Alkhanshali recalls. “I really didn’t know if I was going to live to see the morning. It was very frightening.”
These were the opening rounds of the Saudi-led airstrikes against the Houthis, Yemeni rebels who had taken control of the capital city. And they were also the start to Alkhanshali’s harrowing escape from Yemen’s civil war, which he recounts for NPR’s Arun Rath.
Alkhanshali realized immediately that he needed to get out of the country. But actually doing so would prove complicated. The civilian airport had been bombed that night; there was a no-fly zone, and all naval activity was stopped. He was effectively trapped in Yemen.
When he tried calling the American Embassy in the countries around Yemen, the response he got back was always some variation on the same statement: “We are not evacuating any U.S. citizens at the moment. What we can do, though, is relay your messages to your loved ones.”
Alkhanshali didn’t exactly find this comforting.
“I for one didn’t want to tell my mother and father that I’m terrified that I might die tonight,” he says. “When I realized that there was no help coming, I had decided to take matters into my own hands, even though that meant putting myself at extreme risks.”
His precise plan, ginned up just a little bit later, involved an old Red Sea port called Mocha, a seven-hour car ride from where Alkhansi was at the time. He grabbed a friend, traversed difficult terrain and crossed Houthi checkpoints to get to the port. There, he and his friend hopped in a boat about 20 feet long, with a little 40-horsepower engine, and set to sea.
For a little while, Alkhanshali was happy in the thrill of his escape.
“This crazy idea was actually coming to life,” he says. “But it wasn’t until probably a half-hour into the boat ride that I realized, ‘Wow, I’m in the middle of the Red Sea on a small boat, with no navigational equipment. I mean, what am I doing? There’s pirates in this ocean …’ ”
Waves were crashing into the boat. “It wasn’t an easy place to be,” he says.
Four or five hours later, Alkhanshali and his friend made it. They’d crossed the Red Sea and reached the coast of the East African country of Djibouti.
Security forces there had no idea what to make of them, he says, and seemed to suspect they were smugglers.
“We show them our passports, and they’re like, ‘What the heck are these two Americans doing on a boat?’ ”
Eventually, after a few days of detainment and an interview with a local official — who was dumbfounded by their story — Alkhanshali and his friend were flown back to the U.S. with help from the American Embassy.
But, he says, there are thousands of Yemeni-Americans who remain trapped in the country, including dozens of his friends and family — from an aunt and her children, all U.S. citizens, to a friend who had traveled to Yemen to get married.
Despite the dangers of his flight to safety, he thinks often of those who were not so lucky as he was.
“There are other people there that deserve to be here more than I do,” Alkhanshali says. “I’m thankful, I’m very happy and blessed that I’m back here. I’m saddened by the way I had to come back — but I’m also sad that I left behind a lot of my fellow citizens.”