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A day in the life of an aid worker under the blockade in Yemen

What is it like for humanitarian organisations such as CARE on the ground in the war-ravaged country?

On Thursday, Saudi forces opened the port and airport in Yemen's capital Sana'a to humanitarian aid – though 24 hours later, none has arrived. CARE International and other organisations argue the move will not be enough to alleviate the difficulties the blockade has already caused, which is described in the account below from the NGO's Yemen country director. 

7:00 AM: I wake up and hear the generator coming on, which means that I can have a hot shower! There is little water but I don’t complain. I heard that the price of water has doubled in recent months. Most people in the capital, Sana’a, do not even have water, forcing several clinics to shut down.

7:30 AM: I spend a bit of time on my rooftop, which I often use as my workplace. The city is waking up. It feels like Sana’a is a village. I hear birds singing, children playing, the horn of a car, and a woman speaking through a microphone. From up here you can see the many solar panels that cover the city and allow people to use a fridge, lights and electricity. They are an important source of energy since you can’t be sure that generators, which run on fuel, will be working, especially with the 40-60 per cent increase in fuel prices and lack of fuel since the blockade.

8:00 AM: Breakfast with colleagues is generally a good time to share the latest security information. Every week we send an update on the number of our international staff in Yemen to the UN so that they can plan for possible evacuations. In total, there are about 120 international NGO staff members in Yemen and we are all stuck here because of the blockade (since lifted). One of them told me that he will probably miss his son’s birthday.

8:30 AM: The office is across the street. Our guards make sure we get safely to the other side. I take time to greet all the staff members in the office. The CARE Yemen team is very good – I have rarely seen such committed and qualified staff. Some have been with us for more than ten years. Just as I get to my desk, I receive a brief update on the security situation. More airstrikes! They become part of our daily routine. I wonder how many have died this time…

10:00 AM: One of our area managers calls me. After we finally got permission to work in some parts of Hodeidah, I am told that the area has been declared a military zone. I have no idea what that means, but the result is that we cannot work there. Because we did a needs assessment in another area, we ask the relevant authorities whether we can work there. It looks good. This means that the people in the military zone will not be able to receive our help, but others will.

11:00 AM: More crises mean more meetings. This one is on our food distributions together with the World Food Program. I inform the safety staff where I want to go and at what time. They check whether it is a safe environment and organise a car and a driver. Once I get into the car, I turn on my tracker so that the operations room knows where I am.

1:00 PM: As I am on my way to yet another meeting with partners and donors, I hear gunshots. Although I am inside the UN compound, I feel very vulnerable – even if the shooting is not aimed at us. The donors are interested in hearing how the blockade affects our humanitarian response. We explain that because of existing stocks in the country, we can continue business as usual. But we also make clear that if the harbour does not open soon, new supplies will arrive too late. The blockade is also affecting local markets, with prices for food and other supplies skyrocketing. There is not a lot of money in circulation because government salaries have not been paid in over a year. Someone said that if famine occurs, all people will die at the same time because Yemenis are used to sharing even their scarce resources with one another.

4:00 PM: Today’s lunch: a packet of biscuits that I shared with colleagues during the afternoon meetings. I receive a security update regarding the threats one of our staff members received on the phone a few days ago. We are still not sure who was behind it but we know that the situation for aid workers continues to be dangerous.

5:30 PM: Interviews with a Dutch radio station and ABC Australia. We mainly talk about the deteriorating situation. More than seven million people depend on outside food aid. There’s a real shortage of water, health care and so much more. This blockade needs to stop. When the journalists ask what we can do, I think they realise how difficult the situation is. However I tell them that we will continue as long as we can with the limited amount of funds we have. We don’t give up hope and we call on governments to build up more political pressure.

8:00 PM: Finally I get some time to eat. Our cook has left some lovely food in the fridge. Halfway through the meal I do another live radio interview. My wife thinks I will become famous, but these interviews are serious business. It is about informing the general public about this terrible development.

9:00 PM: While I am watching the news, I fall asleep. After ten minutes our safety officer calls up to say that there are airstrikes in various places in Hajja and Sana’a. Maybe also in other places but we don’t know yet. I decide to stay awake for a bit longer just to make sure that the airstrikes don’t happen in our neighbourhood. We have a basement which we use when the airstrikes get too close. I check our emergency food supplies which would allow us to survive for about 15 days. I need to talk to our safety staff because we need to discuss a second exit from the basement in case our neighborhood is hit.

11:00PM Time to go to bed. I feel satisfied with all the work that was done. I am proud to be part of the CARE Yemen team. But I am also worried about what the future holds. Unless this blockade is lifted, the lives of millions of people are at stake.

Johan Mooij is the Yemen Country Director for CARE

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Libya’s slave markets are a reminder that the exploitation of Africans never went away

Slavery was recorded in 20th century Ethiopia and continues to exist in Mauritania today. 

A recent African summit in the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa, saw one welcome piece of news: the African Union had – for the first time – called on Mauritania to end slavery within its borders. In what was described as a “landmark ruling”, the African Union reprimanded a member state for allowing the widespread practice of hereditary slavery. This is not what is now termed “modern slavery”, but the ancient practice of one person owning another: chattel slavery, as it is known.

While the announcement was a step forward, it was not quite what it seemed. This was not a declaration of African heads of state. The final statement from the summit failed to mention Mauritania. Rather, the call came in the form of a ruling by one of the African Union’s many subsidiary bodies: the African Committee of Experts on the Rights and Welfare of the Child (ACERWC).

Anti-Slavery International, which has campaigned against the scourge since 1839, welcomed the decision, but urged action. “The message to the Mauritanian Government is extremely clear: ensure that their masters are prosecuted with the full force of the law,” said Anti-Slavery’s spokesman, Jakub Sobik. 

How Mauritania responds remains to be seen, but the ruling came shortly after shocking evidence from CNN of the slave markets of Libya. “Eight hundred,” shouts an auctioneer. “900 ... 1,000 ... 1,100 ...” Sold. For 1,200 Libyan dinars – the equivalent of $800. And with that, the ownership of refugees captured by human traffickers change hands.

CNN’s report was not the first to expose the practice, but the channel’s broadcast jolted public opinion. In the UK a petition calling for the British government to act attracted more than a quarter of a million signatures. As a result, it was debated in Parliament, with Labour MP Marsha de Cordova noting the outrage of her constituents from the African diaspora. “This is modern-day chattel slavery,” she said, “And a window into practices that form part of a particularly traumatic collective memory for many communities.”

In Britain, discussions about slavery have long focused on the trans-Atlantic slave trade, and rightly so. Britain carried out slavery on an industrial scale: between 1640 and 1807, when the British slave trade was abolished, it is estimated to have transported 3.1 million Africans, mostly to the Americas. Furthermore, defenders of slavery justified their lucrative trade in human misery by promoting racist ideas that left indelible scars on Western society. It is only in recent decades that politicians have fully addressed the role of the slave trade in Britain’s history beyond the abolitionist movement, and even in 2006, then-Prime Minister Tony Blair stopped short of a full apology, for fear of reparations. The more recent campaign against “modern slavery” has concentrated on criminal gangs exploiting undocumented workers, and elite families keeping vulnerable women as unpaid maids. 

Discussing slavery within Africa is, it seems, an uncomfortable subject, not least because of the potential in a digital age for a nuanced discussion to be used as an excuse to let the West off the hook. Liverpool’s otherwise excellent International Slavery Museum skims over the mention of slavery on Africa’s East Coast. How many schools explain that for five thousand years African slaves were captured in wars or raids and marched along the Nile, across the Sahara or transported over the Red Sea and Indian Ocean to Asia?

Forms of slavery existed in the Ottoman and Roman empires, but its presence can be traced far further back in time, and across the world. Europeans practiced slavery at least since the times of the ancient Greeks; so did the Chinese, Japanese and Indians. Maori turned prisoners of war into slaves. In Africa, “the first evidence was carved in stone in 2900 B.C.E. at the second cataract depicting a boat on the Nile packed with Nubian captives for enslavement in Egypt”, according to the late Robert Collins of the University of California. The trade on Africa’s East coast, to the slave markets of Arabia, India and beyond took place for at least a millenium. Collins calculated that the Asian trade numbered an estimated total of 12,580,000 slaves from 800 to 1900.

Slavery generally shared common attributes: brutality, oppression and frequently racism. Even when both master and slave were African, this did not prevent the most derogatory descriptions being used about the group from which the slaves were drawn. For example, racist terms were routinely used by Sudanese Arabs against those African groups they enslaved. This racism was manifested by Arabs’ derogatory use of the term “abid” (slaves) – and what the Northern Sudanese writer Mansur Khalid called “a series of [other] unprintable slurs – to apply to western and southern peoples.”

Much East coast or trans-Saharan slavery was practiced by Arabs. Ronald Segal (who wrote on trans-Atlantic as well as Islamic slavery) suggested that while there is a tradition of debate about the former, the latter has been less satisfactorily explored. “There is a conscious and articulate black diaspora in the West that confronts the historical record of slavery and racism there,” he wrote in his 2001 book Islam’s Black Slaves: The History of Africa’s other Black Diaspora. “That Islam has no comparably conscious and articulate black diaspora to confront it with the reminders of slavery does not make that record any more immune to examination and judgement.” 

African slavery was not restricted to Arabs or to Muslims. Nor did the African trade in slaves end in 1900. There is evidence of slaves in Christian-ruled Ethiopia in the 1930s: a photograph from the time shows slaves carrying their owners’ money to fund Emperor Haile Selassie’s war effort against Italy. 

It was the Italians who finally abolished the practice after they occupied the country. “The Italians issued a decree in April 1936 which liberated more than 400,000 slaves,” according to Seid A. Mohammed, historian at at Dokuz Eylul University in Turkey.

Even then, slavery was not eliminated. Mauritania continues the practice, failing to enforce a 2007 law designed to end the practice. Anti-Slavery International reports that slavery is still to be found in Mauritania, Niger, Mali, Chad and Sudan. “People born into descent-based slavery face a lifetime of exploitation and are treated as property by their so-called ‘masters’. They work without pay, herding animals, working in the fields or in their masters’ homes. They can be inherited, sold or given away as gifts or wedding presents,” says the organisation.

Mauritania is also a reminder that even if the situation in Libya stabilises, the deep roots of slavery may be harder to remove. What is required is a wholehearted campaign by African leaders to name, shame and impose sanctions against their fellow heads of state who continue to tolerate this practice. Until Africa as a whole acts, the scourge of chattel slavery will continue to blight the lives of its people.

Martin Plaut is a fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, University of London. He is the author of Understanding Eritrea and, with Paul Holden, the author of Who Rules South Africa?