a San Francisco Bay Area community activist and entrepreneur who traveled to his family’s homeland in Yemen in December 2014 to work with coffee farmers. After Saudi Arabia began bombing Yemen in March, he was unable to leave and reportedly received no help from the U.S. State Department, which closed its embassy in Yemen in February. Alkhanshali eventually escaped Yemen by sea and finally returned to the United States this week.
A coalition of civil rights organizations is calling on the Obama administration to evacuate U.S. citizens from war-torn Yemen as violence there claims more and more lives. In mid-February, the U.S. government closed its embassies in Yemen and evacuated its personnel. Last month, Yemen’s airports all but shut down amidst heavy fighting, making it nearly impossible to leave the Gulf state. But critics say the Obama administration has effectively told American citizens to fend for themselves. The U.S. State Department’s website states: "There are no plans for a U.S. government-coordinated evacuation of U.S. citizens at this time. We encourage all U.S. citizens to shelter in a secure location until they are able to depart safely." The U.S. refusal to evacuate its citizens comes despite its support for the Saudi-led bombing campaign against Houthi rebels in Yemen. The United States has vowed to ramp up weapons deliveries to members of the Saudi-led coalition and agreed to perform aerial refueling of bombers. Meanwhile, governments of several countries, including Russia, India, and even Somalia, have sent ships to rescue their citizens. We are joined by Mokhtar Alkhanshali, a Yemeni American who has just managed to escape Yemen after being stranded there since December 2014.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: StuckInYemen.com. That’s the name of a new website started by a coalition of civil rights organizations calling on the Obama administration to evacuate U.S. citizens from the war-torn country as violence claims more and more lives there. StuckInYemen.com notes, quote, "The United States government has an obligation to protect their citizens in foreign nations ... Unfortunately, the United States government and embassies abandoned Yemeni Americans in February 2015."
AMY GOODMAN: Governments of several countries, including Russia, India, and even Somalia, have sent ships to rescue their citizens from Yemen; however, the Obama administration has effectively told American citizens to fend for themselves, the citizens say, who are stuck there. The U.S. State Department’s website states, quote, "There are no plans for a U.S. government-coordinated evacuation of U.S. citizens at this time. We encourage all U.S. citizens to shelter in a secure location until they are able to depart safely," unquote.
Well, we spend the remainder of the hour with a Yemeni American who has just managed to escape the war-torn country. Mokhtar Alkhanshali is a Bay Area community activist in California, entrepreneur who traveled to his family’s homeland, Yemen, to work with coffee farmers. After Saudi Arabia began bombing Yemen in March, he was unable to leave and reportedly received no help from the State Department. Alkhanshali eventually escaped from Yemen by sea and finally made it back to the United States Tuesday, joining us from San Francisco.
Mokhtar Alkhanshali, thanks so much for being with us. Describe your ordeal.
MOKHTAR ALKHANSHALI: Thank you for having me on. I’m very happy and very blessed to be here. I’m not happy about the way I had to come back here. On March 27th, a Saudi-led coalition of 10 countries began an aerial bombardment of Yemen. I was there working with coffee farmers, trying to help them access Western markets through my company, Mocha Mill. And I was there in my mill one late night working. Around 2:00 a.m. in the morning, I heard extremely loud explosions all around me. I went out, and I saw what looked like laser beams being shot in the sky, and those were anti-aircraft machine-gun fire. I didn’t know if I was going to live to see the morning. And so, the next morning I tried to book a flight to leave, but that night the civilian airport had been bombed. We had a no-fly zone in effect, and all naval activity was stopped. So we were, in effect, trapped in Yemen, thousands of Yemeni Americans.
I tried many ways to leave. My last resort was trying to leave through the old Yemeni Port of Mocha, and I borrowed a small boat, fishing boat, maybe 20 feet long, me and my good friend, Andrew Nicholson, from Rayyan Mill. And we crossed the Red Sea, through ocean that was known for a lot of piracy. We put our lives at risk to leave, and we made it to Djibouti. You know, we had limited resources. We don’t have a navy. There are three U.S. Navy ships in the Red Sea. We don’t have an air force. We don’t have that much money. But we managed to leave on our own, because the U.S. government has effectively abandoned its citizens in Yemen.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, I’d like to ask you, in terms of the situation in Yemen before the Saudi attacks began and afterwards, what’s life like there? And what were your efforts to try to reach the U.S. Embassy or some sort of U.S. officials to get some help?
MOKHTAR ALKHANSHALI: Since the Arab Spring 2011, it’s been unstable in Yemen, but people can function. Airports worked. The ports worked. People can move freely. And what happened on the 27th was, overnight, we got into war. And it was a blitzkrieg, and we were unaware of it. The U.S. Embassy has been saying that we’ve been given travel advisory warnings for a few months now. Well, they’ve been giving those warnings for a few years, same with other countries, but we had no idea of what was to come. Our government is providing logistical support for these attacks, so they knew about it. And so, when those attacks happened, we had no idea that both civilian airports would be bombed. And we have had no help. What the U.S. State Department has been saying is, when we called, our colleagues in Yemen, "We have no plans as of yet of evacuating our citizens. If you need any help, we can relay your messages to your loved ones via our website." I, for one, didn’t want to tell my mother or father than I’m being terrified I might die every night.
AMY GOODMAN: Now, they did evacuate the embassy, is that right? Also, I wanted to turn to State Department spokesperson Marie Harf talking about why—responding to why more isn’t being done to evacuate Americans in Yemen, especially given the U.S. military assets in the region.
REPORTER: There are no plans to evacuate Americans from Yemen.
MARIE HARF: That is true.
REPORTER: Over the weekend, you know, the Indians have been able to evacuate people, other countries have been able to evacuate people. With the U.S., with having so many military assets in the area, why can’t you?
MARIE HARF: It’s not that we can’t. There’s always a decision. Different factors are weighed, whether it’s the security situation, whether it’s how we would be able to do this.
AMY GOODMAN: Your response, Mokhtar, to the State Department spokesperson? And how, ultimately, did you get out?
MOKHTAR ALKHANSHALI: Well, I think it’s shameful, because as of now, we are aware that the Chinese, the Russian, the Djiboutian, Somali, Indian and Pakistani governments are evacuating their citizens. China has evacuated over 600 of their own citizens. And so, for that answer, just—I mean, look at what they’re able to do with their minimal resources. Our government has a lot more resources, so I can’t accept that answer, I’m sorry.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Mokhtar, I understand that there was a situation where the United States helped to evacuate two Saudi pilots who—their plane malfunctioned, and they had to eject?
MOKHTAR ALKHANSHALI: Yes, and that’s just another slap in the face. Two Saudi pilots had to eject in the Red Sea because their plane malfunctioned, and the U.S. Navy ship that was close by rescued them. If they’re able to rescue foreign nationals, why can’t they rescue their own citizens?
AMY GOODMAN: Mokhtar, did you speak with other Americans who were in Yemen, and what did they say? Are there Americans who are trapped there? And why do you think the U.S. isn’t helping Americans, though they did—isn’t that right, they got their own embassy staff out of Yemen?
MOKHTAR ALKHANSHALI: There are thousands of Yemeni Americans there. I know dozens of families that are stuck there. One of my friends, Summer Nasser, from New York, another Yemeni American, went to Yemen to get married, and she had to cancel her wedding. She’s stuck there. My story happens to be through coffee. We have Facebook threads. We have WhatsApp groups. We try to help each other out, you know. And for me, I receive messages every day from Yemeni Americans stuck there, asking me for help and telling me, "Please, relay our story. Let the people know that, you know, their own citizens are stuck there." And, for me, I just don’t know why. I mean, why? With my minimal resources, I was able to escape, and I put myself at grave risk and danger, but it was the only option I had.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, Mokhtar Alkhanshali, I want to thank you for being with us, Bay Area community activist and entrepreneur who traveled to his family’s homeland, Yemen, in December 2014 to work with coffee farmers. After Saudi Arabia began bombing Yemen in March, he was unable to leave and reportedly received no help from the U.S. State Department, which closed the embassy in Yemen in February. Alkhanshali eventually escaped Yemen by sea and finally returned to the United States on Tuesday.
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