Raatri swore under her breath as she kept running for any kind of shelter from this mayhem. She didn’t stop, her tears have long dried on her face and the cuts and bruises on her body have ceased to matter to her. A bullet flew past her and etched into the cement of the barren hospital. She couldn’t understand anything except for the hand gripping her palm tightly, almost inhumanly tight but she found courage in that. Her so-called partner in crime, her Photographer Nil was still there, running by her side. Even in this pandemonium, she thought he could have left, ran faster but he didn’t let go.
Airstrikes in Yemen were common nowadays. Anybody who follows the news can tell you that. But she had to come here to all the places in the world. She couldn’t choose a peaceful place for her piece-a simple article on disappearing art and artists at that, but no! She had to choose someplace where her head could be blown off at any second, without her explosive thoughts speed racing through her head as she kept running. Beside her, Nil kept yelling, “Faster!” But, this is as fast as she could go. Just as she thought that a bus exploded before her eyes and their momentum stopped so suddenly that she almost fell to the ground hard enough to break a bone. She quickly shut her eyes and did the thing she most hated. She prayed…
Raatri Sengupta was a scholar student, literally. She earned a prestigious scholarship at Hard Facts in Texas after she graduated in art journalism and flew away from her home in India. Hard Facts was not only among the few respectable newspapers in Texas but in the US. Though she was terrified of moving away from everything familiar she has ever known and her ma, she couldn’t pass up this huge opportunity.
So, there she was and after completing two years of scholarship program for art journalism, she was just promoted as the Junior Art Journalist at Hard Facts. She had offers from other agencies too but she just couldn’t leave behind the place that taught her so much. As she contemplated her journey in the cafeteria of the headquarters of the newspaper, she reflected on the conversation with her editor that morning.
“Raatri, I want you to write something about the rapidly becoming invisible art style of anyplace you find interesting!” The stern yet motherly face of her editor Martha Jonson was open with expectation and Raatri was bubbling inside to prove herself to her idol, to her teacher, at any cost.
She replied, smiling brightly, her tilted eyes crinkling at the edges, “You got it! When is the deadline?”
“Hold your horses! There’s a catch.” Her editor’s voice was mischievous as she said, “You have to go to the field and take interviews of people related to your story. It’s not just the research on the internet anymore, you have to do field research too.”
The bubbling dimmed a little…
“Don’t look so nervous. You have a knack for talking to people, getting the news without being insensitive towards them. You got this!”
Martha’s belief in her spurred Raatri on and she smiled once again, “Okay! I’ll do it.”
“Never gave you a choice!” The mischievous voice answered, “you’ve got three weeks. Now shoo!”
Like herding a cat, she dismissed Raatri and she couldn’t be happier with her assignment as she exited her boss’s office.
When she opened her eyes, she was crouched between a burned building and Nil, in front of a broken car, as if they’re using the car as a shield, though any launcher can destroy that car and the building they’re taking refuge behind.
“I had to drag you here. What were you doing closing your eyes in the middle of a battle?” Nil’s eyes were bugging out of their sockets. She meekly responded, “praying.” His eyes did not change, only it yelled now without any sound, “Seriously?” Instead, he said, “There’s a coalition going on between Houthi-led forces and Saudi-led airstrikes and now you become a believer.”
“I guess threats on your life can make you do anything.”
A loud sigh and sounds of bombarding from afar were the only ones she could hear. She whispered, “I’m sorry that I pulled you into this madness.”
“I am an adult Ti, I go where I want to be and I was interested in this project as much as you were, if not more. This is a golden opportunity for a press photographer and I wanted to show the truth to the whole world too.” He said.
“That the art scene is not dead in Yemen, even in the war-ridden country, art is still alive?” She asked him because she said the same thing to convince him to come with her to Yemen.
“Yeah.” The short answer lacked no conviction.
She was so happy about the assignment but then COVID happened and everything else didn’t matter anymore. She was locked down in her home, taking interviews via phone or skype, writing about art but she couldn’t find any inspiration anymore. It was all bleak. The number of deaths was crumbling her resolve to do anything. Still, she never forgot about her first almost assignment.
It was a year and a half when she met with Nil again face to face at a local cafe. The difference was striking. They couldn’t hug and instead of having salt and sugar containers, there were hand sanitizers and face masks between them. Nonetheless, Raatri spoke candidly, “I want to write a story about the art in Yemen.”
“Good for you.” Nil said, boredom spilling from each word.
“No, I want to go to Yemen and then write a story about the modern art and the art history of Yemen. I want to talk to various artists who live there or abroad and know what it is like.”
“What is it like? There’s a war going on and you want to talk about Yemen’s art!”
“Yes! War doesn’t define the people of Yemen nor does it should. I know that art is still alive in Yemen, I just have to take some interviews and some compelling photos. For that I need you!” With that, she pointed her finger towards him.
“Me? No. Do you know what the condition is there? How many unlawful attacks and war crimes are happening there! Plus there’s Covid! The Houthi force is suppressing information about how many Covid positive cases are actually there and you want to go to Yemen to talk about art!”
“That’s why it’s more important! Art is hope. They need that, we need that, How art is still surviving in the middle of all that. Do you know how positive the message will be? If we can prove the art scene is not dead in Yemen, even in a war-ridden country, art is still alive, we will give them hope that we can conquer anything, even war.” She implored, cutting off his rant.
He stared at her for a full second and just said, “Okay.”
She smiled and said, “Okay.”
“So who do you want to talk to?”
“I want to talk to Salwa Aleryani about her electricity project. Rahman Taha… He not only sees the war in Yemen but the beautiful things of the place and its people of which even the localities aren’t aware of. His project “Short Scenes Based On A True Story” is an amazing representation of life in Yemen. You should watch it. And I also want to talk to a couple of people like visual artist Ibi Ibrahim and also local street artists and…”
“I understand that you’re excited,” Nil smiled for the first time and continued, “what about our safety?”
“We would take every Covid precaution and we will visit the Southern part of the country. The troops were withdrawn there in mid-2019.”
“It says that Yemen is a dangerous place to travel. The risks of kidnapping and terrorism are high in Yemen and visiting Yemen can result in both of us getting hurt or worse killed.” Nil said after twirling his smartphone towards Raatri.
“But, we are journalists! We can’t play it safe Nil.”
And that was the end of it until they got stuck in Sana’a, the capital of Yemen just after they landed. There was no preamble to it. As soon as they were out of the Sana’a International Airport, they were under attack along with the local people.
Right at the Moment
She saw it moving first, the ground sliding from left to right. Then there was a woman’s face and hand moving and beckoning them to go towards her. Raatri clutched Nil’s shirt and Nil nodded and started to crawl towards the lady.
“What are you doing?”
“I am going what the lady wants me to go, finding safety.” Even in this position, he rolled his eyes. “But, what if it’s a trap?” She whispered and yelled all at the same time.
Nil looked around the ruination and asked, “Do you have a better idea?”
She huffed and started to crawl towards the opening on the ground. The hand had disappeared and they climbed down the narrow iron stairs to an underground dwelling which was an earth-shelter! They descended at a U-shaped atrium full of people of different age groups. They were not wearing any mask, they were dirty and barely surviving and malnourished. Still, they called them and saved them.
Raatri and Nil shuffled a few feet into the house and everyone huddled into the corner. Raatri immediately sensed their fear and started to placate them. But they couldn’t understand her and she didn’t speak any Arabic. That’s when Nil came forward and stopped her wild hand gestures and politely smiled towards the refugees. He was also the translator in this small team.
After apologizing and introducing themselves, Nil stopped and the lady came forward who said something but as usual, Raatri couldn’t comprehend what they were talking about. Nil explained that the lady’s name is Aziza and she and the other survivors from a vicious flood took shelter here in this underground house. It has flood-proof plumbing and canned food for only ten people for about six months. The rationing was too scarce to share with twenty-five people but they are managing.
Raatri was humbled. Feeling gratified, she moved towards Aziza and grasped her hands in her hands, and sincerely said, “Thank you.” Aziza understood and smiled, squeezing her hand once, she let go. They looked at each other for a long moment, a coughing sound from the corner broke the trance. Raatri was overwhelmed. How could these people with so little to themselves still be so kind? She was mesmerized. She hauled Nil to another corner and said, “We should do the story on them, let people know how human will can survive and endure even the most horrible of circumstances and come out of the other side.”
“They haven’t come out the other side Ti. They are struggling, almost dead.” Nil morosely said and hung his head. There were tears in his eyes and that made Raatri stop short and she took a deep breath and said, “How can you say that! Look at them! While you see defeat, I see triumph. Yes, they might die tomorrow but they didn’t let go of their humanity. They are looking after each other, they saved us when they didn’t have to, that’s the most human and courageous act I have ever seen and I am going to publish it whether you help me or not!” By the time she finished her little outburst everyone was quiet and Nil was smiling at her, “You’re an idiot but you’re my friend, I’ll always help you.”
Even with the mask and face shield, Raatri’s smile could light up the whole room.
They first started with Aziza. After a little hesitation, she agreed and told her heartwrenching story. There was a flood six months ago. They were preparing to leave the country for Saudi Arabia where work opportunities were better. They had saved something but before they could begin their journey, heavy rainfall flooded their village with that her three children were gone too. Aziza was sobbing now and there was nothing Nil or Raatri could say to console her. Her three children Razzak (5 years old), Salma (3 years old), and Amani (Only one year old) drowned as they were so little they couldn’t swim in the flood. So many adults drowned too. Her husband survived but the refugee workers took him to a camp in Ethiopia at the Horn of Africa.
She made it from Djibouti to Sana’a by someone’s motorcycle and ended up here for shelter. There was a phone and wi-fi in the earth shelter. Whoever built it had thought of everything except about dying themselves because the owner wasn’t there. Aziza said that she was alive but she felt like she was dead too. Raatri couldn’t say anything to her, just squeezed her shoulder and moved on to an old man named Asim.
She talked to people who were willing to give her an interview. Five people came forward to talk about the horrifying current situation in Yemen. Some they have experienced themselves, some they have witnessed and some their other family members have been unfortunate enough to go through. She sat across five of them who wanted to remain anonymous and who pour their hearts out to her and Nil and she just listened. There were times when they couldn’t go on anymore. The nightmarish reality of the situation made them shake like a leaf just before it falls, their vocal cords seem to be weighed down with lead, and their minds stuck in horrible memories, times, and places far away from here.
They would just stop and rest. Raatri would note down every piece of information that she gathered, her fingers shook on the keyboard of her laptop with the raw emotion of what she learned, what she herself had gone through in just a few hours, she’s been to Yemen. How local police force would torture and abuse people in the name of law and people would disappear in a matter of time. There was a girl in the earth shelter who was sexually abused for days and then left bleeding and badly injured on the side of the road. The people in the dwelling rescued her and treated her as best they could. She doesn’t talk anymore. She just screams in the middle of the night, battling with her real demons in an unreal place, a nightmare.
Raatri would have to stop and breathe and then she would continue without getting her emotion in the way. She would have to remain objective. “Tell it as it is.” She took an oath. So she would write about how children aren’t getting a real education, instead, they are shipped off to Saudi-Arab to become soldiers, and the girls to become spies. They would return, barely eligible but with weapons in their hands and hunger for killing in their minds. There would be missiles and rockets and landmines in heavily populated areas. There have been countless crimes that have broken every single humanitarian law.
She kept writing and in under three hours she had her piece. She gave it to Nil to read and after finishing it he just smiled behind his mask and patted her shoulder. Raatri was worried about one thing if Martha would publish it. Raatri needn’t worry about it. Her writing was not only published along with the photos Nil sent but it was so moving a US rescue team was sent to their location, tracking the IP address of Raatri’s laptop, they fend off the attacks and rescued them alongside the twenty-five survivors. Raatri felt content, sitting on a helicopter, her friend beside her and she fulfilled her purpose of being here, after one and a half years of waiting, she had done her job, and life though changed forever with bitter experiences in the timespan of a day, it sure wasn’t bleak anymore.