A Michigan family with two toddlers and an infant was stranded in Yemen after being forced from its home by rebel gunmen. A California woman tried to flee through an arrangement with the embassy of Djibouti, but failed. A mother of four from New York also tried that route, at the State Department’s suggestion, only to hear the same reply: There would be no help.
These accounts are among dozens presented in a lawsuit filed Thursday by Arab and Muslim civil rights groups seeking to force the Obama administration into taking action to bring home U.S. citizens who are stuck in Yemen’s worsening conflict.
At least eight other countries – including Russia, China and India – have rescued their citizens, but the United States has refused to launch an evacuation effort. U.S. officials claim that Yemen, where a U.S.-backed, Saudi-led air campaign is pummeling targets, is too dangerous for U.S. personnel to risk their lives, though U.S. aircraft have refueled Saudi bombers for the last two days, Pentagon spokesman Army Col. Steve Warren said.
“You can expect we will do so every day from now on,” Warren told McClatchy.
For the Americans trapped there, the country has become a virtual prison. Its airports and seaports are either closed or subject to attack, its border routes are too dangerous to risk, and major population hubs effectively are shut off from other cities.
The U.S. Embassy is shuttered, with all the diplomats and security guards taken to safety weeks ago. From Washington, the State Department directs remaining citizens to hotlines that don’t work and to foreign embassies that can’t help, leading many stranded Americans to summarize the Obama administration’s response as: Good luck.
“All day the question I ask myself is: Why is the United States not helping us?” said Sallah Elhushayshi, 21, of Brooklyn, who said he went to Yemen last year to get married and visit family. As he spoke by telephone from the city of Taiz, gunfire crackled in the background.
“Did you hear that? It’s a war now,” he said. “People are fighting, guns everywhere. We feel afraid. We have nothing. We’re worried about food and water every day. We feel hopeless, really.”
The idea that they’re on their own in a dizzyingly complicated war that’s giving space to jihadist groups such as al Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula and the Islamic State has been hard to absorb for many Yemeni Americans. The State Department won’t say how many U.S. citizens are thought to be in Yemen. Civil rights groups say that between 3,000 and 4,000 Americans remain in the country; more than 500 have registered on the website www.stuckinyemen.com, and the lawsuit names around 40 citizens and permanent residents as a sampling.
A State Department official, speaking on background as per U.S. diplomatic protocol, wouldn’t address the lawsuit seeking an evacuation order or provide information about how many American citizens are believed to be in Yemen. The official said U.S. authorities are monitoring the situation closely but that “there are no current U.S. government-sponsored plans to evacuate private citizens.”
“The situation in Yemen is dangerous and unpredictable,” the official said. “Sending in military assets, even for an evacuation operation, could put U.S. citizen lives at greater risk.”
Most of the remaining Americans are of Yemeni origin, according to the rights advocates. Some have lived in Yemen for years for family or business reasons. Many others were in the impoverished country to visit family members whom they support through remittances from the United States.
That was the case with Jamal al Labani, a gas station owner from Oakland, Calif., who’d gone to Yemen to bring his pregnant wife and young daughter to safety once the conflict showed signs of spiraling. He was killed in an explosion on March 30, his family said, the first American to die in the latest violence and one of hundreds of civilians that the United Nations says have been killed in the last two weeks. On Thursday, the International Federation of the Red Cross, citing Yemeni health officials, said 1,042 people have died in the fighting.
“As American Yemenis, we’re all really sad about what’s going on,” said Mohammed Alazzani, 27, a cousin of al Labani and family spokesman who was interviewed by phone from San Leandro, Calif. “They just don’t believe it, that their government isn’t doing anything. Some of them are starting to say, ‘They don’t consider us real Americans. We’re second-class.’”
Abed Ayoub, legal and policy director of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, one of the advocacy groups behind the lawsuit, said that in addition to the imminent dangers stranded Americans face, there are worries that they’ll lose their jobs or educational opportunities back in the United States. Ayoub said that the committee has contacted workplaces and universities on behalf of some Americans who got stuck in Yemen while on what were planned as short trips.
Ayoub said a similar lawsuit filed during the 2006 Lebanon-Israel conflict forced the State Department into a broader conversation about how to get Americans to safety. In that case, the United States was also among the last nations to arrange ships to ferry its citizens to nearby Cyprus.
Ayoub said the hope is that, even if the case never sees a day in court, the action will spur the Obama administration into issuing a noncombatant evacuation operations order, which the lawsuit describes as “normally implemented during crisis or war to evacuate U.S. citizens and their families from abroad and to secure their return to the United States.” He stressed repeatedly that the claim isn’t a civil suit and that no party is seeking a payout – they just want an escape route from a country that’s plunging into anarchy.
“We’re not asking for anything out of the ordinary. We’re just asking them to fulfill their duties,” Ayoub said. “India took out over 4,000 of their nationals in three days. If India can do it, why can’t the U.S.?”
Ayoub said advocacy groups have been approached by private defense contractors who’ve said they could perform a successful extraction of U.S. citizens if only the Obama administration would sign off on plans and foot the bill. But Ayoub said that window of opportunity is now closing, because “we don’t have any sign that this will be over soon.”
“That’s the urgency,” Ayoub said, “to get them out now before the crisis worsens.”
For some Americans, it might already be too late. Even if there’s an evacuation effort for the capital, Sanaa, that’s not likely to help Elhushayshi, who’s in Taiz, more than 150 miles away, with a car with an empty tank and no gasoline to be found. He could try waiting in line for two days at one of the few gas stations still open, he said, but if that succeeded “you’re lucky.”
And if he found gas, he said, what next? Would he stuff his family – around 15 fellow U.S. passport holders – into the car and then launch out on uncertain roads controlled by unknown gunmen and head to a closed embassy? The lawsuit cited local reports that Houthi rebels and their military allies had ordered Yemenis to report all U.S. citizens in their midst.
With no embassy or consulate for protection, Elhushayshi said, he and his relatives have little choice but to huddle indoors and listen as the world outside descends into chaos.
“Our last airstrike was this afternoon. Our windows were shaking. It was a heavy one,” Elhushayshi said. “We have no gas, no petrol, no bread. Water has become so expensive. And the fighting will start here soon. I see a lot of suffering people taking up guns, and we have no police. It will happen soon. Soon.”
James Rosen in Washington and McClatchy special correspondent John Zarocostas in Geneva contributed to this report.