Trapped In Yemen's 'Armageddon,' An American Made A Dangerous Escape
ARUN RATH, HOST:
This week, we learned of a harrowing story about getting stuck in the middle of a civil war and a truly great escape. Mokhtar Alkhanshali is a Yemeni-American from California. About a year ago, he started a company in the U.S., working with coffee-growers in Yemen to help them break into Western markets. Alkhanshali was in the Yemeni city of Sana'a on March 27. He found himself trapped by Saudi-led airstrikes against the Houthi rebels.
MOKHTAR ALKHANSHALI: It all happened so fast. Around 2:00 in the morning, I heard extremely loud explosions all around me. I went out, it looked like Armageddon; all hell had broken loose. I saw what looked like laser beams being shot in the sky, and those were anti-aircraft machine-gun fire. And so, I mean, I really didn't know if I was going to live to see the morning. It was very frightening. That's when I decided that OK, I need to leave.
ALKHANSHALI: I wanted to book a flight, but that night the civilian airport had been bombed. There was a no-fly zone enacted and all naval activity was stopped, so we were trapped in Yemen.
RATH: Mokhtar, you're an American citizen, right?
ALKHANSHALI: Yes, I am.
RATH: So could you call the embassy for help?
ALKHANSHALI: We did. We tried calling the embassy in several countries around Yemen. And this was the response we received - we are not evacuating any U.S. citizens at the moment. What we can do, though, is relay your messages to your loved ones. And I, for one, didn't want to tell my mother and father that I'm terrified that I might die tonight. When I realized that there was no help coming, I had decided to take matters into my own hands and - even though that meant putting myself at extreme risks.
RATH: So tell us about that. How did you get out of there, finally?
ALKHANSHALI: There's this port called Mocha, and it's really an old port now at this point. So I went with my friend, Andrew Nicholson. He works in coffee also. And we decided to take this seven-hour car ride through Houthi checkpoints and through difficult terrain to this port. We got the small, little boat - probably 20-feet long with a little 40-horsepower Yamaha motor behind it.
And we jumped on that boat, and I was happy at that moment because this crazy idea was actually coming to life. But it wasn't until probably half an 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, and am I going to make it? The waves are crashing in. I mean, all these things started to come. And so it wasn't an easy place to be in. So we finally made it after - between four to five hours to the country of Djibouti.
RATH: So you reached the African coast.
ALKHANSHALI: Yeah, in East Africa, so we crossed the Red Sea. We got there and the security forces, I mean, they were startled. And first, they thought we were probably smugglers on this small boat. We showed them our passports. And they're like what the heck are these two Americans doing on a boat? So they detained us for a day and a half. We went to meet the local governor. He was dumbfounded by our story, so they contacted U.S. Embassy. And they have come and helped us get to the airport in Djibouti the next day.
RATH: So Mokhtar, you knew about the unstable situation in Yemen before you left. Didn't you have any trepidation about going there in the first place?
ALKHANSHALI: I mean, it's been that way for - since I can remember. But, I mean, in the last four years, I know the U.S. Embassy would close and then reopen after a week or so, a couple of days. During the height of the Arab Spring in Yemen, when there was a lot of fighting going on in the capital, different factions, they were probably closed for two or three days. You know, so I'd assume that if things were that bad, I would be able to leave. But when the airstrikes happened, it was a blitzkrieg. Overnight, the country went into war.
RATH: There were a bunch of other American citizens in Yemen. Do you have a sense of how many are stuck there?
ALKHANSHALI: There are thousands of Yemeni-Americans in Yemen. I know several dozen families that are stuck there. I left my aunt and five children - all U.S. citizens. I left my cousins, my friends. One of my friends, Saman Asad (ph), from New York, she had gone to get married and she had to cancel her wedding. She's trapped in Yemen. And so there are other people there who are actually - you know, they deserve to be here more than I do. 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.
RATH: That's Mokhtar Alkhanshali. Mokhtar, wishing the best for you and your family and everyone you know there.
ALKHANSHALI: Thank you so much. It's a pleasure to be here.
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