It must be one of the saddest pictures of war that I have ever seen. An exhausted fighter – dressed all in black, with dusty black combat boots sits in an elegant green armchair clutching his assault rifle in an empty street somewhere in Syria. Every building around him is scarred by war and the street is littered with debris – an abandoned mattress, a car exhaust pipe and a mangled, bullet-riddled corrugated iron shop shutter. The eyes of the fighter are glazed but it is the armchair that haunts me. How many generations, I wonder, have fallen asleep in its arms, or as youngsters climbed up them to have a story read, or removed a contented cat from its warm embrace? Not in the worst nightmares of its past occupants could they have imagined such an end. War, is terrible.
By contrast, I have beside me an exuberant report from Cairo written by a friend and past colleague, Ramez Atallah, Director of the Bible Society of Egypt, just hours before President Morsi was removed from power.
“What you do not know is that the real picture from the inside is radically different from what you imagine . . . The crowds around us were in a festive mood – parents, children, old people all chanting for the fall of the government and enthusiastically waving flags and banners. As Rebecca and I walked through the crowds we did not feel unsafe in spite of the incredibly crowded conditions and the complete lack of any police or army presence. On the contrary, we all felt very proud to be Egyptians and to be among so many wonderful compatriots from Christians to conservative Muslim veiled women! The concern, enthusiasm, passion and love for our country which we all shared was exhilarating and made us all the more loyal to our great nation. So instead of worrying for us, rejoice with us for the remarkable events happening in our country. Pray that the unprecedented unity expressed between all Egyptians who reject the forceful imposition of political Islam will result in a new Egypt where people with different persuasions can live alongside one another in harmony. This is the Egypt I remember from my youth and the Egypt more Egyptians yearn for . . .’”
Yemen is a long way from either Egypt or Syria but what happens in those countries affects the entire region. Syria’s present catastrophe is a dreadful reminder, if the people of Yemen needed one, of the horror of war into which pessimistic observers of the country predicted, a year ago, it would plunge. Egypt’s second revolution, though fraught with perils – as recent days have shown, will very likely be an encouragement and boost to the morale of a significant number, especially of the younger, five hundred and more participants in Yemen’s remarkable ongoing, national dialogue. The way ahead in Yemen remains tough, and the challenges awesome.
Political assassinations continue and, in some parts of the country, the kidnapping of foreigners remains a lucrative pastime. Hardly a week passes without disgruntled tribesmen blowing up key parts of the nation’s electricity grid. However, despite these and numerous other dismal and distressing features of life in Yemen today, the country, for all its fragility, continues to exhibit what one free-lance journalist, Adam Baron, described recently as an, ‘odd resilience.’ ‘Writing off the country,’ he commented breezily, ‘feels premature.’ We agree!
A few weeks ago, Mansour, our most conscientious and loyal administrator, sent us details of cataract operations carried out by visiting surgeons at Christ Church over the past two years. Five hundred and eighty seven operations were performed by four different surgeons – two Egyptian, one Korean and one English – over eight visits under conditions which were sometimes difficult and occasionally dangerous. That they came when other friends feared to, is a remarkable tribute both to their faith and to their conviction about the value of the work at Christ Church. They brought sight to many and enormous encouragement to all at Christ Church, and especially to the eye team and our two female Yemeni surgeons, who learned much under their supervision and who continue now to operate well – on their own.
Last week I saw the latest financial statements for the work at Aden. They showed evidence of some very generous giving towards the work, from across the diocese and beyond – for which we are most grateful, as well as significant income from the eye operations just mentioned. It was another very solid sign of confidence in the ‘Aden project’.
After our last visit there at Easter, we wrote a little paper entitled, Aden – The Existing Facts, which we circulated to the Council of Reference for Aden and to other thoughtful supporters of the ministry there. The comeback has been lively, thoughtful and encouraging. There was an interesting exchange of thoughts about the leadership that might be appropriate there in very different circumstances to just three years ago; several suggested we forge partnership with other Christian medical agencies and two called for a clarification of the ‘core business’ of the work. The conversation continues.
The writing of the little discussion paper was prompted by the conviction of Nancy and myself that we should, at the end of this year, relinquish our responsibility for Christ Church and the clinics, and that some thorough appraisal of the work and ministry there now could help those responsible for taking the work on in the future, to discern the way ahead. In November Bishop Michael will convene the Aden Council of Reference, ‘when’, he writes, ‘we shall make plans for the future of this wonderful chaplaincy and project. What those plans will be can’t be pre-determined. We need to listen closely to Holy Wisdom and the Spirit of God’. For that meeting, and for these days before it of discussion and reflection, we do very much value your prayers.
Yesterday Mansour phoned to wish us a blessed Ramadan, to inform us of the shortened working hours during this month, and to tell us that the previous evening two lads from a house nearby had come over to ask if they and some friends could connect up their homes to our generator. Yemeni people are resourceful, but healthcare, not electricity, remains our prime responsibility in the city!
With many of you, we continue to watch with apprehension and anxious hope the convulsions and turmoil of this region, especially in Egypt and Syria, but in so many other places too, and would ask you not to forget Yemen with its own less-publicised struggles.
Just a few weeks ago the following came to us, written by a Yemeni friend. “Near the harbour of mountainous Yemen, the cradle-place of the ancient Arab civilisations and Islamic faith, sits a tiny church, a hopeful beacon of light: those fortunate to find and seek its embrace will be sheltered and will come to know it as Christ Church, Aden. Nothing is impossible – even in Yemen.”
With much love in Christ
Peter and Nancy
“Yemen: Heartbreak and Hope”