SANA’A, YEMEN – When you’re a humanitarian aid worker in a place like Yemen, the thought of being killed for no good reason is always there.
When you talk with colleagues about security threats, sometimes you joke about the false impressions people back home in western countries tend to have about life in the Middle East.
For Jean and I, most days here are actually very tranquil. Still, other times in this part of the world can indeed get unpredictable and yesterday’s slayings of three American aid workers nearby has hit Jean and myself like a truck.
Jean was still in her pyjamas when she took the early morning phone call. Three people shot dead at Jibla Baptist Hospital.
Friends. We knew one very well. Silence.
It’s sobering that Jean was supposed to be in Jibla for a business meeting at the exact time of the slayings. She recently volunteered her obstetrical services to the missionary hospital, but cancelled her attendance at that meeting late the night before. If life is a game of inches or seconds, my wife and I barely avoided the full brunt of this day from hell.
The tragedy raises more concern because it came two days after the political assassination of moderate Jarallah Omar. A socialist and government opposition leader, Omar was shot dead here in Sana’a moments after making a speech calling for moderation and non- violence in this troubled Islamic state. It’s believed the slayings were linked.
“The killers knew each other and wanted to make a statement at the same time,” is the view of my boss, Walid al-Saqqaf, editor-in- chief of the Yemen Times, after he spoke with certain authorities. “They agreed — one would take Sana’a, the other, Jibla.”
Their statement? “They wanted to condemn missionary activities and Yemeni political co-operation with the United States and the socialist movement in general,” said Walid. The slayings were the first in Yemen of western aid workers. Years ago, several Indian Sisters of Charity from Mother Teresa’s organization were killed in the Yemeni port city of Hodeidah, also by Islamic extremists.
The Jibla killer, a 35-year-old Yemeni identified as Abdulrazzaq Al-Kamil, used a Kalashnikov automatic rifle in yesterday’s attack. It’s no surprise he had a gun. Yemen has a reputation of being like the Wild West. In a population of 20 million, there are an estimated 60 million guns.
Most are carried over the shoulder as a symbol of virility, little more than a status symbol.
Al-Kamil hid his under his cloak, apparently pretending it was a baby. That got him past hospital guards. In a culture where virtually nothing operates efficiently, it’s no surprise his gun wasn’t found at the gate.
An attack on a hospital, however, was unexpected. As a friend of ours said, “It’s like a bad dream.”
Jibla is a town of richly ornamented stone towers. It’s known as the 12th-century home of Yemen’s Queen Arwa and has a well-known mosque bearing her name. In recent times, it’s been known just as much as the home of a well-run missionary hospital.
In a country where quality health care is impossible to find, Jibla hospital had gained the trust of the Yemeni and had a country- wide reputation. It is staffed by a multinational team of over 100. Even so, due to decisions at its American-based head office, it was to close if new administrators could not be found soon.
So the timing of yesterday’s slayings appears to be as deliberate as the victims selected. Walid tells me Al-Kamil has already told authorities that he wanted to make sure he carried out the slayings before the hospital closed. He reportedly killed in order “to get closer to God.”
The three victims, Walid said, were targeted because of their key posts and good reputations in the community. The three killed were in a meeting room when Al-Kamil burst in and opened fire. He went to the room next door and hit a fourth person, who survived.
Bill Koehn, 60, of Texas was the hospital administrator. He was to retire in two days. Dead also are Martha Myers, 57, an obstetrician from Alabama, and Kathy Gariety, 53, the hospital purchasing agent whose home is Wisconsin.
The fourth victim, pharmacist Donald Caswell, a 49-year-old Texan, survived after surgeons at Jibla removed two bullets.
My wife and I knew Martha well as a friend and colleague. “People in the community really loved her,” said Jean. “She knew the language and she was really out in the community. She was just a really caring individual. She really loved the Yemeni.”
Jean and I saw her for the last time a few weeks ago among friends here in Sana’a. Bill worked at the hospital for 28 years and Martha for more than 20 years. If the hospital closed, Bill said, he would rather stay as an ad-hoc consultant or retire than be reassigned to work in England or the U.S.
His hobbies included woodworking, in particular making little figurines of the Yemeni.
Kathy Gariety was also known for her deep love for the locals.
“She really loved the Yemeni,” said Dr. Catherine Davey, an Australian physician who worked closely with her. “The kids, including the Yemeni kids, just loved her.”
Kathy had been in tears over the possible hospital closure.
“I’ve been so blessed by this hospital and I just want to bless this place,” she told her colleagues.
For this type of uncommon commitment — to their faith and to the people of Yemen — these three were thanked with bullets.
The Southern Baptist International Mission Board is part of the 16-million member Southern Baptist Convention. It has operated Jibla Baptist Hospital for 35 years. More than 40,000 patients a year are treated there.
Many people from Ibb, a city of 100,000 eight kilometres from Jibla, rely on its services.
The hospital provides free care and medicine to those who cannot afford it.
But six months ago, the Southern Baptists announced they would have to pull out of managing the 100-bed operation. Uncertainty was compounded two weeks ago when a local Yemeni non-governmental organization retracted its commitment to take it over. As a result, Yemen’s Ministry of Health was to take over the hospital yesterday, the day of the slayings.
The ministry planned to hand the keys over to the Yemeni group with the hope that another humanitarian organization from the United Kingdom, also involved in discussions, would help the Yemeni manage it.
“It will be a tragedy for such a fine hospital to close,” Minister of Health Dr. Abdul- Nasser Muniban told Jean a few days ago when my wife joined the efforts of people behind the scenes trying to prevent closure.
In addition to Americans, there are Filipinos, British, Australians and Germans on Jibla’s staff.
“Everyone (in the hospital compound) wants to leave now,” said Julie Toma, an administrative assistant.
“Everyone’s in shock.”
When the region heard about the possible closure two weeks ago, the public demonstrated to express its disapproval. That may have made the American-run facility more of a target.
“They were always such a visible target,” said Jean.
“A lot of people were upset about the possible closure, but there were some people that were happy, too.
“It was a sore spot to them that there were Christian Americans there.”