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Stigmatised Yemeni woman bakes to break barriers

Through baking, Abeer al-Hassani has found a way to feed her family and to overcome the trauma of losing her brothers to a US drone strike
Abeer al-Hassani's bakery sells ka’ak, a key dessert in Yemeni cuisine (Wikicommons)

In a labyrinth of alleyways, each no more than a few metres wide, is a house wedged in-between polished stone houses in Sana’a, the capital of Yemen. Here in Sana’a, a mother and a daughter are using their kitchen utensils to break barriers and make a living. 

United by their love of food, Abeer al-Hassani and her mother, Khadija al-Hassani are hoping their baking and cooking will provide some income and empowerment.

The petite young woman, Abeer, wearing a colourful dress, divorced her husband several years ago and moved back in with her parents. Since then, life has been a struggle.

"I’m a 19 year-old divorcee with two children, and with three brothers whom were all killed,” she says as she prepares ka’ak, a key dessert in Yemeni cuisine. “You can just imagine all the stigma I carry.”

Last year before Abeer started baking, a US drone strike took the lives of two of her brothers, Bandar and Abdulmajeed al-Hassani. A year later, Abdullah was killed in fighting with security forces. Local media reported Bandar and Abdulmajeed were “suspected al-Qaeda militants.”

Since 2002, the US has been conducting a covert program to target and kill alleged al-Qaeda militants based in Yemen. Reports from The Bureau of Investigative Journalism show that there have been more than 100 drone or missile strikes in the country, with deaths totaling up to 400 to date.

Ahmed Arman, a lawyer with the Yemeni Based Law Firm, HOOD, and a security analyst, believes al-Qaeda in Yemen first began organising in 1994, but it wasn’t until 2009 that Yemen saw an emergence of a group linked to al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. “In 2011, Ansar al-Sharia, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP)’s offshoot, seized two main towns and nearby villages in southern Abyan and Shabwa.” In the same year, the US escalated its drone program against suspected al-Qaeda targets throughout the country, killing several low-value targets within AQAP and several hundred civilians.

Food is good for everyone’s soul

Abeer and her mother weren’t exactly flush with money to start a new business but a hopeful spirit won them over. “This is about desserts with a purpose,” Abeer says.

Although the primary motivation behind their backing is financial, there is a personal transformation and healing that happens, and the two women secure more than just a profit.

“Baking a cake, gives me more than just money. It has allowed me to interact with other people and that has changed me.” Abeer says with a cracked smile.

While the response has been "positive" with orders coming in every couple days or so, “life is still not easy,” says Abeer. “I have to deal with so many challenges from hearing hurtful remarks for being a divorcee to being associated with AQAP - even by some of these customers. Sometimes it’s a word I get from somebody and it triggers…” Abeer brushes away tears with her sleeve. “At times I can’t get out of bed, I lay there for days and my children come to me begging me to take them to the playground. I want to give them a “normal” life” she says as she hugs Ows, 7, her youngest, tightly in her arms.

“If these walls could talk, they would shed tears from all the pain my family and I have gone through. So instead of talking, I’ve decided to focus on my baking.”

According to Abeer’s mother, it’s not the sorrows of losing a loved one, “I can grieve losing my sons but just not knowing when this [drone] war will ever end makes me terrified. This is not how I want to die.”

Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch released separate reports last year, alleging that the United States was engaging in war crimes and killing without prosecution. Their findings contradict claims by US and Yemeni officials that only high value militants posing an imminent threat to the US are being killed in these operations.

Baraa Shiban, reprieve coordinator, says “There is a huge disconnect between the political transition that is happening in the center of the country, Sana’a and what is happening a couple of metres away from the capital. Children, women, and men, they are all afraid. Communities living under drones suffer major anxiety, fearful of another “mistake.” This has fueled distrust and resentment against the Yemeni government, rather than against AQAP.”

As the US drone war in Yemen continues, many people say they will continue to search far and wide for creative outlets to express themselves; Abeer and her mother are just two of those people.

A consultant to the Yemeni Ministry of Education, Mohammed al-Qawli, lost his 33 year- old brother, schoolteacher Ali al-Qawli, to a US drone strike, alongside seven other men.

With gleaming eyes, he swung his hands at me, showing me remnants of one of the US Hellfire missiles that hit his brother’s car. “This is the humanitarian aid we in Yemen get from the United States, it [human rights] is all one big lie.”

After the horrific incident, Qawli made it his own personal mission to travel to areas hit by drones, and document the impact the strikes leave on families. Being personally impacted by the drone program, families heard him out and joined him in the non-violent resistance movement against the US-led drone war on Yemen. Together they formed the first ever union that aims to end the US-Yemeni drone program, spearheaded by survivors and families of drone victims.

In the face of pain and loss and in the midst of missiles raining down, hope surely gives Abeer, Khadija and Mohammed the determination and energy to carry on. Stories like Mohammed Qawli and Abeer are missing from the drone conversation. What they are doing is entrenching a culture of resistance, which is crucial to retaining an opposition to the US drone war; one which is garnering wider attention in the political sphere.  They are not stories of “sadness and soul destruction,” the typical narratives mainstream media likes to report; they are stories of survival, stories of communities that have endured in the midst of this brutal drone war, who are showing acts of tenacity and courage to resist.

“I want to move beyond the conflict,” said Abeer. “By baking, I can engage with my community and my culture and I can become alive again. I can show people that I am a human being.”

There are two sides to this war, there is a side of physical destruction, and there is a side of hidden wounds trying to fight back through creative non-violent resistance. So how do we end this war? There is no definitive answer. However, one way to push forward is to listen to those living through the drones strikes and keep their stories alive. Bringing their narratives to the fore can help with creating effective solutions. Listening, learning and sharing their stories is something we should encourage in all of our communities, since in one way or another, it affects us all.