SANAA, Yemen — The brothers arrived at the airport before dawn, pushing their elderly mother in a wheelchair as they rushed to board a flight they hoped might save her life.
But battle scars aside, the airport managed to host a scene of near-normalcy Monday, when the first commercial flights since 2016 took off and landed on its runways — delivering a much-needed glimmer of hope to Yemeni civilians after years of war.
For Waleed and Mohammed Hamza, Monday’s trip to Amman, Jordan — unfathomable just months ago — could mean the difference between life and death for their mother, Lutfiya, who has multiple myeloma, a form of cancer. Like many other Yemenis, they have previously had to resort to long and dangerous road trips to reach working airports in the southern cities of Aden or Seiyun to travel abroad, braving checkpoints on both sides of the country’s war and at times taking unpaved routes to avoid active front lines.
This year, as their mother’s condition worsened, the brothers feared that the treacherous journey was so risky it would not be worth seeking medical treatment for her outside of Yemen — even if it might save her life.
“She just wouldn’t be able to make it,” Waleed said of the long, bumpy roads. “The trip to Aden could kill her.”
Instead, they staked their hopes on the possibility the airport might one day reopen.
Yemen has for years been divided between the internationally recognized government, which controls most of the country’s south and is backed by Saudi Arabia, and the Houthis, who took over the capital of Sanaa in 2015 and are backed by Iran. The seven-year civil war has left tens of thousands of people dead and submerged the country in one of the world’s worst humanitarian crises. Saudi Arabia controls the country’s airspace. Aid groups have argued that keeping the airport shuttered to normal flights has effectively stranded needy civilians in the country’s north, where there is limited access to advanced medical care.
Then, in early April — after many failed attempts at peace deals and a violent uptick in hostilities earlier this year — the United Nations said it had helped broker a two-month truce between the two sides that, among other conditions, would allow some flights to begin operating from the airport in Sanaa.
But the first flight, scheduled for April 24, was canceled shortly before it was scheduled to take off, prompting fears that the conditions of the truce might not hold — and dashing the dreams of many passengers seeking urgent medical treatment abroad.
Following new discussions, the flight was rescheduled for May 16. Passengers arrived hours early for the scheduled flight — fearing again that it would not take off. Several declined to speak to The Washington Post, citing concerns that they could face repercussions because of sensitivities around the flight.
Khaled Alshaief, general manager of Sanaa Airport, said there was “great joy” in organizing the first flight, which carried more than 100 passengers to Jordan. “As you can see, the passengers are families: women and children and sick people,” he said, describing it as a “great victory” for the government in the Houthi-controlled north. Under the terms of the agreement, he said, two flights are scheduled each week, so long as the truce holds.
Officials hope to soon increase the number of flights, he said, describing the first flights as “a trial” for others, including some to and from Egypt.
Washington, which long supported Saudi Arabia’s air campaign in Yemen — which human rights groups say has killed thousands of civilians — but has more recently distanced itself from the fight and urged peace talks, hailed the flights as a crucial step toward peace. The Biden administration has pledged to end the war in Yemen and also appointed its own special envoy to try to broker a resolution.
“Yemen today is witnessing its calmest period since the war began, and these flights are an important step in further improving the lives and opportunities for the Yemeni people,” National Security Council spokeswoman Adrienne Watson said in a statement Monday.
Ahmed Alwazan, over 70, looked exhausted as he sat in a wheelchair waiting for the flight. In the past, he had traveled abroad to Egypt, Jordan and Germany for medical treatments. But he and his wife have not managed to go abroad since 2011 — most recently because of the airport closure.
“I suffer from problems in my prostate, hemorrhoids, fistula and blood clots,” Alwazan said. “When I heard they opened the airport I was so happy. As you can see, I’m unable to walk, let alone travel a long and tiring trip to Aden or Seiyun.”
Nearby, a man named Ahmed sat with his relatives, waiting for his brother, whose kidneys are malfunctioning, to board the flight to Amman. He spoke on the condition that only his first name be used because of security concerns.
His brother’s long illness has left him unable to travel to Aden by road, he said. He originally planned to travel April 24 — but his hopes were dashed when that flight was canceled.
This time, the flight — scheduled to arrive empty from Aden — was delayed. The family fidgeted about, worrying it would be called off once again.
“Do you think the flight will still take place?” Ahmed asked every few minutes. “We will not leave the airport until we hear the sound of the plane landing.”
Then, at about 8:15 a.m., the jet descended into Sanaa, water cannons spraying the runway to hail its much-anticipated arrival. Shortly after, it took off again.
At last, Ahmed’s brother was on his way.
O’Grady reported from Cairo.