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Peace talk in Taiz. A daughter and father discuss life in a besieged city

Story Youth
Yemen -

How do different generations in one family look at peace? On the International Day of Peace, we invite you to listen to Olla, a pacifist, social activist, and a student when war breaks out in Yemen, and her father Waleed, who works in the army. “I don’t have the hope you still have, dad.”

a daughter embracing her father in a photo studio setting

In 2014, when Olla Al Sakkaf is 20, everything that can go wrong goes wrong. The dark clouds that had been amassing over Yemen, suddenly burst.

For a while though, during the 2011 revolution, when young people rallied en masse against state corruption and unemployment, better times seemed to be ahead. Spring was in the air. But instead of a peaceful transfer of power after president Saleh is ousted, the revolution degenerates into horror. Saudi Arabia, the US, and Iran enter the scene. They fuel the conflict into a full-blown international war. Shia Houthi rebels capture the capital Sana’a. Al Qaeda and other terrorist groups gain a foothold.

Yemen, a patchwork of strongholds

In the past eight years, Yemen’s proxy war has turned the country into a patchwork of proto-state entities, front lines, and checkpoints, on which the world’s largest humanitarian crisis is unfolding.

In the middle of that patchwork lies the besieged and cut off city of Taiz. This is where Olla and Waleed Al Sakkaf live. Or try to live.

Miraculously, during the war, Olla obtains her university degree in English Literature at Taiz University. And though she could read Dickens, Hardy, or Eliot all day, she spends her days differently. She joins YWBOD. This Yemeni partner of the Cordaid coordinated Civil Society Platform for Peacebuilding and Statebuilding (CSPPS), works on youth empowerment and peacebuilding in Yemen. It also provides relief aid. Olla, with other people her age, collects and distributes supplies for hospitals and schools.

“Arms are everywhere, rule of law is nowhere. Any day could be your last. You can hardly call this a state. Or a society.”

For some time, as a volunteer with Deeproot’s Youth Mediation Support Team, Olla is involved in mediation efforts to end the siege on Taiz. The team also gathers and provides data on people that have been arrested, were taken hostage, or disappeared otherwise in Taiz.

Up to this day, Olla tutors children and conducts peacebuilding training sessions and workshops for grown-ups. Also in very insecure areas.

Vocal in a country where women are silenced

Online, by the grace of a flimsy Internet connection, Olla becomes an international spokesperson for her generation. In 2020, as representative of the United Network of Young Peacebuilders (UNOY), she even addresses the UN Security Council.

Recently, she set up her own foundation, Peace Environment. For her, it’s a vehicle not only to promote peace and education but also to tackle the climate crisis in her country. In recent years, Yemen experienced unprecedented flooding in its desert areas.

Her father Waleed, 59, studied military and political science in Moscow and works for the army in Taiz. At the start of the war, he still took part in armed military operations. Nowadays he has an administrative job. Besides Olla, he has another daughter and one son.

Olla, a peace and climate activist in a war-torn city. Daughter of a military man. Young, outspoken, and vocal in a country where women and young people are silenced. “I am who I am thanks to my father.”

daughter and father standing close to one another in a photo studio stetting

Let’s listen to a very special conversation between a daughter and father in a besieged city. To keep track of who is speaking, we have put Olla’s words in italics.

Peace, what does it mean?

Dad, what does peace mean to you?

Salaam…for me that means stability. The possibility for all to live a stable existence, study, have medical care when you need it, have a roof over your head, support your family and meet basic needs. All that is gone. Arms are everywhere, rule of law is nowhere. Any day could be your last. The economy has collapsed, there is no government, no governance, and no control. Salaries are not paid, and prices go up every day. You can hardly call this a state. Or a society.

How was it before, when you were my age?

You had corrupt leaders, there was unrest. Civil society activism did exist but on a small scale. The big difference is that there was no war then. Now every sector of society is pretty much destroyed and corruption is everywhere. On the other hand, a lot more people now stand up for peace, human rights, and gender equity. For change. Like you do.

You are a dreamer, you are a survivor

What do you actually think about me and what I’m doing?

I am proud of you. You are a dreamer, someone who pursues visions. And who at the same time does everything to help others and make society more liveable. You are a go-getter with a lot of abilities. That’s why, even in this besieged city, you got your degree, you work your way up and you carve your way forward. You are a survivor. Even when you were a kid, you had a personality. I could see you were destined for bigger things. That’s why I was so eager for you to go to college.

I am also a woman. What do you think about women being so discriminated against in Yemen?

I abhor it. Men who favor their sons and discriminate against women in the name of their religion confuse Islam with harmful traditions. Women make up more than half of society. If they are not able to develop to their full potential and pursue their dreams, it is to the detriment of the whole society.

And how do you look at me, as a father?

Maybe it’s weird to say this to you now, but since childhood, you are my hero. And my example. In Arab countries, fathers often favour their sons. You never did that, you always supported me, no matter what it took, no matter what I wanted to do. I never felt inferior to my brother.

You never burdened us with your worries

You work hard to provide for your family, to give us opportunities. The war is perhaps even more difficult for you than for me. You have responsibilities I don’t have. When you didn’t receive a salary for years, you still managed to take care of us. When the bombs fell and we had to flee our home, you found a new place for us. You never burdened us with the worries you had as head of the family. Now that I have a job of my own and earn something, I am glad that I can contribute to the family income.

“I look at it differently. This war has destroyed us. It has killed every ounce of creativity in people.”

Today, I consider you mostly a friend. And an inspiration to continue doing what I do. Few women and girls I know have that kind of relationship with their father.

By the way, just because you are my hero doesn’t mean I always agree with you. On the contrary, the older I get, the more often I disagree with you. Just as well, because I am rather stubborn.

You think ‘How nice, these rains’, I think ‘Help!’

Can you give an example?

Take the climate crisis. You think: ‘How nice, these rains in the desert, never seen before. They could turn the country into a green oasis’. Whereas I think ‘Help!’. I know that extreme weather is going to be disastrous. And that if we do nothing, whole villages will be wiped out.

You have experienced much more than I have, yet you are more hopeful than I am. Even when you look at the conflict and its resolution, you are hopeful.

That’s true. Your lack of hope makes you vulnerable. As a father, it hurts to see that. I have experienced crises before. I know: after a period of fighting among themselves, Yemenis unite again. The most important thing is to have a leader that can unite people. When that happens, this country can rise out of the ashes. I believe that will happen.

The wounds of war

I look at it differently. Things are only getting more complicated. Things get worse. This war has destroyed us. It has killed every ounce of creativity in people. Even children don’t dream anymore. People are killing each other for nothing. Everyone is mutilated inside, traumatised by the war.

When the war ends, only then will we see the depth of the damage that has been done. That’s when the real work begins. Because how can we as a people, torn apart and torn inside, work out a new future if we don’t face and deal with our traumas first? Everyone in this country, including me, including you, needs professional psychological care to be able to bear the suffering of war and to move forward again. How can a generation that knows only war, that has not been able to study, that does not know what peace is, rebuild the country?

Of course, the scars and wounds of war are deep, in all of us. But as a country, you can rise. Look at Rwanda, which after the horrific genocide in ’94 managed to develop itself at a rapid pace. It has become, under the leadership of President Kagame, a stable and prosperous country. Or look at how, after his release, Mandela piloted South Africa into a new future, without civil war.

When I’m at my wits end

True peace will not come with leadership alone. I do not look at political solutions but at the fabric of society. The wounds must heal in each of us. And getting guns and brutal violence out of our system, as a people, as a country, will take decades.

“Every time you went out to look for water or food somewhere, I was left alone. With a gun in my hand.”

Anyway, I see that you are more optimistic and hopeful than I am. And even though I don’t share your vision, it does sometimes inspire me. When I am at my wit’s end and feel down, it gives me energy knowing that you trust things will get better.

Overprotection of parents really is an issue

For my work, I also get to places outside the city, including in Houthi territory. Sometimes that’s quite dangerous. How do you deal with that?

Eight years of war have accustomed us to a lot of things, including insecurity. But still, it’s difficult when it concerns your child. If I really don’t trust things, I accompany you. I’ll act as your bodyguard. I know you don’t always like that. The other day, during a workshop you gave, I handed you a bottle of water because I thought you weren’t drinking enough. You found that embarrassing. A woman of 28, in a leading role, with her dad by her side.

That’s true! I understand your concern. But overprotection of parents really is an issue. It makes it harder for young people to go their own way, find their place, and conquer their position. Fortunately, you and mom alternate. Because of your job with the army, there’s no way you can enter Houthi territory. I do go there, sometimes accompanied by Mom. Then she’s my bodyguard.

And I do want to mention that at least half the time I am behind the wheel myself.

Remember that month, when everyone had fled?

By the way, as a daughter, I worry about you too.

You do?

Yes, of course. Especially at the beginning of the war, it was so frightening. At that time you were still taking part in armed operations. Every time you went to the frontline, we were scared to death. You were on the border with Saudi Arabia for a while then. Sometimes we couldn’t reach you for a few days. Fortunately, later on, you got an administrative job. No more fighting.

daughter and father standing next to one another in a photo studio setting

Remember, when the war started and everyone fled from Taiz, how we stayed together in our house. For a month, just the two of us. Every time you went out to look for water or food somewhere, I was left alone. With a gun in my hand, in case someone attacked our house.

Of course, I remember. So there you go, we all worry about each other.

At least you stayed close to your principles

We talked a lot about my social work. But do you know that for me, in your own way, you are also working for peace? Even with your work in the military. And that comes from a pacifist, who believes you can never achieve real peace with weapons.

How would I be doing that?

First of all, by being a father and a husband who teaches his family the principle of equality. And by encouraging us in what we do. But also, indirectly, through your work in the army. Even if now you have a purely administrative job in the military, you do work with young soldiers. Often they are treated as mere instruments of war. You teach them to think for themselves, to look at the social, and historical context of the situation they are in. And not to follow orders like an automaton. This explains why they haven’t made you a general of course. But at least you always stayed close to your principles.

By the way, when you said a good leader could unite the country and move it forward… Could that also be a woman?

Then again, you can’t make peace by fighting

Sure. But I don’t see one right now. In fact, male or female, that leader is not in sight right now. But when elections come, and she’s on the list, I’ll vote for her. And if someone asks me if you could become that female leader of the country, my answer is: I hope not. To play that role you have to be able to negotiate. You can do that. But you also have to be able to fight and confront. And that’s not in your nature.

That’s true, fighting is not in my nature. But then again, you can’t make peace by fighting.

I do know that peace in this country will have to come from your generation. My generation is nearing sixty. We are not the future. You asked me at the beginning what peace means to me. Much more important is your answer to that question. What is peace to you, my dear Olla?

Peace is life. Without peace, I cannot live. Without peace, I can breathe, eat and sleep. But I cannot live. I will live, and have my life back again, when there will be peace.

All images: © Olla Al Sakkaf