Yemen: For Hundreds of Americans Trapped, a Desperate Search for Freedom

At least 400 Americans are still in Yemen, authorities said.

April 13, 2015, 9:33 AM

DJIBOUTI — -- Claire is 24, pregnant and trapped in Yemen with her new husband, two kittens and two huskies named Phoenix and Miska.

The Brooklyn native, who asked ABC News not to use her real first name and withhold her last name to protect her identity, described the last two weeks as a blur of window-rattling bombings -- but mostly misinformation, disconnected phone lines and automated emails.

“It’s been a big mess,” she says. “And I’m sorry, it’s really f----- up.”

Claire is one of at least 400 Americans still in Yemen, according to the Council on America-Islamic Relations (CAIR), an Arab American group who along with the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee have filed lawsuits against the U.S. State Department and Department of Defense for failing to evacuate its citizens.

Back in New York, Claire's sister Amber, 32, added her to the list of plaintiffs and wrote the State Department an urgent appeal to its Yemen emergency email address.

PHOTO: Claire, 24, is trapped in Yemen with her husband, two kittens and two huskies named Phoenix and Miska.
Claire, 24, is trapped in Yemen with her husband, two kittens and two huskies named Phoenix and Miska.
Obtained by ABCNews

She received a one-line email three days later: "Their first priority is to stay safe. We have no way to assist with their evacuation."

Following advice from the still active U.S. Embassy in Sana’a’s website, Claire got in touch with the Indian Embassy last week to try and nab a spot on the numerous evacuation flights Air India flew from Sana’a to Djibouti. In total, Air India evacuated more than 5,000 people from 41 different countries. Claire wasn’t one of them.

Stories of chaos and confusion have emerged across Yemen as Americans -- furious at the U.S. government -- scramble to find a way out. When asked why they stayed behind after the U.S. shuttered its embassy in February, the remaining Americans agree that Yemen has been dangerous for years, but this level of unrest was unexpected.

The Indian Embassy, meanwhile, had assured Claire it would be willing to take all nationalities with them, including her Syrian husband.

"We went and apparently missed it by 15 minutes. They said they’d call the next day, but no call came,” she said.

The cell phone number she was given for the Air India flights has been disconnected for days and is no longer operating.

Also at the airport that day was Shaif and his 15-year-old American son, Hamzah, born in Columbia, South Carolina. But they were turned away and told the flights were overbooked. When Shaif tried to follow up, the number was switched off. Shaif wrote to the State Department and was told there was nothing authorities could do.

Those remaining in Yemen also cite past American evacuations, primarily the nearly 15,000 Americans evacuated from Lebanon in 2006.

“I just don’t get it,” Claire said. “This is historically what has happened -- when a situation gets really bad, they get us out. It’s just embarrassing.”

The State Department has said repeatedly that it gave ample warning to U.S. citizens in Yemen. In Friday’s State Department briefing, Deputy Spokesperson Jeff Rathke told reporters: “We are unfortunately in a situation where access to Yemen is extremely difficult, and to do so with U.S. government assets could put other lives at risk and so we are doing the best with the circumstances as they exist.”

Arwa Al Iriani, also a plaintiff in CAIR’s lawsuit, says no one really takes those State Department travel warnings seriously. “They all say the same thing: don’t travel to Yemen!” she quipped.

Arwa arrived in Yemen with her Yemeni husband and their 1-year-old daughter to visit her in-laws in February as the U.S. was yanking its own personnel.

“It was sudden, we were fine – there was nothing wrong, then all of a sudden I was asleep and my husband comes in – Saudi Arabia is bombing Yemen,” she said.

Americans in Yemen say the situation completely changed when the Saudi-led coalition began airstrikes on the Iranian-backed Houthi rebels who took over the capital in January. That’s when things got really scary, they say.

Arwa contacted the U.S. Embassy and "got an automated emails -- as per usual,” she said. "The next email I got read: there’s a boat and it’s somewhere in Hodeidah city.” They never located it, Arwa says.

The U.S. Embassy in Sana’a's website has been putting out semi-regular messages for American citizens and on Friday advised American citizens to contact the International Organization of Migration (IOM), offering up a hotline to call.

Arwa and Claire both reached out to IOM about possible flights, but both are married to husbands who are not citizens.

“They want me to fly without my husband,” Claire said – not an option for either family.

Holed up in her house in the capital of Sana’a all day, Claire’s left to care for her four pets and listen to the airstrikes approaching. Their neighborhood of expats and NGO staff has been largely evacuated. Earlier this week, two mortar shells landed on the family’s roof.

As basic resources dwindle, her husband still goes to work at his family’s nearby dairy shop. She adds wryly – if she’s going to be trapped, at least she’ll have cheese. Claire rules out a boat ride to Djibouti because it’s a dangerous nine-hour drive to the coast from Sana’a, and a drive to Saudi Arabia is out of the question.

“So I guess, we’re just waiting on an airplane -- any kind of airplane -- from anywhere,” she said.

Arwa, who is currently at her in-laws' in the port city of Hodeideh with her 1-year old, heard that an Indian vessel was arriving to transport evacuees. When they arrived at the port, a tugboat ahead of the Indian vessel was violently seized and the boat was blocked from entering the port. Her other options? A fishing boat to Djibouti, which makes her nervous with a toddler, or driving to Saudi Arabia, but the road from Hodeidah to the Saudi border is too dangerous.

Shaif in Sana'a isn’t willing to wait for a plane for his son.

“This has taken a toll on all of us,” he says, noting that his daughter is on panic attack medications and his son isn’t sleeping. "That feeling of unsafe.” Shaif has started planning a drive to the Saudi border from Yemen and flying onwards to Amman, Jordan.

In the central city of Ibb, Yemen, Talal, 31, and his Yemeni wife see few good options. Talal is considering driving to the airport in Sana’a but has scant details on any flights taking off. A DV Lottery Visa winner in 2007, he’s been living and paying taxes in America for the last eight years. “This is not what I expected at all when I moved to the States,” he said.

"I expected what I see in movies 'we protect our citizens and move navy fleets for them – anywhere in the world'” Talal says over the crackling phone line from the Yemeni city of Ibb. “It’s literally hell on earth here.”

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