Window to evacuate Yemen narrowing

Window to evacuate Yemen narrowing
The evacuated Singaporeans are accompanied by Dr Albakri Ahmad, Dean of MUIS Academy (left, in sunglasses) and Richard Grosse, Consul-General of the Singapore Consulate-General in Muscat and leader of the Crisis Response Team (in grey suit).

Al-Azhar University in Cairo, Egypt, may be the most famous institution for Islamic scholarship but Singaporean Muslims also study in the lesser-known Rubat Tarim and the newer Darul Mustafa in Yemen.

They are both in Tarim, a town in eastern Yemen.

Muslim convert Aayesha Hong, 45, is one of the Singaporeans who has studied in the town, which is steeped in history.

She went to Darul Mustafa in June 2013 for 40 days, spanning the Ramadan period.

The property agent, who converted to Islam in 2009, said she chose to attend a spiritual retreat there because of the area's history (it is mentioned in the Quran) and the traditions its Islamic schools uphold.

"(Tarim) is where descendants of the Prophet Muhammad are and they follow his ways of living very strictly," she said. "It was a very spiritual experience."

But Yemen has plunged deeper into civil war as fighting between Houthi rebels and pro-government forces intensified.

Over the weekend, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) evacuated eight Singaporeans from Tarim, working closely with the Islamic Religious Council of Singapore or Muis.

They arranged for a coach to take the Singaporeans, along with nationals from Brunei, Cambodia, India, Malaysia and Vietnam, eastwards from Tarim, across the border into Salalah in Oman.

The journey of nearly 900km, going through mountainous terrain, would normally have taken little more than nine hours. But they had to make several stops along the way, and it took more than 20 hours.

The group was met by a crisis response team led by Mr Richard Grosse, Consul-General of the Singapore Consulate in Muscat, Oman.

Also part of the team was Dr Albakri Ahmad, dean of the Muis Academy in Singapore, as well as MFA staff.

They are arranging for the evacuees to return home from Oman later this week.

Said Dr Albakri: "We are glad that they have arrived in Salalah safely... We are also concerned that the situation may deteriorate, which would make such efforts in future difficult."

Over the past two weeks, 23 Singaporeans have been evacuated from the war-torn country.

EVACUATED

On April 2, Madam Sherin Fathima Syed Abdul Ravoof and her four children were evacuated from the southern port city of Aden on a Chinese vessel after they contacted the MFA for help.

Singapore has no diplomatic mission in Yemen.

Last week, two families were also evacuated in Filipino and Malaysian operations after they contacted the MFA.

The ministry yesterday warned of a narrowing window of opportunity for Singaporeans to safely leave Yemen as the situation is rapidly deteriorating.

While the crisis response team is planning another evacuation, it warns that complications on the ground may prevent it from further evacuations.

The New Paper understands that some Singaporeans are still choosing to remain in Yemen, and that most of them are based in Tarim, about eight hours by road from the capital Sanaa, which has been taken over by Houthi fighters.

Most of the fighting is now concentrated in the south and west of Yemen, areas which have been pounded with airstrikes from a Saudi-led military coalition.

But for Ms Hong, whose 24-year-old son intends to attend Darul Mustafa next month to study Quranic Arabic and reading, the fighting seems somewhat far away.

The family is in touch with a coordinator in Yemen for updates on the situation and will make a decision when the time nears.

Ms Hong said: "We believe that life and death is in the hands of our creator. We can only pray that everything goes well."


This article was first published on April 14, 2015.
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