Yemen’s Mother of Martyrs

Fatima Nagi Ali personifies the cost of more than a decade of conflict going back to 2007

Fatima Nagi Ali, 68, a Yemeni mother from the southern Al Dhalea province, has lost three sons to conflict. Ali Mahmood for The National
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In Al Dhalea province in southern Yemen, where fighting in defence of homeland and dignity is seen as a holy duty, many families have lost dozens of relatives, not just in fighting against Houthi rebels but also in a simmering separatist conflict in dating back to 2007.

Sanah, in the north of the province, is just kilometres from the frontline in fighting between the Houthis and pro-government forces. It is here that Fatima Nagi Ali, 68, lives in a rundown house. She is known here as the Mother of the Martyrs.

In recent years, she has lost three sons, a nephew, and three cousins to war. Her story offers a close-up view of the cost of conflict in Yemen, where international political conflict monitor ACLED estimates over 70,000 people have been killed since 2016.

"It is my destiny to keep receiving condolences year after year," Mrs Ali told The National outside her home, surrounded by 18 of her orphan grandsons. "My old house has hosted endless funerals."

Mrs Ali lost her first child in December 2013, when son Fahmi Mohammed was killed in in clashes between the Southern Movement and the Yemeni army. The Southern Movement advocates for a return to the former independent state of South Yemen, which existed until 1990.

An activist in the Southern Movement, 35-year-old Fahmi left behind a widow and four children.

At the funeral for Fahmi, death struck again. The Yemeni army, claiming it was targeting separatist leaders, attacked the school at which the funeral was held. A second son, Abdulfatah Mohammed, was among 15 civilians killed, Mrs Ali said.

The civil war against the Houthis, which began after the rebels seized the capital in 2014, brought more tragedy for the family. Three of Mrs Ali’s cousins were killed in Al Dhalea in 2015 and then a nephew in Hodeidah last year.

But Mrs Ali’s sorrows were not over. In May, her eldest son Abdullah was killed in fighting against Houthi rebels on the Hajer frontline, not far from the family home. He was 49 and a father to six children.

“Abdullah was serving in Aden, but he came back to join the front as soon he heard that the Houthi rebels were pushing towards Al Dhalea,” Mrs Ali said. “He came to me to see me as soon as he arrived but he told me that he couldn’t stay with me for even a night because he was rushing to lead reinforcements to the front. He was fighting for more than a month and was martyred trying to advance to cut a supply route used by the Houthis.”

The thought that her sons died fighting for justice and homeland can only do so much to salve the pain, Mrs Ali said.

“It is not easy to live counting the death toll of your loved ones,” she said. “I am resilient but when it comes to see dozens of your grandsons suffering, struggling to make a living from their early childhood, that leaves a bleeding wound in the depth of my heart. This kills me every day.”

In Al Dhalea Mrs Ali has become a symbol of sacrifice. Officials and military commanders now visit her house to honour the contribution her family has made in the defence of the region.

The commander of the Arab Coalition Forces in Aden, Major Gen Rashed Al Shamsi, recently visited. He offered to build her a new home but she declined.

“I sacrificed my loved ones for the sake of my homeland and to live in dignity, not to get sympathy,” she said. “The honour I need is the construction of a state of law and social justice where my grandsons who lost their fathers can live in peace and dignity.”

Nevertheless, the visit of Major Gen Al Shamsi made Mrs Ali extremely proud. “His visit to see me is the biggest award for me because I felt that we still have real brothers who care for us amid this horrible war.”

The stoicism of Mrs Ali remains an inspiration to her family.

“She is a great mother, she has been patiently living with her broken heart, she keeps praying, and works hard to look after her orphan grandsons,” said Ali Naser Qasim, a nephew. “She believes that it is her fate to live with this sadness so she is strong and resilient, she keeps struggling to encourage her grandsons to carry on their lives normally.”

Meanwhile Mrs Ali’s two surviving sons continue fighting to defend their homeland. One was recently wounded fighting against the Houthis on Al Dhalea’s northern front, while the other is stationed on the Hajer front in the same area where his older brother Abdullah was killed.