Yemen crisis: Evacuee prays for 'those we left behind'

Story highlights

  • Air India has evacuated 2,500 people in recent days from Yemen, Indian official says
  • Passengers could only bring carry-on luggage onto the airplane
  • The Saudis have not destroyed the airstrips, which are controlled by Houthis

Sanaa, Yemen (CNN)As soon as the buses parked, the people scrambled onto the airport tarmac.

They carried duffel bags, plastic bags full of clothes and small suitcases. They'd already abandoned larger bags in a mound. Only carry-on luggage was allowed on this Air India plane.
The passengers were mostly Indian nationals, plus Yemenis and people from other countries who had been working in Yemen's capital, Sanaa. They sprinted or walked with deliberation to the airplanes. The stress of living in a war zone showed on the passengers' faces. Nobody wanted to be left behind.
    They climbed the steps to the airliner and were greeted by the Air India crew, all wearing pressed uniforms, the flight attendants fully made up.
    After takeoff, the flight attendants went up and down the aisle offering drinks to the 188 evacuees as if they were on a vacation flight.
    But some passengers were already fast asleep, exhausted by the push to get out of Yemen, site of some of the most chaotic fighting in the Mideast.
    This scene has been repeated in recent days as countries work to get their citizens out of Sanaa during a small window when Saudi planes are not bombing the city in an attempt to drive out the Houthis, a Shiite group that has taken over the capital. Air India is especially active because so many Indian nationals work in other nations.
    Over the last few days, India has evacuated some 2,500 people from Yemen, said Gen. Vijay Kumar Singh, the Indian deputy foreign minister who's overseeing the evacuation. The flights are going to Djibouti, the small African nation nearly 430 kilometers (267 miles) away. Some evacuees are fleeing on boats at port cities such as Aden.
    People are leaving behind much more than luggage.
    Damodar Thakur, a professor at Sanaa University, lived in the capital 34 years and built a life there. He loved living in Yemen.
    "I never felt like a foreigner," he said.
    Like the others, he was exhausted and jangled by the shelling and lack of electricity for long stretches.
    "At night, my goodness!" he said. "Gunshots being fired every minute. Sometimes the sky full of sparkling lights. Some women crying, children terrified. Really bad."
    The Houthi rebels control Sanaa, including the airport. But the Saudis are bombing the city and thus control air access in a way, so getting people out requires coordination.
    The Saudi air force gave Air India a four-hour window to go to and from Sanaa and a specific travel route for a safe landing. As the plane approached the city, the crew could see the scars of the fighting. There were no cars on the roads. Dozens of buildings were destroyed.
    At the airport, the landing strips and airport terminal were untouched by Saudi bombs, but buildings on the outskirts of the airport and planes along the airstrip had been blown to bits.
    The loading of passengers was swift. They approached the planes carrying boarding passes -- another touch of normalcy in the otherwise abnormal event. They didn't pay for the flight, though they had to purchase exit visas from the Houthis.
    Children sat on their parents' laps to maximize the number of people on the plane. Some passengers fell asleep as soon as they took their seats before takeoff. Everyone seemed to carry the weight of war, especially nurses who had tended the wounded.
    From Djibouti, the evacuees will most likely disperse to their home nations.
    "Now I can only pray for Yemen and those we left behind," Thakur said.