At Dhahran airport, six of us awaited a flight to Sana’a, the capital of North Yemen. In 1979, Yemen was still a sleepy, little known country.
We boarded the 707 jet and found only 18 passengers on the flight. We took off and the flight went smoothly until one Yemeni wanted his lunch, warmed. He pulled out a petrol stove and set it up in the middle of the aisle. Someone flagged the flight crew and a steward rushed back, screaming at the Yemeni who protested furiously. Some yelling and arguing ensued before the passenger agreed to put away his stove and eat his food cold.
After landing, Immigration and Customs was a strange affair that took place around one desk with several uniformed men stamping papers. With our hand luggage, we walked out of the terminal, only to be descended upon by a couple of dozen taxi drivers, vying for business. Despite being mobbed, one particular character managed to shepherd us away from what felt like a swarm of locusts. He maneuvered us towards his car, a Morris Oxford Ambassador, a car I recalled from my youth.
Our driver introduced himself. “My name is Jock.”
We were amused, here was a local Yemeni named Jock. He explained that years before he had provided taxi service in Aden for the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders Regiment from the United Kingdom. As a result, he spoke good English and understood us without any problem as we were all Brits, ourselves. He drove us to our hotel in downtown Sana’a. The hotel had, in a previous life, been a royal palace, but it had fallen on hard times and its former glory had been lost to cobwebs, decay, and probably a little thievery.
Jock became our tour guide. He arrived most mornings just as we finished breakfast and had something entertaining or beautiful for us to see each day. We managed to jam all six of us plus him into that one car. We all became quite familiar.
He told us about a national habit. The entire country was addicted to a mild hallucinogenic called khat. It looked like the clippings from a privet hedge. Everybody seemed to be chewing it and many men displayed bulging cheeks like trumpet players from years of chewing. Everywhere we trod, there were trails of spittle and wads of discarded khat, spat out after people had chewed it. Apparently, years before, Yemen grew all its own food and even exported some quality produce like coffee, but farmers found growing khat to be easier to grow and more profitable. This led the country to be in an economic struggle, importing most of its food requirements while having few revenue-earning exports.
One evening when we were in the souq, one stall holder offered us the opportunity to try some khat. We chose a few leaves from his stash. To me, it had the effect of one gin and tonic on an empty stomach. But I dare say chewing it all day, every day, could have been problematic.
Two days later, we met Jock after lunch. When we climbed into his taxicab, he had a big smile on his face and said, “Oh, I have an interesting afternoon for you. I’ll take you to a place where you’ll see the most amazing sight in the world.”
We questioned him to ascertain where he planned to take us, but he was tight lipped. He insisted we sit back and wait to see what he would reveal.
He headed toward the airport. But he didn't drive towards the main entrance, he skirted along the perimeter fencing until we were on the far side of the runway from the terminal. We drove along the fence line and as he approached an area of hangars, workshops, and sheds, he slowed down.
He turned towards us and said, “We're going through a guarded gate up here. If the guard asks what you’re doing, just say you’re international press and going to interview somebody.”
We looked at Jock suspiciously, but he just beamed and drove on. The gate was guarded by a single armed soldier. His appearance gave us reason for concern. Over one shoulder he had a webbing strap attached to his automatic weapon, which occupied his hands rather than him holding it with purpose. His eyes looked unfocused, a slight amount of spittle dribbled out of one corner of his mouth, his hair flopped wherever it wanted, and his smile unsettled us. One of our group looked at Jock and said, “He’s stoned. Absolutely stoned and he’s got that gun.”
Jock agreed, “Yeah, it looks that way,” as he wound down his window.
The guard slurred something in Arabic at Jock. I knew a few words of Arabic but what came out of the guard’s mouth didn’t align with anything I'd ever learned. Jock tried to assure him we had legitimate business. But as Jock reasoned with him, he held his gun more firmly. Eventually Jock mentioned something about press and international, and the guard paid immediate attention. He stood more upright, held his gun solidly, and tried to salute, but failed dismally. We drove on to the airport wondering if the back window would be shattered by machine gun fire. Jock drove around several buildings and we felt safer being out of the guard’s sight. We crossed several runway strips and other concrete aprons. He stopped in front of several portables at the end of a small jetway. He got out of the car and stood staring up the short length of runway apron. Jock opened his arms after we got out of the car and he said, “Isn't this the most amazing sight you’ve ever seen?”
We stood there studying what was in front of us. It made absolutely no sense as the Cold War hadn't ended. America and Russia were far from being friendly.
Along one side of that concrete strip stood four American Huey gunships. They looked ready for action. Outside one of the portables just behind the helicopters sat four Americans, playing cards and drinking beer. One of them yelled and another American appeared from the portable. He looked at us and walked across to Jock.
“Hey, Jock, you've found some more tourists to come and see us?” He turned to us. “Welcome to our little neck of the woods. Isn't this an interesting situation?”
We turned and looked across the narrow strip of concrete. There stood five Russian MiG jet fighters in various states of disrepair. Behind the MiG’s, several men slouched, looking less than interested in knowing there were visitors.
The American introduced himself, “Hi, I'm Hank, I'm the captain in charge of this crew. And that lot across there, they’re the remnants of the Russians who used to think Yemen was theirs.”
All of us started asking questions at once. Hank answered them as best he could. Apparently, several years before, the Russians had held sway over Yemen. They had a military presence in the country. When the US managed to establish a foothold with the Yemenis, the US persuaded the Yemenis they would be better off being friends with the US than the Russians. Thus the Russians were requested to leave and they actually saw no reason to stay. They gathered up all their equipment and shipped out, except for this small squadron of MiG fighters. About half a dozen Russian engineers and several pilots were left to sort out this small number of derelict jets so that they could be returned to the Russian homeland. However, the Russian military became reticent to send spare parts all the way to Yemen. Thus these five jets sat in various states. One was flyable, but Moscow decided to not send funds to buy jet fuel. A second jet was almost flyable, they just needed to obtain a spare wheel for under one wing. The third one needed some serious work, a fourth looked to be beyond hope, and the fifth was being cannibalized for spare parts. Meanwhile, Moscow was willing to send a monthly load of freeze packed dinners, lunches, and breakfasts, and a large amount of good quality vodka.
According to Hank, the one time he had seen the one MiG take off and fly, it happened after the Russians realized they would never see money for jet fuel from Moscow. But their over-abundance of vodka was negotiable with the Americans – vodka for jet fuel. The Americans were quite happy with the arrangement and the Russian engineers celebrated seeing one of their aircraft actually fly.
After we peppered Hank with more questions, Jock felt we needed to leave as he didn't want to over-extend our stay on the base as our being on the airfield was not officially allowed. Hank insisted we not to take photographs as they could be an embarrassment to both the Americans and the Russians. So we just had to take a visual memory of the sight of Huey gunships and MiG fighter jets literally within feet of each other.
Thankfully when we returned to the gate, the guard was unconscious, slumped in the corner of his hut. We drove through feeling relief being on the outside of the gate.
When we returned to the hotel, we thanked Jock immensely because he had shown us a sight that could probably never be repeated anywhere at any time in the future. Going to Yemen was memorable and thankfully nobody pulled out a petrol stove to warm their lunch during our return flight.
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