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Mere miles apart, a family in one city have been separated for years due to Yemen war

SACHA PFEIFFER, HOST:

Now how the war in Yemen has affected people not by physical injury or violence but by separation. Thousands of families there are divided, even though they might be just a few miles apart. And even as the fighting has decreased, there's no sign that the country will be unified anytime soon. NPR's Fatma Tanis visited one family living on the frontline and has the story.

FATMA TANIS, BYLINE: The scars of a vicious civil war are all over this frontline neighborhood where there often is a sniper who shoots at the street.

ARIF ABDULLAH: (Non-English language spoken).

TANIS: Inside one of the bullet-riddled homes lives a family of six - Arif Abdullah, his wife Bashaer Ali and their four daughters. They used to live on the other side of the frontline that divides the city. But the line cut off the father from his job at a fruit market. So they moved here.

ABDULLAH: (Through interpreter) They drew a line through the city blocking access, and you had to go all the way around through the mountains to get to the other side. It used to take me just 15 minutes to drive to work, and then suddenly it took seven hours.

TANIS: They say they haven't seen their parents and siblings in eight years. It's been like that for many people here since the war erupted. In 2014, the Iran-backed Houthi rebels overthrew the Saudi-backed government. Then they took control of half of Taiz. The other half, including this neighborhood, is under the control of the pro-government forces. In a close-knit society like Yemen, where family ties play a crucial role in people's lives, the pain of being separated hangs over this family like a dark cloud, especially now, when Bashaer Ali needs help recovering from an infection after a C-section birth of her fourth daughter two weeks ago.

BASHAER ALI: (Through interpreter) I don't have anyone but my husband - no friends, no family, no one to help. After the infection, I've had to rely on my oldest daughter to do housework and to take care of the children, including the newborn. She's only 8 years old.

TANIS: They could go to the other side, but it's difficult. Transportation is expensive. And then there's the different currencies, which makes the money they have here on the government side nearly worthless on the Houthi side.

ABDULLAH: (Through interpreter) I actually tried once to see my mother, but I never made it. I drove for five hours, but at the first Houthi checkpoint, they interrogated me and accused me of being a terrorist and said they would watch me wherever I went. I gave up and went back home.

TANIS: He was afraid of being arrested like others he's heard about and leaving his wife and children with no protection and no source of income. Life is difficult for Yemenis on both sides. There's severe poverty, malnutrition and little to no access to health care. People who've seen both say there's more freedom, especially for women, in the slightly less conservative government side. But while the Saudi-led airstrikes that killed civilians on the Houthi-controlled cities have mostly stopped, this family now on the government-controlled side of the divide can't afford to move out of the range of Houthi guns.

ALI: (Through interpreter) At least our family is safe over there, unlike us here. We can't even let our children play outside without fear that they will be shot by a sniper. Just the other day, we heard shots again.

TANIS: For now, they've pretty much given up hope on being reunited with their parents any time soon.

ALI: (Through interpreter) I really miss them. I miss going over to my parents' house and them coming here. My children have never seen their grandparents.

TANIS: They can't even do video calls. The internet here isn't good enough for that. But they try to talk on the phone every day, and this time they let us listen in.

(SOUNDBITE OF TELEPHONE RINGING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Hello.

TANIS: Arif Abdullah says hello to his mother-in-law and then hands the phone to his wife.

ALI: (Non-English language spoken).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Non-English language spoken).

TANIS: "Hi, Mom," she says. Her mother replies, "my heart, how are you? I wish I could be there." She gets choked up, and her mother hears it. "Are you crying," she asks. Bashaer Ali pushes the phone back to her husband's hand and says she can't talk any longer.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Non-English language spoken).

TANIS: Her husband chats a bit more, promises his mother-in-law that he'll take good care of her daughter. Then they hang up.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Non-English language spoken).

(SOUNDBITE OF TELEPHONE BEEPING)

ALI: (Through interpreter) This is how we are. This is our life. I used to see my mom every day, and now I can only hear her voice. We have happy moments on the phone, too. But more than anything, the longing never goes away. This is what this war has done to us. It tore us apart.

TANIS: Since the peace talks started last year, there's been much less fighting. But Taiz remains divided, separating thousands of families. They won't be whole again unless the war ends and the city and Yemen is united. Fatma Tanis, NPR News, Taiz, Yemen.

(SOUNDBITE OF BROWN BIRD'S "SHADRACH") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Fatma Tanis