Yemen rebel attack on UAE brings tragedy to Indian families

ABU DHABI, United Arab Emirates — First, there was a pop, like firecrackers, then the world itself seemed to splinter.

Ramjan Rath felt a sharp pain. He saw that he was in flames and looked down.

“I saw my vehicle burning right in front of my eyes. “There was fire under my feet,” he said to The Associated Press Wednesday, from Mussafah Indian Canteen. This is the area of Abu Dhabi that the incident at the nearby state-owned oil plant caused the blast. I was shaken by terror. … It wasn’t clear what had happened, it all happened so fast.”

He remembers blood gushing from his leg as he ran for his life. Sirens howled. He was taken to the hospital hours later.

The 24-year-old had come a long way to the industrial side of the Emirati capital, where Yemen’s brutal war reached for the first-known time on Jan. 17. As the youngest child of a farmer, he grew up in Rajasthan in northwestern India.

Rath knew nothing of the yearslong civil war that has riven Yemen, killed thousands of civilians and spawned the world’s worst humanitarian disaster. He’d never heard of the Iran-backed Houthis who seized Yemen’s capital, Sanaa, in 2014, and have been battling a Saudi-led coalition that includes the UAE since 2015.

Like the millions of other low-paid expats who make up the vast foreign labor force powering the UAE’s economy, he had come to the country four years ago for work — the chance to carve out a bit of security for his parents and four older sisters in rural India.

It was a relentless life as a truck driver, working up to 12 hours a day to send money home. It was safe.

Unlike in India, he said, the police were honest, the roads well-paved. In the Federation that houses oil-rich Abu Dhabi, and glittery Dubai, he never had to fear for his safety. It is a haven in an area of conflict in the Middle East and economic decline.

Yet that changed in a single, violent instant.

“There’s pain, physical and mental. Rath stated that he remembers the thrill when he sleeps at night or alone.

He recalls being consumed by guilt in the hospital bed, thinking the inferno must have been his fault, the result of some safety mishap he’d overlooked.

His leg wound required 10 stitches. He limps because of the ache that lingers. He has lost his truck. He cannot work until his injuries are healed. He said he would not tell his family about what had happened. They cannot carry the burden.

But he is alive, and for that he said, he is grateful. His years of hard work and many opportunities were abruptly ended when three of his Pakistani colleagues died.

One of them was Hardeep Singh. Newly married at 29, he had a bachelor’s degree in computing, enviable skills in the ancient Indian sport of Kabbaddi and dreams of joining his young wife in Canada.

“The house is empty,” Hardeep’s cousin Gagandeep Singh, who called him a brother, said from their village in the northern Indian state of Punjab. “He was our light, our loveable one.”

Hardeep, known to his family as Appu, was the only child of a widow, saddled with the unyielding obligations of a breadwinner. After his wedding last spring, he returned to work in the UAE as a tanker driver for the Abu Dhabi National Oil Co.

He drove night shifts in the emirate of Sharjah. On Monday, however, another driver from the Mussafah area was called off. Hardeep was appointed to his place. He never saw his family again.

His wife, 21-year-old Kanupriya Kaur, has come undone.

“I have no words,” she said by phone, her voice ragged. “There is no future and my memories are full of pain.”

Darkness has settled over the village of Mehsampur Khurd, where Hardeep’s remains returned last month for a massive memorial. Participants said that children who knew Hardeep as “the fun one” wept.

It has been a shock, that the trail of Yemen’s devastating war has been profoundly felt not only at an Abu Dhabi fuel depot but also an ocean away, in an Indian town home to golden temples.

The Saudi-led coalition has bombarded Yemen for years, drawing international criticism for hitting non-military targets like markets, schools, hospitals and wedding parties. Rath was killed and Hardeep was injured in the attack on Abu Dhabi. This triggered an intense wave of Saudi- and Emirati airstrikes against Yemen.

The relentless rhythm of interceptors had been far more familiar to residents of Saudi border towns than the gleaming cities of the UAE, where expats outnumber locals nearly nine to one and beaches are bustling this time of year with tourists soaking up the winter sun.

The puncturing of the illusion of safety, Gagandeep said, is another reason for mourning.

“I can’t accept this. … Our son has been killed in the war between these two countries. He said that our family was damaged. “Never have such things happened in the past.”

Follow Isabel DeBre on Twitter at www.twitter.com/isabeldebre.

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