Freeing the Kidnapped in Yemen’s War:
How Yemeni Mothers Succeeded Where Everyone Else Failed
They came to kidnap one woman’s son from his engagement party. They opened fire on the entire house and all the glass shattered. They went in to where the bride’s relatives were, opened fire and threw grenades. The groom’s cousin tried to shelter him screaming “Don’t take him! Why are you taking him? Why are you taking him on his happy day?”. They shot them anyway, and she instantly died. Bullets went through her back to his stomach and he fell to the ground. His aunt was shot in the eye and lost sight. A four year old boy got three shots in the chest. The bride’s father and his friend were killed. The mother held the groom’s feet and asked them to leave him. They dragged her outside by the head, took her son, and blew up the house. Four months later she found out from someone who was imprisoned with him where he is.
Thousands of young men are being forcibly disappeared in Yemen, and mediation efforts by the United Nations envoys, the Red Cross, and many other international organizations have not been successful. The only successful group so far is a coalition of Yemeni mothers, the Abductees’ Mothers’ Association. These women are the only hope for the young men who are kidnapped, tortured, and sometimes bargained in political standoffs between the Houthis and the Yemeni government. So far the association has negotiated the release of over 600 young man.
“Our story started in Sanaa three years ago,” explains Amal Abdulrahman, one of the leading figures in the Abductees’ Mothers’ Association. “It expanded to Hodeidah and other governorates in 2017, and in mid-2018, there was a fusion with a coalition of mothers of the disappeared in Aden. Every governorate represents itself but we are all under one umbrella coalition.” Before the coalition, each woman would do whatever she could to help get her family member released. “We tried talking to many officials, up to the presidential palace. But they do not care. They may sympathize and wish that the disappeared or kidnapped reemerge, but they didn’t take the issue seriously with us as individuals.” Then the women formed a united front. The coalition provides some protection for them–safety in numbers during protests or meetings. Individually, women were subjected to beating, stoning, and stabbing attempts. Instead of one woman standing in the face of danger, they became a group, united in effort and in voice.
Overall, more than 600 men have been freed so far. The Association negotiated and put pressure till some were swapped, others freed with guarantees, and some under what the Houthis call a “pardon”.
The reason for forcibly disappearing those men, according to Abdulrahman, have changed over the course of time. It began as detentions due to their political affiliations, then they started rounding up apolitical workers or high school students. Pretrial detentions can last for a long time. Abdulrahman says that it is all about politics. Those kidnapped are used as bargaining chips for political wins.
Forcible disappearances and illegal detentions, or kidnappings as Abdulrahman calls it, happen on both sides of the conflict, and the Association does not discriminate. “Houthi mothers have reached out to us, and we helped them in all the ways that we could. A mother is a mother, her pain is like mine, and mothers do not discriminate,” she says.
The Association, made up of mothers, sisters, cousins and family members, humanized the issue and made ignoring them a massive political problem for both sides of the conflict. With regular protesting, and persistent attempts at being heard, the women succeeded. “We try to depoliticize the issue. Politics should be serving people, not that people be used as props for a political gain,” Abdulrahman says.
Houthi mothers have reached out to us, and we helped them in all the ways that we could. A mother is a mother, her pain is like mine, and mothers do not discriminate
Their inclusion of women from both sides and their ability to humanize the issues, has strengthened the Association’s credibility and people’s belief in the sincerity of their efforts. But such credibility and sincerity do not offer enough safety. In fact, women activists face detentions, prison, and sometimes death sentences, on top of defamation. “I personally have been threatened three times,” says Abdulrahman. Sometimes women protesters get beaten, “We had a peaceful demonstration at the Public Prosecutor’s office. A group of women approached us and we thought they would join our cause or were demonstrating for another one. They beat us. We noticed that the women were coming out of the Public Prosecutor’s office. We understood that this is his reply to our calls.”
A Houthi leader once directly told a woman activist “we are not bothering you [political activists] in Sanaa, we let you live in Sanaa as hostages” The war has changed cultural practices. “What we consider as a catastrophic turn is the kidnapping of women, it is still not on a large scale as it is not condoned by the Yemeni society, but it is happening,” says Abdulrahman.
Women go through extraordinary lengths to find their kidnapped relatives, and their lives are usually uprooted. They sometimes have to move from one city to another. One of the woman had to move from conflict-stricken Hodeidah to Sanaa to follow up on her disappeared husband’s case. He is a professor of physics, and she now lives in a classroom at a school. She says she had dreams for her children to win a Nobel prize and have a role in society, “now we live in one room eating one meal a day”. The women have to travel to other provinces to hold a peaceful demonstration, and a whole other province to send electronic messages to the media. This is all so that they get their voices heard.
The situation is different from one province to the other, and from one city to the next. In Aden, “because the government likes to propagate itself as law-abiding, we were able to meet everyone. We were able to meet the President, the Vice President, the Prime Minister, the Deputy Prime Minister, the Minister of Interior, the Minister of Foreign Affairs, the Minister of Justice, and the Public Prosecutor,” explains Abdulrahman.
But in Sanaa, it is not easy. The women were denied meeting with officials. “After having us wait for a long time outside the Capital Secretary’s office, they told is he left the building. We, then, went outside and saw his car so we ran after the car as he rolled up the window. People kept saying “please at least listen to the women”. We followed the car till the end of the road, and he would not stop for us.”
A year ago, the women also protested at the Presidential Palace in Sanaa, demanding to meet the head of the political council. They ended their demonstration after being promised to get an appointment, no one contacted them till this day.
We not only bear all Yemeni’s pain (from the war), but also the pain of having our family members kidnapped
On top of being largely ignored or dismissed in Sanaa, the women are also facing other challenges. The tendency of the authorities to label people as terrorists without investigation or evidence. “Their first response when we ask for the release of someone, is accusing him of being a terrorist,” Abdulrahman says. This is the case in Sanaa and Marib and several other places.
Other challenges involve attacking the mothers’ character. “I was speaking to the Amnesty Committee (formed by the Political Council in Sanaa) about the release of my son. One of the officials told me, that I did not raise my son properly. I was shocked, I told him I am here to respectfully speak about my son’s release, asking you to objectively view his case, and your answer is to attack my person and how I raised my son?”
But the mothers continue to work, despite everything. Even while Sanaa was being shelled, they demonstrated. “We not only bear all Yemeni’s pain (from the war), but also the pain of having our family members kidnapped. When some Houthi leaders told us to leave, we said we cannot. How does a mother just leave her son behind?”
The state in which the kidnapped are in, after their release is also a huge challenge. The three thousand who are kidnapped lost their work, their lives, and that is besides the sexual violence some have been subjected to. Sexual violence has led to people committing suicide after their release. Others have heart disease, clots, lost organs, or can no longer move. “The Association tries to provide psychosocial support to help alleviate the trauma, to help them find the will to live,” Abdulrahman says. It has also pressured the government in Aden to issue three financial grants for the families of the kidnapped. “The social research we have conducted shows that the family situation of at least 50% of the released severely deteriorates. We are striving for partnerships with organizations that provide psychological support to overcome their psychological crises,” she adds
The kidnapped are also at risk of being killed. “Many are taken, then returned to their families as dead bodies,” Abdulrahman says. Several reports are issued about the killing of civilians in Yemen, but none about the killings inside prisons and detention centers. “Mothers, young brides, are receiving the bodies of their loved ones with signs of torture, and sometimes just a bullet in the head. This has to stop.”
Inside the prisons and detention centers, the situation is horrid. The kidnapped who survive the torture and were not killed, are left without food, medicine, or clothes to keep them warm on the winter. With the help of donors, the Association sends goods, medicine and food inside to help the kidnapped. “We need to support them so that they can stay alive with their dignity intact and go out to the world able to survive. Some of them would write poems, others would do art from olive seeds.”
The Association is in regular contact with the UN Envoy office in Yemen, the Red Cross, and any international organization offering support. “Every time we communicate with anyone, we are aware that this subjects us to be imprisoned ourselves.” Abdulrahman says that getting the message to the right people, mediation and continuous demonstrations is what puts pressure on authorities and makes a release mission successful. “Without the demonstrations, we are told by rights activists, human rights advocates would not be able to pressure,” she says. The UN Envoy and the Red Cross have not been as successful in securing releases as the mothers are, but they have been helpful in other ways. “It is the efforts of the families, their acquaintances, knowing how to get to the people in power, and of course the demonstrations, that have the real success chances in securing releases. Every official now has a list of the names of the kidnapped men.”
Key Events of Yemen’s Conflict
2011 – Protests erupt against President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s rule. Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) seizes some territory in the Yemeni east.
2012 – Saleh steps down in a political transition plan backed by Gulf states. Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi becomes interim president.
2013 – With UN support, the National Dialogue Conference (NDC) is established
2014 – The NDC wraps up agreement on recommendations as the basis of new constitution, and a drafting committee was established with representatives selected by President Hadi. The Houthis rapidly advance south from Saadeh and seize Sanaa in September with help from former president Saleh. They demand a share in power.
2015 – Hadi tries to announce a new federal constitution but Houthis and Saleh reject it, and arrest Hadi. He escapes, taking shelter in Saudi Arabia. Islamic State attacks Yemen; the Houthis move southward towards Aden; The Saudis launch Operation Decisive Action to push back Houthi advance and reinstate Hadi. The front lines solidify, setting up years of stalemate.
2016 – 2017 – Coalition air and Houthi siege continue while humanitarian conditions worsen. Hunger, lack of medical aid, and disease grow as the coalition imposes a blockade on Yemen.
2018 – Coalition forces advance up the Red Sea coast against the Houthis, aiming to take the port of Hodeidah. Hodeidah handles the bulk of Yemen’s commercial and aid imports and is critical for feeding the population of 30 million. The Houthis control the port and coalition-backed Yemeni forces mass on the outskirts.
The warring parties agree in December 2018 to hold peace talks in Sweden, the first in two years, and discuss a ceasefire and troop withdrawal from Hodeidah. Work on a prisoner swap also begins.
2019 – The Stockholm Hodeidah truce holds but the withdrawal has yet to materialize. Violence continues in parts of Yemen outside Hodeidah.
As part of a campaign to release their sons, the Association of Abductees’ Mothers holds protests in Sanaa, Aden, Tai’zz, and Ibb. They also organize hearing sessions to give a chance to those released to speak up about their experience.