UN has been criticized for taking over the prisoner exchange file and ultimately sidelining the Yemeni-led process.
Taiz prisoner deal shines light on the quiet successes of Yemen’s local mediators
On Aug. 8, 2016, Ruba’s world collapsed. A convoy of two armored vehicles, four pickup trucks and a bus loaded with armed men showed up at her family’s home in the Mawiyah district of Taiz governorate in southwest Yemen. “They surrounded my dad and shot and wounded him and then took him to an unknown location,” Ruba recalled. The gunmen looted money, jewelry and documents belonging to her father and fired rounds at their house while women and children were inside.
Abdulhamid Ja’afer, a 50-year-old consultant for the educational office in Mawiyah, was taken by the Houthis. In an instant, her father was gone.
“It is not possible to describe years of pain with a few lines, but it can be described as the toughest and most bitter years of my life,” Ruba explained in an interview with Almasdar Online. “We felt that we had lost our lives. In various ways, we tried to cope with our suffering but we failed. Every day that passed without him was difficult, full of sadness and pain.”
As the days turned into months and then years, Ruba and her sister worked on fulfilling their father’s wishes while campaigning for his release. “We were working hard to stay on the path that our father wanted, so we decided to complete our education,” she said. “I was following his case and continuing my education in order to reach the final stage of my bachelor's. It was never easy.”
“The war has separated each family into many families, each one in a different area,” Ruba said, explaining the “imperfect joy” she felt upon receiving her degree from the college of pharmacology. Not only was her father unable to attend the graduation ceremony, but neither could any other family members, who have been forced to the countryside and divided by the frontline.
A fateful day
“At first, we didn't believe the news about his release because it wasn’t the first time we’d heard that, and we started to lose hope,” Ruba said.
But on Dec. 19, 2019, Ruba got the call she had been waiting 1,228 days to receive. Abdulhamid was on the phone, travelling from Al-Saleh city along with many other prisoners and a mediation committee. “I couldn’t believe my ears at the time, but I quickly realized the truth of the matter, and I called my mother and the rest of my family members to tell them about it,” she said.
“It was not easy for me to see him with crutches, but when I saw him he was not broken and his spirit was strong,” Ruba said. Pictures and footage of Ruba embracing her father upon his arrival in Taiz City were shared widely by Yemenis, in a moment that captured the relief felt by hundreds of family and friends, and the renewed hope that thousands more might see their loved ones again.
In total, 135 prisoners and detainees were freed that day in one of the largest exchanges to take place during the war in Yemen. The deal saw the release of 60 Houthi fighters in exchange for 75 civilians detained by the Houthis. Abdulhamid, like many others, had been held by the Houthis in Al-Saleh, a residential block in the Houthi-controlled Hawban area, just east of Taiz City. Not to be confused with district of Al-Sala in Taiz City, Al-Saleh contains a cluster of apartments originally built for students but which have been repurposed by the Houthis for holding prisoners and detainees.
The liberation of the prisoners was met with jubilation in Taiz City, where hundreds of family members and friends gathered to meet their loved ones.
Abdullah Shaddad, a member of the mediation committee and one of the most distinguished independent mediators on the ground, spoke to Almasdar Online about the groundbreaking deal and the momentum he hopes it can build for more exchanges in the future.
A year in the making
The deal to release the 135 prisoners and detainees took over a year of intense and continuous mediation between the warring parties, explained Abdullah, who is a lawyer and legal advisor by profession. During the course of building trust with and between the parties in the lead up to the exchange, he added, dozens more detained non-combatants were released on an individual basis.
Mediators and activists in Yemen normally use the phrase “prisoners and detainees,” with “prisoner” generally referring to a prisoner of war or PoW – someone directly engaged in armed hostilities – and “detainee” encompassing a wide range of non-combatants like journalists and lawyers believed to have been arrested for politically motivated reasons.
“The exchange deal was carried out following agreement on the number and names, and after we presented guarantees for the implementation,” Abdullah said, explaining that the guarantees included solving issues involving certain prisoners and detainees, like crimes and personal disputes that occurred with other individuals not involved in the war. Though Abdullah could not share all the details for fear of disrupting ongoing and future negotiations, he spoke about several of the obstacles that he and the other mediators faced in implementing the deal.
These included difficulties pertaining to the list of names given by the warring parties, as the mediators could not identify or find sufficient details about some of the individuals. In other cases, they encountered difficulty recording the location where individuals were captured or arrested, which is a detail that can be used to exert pressure by either party.
Another obstacle was the classification by the warring parties of the prisoners in terms of their importance. That is, it was a long process involving complex calculations by both parties, knowing they need to release certain “higher value” individuals in exchange for their own high-value members or affiliates being held by their opponent, but at the same time wanting to retain such individuals in order to maintain leverage in future negotiations.
These difficulties came on top of the considerable lack of trust between the warring parties, who regularly leveled accusations against the other that they were the cause of obstructions and delays, Abdullah explained.
At the same time, he said, the help of friends and relatives of the prisoners and detainees was important, as the public pressure exerted on officials of the prisoner and detainee file to make concessions and accept their guarantees as mediators pushed the process forward.
“We have seen great cooperation from both parties in seeking to solve these problems, and we hope that these problems will be ended so that we can implement another exchange deal at the earliest time,” Abdullah said optimistically.
There have been a number of larger prisoner exchange efforts that gained considerable momentum but ultimately fell through. President Hadi formed a national-level committee in 2017 to negotiate with the Houthis. Those discussions advanced throughout 2018 for a wide-scale release, but the mediators failed to overcome the underlying lack of trust between the warring parties, and they faced a number of technical challenges, in addition to a complete absence of international support.
The prisoner exchange file took center stage at the beginning of the Sweden consultations in December 2018, with an unprecedented deal involving thousands of prisoners and detainees being announced by the UN Special Envoy Martin Griffiths at the outset of the talks. However, the deal fell flat and the only UN-supported exchanges in the year since have been limited in nature. As a result, Griffiths has been criticized by Yemenis for taking over the prisoner exchange file in an attempt to secure a quick diplomatic win, and ultimately sidelining the Yemeni-led process rather than put the UN’s weight behind it.
A humanitarian imperative
In his several years of experience mediating the exchange of hundreds of prisoners and corpses, and seeking the release of thousands more, Abdullah has seen the devastation caused not only to families but communities as a whole.
“When we talk about the file of prisoners and detainees, we are not talking about tens or hundreds of people, but rather talking about thousands and sometimes tens of thousands,” he said. “Every detainee and prisoner has a family and a community that surrounds him, and the impact on this group as a whole has a significant and important effect on the framework of society,” Abdullah explained, adding “the international community should pay attention to the file of the prisoners and detainees.”
In his view, the success of prisoner exchanges like the one in Taiz can have a positive impact on wider peace and reconciliation processes. “We seek to achieve social peace, national reconciliation, and rebuilding trust between the warring parties for mutual understanding and dialogue, starting with humanitarian files – prisoners, detainees, and opening humanitarian roads,” he said.
The efforts by the UN and Special Envoy Griffiths, according to Abdullah, have not been felt by the prisoners and detainees, “except for a small percentage of some detainees.” However, he said, the Griffiths’ office does not have to be at the forefront of the prisoner and detainee file to make a difference.
Instead, the special envoy can contribute by offering logistical support for negotiations and discussions in order for local mediators to be able to implement agreements in a shorter time frame, he said. Currently, the efforts by local mediators are hampered by their limited technical tools and lack of funds, which makes the documentation process slow and inefficient and limits their options for travel, which they do at great personal risk.
“Our message is for everyone who believes in humanitarian actions to contribute to supporting the release of prisoners and detainees, so that they can breathe the scent of freedom and be among their families and loved ones again,” Abdullah said. “We want them to embrace the stories and suffering of the prisoners and detainees through the media so that they have a constant reminder of the values, principles and ethics required to deal with the issue.”
In an effort to draw attention to the plight of thousands of other prisoners and detainees who remain captive and away from their loved ones, Ruba spoke out about what her father endured for over three years in detention.
“Certainly, he was tortured,” Ruba said. “Those who raided houses and shot an unarmed man in front of his children would surely torture him.”
Abdulhamid was kept in a dark, solitary cell, where he endured all kinds of physical and phsycological torture. “The bullet wound in his thigh and the fracture still haven't healed yet because he didn’t receive suitable medication, and due to the constant torture, electrocutions, beatings, and being forced to stand for long nights,” Ruba said.
“He told me about many of the methods they used,” she continued. “Psychologically, he would be told that his family had been bombed by airstrikes, or that they had kidnapped one of his daughters or his wife, or that I had been shot by a sniper.”
Ruba called for efforts to be intensified for all prisoners and detainees still languishing throughout the country to be released and returned to their loved ones. “The joy must reach every family,” she said, recalling the moment she went to embrace her father for the first time in years.
“Those seconds of waiting were a turning point in my life and the most joyful moment for me – as if I was born again.”