Since 2015, Yemen has been the theatre of a war pitting Houthi militias in the north of the country, unofficially supported by Iran, against forces loyal to the government, who are backed by a coalition of Gulf states led by Saudi Arabia. Though the bombings have caused an unprecedented humanitarian and hunger crisis, the everyday lives of the inhabitants have also been marked by kidnappings, which have become a veritable cottage industry in the country.
For three years, Yemen has been a new battleground between Shia and Sunni Muslims: the Houthis in the north of the country, who belong to a branch of Shia Islam and are backed by Iran, took control of the capital Sanaa in 2014. This drove out President Abd Rabbo Mansour Hadi, an ally of Saudi Arabia, whose bombings have since 2015 caused more than 10,000 deaths and 56,000 wounded, most of them civilians.
Against this backdrop of war, where the country is divided between the northern zone controlled by the Houthis and the south under the control of the pro-government forces, kidnappings and hostage-taking of civilians have exploded. An organisation, the League of Mothers of the Disappeared, based in Ta’izz, a city on the border between the two zones, has been trying to record those disappeared, and also to support their families as they try to secure the freedom of their loved ones. To date, they have documented 3,478 disappeared, and estimate that at least 128 of those kidnapped have been killed.
On 27 September, the organisation held a gathering of the mothers of the disappeared in front of the home of interior minister Ahmed al-Mayssari, to demand information on the fate of their children and for those responsible for the kidnappings to be brought to justice. At 2’28 in the above video, a mother, collapsed on the ground, screams: “They fought for their country and after it all they have been imprisoned. Why?” According to the organisation, young people who took up arms to defend Aden against the Houthi attack, from March to July 2015, were then arrested by loyalist forces for no known reason.
“When a person is abducted, their family goes weeks without any news”
Mariam Abdallah is the head of co-ordination and communication for the League of Mothers of the Disappeared.
"Our organisation has only one office [in Ta’izz], and we have not managed to open another anywhere else in the country, even though there is a severe need for it. Several cities have been affected, to various degrees, by kidnappings. Those most hit are the cities under Houthi control, such as Sanaa, Hajjah, Al-Hudaydah and Imran, but the capital of the south, Aden, has also been affected [Editor’s Note: Aden is controlled by loyalist forces].
Several types of people have been targeted by the kidnappings. They have been taken from outside universities, from the street, or even from their own beds. Among them are young activists or bloggers who criticise the militias or the state [in the loyalist zones] on social networks, particularly on Facebook statuses. They are targeted for political reasons. There are also shopkeepers or well-off businessmen who are abducted by Houthis for ransom. Less commonly, children might be kidnapped instead of their fathers, and serve as a means of pressure on the family, or to force the father out into the open.
A demonstration held on October 2 by members of the League of Mothers of the Disappeared in Al-Hudaydah, a port city in the east of the country controlled by the Houthis.
Those who are taken by the Houthis are sometimes freed upon payment of sums of money, which can be considerable, reaching as much as 1 million Yemeni rials [about 3,475 euros]. The kidnapped can also serve as bargaining chips in exchange for Houthi prisoners held by the other side.
When a person is abducted, their family goes weeks without any news. After a few months, friends and relatives are often able to gather some information, thanks to people who are freed and who reveal the identity of their fellow detainees, or due to the intercession of tribal chiefs with militia leaders."
The NGO Human Rights Watch published a report on September 25, in which it accused the Shia rebels of hostage-taking and of carrying out torture, reminding them that these are war crimes, and demanding prisoners be freed. Mariam Abdallah denounced this violence as well, but notes that it is not confined to one side:
"It is more difficult to deal with the Houthis who brutalise the mothers of the disappeared when they protest or ask for information about their kidnapped children. The militias have shown themselves to be unyielding on the matter and refuse to free the prisoners without something in return. On the side of loyalist forces, particularly the police, families sometimes get some results, like the freeing recently of 70 prisoners in Aden.
But secret prisons – including in Aden – and the practice of torture are used by both camps. We have gathered numerous testimonies from former prisoners who told us about psychological and physical torture: they were put in isolation for days at a time in completely dark cells, sometimes along with a snake. Some say their jailers dug a grave to convince them they were going to be executed. Not to mention the burns, the electric shocks, the use of nails and needles, and flagellation…
In Aden, the mothers go from one police station to another or demonstrate in front of the interior minister’s home to try to at least find out where their children are, and if they are living or dead. Many demand that their children be charged, because that would at least force the authorities to admit they are holding them."