The man who braves bombs to collect the bodies of fallen Yemeni fighters

Hadi Jumaan and his team of volunteers have returned more than 1,000 bodies of fighters killed in the Yemeni conflict to their families.
Hadi Jumaan and his team of volunteers have returned more than 1,000 bodies of fighters killed in the Yemeni conflict to their families. © Observers

Holding a white flag high, Hadi Jumaan walks onto the battlefield in Yemen. He’s there to collect the bodies of fallen fighters so they can have proper burials. Since 2016, Jumaan has been a volunteer mediator in the conflict between Houthi rebels and pro-government forces in Yemen, working to negotiate exchanges of bodies and prisoners. It’s an incredibly risky business, which earns him both respect and suspicion. Jumaan described his experiences in this episode of the FRANCE 24 Observers. 

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Since 2014, Iran-backed Houthi rebels have been locked in a war against the forces loyal to the government of Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi, an ally to Saudi Arabia. Both sides are vying for control over Yemen. 

Since last February, the fighting has been most intense in the governorate of Marib. Houthi rebels are doing their best to oust pro-government forces from the zone, considered their most important bastion in the north of Yemen. 

Hadi Jumaan and his team of volunteers often travel to the frontlines to evacuate the bodies of fallen fighters. He has to negotiate each intervention with the opposing sides in the conflict. 

Jumaan records his experiences on Twitter. These photos posted on December 4, for example, show Jumaan and his team of volunteers loading bodies into the back of a pick-up truck. 

"There was an exchange of thirty bodies between the two sides of the conflict in Marib and Al Jawf," Jumaan says in this tweet.
“Thanks to God, we were able to come to an agreement for the exchange of four bodies on November 27. We evacuated them after several attempts, during which we faced every possible danger. We were trapped under bombardements for two days, not to mention artillery fire […]. This was on the frontlines of Marib", reads Jumaan’s tweet.

“With the young volunteers who work with me, we have experienced many dangerous situations. We were targeted by strikes at least five times,” Jumaan explains. 

This video, posted on November 13, shows Jumaan sheltering under a tree, afraid of being targeted by a coalition aircraft [Editor’s note: the coalition led by Saudi Arabia in support of the government of Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi], which is carrying out strikes in the zone. 

Some people ask me, 'Why do you go to the frontlines to evacuate bodies without coordinating with the coalition?'

I have to explain to them that there is no line of communication with the coalition. We coordinate locally with the parties on the frontlines.

We are extremely lacking in supplies. We don’t have body bags, for example, or refrigerated trucks to transport the bodies. We also need a satellite phone. Right now, I have to warn the warring parties roughly two days ahead of my arrival because the fighting most often takes place in areas without cellphone coverage. If I arrive on the frontlines ahead of or behind schedule and I can’t tell the fighters that it is me, they might take me for an enemy and shoot at me. 

Jumaan recently launched a fundraiser on social media to raise money to buy supplies. 

Besides evacuating fallen fighters, Jumaan has also negotiated several prisoner exchanges between the Houthis and the loyalist forces. This has also been a difficult task. 

Sometimes, we are accused of taking sides, of not being neutral. One party might accuse me of doing something for the other side. I was imprisoned eight times by military authorities who suspected me of doing work for the other side. 
These photos show a prisoner exchange supervised by Abdallah Soltane, one of Jumaan’s colleagues, in the Taez region.

Jumaan says that, since 2016, he and his team have been able to evacuate more than a thousand bodies, returning them to their families.

A total of 377,000 people have died in the conflict in Yemen – an estimated 150,000 people have died in the fighting and a further 227,000 have died of indirect consequences of the civil war, according to a United Nations report from November 2021.