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Women Lead the Hunt for Abducted Men in Yemen

Glen Carey
A picture taken on February 5, 2018, shows a man standing next to the Yemeni criminal investigations unit in the capital Sanaa, a day after it was hit in an air raid. The Iran-backed Huthi rebels blamed the attack on the Saudi-led military coalition that has been fighting to prop up the Yemeni government since March 2015. / AFP PHOTO / MOHAMMED HUWAIS (Photo credit should read MOHAMMED HUWAIS/AFP/Getty Images)

The hotline rang every day for about three weeks in December at the Abductees’ Mothers Association. Yemeni families were desperately searching for male relatives in the shattered country after Yemen’s former president was killed.

The group, run by 20 women, was there to help. Amid the destruction as rebel Houthis allied to Iran fight Saudi-led forces, its members have found a key role in a country and region where women are so often shut out.

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The association started in April 2016 and now has a research department and one for public relations to campaign for the release of men. It has a team of people secretly tracking down missing persons in areas of the country controlled by Houthis. Yemen is a male-dominated society, but there’s a flip side: a woman can do things men can’t during the sectarian conflict such as seek help from powerful clerics in the hunt for the abducted.

“Yemeni culture is closed,” Esma Mohammed, a 23-year-old member of the association, said at a meeting with journalists at the end of last month on a Saudi-organized visit to Marib, east of the Yemeni capital Sana’a. “If the men talk to the Houthis, they go to jail. It’s less of a risk for women.”

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The escalating battle continues to inflict civilian casualties and cause extensive damage to public and private infrastructure. Half of the Yemeni population live in areas directly affected by war, many of whom are suffering from the deliberate targeting of civilians and other apparent violations of international law, according to the United Nations.

The Shiite-rebel Houthis seized Sana’a in September 2014 and tried to consolidate power across the country. The women’s initiative started about a year after Saudi-led coalition forces intervened in March 2015. Saudi-led airstrikes killed hundreds of civilians, hit homes, markets, hospitals and schools.

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On the other side, Human Rights Watch accused the Houthis of enforced disappearances, torturing detainees and arbitrarily detaining numerous activists, journalists, tribal leaders, and political opponents. In December, rebels said they killed former President Ali Abdullah Saleh, the dominant figure in Yemeni politics for decades.

The Abductees’ Mothers Association is more than another wartime tale of bravery and camaraderie. Its members had spent plenty of time outside prison gates in Yemen seeking information about missing relatives before they united.

In the first half last year, the association documented 1,866 cases of people being abducted, including 35 women and 48 children, in areas controlled by the Houthis, according to its report for the first half of 2017. It says 723 have been released.

Umm Ibrahim’s 20-year-old son was one one of the missing. The young man, who was active on social media and opposed to the Houthis, went to a wedding and never returned home.

Fighting back tears, Ibrahim spoke of her son’s health when she was first allowed to visit him by Houthi authorities. “I couldn’t believe he was my son,” she said. “They wanted him to admit that he was an agent for the coalition.”

Tawfiq al-Mansouri, 33, a journalist at the online al-Masdar newspaper originally based in Sana’a, was arrested by the Houthis in June 2015. His mother’s voice was weak when she tried to talk about the ordeal her family has been through. Her other son, 30-year-old Wadah, explains that Tawfiq was moved a number of prisons. The last time the family was able to visit him was seven months ago.

Controlled Visit

Yemen and Saudi government officials didn’t allow the group of journalists to visit any Shiite Houthi rebels being detained by the Saudi-led coalition.

The Associated Press reported in June last year that nearly 2,000 men have disappeared into clandestine prisons run by the United Arab Emirates, a Saudi-led coalition partner, and the Yemeni government. It cited lawyers and family members. The Emirati government has denied the allegations.

In the Bilquis Hotel in Marib, where Saudi officials organizing the trip scheduled the interviews with the women from the association, the war seemed distant. Armed men walked through the hotel lobby with packages of qat. Leafs from the narcotic Yemenis chew on a daily basis littered the hotel's corridors.

There was a dusty a souvenir shop, an empty pool and plenty of food. New roads are being built, trucks are visible and the city’s population has grown significantly.

Many of the families interviewed by Bloomberg fled to Marib to escape the violence: Wadah with his brother’s three kids, their mother and other relatives. Esma was originally from Sana’a and answered the hotline calls from Marib.

Although the conflict has split along sectarian lines, the association isn’t politically affiliated. They will investigate reports that Houthi rebels have been abducted in territory controlled by government forces. If they are political prisoners or prisoners of war, the association doesn’t lobby on their behalf, the women said.

“Our core work is humanitarian,” said Umm Omer, 38, a member of the association whose husband was taken while he was teaching at a high school in Sana’a and held for one month. “We care about the job, not the politicians.”

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