Each of the six Sa’ada wars in Yemen was a photo copy of the one before, except the bombs got bigger, the children more frail and the jails more crowded. The Yemeni government systematically denied food, medicine and international aid to civilians in the northern Sa’ada province as a tactic of war since the first in 2004. Indiscriminate government bombing in the second round of war in 2005 displaced over 50,000 civilians. By the end of the fifth war, 120,000 were refugees. In the sixth war that began in August 2009, a joint Yemeni-Saudi bombing campaign flattened over 9000 structures including mosques, schools, and entire villages. With the state’s Pyrrhic victory in February 2010, the number of internal refugees had swelled to a quarter of a million. Human Rights Watch is calling for an investigation into potential war crimes.
In February, the Houthi rebels released 178 civilian and military men in their custody and returned the bodies of several Saudi soldiers. Yemen announced the release of 161 Houthi detainees. However the Yemeni Organization for the Defense of Rights and Freedoms (HOOD) said only 32 detainees were released out of a total of 2,000.
The failure of the state to release imprisoned rebels signals the eventuality of a seventh war Dr. Abdullah al Faqih, political science professor at Sana’a University, explained. “The fact that the regime is still holding the Houthi prisoners means that hardliners within the regime are still planning a new round of war. With the Houthi joining the Preparatory Committee for National Dialogue, the prospects of a new war seem greater,” he said.
Opposition politician Hassan Zaid estimated that about 1000 prisoners are still in jail with an additional 500 disappeared, “Most of the arrested are innocent…They were taken simply because they are belonging to the Hashimite or Zaidi sects,” Mr. Zaid said. Other estimates go as high as 3000.
A History of Broken Promises
Some rebel fighters and innocent bystanders have been in jail for years, although the Sana’a regime repeatedly announced their release. After mediation in May 2005, President Ali Abdullah Saleh promised to release approximately 600 persons imprisoned without charge. He issued an unnumbered pardon decree on 25 September 2005. On March 3, 2006, Yemen’s state-run media announced the release of 630 prisoners after 80 parliamentarians visited Sa’ada.
On March 22, 2006, The Arab Sisters Forum reported, “Most of the relatives told us that only about 150 detainees had been released so far.” In April 2006, rebel leader Abdelmalik Al-Houthi said many of his followers were arrested as they returned home following the general amnesty. He said no more than 80 of his followers had been released. The rest of the freed prisoners were victims of arbitrary arrest who had no connection to the rebel forces.
A prisoner exchange was also part of the peace agreement negotiated by Qatar ending the fourth war in June 2007. The rebels released 96 prisoners of war during Ramadan in September. On September 20, despite the president’s written instructions to release 500, only 67 rebel fighters were freed along with several arbitrarily arrested citizens.
In 2008, the Yemeni government repeatedly announced that 380 more prisoners were released, but many of the prisoners named actually were freed a year earlier and were not rebels. A government appointed fact finding committee was jailed after reporting that the state failed to implement several terms of the 2007 cease fire including the release of rebel prisoners.
Beyond capturing and often torturing rebel fighters, the state engaged in “preventive arrests” based on religious identity, geographical location or family associations. Human Rights Watch broadly categorized the civilian prisoners as state hostages, Hashemites, or Zaidis traveling in hot zones or suspected of sympathizing with the rebels. Journalists who reported on the war were also arrested.
The Yemen Times reported in May 2005, “Government and security forces would assault villages looking for Houthi suspects and demanded that all males are to come out and give themselves up…The prisons are packed in Sa’ada with hundreds – some say thousands of suspected Houthis, most of whom do not have any clear charges against them or even have any links with the Houthis.” The pattern continued through 2009.
For example, in September 2007, the Dignity Organization for Human Rights appealed for the release of 47 including juveniles detained for over a year in al-Noseirya central prison in Hajjah. The Geneva-based organization said Yemen’s Political Security Organization (PSO) had randomly rounded up innocent Zaidis. The Hajjah prisoners made the news when they refused to break their Ramadan fast at the same time as the prison guards, five minutes earlier than Shia dictates allow, and were shackled in leg irons and beaten.
Six members of the Tamy family who disappeared over three years ago along with five from the Moid family were recently discovered in the PSO prison in Hajjah. Another 28 men found there were arrested without charge within the last year, including some after the peace announcement in February 2010. Several sources have said that arbitrary arrests in Sa’ada are continuing despite the latest peace deal.
The children of some of the detainees appealed to President Saleh last week, presenting drawings of their missing fathers. The event, organized by the Women’s Media Forum and HOOD in Sana’a, was entitled, “I have the right to live with my father.” Ali al-Dailami, director of the event, said some of the children hadn’t seen their fathers in years. Arbitrary and incommunicado imprisonment of innocent citizens throughout Yemen diminishes the legitimacy of the state and stokes social tensions.
Many children are also in jail and subject to routine torture. In 2007, Ahmed Saif Hashid, an independent Member of Parliament, conducted a survey of prisons and found 16 juveniles, aged 10 to 16, in the PSO prison in al-Hodeida. The children were arbitrarily arrested in connection to the Sa’ada War.
In one interview, 12 year old Nabil old said he was taken from his class room to prison. “We have been beaten by the soldiers and officers, we have been beaten with sticks while we were handcuffed. They beat us and lay us faces down”. Hussein, 13, told Mr. Hashid, “We have been beaten, handcuffed. They beat us as soon as we arrived before even interrogating us. I saw Qasem fainted while his head was bleeding. Some of us have been made naked and they took off all our clothes.”
Starvation in Peacetime
The children in prison are not the only Yemeni kids in mortal jeopardy. Tens of thousands of children in Sa’ada are on the verge of starvation including two year old Hassan. The toddler lives in a cave with his pregnant mother, her grandmother and several other family members. Their house was destroyed in the fifth war. On a good day, Hassan eats a little bread and drinks dirty water.
When the boy hears an airplane, he falls to the ground and covers his head. A UN Children’s Fund survey in 2008, before the expansive sixth war, found that 92% of Sa’ada children had been exposed to armed conflict. Most exhibited symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, on a level at par with traumatized populations in Palestine and Nepal.
In the sixth war, dozens of children were killed in their own homes, in markets and in refugee camps by Saudi and Yemeni bombs.. Many starved to death and many more will. Of the 250,000 internally displaced, only about 30,000 are in the abysmal UN refugee camps.
The UN is short about $40 million it needs to continue distributing life saving food rations in Sa’ada beyond June. Nationally, over two million rely on UN food aid. The US announced a grant of $4.8 million in food and cooking oil for Yemen, and an intended donation to Yemen’s Special Forces of a $39 million dollar military transport aircraft. Yemen’s other donors have not contributed to the UN fund. In years past, corrupt officials embezzled millions of dollars in international aid.
A third of Yemenis are malnourished and a seventh war would exacerbate the crisis. Yemen’s performance in several ceasefires since 2004 is a tale of failed expectations: no reconstruction occurred, the military failed to pull back, and disengagement was never completed. The state needs to enact confidence building measures with the rebels to sustain the fragile peace, a vital priority for the nation. However hundreds if not thousands of rebel prisoners and innocent civilians remain in jail, and arrests are continuing. While the Sana’a regime is propped up by warmongers with financial interests in resuming the conflict and hard liners with ideological motives, western donors appear at a loss for an effective strategy in Yemen. Clearly only Yemenis themselves can avert the looming national catastrophe.