Nearly 14 months after signing the Stockholm agreement, representatives of the UN-recognized Yemeni government and the Iran-backed Houthi militia agreed on a detailed plan to complete the first official large-scale prisoner exchange.
Praising this latest step, UN Special Envoy Martin Griffiths said: “This is a firm commitment from the parties to the families that they will be reunited with their loved ones …We all look forward to the implementation of those releases agreed as soon as possible.”
But we have heard similar promises before. It is now almost a month since this latest announcement, and we still haven’t seen any progress made toward releasing detainees, which has become an even higher priority given the coronavirus outbreak.
The Stockholm agreement had initially inspired hope among those working in mediation in Yemen, especially us in the Abductees’ Mothers Association working on one of the most crucial aspects of mediation: the release of civilians who have been abducted and detained. Unfortunately, the agreement has not delivered on this issue – instead we have documented the continued detention and prosecution of civilians.
As someone who has been illegally detained twice and interrogated at Yemen’s Sana’a International Airport several times by the Houthis because of my political activism, this issue is very dear to my heart. I was part of the Detainees Defense Committee comprising of several activists and lawyers. We lobbied against the arbitrary arrest of civilians by the Houthis and worked on their release.
However, as the clampdown on freedoms got worse, several of my colleagues were arrested, and I found myself standing at prison gates with their mothers and wives demanding their release. That is when it occurred to me that we, as mothers and wives, may have a sort of cultural protection, for no one would object to a mother’s plea for the release of her children.
I therefore established and headed the Abductees’ Mothers Association in April 2016, alongside a number of abductees’ mothers and supporters. Today the association includes 60 female activists from various geographic and political backgrounds aided by hundreds of supporters.
We work all over the country for the defense and release of civilian abductees regardless of their backgrounds or the perpetrators. We also document cases after verifying information received from our offices across the country or via social media and our hotline.
We have organized 220 protests and successfully managed to organize the release of 654 abductees from Houthi-run prisons, 90 abductees from the security entities in Aden, and three from government prisons in Marib. We have also identified the whereabouts of eight missing persons. After a civilian is released, the association works to rehabilitate and re-integrate them into society by providing psychological support or connecting them with sources of income.
We realized that with persistence and passion we can achieve a lot, even if we are a small number of volunteers working with limited resources. In comparison, the UN-led process has so contributed nothing toward the release of any prisoners. I do not mean to belittle the efforts of those working in the peace process or question their motives. My concern is that they lack important knowledge and critical insight of the local structures and practices. If they were to acknowledge the importance of these structures, they may make more progress toward freeing civilian detainees.
My personal experience has taught me that local mediation efforts made in line with socio-cultural practices yield better results than international efforts.
For one, local efforts are focused solely on the release of abductees as the top and only priority, while international efforts have a package of complicated issues and intertwined demands. Second, local mediators are familiar with the local context and cultural norms used in tribal and traditional contexts and therefore start with an already agreed foundation of principles. Local mediators are often known and trusted figures in the community, and therefore trust building measures are already established. In contrast, international mediation teams are not usually on the ground and are often oblivious to the importance of local mediation practices and language.
Finally, we at the Abductees’ Mothers Association use emotional arguments and focus on the humanitarian issue when making our demands for the release of our innocent sons and husbands. This approach is stronger than any political or diplomatic talk.
Ignoring local solutions and existing mediation expertise, especially that of Yemeni women who have proved over the centuries their effectiveness in peacebuilding and mediation, is complicating and prolonging the war.
Think about it: how can Yemeni women, many of whom are illiterate mothers, achieve much more than established politicians and international experts? The answer is that for us, the release of our innocent sons is the most urgent priority and not a side note to be included – or not – in broader political negotiations for power.
Yemeni women have the expertise, abilities, and passion to create change for the better and successfully achieve peace in a fair and sustainable manner. It is a shame how the various peace processes under the patronage of the international community continue to exclude civil society, especially women. The male-dominated, out-of-touch with reality attitude continues to lead us nowhere closer to peace than when the war started.
What all these international and political negotiation teams fail to realize is that peace starts from the hearts of mothers. Our unwavering belief in our just cause to release all the civilian abductees from prison remains our only priority. We will not rest until all civilian abductees either receive a fair trial or return safely to their homes.
Amatasslam Al-Haj is a Yemeni activist and the founder of the Mothers of Abductees Alliance. She is considered one of the pioneer advocates for women’s rights and civil freedoms. Al-Haj is a member of the Science and Technology University’s teaching faculty and an instructor in the Ministry of Education. She took part in the Independent Institutions working group in the National Dialogue Conference. Al-Haj is member of the Yemeni Women’s Alliance ‘Tadhamun’ and is a recipient of the Peace Track Initiative Women Leaders Fellowship.