The Mothers of Abductees Association: A Model of the Courage of Yemeni Women
From time to time, under the scorching sun, Umm Mohammad joins the protests held by the Mothers of Abductees Association in Yemen in an attempt to release her son from the Houthi detention camps. The armed group abducted her son in late December 2014, two months after the September coup.
Speaking of her determination to continue protesting, she says, “Every time I hear about the horrors experienced by the abductees under Houthi captivity, especially when a detainee is released in a prisoner swap bearing signs of torture, it pains me to imagine my son meeting the same fate.”
For more than two years, the Mothers of Abductees Association has been organizing sit-ins and protests in Sana’a. During this time, it has held 108 protests, and is the most prominent voice that speaks today for the abducted. Alongside its mobilization work, the association is also involved in other activities, including monitoring and documenting violations by the Houthis against civilians.
The Mothers of Abductees Association is a new addition to the record of Yemeni women who remain marginalized but are able to stand together courageously. Collectively they make their presence felt and vigorously fight for the release of their sons, many of whom have been detained by the Houthis without charge.
In 2017, according to Amat al-Salam al-Haj, president of the association, they identified 5,347 cases of abduction and 721 cases of enforced disappearance across prisons in the north and south of the country. The abductees were subjected to brutal torture in captivity, which led to the death of more than 100 detainees, many whom suffered permanent disabilities following their release.
Umm Mohammad is fearful for her son and spends many of her nights without sleep. Her fear is heightened when contact from her son is completely cut off, and she does not know whether he is alive or dead, healthy or ill, well-fed or hungry.
The beginning of the association, according to public relations officer, Umm Abdullah, dates back to mid-April 2016. It was established at prison gates following an encounter between mothers, wives and daughters of abductees who were demanding the release of their relatives from Houthi prisons. Today, there are more than 3,000 abductees behind the bars of these prisons. Hundreds are forcibly disappeared in various provinces under their control without legal charges, and their arrests remain illegal.
Umm Abdullah talks of arrests that took place at homes, workplaces, mosques and universities, in full view of families and colleagues, and that many mothers have no information about their sons’ whereabouts, or even whether they are alive or dead. To date, at least 115 abductees and forcibly disappeared have died under torture. Following their deaths, the families were contacted to receive their bodies from the morgues of hospitals, bearing clear signs of torture.
The idea of forming the association emerged to allow mothers to form a new force in the face of physical and verbal assaults, and the financial and psychological abuse that they were subjected to at the gates of these prisons. Since then, the association has expanded its work to Aden, where the mothers of the forcibly disappeared suffer even greater hardships in their search for their children. The work of the association has also travelled further, to Hodeidah, Taiz, Hajjah, Marib, Dhamar and Ibb. With much persistence, Umm Abdullah declared, “The association is working without despair or surrender, and wherever mothers call us, we will be there, they are not alone in their pain and grief.”
The association, she recalls, has organized sit-ins that faced brutal attacks, insults, persecution and blockades. In the last few years, it has worked on highlighting the issue of abductees and the forcibly disappeared by following and documenting their stories and sharing them through social media. Alongside their reports, they have worked extensively to spread these stories to human rights organizations, and to follow up with judiciary and legal authorities regarding the violation of laws in these cases. In addition, the Mothers of Abductees Association organized visits to families of the abductees and forcibly disappeared and have provided psychological support. The association also mobilized to assert the civil and humanitarian violations in these abductions and to avoid their misrepresentation as political cases, since the abductees and forcibly disappeared are civilians who did not participate in the war. The association has also continuously organized local and international solidarity media campaigns highlighting the issue of the abductees. This included holding meetings with regional and international human rights leaders to make sure the case of the abductees is presented to international organizations, including the Human Rights Council, the United Nations and the Security Council.
Abdullah commended the compassion and solidarity that these organizations have shown towards the struggle of these mothers and their abducted sons and families. She acknowledged the role of the many organizations involved in monitoring and documenting numerous violations and atrocities, especially the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights and the International Red Cross for their humanitarian commitments to the world. Nevertheless, she hopes that these organizations will exert more efforts and humanitarian and legal pressure on the parties behind these abductions, arbitrary arrests and forced disappearances to expedite their release and enable them to exercise their rights.
Struggles and challenges
Under the militias’ continuous repression of protests and killing, Yemeni women have played a prominent role as never before. The Association of the Mothers of Abductees, according to human rights activist Fatima al-Aghbari, managed to face the Houthis singlehandedly and peacefully after the fall of the capital, Sana’a, in September 2014.
Despite their peaceful sit-ins, they were repeatedly assaulted, but to no avail as they continued to demand the release of those detained and abducted. They continued their struggle, while many others failed and remained silent.
Al-Aghbari argues that the association managed, under these difficult circumstances, to stage the most impressive heroic acts despite the full-time commitments its members have towards their households. They were able to accomplish what organizations, journalists, political and human rights activists could not do, due to repression and fear of being persecuted.
Throughout their activities, women’s groups supporting the Houthis have attacked members of the Mothers of Abductees Association. However, Umm al-Harith Amran – a relative of Abdul Khaliq Amran, a journalist abducted by the Houthis – stresses that rights and freedoms are taken and not given. She believes that the only way the women of the association can fight for the release of their sons is through protesting. For al-Harith Amran, silence means accepting the reality imposed by the Houthis, which in turn means being complicit in these violations, and contributing to the increasing cases of abduction. In turn, she calls on the international community to take their responsibilities towards civilians seriously, and to assume their role in protecting and preserving their rights, and most importantly to protect the abducted from being used as pawns by the Houthis.
Solidarity with the Association
The Mothers of Abductees Association aims to mobilize international and domestic efforts to fight for the release of the abducted and forcibly disappeared, and to enable them to exercise their legal and human rights. It also aims to bring to justice the perpetrators behind these abductions, forced disappearances and deaths in prison.
The lawyer and human rights activist, Abdulrahman Berman, argues that the association has played an important role amid a vacuum in civil rights protection, after the Houthis closed many organizations and suspended the activities of civil society organizations.
The association, which includes women who have no detainees but are involved in solidarity with these mothers, represents a prominent voice that tells the tragedy of the detainees. It has exposed the Houthis for their crimes, and in the process received wide support across different countries.
However, Berman points to the international community's neglect of the case of detainees suffering from brutal abuse and torture that often leads to death. At the same time, he is hopeful that the situation will improve and that their release is near as the legal and community pressure mounts.
As for the results of the efforts of the Mothers of Abductees Association, the only organization that carries out its activities in Houthi controlled areas, Berman maintains that they have managed to mobilize local official bodies. The case of the abductees is the most prominent on the Yemen peace negotiations agenda, and the association has been able to place enough pressure to organize numerous prisoner swap deals.
Concluding the talk, Umm Abdullah addressed her message to the world, to humanitarian and human rights organizations, with these words:
“Our sons are missing, and we have been suffering under the weight of sorrow. For three years now, iron bars have separated us from embracing them. They hide their pain with a smile and with courage, but their features speak of frailty and sadness. The bodies of dozens disfigured and killed under torture are enough to place us in a long coma of grief. With words full of hope, from the hearts of mothers who know only love and tenderness, we ask you to please stand with us in our struggle to save our sons. Help us through individual and collective pressure, mobilize media, social and legal pressure – and with all the authority that belongs to humanity – fight against those responsible for the abductions and forced disappearances of our sons until their release. It is their right to exercise their freedom and our right to live in peace.”