There have been rare scenes of joy across Yemen this week as a total of 1,056 detainees, including two American citizens, were released and reunited with their families in a massive prisoner swap between the Houthi rebels and Saudi-led coalition.
The UN described the deal brokered in Switzerland as the "first official large-scale” swap of its kind in Yemen’s five-year war. It is hoped the trust-building measure will open the way for substantive peace talks.
The International Committee of the Red Cross oversaw the logistics of health checks and air travel between Yemeni and Saudi cities for the swap, saying in a tweet on Thursday: “We're encouraged by this success & hope that it leads to more steps towards the transfer & release of more detainees.”
The parents and children reunited in airports across Yemen on Thursday and Friday gave a glimpse of hope in a country haunted by a war that has cost 112,000 lives and taken millions to the brink of famine.
Many of those released on the first day of the swap were soldiers loyal to the Saudi-backed coalition, captured in fierce battles for the strategic port city of Hodeidah. The day’s second transfer involved an undisclosed number of civilians who had been arrested at checkpoints or kidnapped from their homes in Houthi-controlled territory.
Hisham al Omeisy, a Yemeni analyst who was held by the Houthi rebels for five months before being freed in 2018, described the deal as "historical". Witnessing the two sides in Yemen take such a step would build momentum for political efforts to end the war.
"I recalled the moment when I hugged my children [when I got out], and I remembered how happy I was to be alive and free,” al Omeisy told VICE News. “Today, when I saw people rushing to embrace their mothers. I remember the day I saw my mother again. She did exactly what these mothers were doing, hugging their children, and raining tears of joy.”
The deal also included the release of two US citizens: aid worker Sandra Loli and businessman Mikael Gidada, who had been held by the Houthis for three years and one year respectively.
Their release was confirmed by Robert O'Brien, US national security adviser, who also said that the remains of US citizen Bilal Fateen, who died in Houthi custody, would be repatriated as part of the deal.
Several dozen Houthi fighters who have been stranded in neighbouring Oman after travelling for medical treatment were also allowed back to the Houthi-controlled capital Sanaa as part of the deal. The Houthi official responsible for the prisoners' affairs, Abdel Kader Mortaza, tweeted: "The transaction will be executed, with God's help, on the scheduled dates today and tomorrow."
All the factions involved in the Yemen conflict, which pits the Saudi-backed government against Houthi-backed by Iran, the arch-rival of the oil-rich kingdom, have been accused of severe human rights violations. Over 1,600 cases of arbitrary detention, 770 cases of enforced disappearance and 344 cases of torture were recorded by rights group Mwatana between May 2016 and April 2020. The Houthi rebels were responsible for the majority of cases.
The prisoner swap was initially agreed during UN peace talks in 2018 in Stockholm. While a major step towards restarting peace talks, fierce fighting continues across Yemen, particularly for oil-rich Marib.