Good news from Yemen: The conflicting parties are exchanging prisoners. What sounds simple is a political and logistical monster project.
CAIRO taz | It is the largest confidence-building measure since the Yemen War began five and a half years ago. Around 1,000 prisoners of war are to be exchanged for two days. More than 600 Houthi rebels and 400 captured government fighters in Aden are said to be released and brought home. The mass exchange was agreed last month at UN-sponsored talks in Montreux, Switzerland.
“On Thursday alone we had seven planes with over 700 released prisoners who flew in or out of the airport in Sanaa,” explains the Swiss Katharina Ritz, who heads the office of the International Red Cross (ICRC) in Yemen, to the taz. “There was a lot of mistrust, so we had to plan meticulously. The machines had to start synchronized at three different locations at the same time. “
A double rotation of flights between Sanaa and Aden is planned again for Friday. This would then complete the exchange of a little more than 1,000 prisoners. “We hope this will be one of many future releases as thousands of families are still waiting for relatives in prison,” says Ritz.
“Of course, we would like this exchange to have created trust, which will then put more energy into finding a political solution to end the conflict,” she adds. “Such humanitarian gestures can set an example because after years of conflict people are tired, drained and have lost a lot.”
Already agreed in 2018
Martin Griffiths, the UN special envoy for Yemen who led the negotiations, is also hoping for more: “It is a sign of what can be achieved through peaceful dialogue,” he says. The deal is the continuation of the so-called Stockholm Agreement, in which the exchange of 15,000 prisoners of war had already been agreed at the end of 2018, but without this being carried out due to mutual distrust.
The exchange had now been preceded by “complex, months-long negotiations” “until each side was satisfied with a list of who released whom,” says Ritz. “It was about individual names for days.” While the negotiations were being conducted by the UN special envoy, the Red Cross was responsible for implementing the exchange.
The Yemen War is described by the UN as the greatest human-made humanitarian catastrophe. In the country, Houthi rebels and supporters of President Abed Rabbo Mansur Hadi, who fled Sanaa, face each other. Saudi Arabia is directly involved with Hadi’s air force and leads a military coalition against the Houthis; the Houthis are indirectly supported by Iran.
Muhammed Abdul Salam, a spokesman for the Houthis, said that with the exchange on Thursday and Friday, hope for further peacebuilding measures increased. A statement by the anti-Houthi coalition stated that “the political and military leadership wants to work to ensure that all prisoners of war can return home”. Both sides present the exchange as a victory.
Corona film spots in the planes
The exchange of prisoners is further complicated by the uncontrolled Covid-19 pandemic in Yemen. The Red Cross distributes protective equipment in front of the flights and ensures that the physical distance is also maintained on the flights. “To do this, we sometimes needed double the capacity of the buses and aircraft used,” explains Ritz.
Specially shot film spots are running in the aircraft, which are intended to educate the released prisoners about Covid measures. “We hope that this not only cleared up the trip itself, but also helps people to protect themselves and their families after they arrive home,” says Ritz.
On arrival, the freedmen were extremely enthusiastic, she says. “Many lay down on the ground and hugged the ground, there were large reception committees and music and very emotional scenes with people who had not seen each other for a long time. It was a festive mood, ”says Ritz.
“We are relieved that it went so well so far, because the negotiations and implementation were anything but easy,” she says, adding: “We are just glad that this time there is good news from Yemen”.