Amat Alsalam Al-Hajj: Fighting to free Yemen's civilian abductees and building the demand for accountability
"Women have an immeasurable patience. They work with empathy, with their emotions, unlike men, who tend to be harsher. Women speak with compassion in a way that can draw out compassion in others, even if they are on opposing sides or prison guards… this is the case everywhere, not only here."
This is Amat Alsalam Al-Hajj, the head of the Abductees' Mothers Association (AMA), a grassroots organisation set up in 2016 by Amat alongside other Yemeni mothers, sisters and daughters to protest collectively and organise to free their relatives – all of whom are civilian abductees.
Amat spoke to The New Arab about the group and about the recent Yemeni Declaration for Justice and Reconciliation. This a call from Yemen's battered civil society issued on 26 July this year which demands that accountability on all sides be part of any long-term peace process.
"Women have an immeasurable patience. They work with empathy, with their emotions, unlike men, who tend to be harsher. Women speak with compassion in a way that can draw out compassion in others"
Who is Amat Alsalam Al-Hajj?
Amat (57) is a wife, mother of nine and grandmother of 12. Born in Taiz but raised in Sanaa, she studied Islamic education, reaching a Master's level, and taught for four years at the University of Science and Technology.
"Life before [the war] was somewhat stable, thanks be to God, but there were problems when it came to various freedoms and rights, there was suppression, in the spheres of politics and rights," says Amat on the subject of pre-war Yemen.
Then the Arab Spring came in 2011, and things deteriorated.
The Yemeni revolution saw conflict erupt between the citizens and the government of ex-president Ali Abdullah Saleh, which led to his resignation in February 2012.
It was during the protests against Saleh's corrupt government that Amat's political activity began, which would turn into a protracted fight for the most fundamental rights and freedoms of ordinary Yemenis caught up in the nightmare that would follow.
Amat joined the marches, and gave speeches on myriad topics – she spoke about a free homeland, a law-based system for the state, and measures that would empower women. These included increased representation in politics, the right to free education, and to work in various professions; as well as freedom of movement.
During these months, she got to know many of Sanaa's activists and journalists who were striving to transmit the events in Yemen to the rest of the world.
She says they worked so closely that the relationship between them came to feel like a "mother's bond with her children."
When the Houthis seized control of Sanaa in 2014, it was the journalists who were the first targets for arrest. This is where my path fighting for civilian rights really began, explains Amat.
The Houthis placed heavy restrictions on everything: the media, political and civil rights activity, women's rights, schools and physical movement; and huge numbers of civilians started forcibly disappearing – especially journalists and lawyers.
"When the Houthis seized control of Sanaa in 2014, it was the journalists who were the first targets for arrest"
The people being detained were civilians, not part of any armed group, emphasises Amat, and they would usually initially be taken to the 'criminal investigation department' in Sanaa.
Their mothers and relatives started going to this building, and asking for "their sons, or husbands or fathers" back, says Amat. But if men were with them, they would often be seized too, she says – the women tended to be safer from arrest, even if they would sometimes be beaten alongside the other protesters.
It was then the idea to set up AMA began. It had a simple premise – to join forces with other women and work together using what resources we had to free our children.
"We had no support, no money, no place to meet, but we decided to just pick one of the women's homes […] and come up with a basic system, vision and message," Amat explained.
They managed to secure basic training from the International Red Cross which helped them to organise themselves – how to follow up and chase the cases of missing Yemenis; how to solidify their goals, and present their demands.
Different ways of working
Up until today, AMA has been involved in the release of around 950 civilian prisoners. Amat estimates that currently around 600 are detained.
Since 2016, AMA has monitored over 9,500 cases of civilian abduction by various parties to the conflict in Yemen, with the Houthis responsible for the majority.
Amat explains the difference between the local efforts of a grassroots group like AMA, and those of, for example, the International Red Cross, which has been involved in large-scale prisoner swaps: "Our efforts are simple and self-led, but thanks be to God they are fruitful [...] they result in releases," she says.
She explains that international mediation efforts are time-consuming and strictly adhere to their own specific systems and policies, whereas in AMA they work through local and tribal mediators and lawyers.
"We are in the field," she adds. "We know the culture of the people, […] how they hold sessions, how they behave; whereas the international mediation efforts don't exploit these social channels."
"Although AMA is politically neutral this hasn't protected it from hostile reactions on all sides. Although it began in Houthi-ruled Sanaa, it soon spread because the issue of civilian abductees is a countrywide problem"
However, she said the two modes of working can't be compared – while AMA's local method is smoother, easier and quicker, due to being rooted in the culture of those they are negotiating with and understanding how they think and operate, "when they do it, they secure the release of huge numbers; as opposed to when we do – it is small numbers."
One important role AMA has played is in pushing the issue of civilian detainees with the internationally recognised Yemeni government and the Office of the UN Special Envoy to Yemen, which works on prisoner swaps between the warring parties to the conflict. The armed groups press for the release of their fighters – but not for the civilian detainees, so this is what AMA does, as meticulously as it can.
The work AMA does is varied. They organise protests outside prisons and police stations; follow up and document cases of the missing and support the families of those abducted. They also do media work – promoting their cause, writing and publishing detailed reports, as well as highlighting their work and protests on their social media pages.
They also arrange support for prisoners where they can – in areas controlled by the internationally recognised government they are able to deliver medicines to the detainees for example, but this is not possible in the Houthi-controlled areas, Amat explains.
AMA has succeeded in forging high-level links in its mediation efforts. For example, before Ramadan, preceding the highly publicised prisoner exchange between Saudi Arabia and the Houthis in mid-April, Amat went to Saudi Arabia and spoke with the Saudi ambassador about the release of abductees in Houthi prisons – as part of the exchange deal being worked out between Saudi and the Houthis at the time.
"I gave him a full list of the civilian abductees in Houthi jails, as well as a list of those who are sick, so they could mediate to get them out of the prisons – from a humanitarian point of view."
She says he promised to try, but "a lot which they hoped to do failed."
Although AMA is politically neutral this hasn't protected it from hostile reactions on all sides. Although it began in Houthi-ruled Sanaa, it soon spread because the issue of civilian abductees was a countrywide problem; so relatives began to contact them and set up their own branches.
For example, Houthi mothers began contacting them early on, whose sons had been detained in jails belonging to the recognised government, and AMA sourced lawyers to help them and documented their cases.
In terms of the difficulties; Amat explains their work is getting harder as already hostile attitudes by the authorities in each area have soured further recently: "They say you sit with us, and then release damaging information about us," she says, about the general attitude on all sides.
However, she says there is more of a "right-respecting atmosphere" in the recognised-government-held areas, which allows AMA members to advocate for prisoners.
In Houthi-controlled areas, lawyers work directly for the families, as AMA members will be under threat of arrest if they try to advocate openly. Amat herself was arrested by the Houthis twice for her work with AMA, which led to her and her family leaving Sanaa.
"If the atrocities carried out against the civilian population of Yemen by all sides are left unaddressed, as past experience has shown, this will simply create an unstable peace which could easily sooner or later deteriorate into violent conflict again"
Multiple other obstacles make it hard for AMA to do their work – first and foremost the blockades around many cities – travelling from place to place has been near impossible frequently throughout the war. The security situation is another major difficulty, says Amat.
Women suffer extra difficulties, such as facing harassment, and not being allowed to travel without a guardian. Internet blackouts are yet another major problem – sometimes you can't communicate urgent information for a whole day because the internet isn't working, she says. The lack of funding is another.
The Yemen Declaration for Justice and Reconciliation
AMA is one of the civil society groups which endorses the Yemen Declaration for Justice and Reconciliation, launched on 26 July 2023 by dozens of Yemeni organisations.
One major demand of the declaration is for accountability, in recognition that if the atrocities carried out against the civilian population of Yemen by all sides are left unaddressed, as past experience has shown, this will simply create an unstable peace which could easily sooner or later deteriorate into violent conflict again.
"There was a big reaction [against the declaration], first of all from the Houthis, who put pressure on the organisations involved [in the areas] under their control … so did Saudi, and the Arab coalition, their response was opposed to these things," says Amat.
"Of course, no one wants to be held accountable," she adds, "So, maybe after all this, it'll be us, the ones demanding an investigation and accountability, who'll be the next victims – they might join forces and turn on us!"
Amat says it is extremely important they don't budge on this point and emphasises the role the victims must play, which the declaration highlights – they must be present at any negotiations on agreements within the peace process.
She also says gaining as many supporters as possible for the declaration, which should be seen as a roadmap for negotiators, will also help bolster its influence, and they are taking pains to highlight and educate about it at every opportunity.
As for AMA and the continuing battle to free Yemen's civilian abductees, Yemen's mothers won't stop until their goal is achieved: "We are still trying and we will continue – this is our cause – we just want our children to be released."
Rose Chacko is an Arabic-English translator with a focus on history and politics, particularly in the Middle East. She holds a Master's in Advanced Arabic from Edinburgh University and is currently based in London