A friend of mine’s cousin disappeared in Yemen 31 years ago.
Muthahar al-Iriyani, 41 at the time and a leading activist in Yemen’s Socialist Party in Hudaidah on the Red Sea coast, had been worried about his safety for months, his cousin, Abdulghani al-Iriyani, told me on a recent afternoon as we relaxed in the living room of his family’s home. My friend’s cousin had told family members that if he was missing for more than 48 hours, they should presume the worst. Then one day in October 1982, the family came home to find the words “good-bye” scrawled in purple ink on the bedroom wall above the bed.
Yemen has set out on a six-month “national dialogue” to address the key challenges facing the country more than a year after it ousted its longtime ruler, Ali Abdullah Saleh. A draft transitional justice law before parliament is a good indication of how difficult these challenges are going to be.
The law would offer little by way of justice for the families of victims of the three decades of dictatorship and rampant human rights violations. Among them are several waves of forced disappearances -- predominantly socialists and Nasserists who were victims of the North-South political strife in the 1970s, 80s and 90s. The UN Working Group on Enforced Disappearances reported 102 cases transmitted to the government by 1999.
The draft law would create a commission of inquiry, and one of its tasks would be determining the fates of the “disappeared.” But it would limit its work to the “disappeared” from the 2011 uprising, leaving out people like my friend’s cousin. His story illustrates why an honest look at the earlier decades is so essential.
Though Muthahar al-Iriyani’s family immediately pushed for a criminal investigation, after a few weeks the head of Yemen’s Political Security Organization (PSO) told them to drop the inquiry, saying he would eventually return. In the family’s view, the country’s leading security service had just implicitly acknowledged its role in Muthahar’s disappearance. Over the years family members kept inquiring. Some were detained when their questioning was too persistent, and they never got any information on whether Muthahar was being detained or was still alive. But Nada al-Iriyani, Muthahar’s daughter, never gave up hope that her father was still alive.
Then, in January 2013, someone in the PSO told Nada that some people the agency had detained in those years had been taken to the Dar al-Salam medical center in Hudaidah. Nada’s husband immediately went to the center with a photo of Muthahar, and a staff member spotted a likeness to a patient –a man with four different names on his file and complete memory loss. His records showed he was brought to the Hudaidah center in 1994, from the Taizz Thawra hospital, but had no other information.
Family members spotted childhood scars and birthmarks that matched Muthahar’s, and he is now living with Nada. Though his memory has not returned, and he can’t hold conversations, he responds to music, breaking into beloved old songs whenever visitors encourage him.
Muthahar only says a few words: “Saleh,” “execution,” and a handful of names of Yemeni cities. The few times he has seen someone in military dress, his family told me, he has begun shaking with fear and became aggressive at the same time.
They describe marks on his back that look like cigarette burns, and long horizontal scars that look like the shape of a metal rod on his lower back. There is a hole in his left ankle that looks like it was caused by a drill, and a CT scan led a doctor to conclude that this man had suffered numerous beatings to his head. The right half of his upper body and his body from the waist down are paralyzed.
The family has been pressing the government to get DNA testing done, to firmly establish his identity. Once they have positive results, the family says that it may demand that the government finally open a credible and independent investigation into the case, though Nada is skeptical. “What is the point?” she told me when I spoke with her later. “I have no illusion that an investigation will ever provide real answers into his disappearance.”
Muthahar’s wife, Fawzia, passed away 9 years ago. Until the end of her days, her family says, she believed that Muthahar had simply left home and started a new life somewhere far away.
Other families of the hundreds of people “disappeared” in Yemen in past decades, who still feel those disappearances as open wounds, recently spray-painted the faces of their lost loved ones on walls throughout Sanaa, the capital, as part of a protest campaign. The al-Iriyanis’ discovery has ignited new hope and caused these families to start searching again for their loved ones from center to center across the country. One thing is clear—they still are hunting for the truth.
Belkis Wille is the Yemen researcher at Human Rights Watch.