'Eid in the airport': Red Cross officials describe joy at Yemen prisoner exchange

Almost 900 prisoners released over three days under supervision of International Committee of Red Cross

A former prisoner released by Saudi Arabia embraces a relative at Sanaa Airport after arriving on April 17. Reuters
Powered by automated translation

The scenes of joy as prisoners held by Yemen's warring parties were returned to their loved ones were overwhelming, officials overseeing the exchange told The National.

Almost 900 prisoners were freed in a three-day exchange conducted by the International Committee of the Red Cross and involving flights between rebel-held and government controlled parts of Yemen and between Yemen and Saudi Arabia.

Saudi Arabia led a military coalition supporting the government during a civil war now in its ninth year.

The reunification of Yemen’s prisoners with loved ones after years of separation brought much-needed joy and hope to the war-torn country, Red Cross officials said.

On Monday, Saudi Arabia said it decided to free another 104 prisoners captured in the war, in a move that was welcomed by the ICRC.

The prisoner exchange that began on Saturday is considered a significant step towards bringing the warring sides closer to peace negotiations.

The ICRC enabled the process by arranging the flights, interviewing the detainees chosen for release and ensuring they were in good health to travel.

The officials present as the prisoners reunited with their families after landing said the moments they witnessed were tremendously moving.

“I can tell you from day one, throughout the three-day operation, emotions, emotions were all over the place,” Ralph Wehbe, the deputy head of the ICRC delegation in Sanaa, told The National.

Mr Wehbe said his team had the "privilege to be able to compare what we saw when we interviewed them with what we saw on the first, second and third days … the family reunification and the emotions to happiness."

"To see the look of despair … changing to a look of hope on their faces and happiness today," he said.

Mamadou Sow, head of the ICRC delegation in the GCC, was in Riyadh when 20 freed prisoners arrived in the Saudi capital on Saturday.

"It was like Eid in the airport," Mr Sow said. "The colleagues and authorities were massively present there and the detainees were welcomed in a massively joyous way."

As they left the planes the former prisoners "kneeled on the ground, they kissed their homeland, and others were barely able to talk to us because they were so overwhelmed with emotions for being back in their country", he said.

Mr Sow gave the example of a man who had never met his child because his wife was pregnant when he was taken prisoner.

"So it was the first time they met each other, and saw each other and they also embraced each other so warmly," he said.

"Every every single moment that was witnessed by me or my colleagues were moments that gave us immense goosebumps."

Some of the men have been detained for up to six years with no contact with the outside world.

Mr Wehbe said Saudi Arabia's unilateral release of more prisoners would push the peace process forward.

"This decision is the easiest way to get faster to the objectives," he said.

The UN envoy to Yemen said the country had its best chance for a peace deal since the civil war started more than eight years ago, although much work remained to be done.

"One year on since the parties agreed to a truce under UN auspices, Yemen is again at a critical juncture," Hans Grundberg told the UN Security Council by video link.

"The truce has continued to deliver well beyond its expiration six months ago. And the parties are engaging on next steps.

"I believe we have not seen such a serious opportunity for making progress towards ending the conflict in eight years."

Updated: April 18, 2023, 5:13 AM