Yemen's warring factions find common ground in a foreign land

In a castle in rural Sweden, Houthi rebels and Yemeni officials sleep under one roof

epa07216679 Rana Ghanem (L), member of a Yemeni government delegation, speaks to journalists during the ongoing peace talks on Yemen held at the Johannesberg Castle, in Rimbo, 50km north of Stockholm, Sweden, 08 December 2018. The UN-brokered talks in Rimbo between Yemen's government and the Houthi rebels will be the first since 2016.  EPA/HENRIK MONTGOMERY  SWEDEN OUT
Powered by automated translation

Far from the battlefields of Yemen, the hallways and common rooms of a Swedish castle have been hosting surprisingly cordial interactions between representatives from opposing sides of a bitter civil war.

The negotiations at Johannesberg castle in the town of Rimbo are the first time Yemen government representatives and Houthi rebel leaders have officially met face-to-face since previous peace talks collapsed in 2016.

And while the formal peace talks are yet to produce a breakthrough since the United Nations brokered negotiations began on Thursday, on the sidelines delegates from both sides have been mixing freely.

Thrown together in an isolated rural town in a foreign land with little access to the outside world, Yemeni leaders whose men may have been fighting each other for over three years have had no issue in finding common ground.


Read more:

Yemen’s warring parties meet for first direct talks since 2016

Yemen's warring parties still at odds over key agenda items as talks enter third day

Exclusive: Mesa to include nine countries while prioritising Iran threat


Whether crossing paths in the hallway, dining together, or sharing a prayer room, the delegates have maintained a friendly demeanour throughout.

"Whenever Yemenis meet they will always greet each other and will engage in conversation, no matter the circumstance," Rana Ghanem, a member of the government delegation told The National.

“We have been placed in the same residence, we dine together in the same room, we have had informal chats, there are individuals from our delegations that have known members of the Houthi party for years.”

During the last six days, the two parties have informally discussed a range of ideas for advancing peace, said Ms Ghanem, who is the only woman in either delegation.

This is the nature of the Yemeni people, she stressed.

epa07221823 Yemeni pro-government forces ride a truck at a road in the port city of Hodeidah, Yemen, 10 December 2018. According to reports, UN envoy for Yemen Martin Griffiths has proposed the Houthi rebels withdraw from the government forces-besieged port city of Hodeidah on the Red Sea as part of a ceasefire deal, during the fifth day of UN-brokered peace consultations in Sweden between representatives from Yemen's internationally-recognized government and Houthi rebels. Hodeidah is the main entry for food into the Arab country.  EPA/NAJEEB ALMAHBOOBI
Yemeni pro-government forces ride a truck in the port city of Hodeidah, Yemen, 10 December 2018. EPA

“The international community is shocked when they hear that we interact, but this is not something new,” she said.

Many members of the delegations are already on good terms, says one government delegate, who asks that his name be withheld. Even when on opposing sides of a civil war, “we will always show up to each other’s funerals and wedding ceremonies,” he said. “This is what we are about.”

The fact that the two sides are staying under one roof carries a symbolic value that UN peace brokers have seized upon in the absence of major concrete steps towards peace. UN special envoy to Yemen Martin Griffiths said in a statement that the two sides were demonstrating a “positive spirit”.

The goodwill has spread online, with images circulating of the Yemeni Minister of Culture, Marwan Al Dmaj standing besides Yehya Nouri, a member of the Houthi delegation.

A Houthi militant secures the vicinity of United Nations offices where people demonstrated to demand for reopening of Sanaa airport in Sanaa, Yemen December 10, 2018. REUTERS/Khaled Abdullah
A Houthi militant secures the vicinity of United Nations offices where people demonstrated to demand the reopening of Sanaa airport. REUTERS

Displays of affection between the delegates – including an incident in which a Houthi representative kissed the hand of government official in the castle’s media centre – have raised hopes that real progress towards might be made.

"I smile when I see these kinds of interactions and hope that peace can be resolved for Yemen," Liza Al Badwi, a Yemeni human rights lawyer, told The National. "Over 27 million are suffering and we need the war to end now."

The government has already compromised on many issues, she said, adding that the international community is counting on them to relieve Yemenis of their suffering.

The remaining challenge is to convert goodwill into tangible steps towards peace.

“We need to establish a way of resolving our differences and to allow humanitarian aid to enter areas that are under the rebel’s control,” Ms Ghanem said.

The two sides are aiming to agree to confidence building measures, including a prisoner swap, before talks end on Friday.

If successful, these measures will establish a framework for further peace negotiations expected to take place next year.