A farmer mediates the exchange of soldiers' remains between warring sides in Yemen
AILSA CHANG, HOST:
A story now of the decade of civil war in Yemen and a mediator between the two sides there. He's a farmer, and he helps the factions exchange the remains of fallen soldiers. NPR's Fatima Tanis tells us his story. And a warning - it contains gruesome details.
FATMA TANIS, BYLINE: I meet Ameen Almoqadam in a morgue where he spent most of his days during the war. He shows me the mortuary cabinets and then chest freezers, too. And they're all full.
AMEEN ALMOQADAM: (Through interpreter) This was the only morgue that would accept bodies from both sides. We didn't even have enough places to store them. We had to find donors to buy chest freezers on the black market.
TANIS: Yemen's civil war has been going on for nearly a decade. It started when Iran-backed Houthi rebels in the north of Yemen overthrew the Saudi-backed government. The conflict exploded into a proxy war, and this city of Taiz became divided by a front line, bombarded by Saudi-led airstrikes, Houthi missiles and land mines. And through it all, Almoqadam, who's in his 40s, saw the human toll up close. He worked to find the remains of dead soldiers and facilitate their exchange and return them to their families. He says this has all been volunteer work, and he still makes his money off his land.
ALMOQADAM: (Through interpreter) I didn't really get into this intentionally. When the war erupted, several bodies fell near my house. And then I saw something so disturbing I can't forget it to this day - dogs eating the corpses. I couldn't let that happen again.
TANIS: They were government fighters who had died in Houthi territory. Almoqadam went to the Houthi leadership in the area to ask them to bury the dead.
ALMOQADAM: (Through interpreter) They told me, why don't you take them back to the other side? I said, OK, if you'll let me do it. Then they said, only if you bring back our dead from that side, too. Then each side started calling me. Can you bring us this body? Can you bring us that body? And I found myself the middle man.
TANIS: It wasn't easy. He got some help from the Red Cross and Red Crescent in the beginning. But he had to deal with a lot of suspicion, too.
ALMOQADAM: (Through interpreter) It was very difficult to gain their trust. Both sides accused me of working for their enemy. It took three years, and finally they saw that my work was genuine, consistent and humanitarian. And we finally got to that point of trust. I've even mediated several prisoner exchanges.
TANIS: There's one case he remembers that stuck with him - a soldier for the pro-government forces who was the only child of his parents. Almoqadam knew them personally, too.
ALMOQADAM: (Through interpreter) It was in 2016, and the war was so intense then that his body was stuck on the other side for a year. His mother and family were in a terrible condition. During one lull in the fighting, I figured out a way to get to him and bring his body back to his family. For me, it was a very difficult one. This war is pointless. It has destroyed everything, and all the blood being shed is Yemeni blood. Each time I had to pick up another dead Yemeni body, I felt this pain. How long can this go on?
TANIS: The war is now at a stalemate amid peace talks between Saudi Arabia and the Houthis. It's brought some hope that peace is close. But the country is fractured, and many Yemenis think Yemen's future is taking a backseat to international and regional interests. As someone who's worked closely with the two warring sides, Almoqadam has a slightly different take.
ALMOQADAM: (Through interpreter) I have seen leaders from both sides. When they meet, they greet each other normally as two Yemenis would. If Yemenis can sit down together and talk sincerely, we will have true peace. But if the talks are based on politics and opportunism, this will go on for another 10 years.
TANIS: These days, there are no new exchanges to make. So Almoqadam spends most of his time trying to investigate the unidentified remains left in this morgue and deliver them to their families. He says he'll be working on these kinds of cases for years. When I ask him what his family has made of his new career, he lets out a big laugh.
TANIS: Like other men here, he had two wives, but one of them left him.
ALMOQADAM: (Through interpreter) She couldn't handle it and hated what I was doing, that I would spend all my time around dead bodies.
TANIS: I ask him, is the job so important that he got divorced over it?
ALMOQADAM: (Non-English language spoken).
TANIS: "Nothing is more important than relieving a mother of yearslong pain and suffering," he says.
Fatma Tanis, NPR News, Taiz, Yemen.
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