Sanaa, Yemen – Majed Albazili says he has not seen the sun for eight years.
The last time was when the then-university student was walking down a street in the Yemeni capital Sanaa before Houthi rebels jumped out of their car and arrested him.
Then darkness – and prison.
It was an ordeal that only ended on April 16, when Albazili, now 32, was released as part of a prisoner swap between the Houthis and the Yemeni government, part of wider negotiations between Saudi Arabia and the Houthis to strike a deal. . to end the conflict, which began in 2014.
More than 800 prisoners from both sides were released, a breakthrough that made countless families weep with happiness.
After the prisoner exchange was completed, Albazili and his fellow ex-convicts still remembered the horror of the incarceration and the ecstasy of their freedom.
Albazili was on his way to his university’s technical college to start a new semester when he was seized. Instead of lessons, he was locked in a prison cell and said he was physically and mentally abused.
“Torture in prison included solitary confinement, humiliation, deprivation, beating with cables and clubs and being electrocuted,” Albazili told Al Jazeera. “It was torture I couldn’t even imagine.”
Albazili still doesn’t understand why he was taken. “[I was] a citizen and a university student.”
During his imprisonment, Albazili was rarely visited by relatives and gifts were limited.
“I tried to get at least one book in jail, but they rejected it,” he said. “I tried every possible way and I offered to give them money so that I could receive books. All my attempts failed. They destroy education and hate the educated.”
The United Nations and human rights organizations have accused the Houthis of suppressing critics and opponents, severely restricting freedom of expression in Sanaa since the group’s takeover in September 2014.
The Houthis, linked to Iran, have denied a policy of torture of detainees and have defended themselves by saying that detainees have often been found guilty of collaborating with the Saudi Arabian-led coalition, which began airstrikes in Yemen in March 2015 in support of the UN. recognized Yemeni government.
Meat twice a year
Gamal Buhaibeh, originally from Marib, was captured three years ago while fighting an attempt by the Houthi to advance into the resource-rich governorate. Buhaibeh was not a member of the army, but regarded his participation in the battle as part of his “duty to defend his province”.
Buhaibeh says prison conditions were difficult.
“The prison food was terrible,” he told Al Jazeera. “They gave us lentils for breakfast and dinner. Lunch was a small amount of cooked vegetables and rice. That was our food for years. We got meat twice a year, during Eid al-Adha and the [Prophet Muhammad’s] birthday.”
Medicines were also difficult to obtain.
“The prison management gave the sick prisoners free medicines, but those medicines were almost gone. In most cases, the prisoner would have to buy the drug himself,” Buhaibeh said.
In Marib, Buhaibeh was used to the desert heat and the sun shining overhead. In his Sanaa prison, high in the mountains of Yemen, he says he longed for the daylight he was denied.
“The fact that the prisoners were not sufficiently exposed to the sun exacerbated the suffering of the prisoners. This weakened our immunity. Skin-related diseases, anemia and tuberculosis began to spread.”
Beatings and insults
Ziyad Aldaeri, 32, is one of hundreds of Houthis, mostly fighters, released by the Yemeni government and Saudi Arabia as part of the prisoner exchange deal.
Pro-government forces arrested him in 2018 in Hodeidah, where he fought on the side of the Houthi.
Speaking of his ordeal, Aldaeri told Al Jazeera, “I was beaten and insulted in many prisons. I was transferred from one prison to another with my hands and feet handcuffed and I was blindfolded.”
Aldaeri said it was worse when he got sick. Despite pain in his joints and a fever, he received little care from his captors.
“I asked those who controlled the prison to give me medicine. But I have nothing. When other prisoners protested against not giving them medicines, they were beaten. After a doctor came and prescribed medicine.”
Yemeni government officials previously called allegations of torture in prisons “exaggerated”.
The joy of freedom
For hundreds of Yemeni families, the prisoner exchange replaced years of sadness with joy.
Buhaibeh says meeting his own family after being separated for so many years was a gift from God. “I can’t find the words to describe my feeling of joy,” he said. “The years of hardship and separation from family are over. Today my happiness is limitless.”
Albazili, now reunited with his family, has to pinch himself to make sure he is finally a free man.
“I can’t describe my happiness,” he says. “I can see the sky and breathe fresh air again. Today I wonder: is this a dream or reality? This is a rebirth.”