By Julia Reysner
Hadi Jumaan is a peace activist and social development specialist turned body collector from Yemen who cooperates with both sides of the conflict to facilitate the exchange of prisoners of war and recover human remains from the frontlines. As the country continues to experience a prolonged political, humanitarian, and developmental crisis caused by the civil war between the government and the armed group called Houthi, Mr. Jumaan and his small group of volunteers regularly risk their lives to bring to the families the only solace left to them – the knowledge that their loved and lost ones may finally rest in peace.
Hadi Jumaan was born in Al Hazm, the main city of the Al Jawf province located in the northern parts of Yemen. This region is very poor and remote, and even before the war, its population only had access to the most basic of services, including education. “There is only one road in Al Jawf that was built in the 1970s, and everyone living there is lacking simple, basic opportunities,” explains Hadi. “My upbringing was very simple, and I was raised seeing trouble and conflicts in my area.”
For a while, Hadi Jumaan volunteered for a network of youth summer camps run by the Ministry of Youth and Sports. This period has influenced him a lot, because the program emphasized the need to love your country and your own community. After working with the Social Development Fund that runs different programs across Yemen, Hadi Jumaan returned to Al Jawf. By this time, the war had begun.
“The fighting was already happening in Al Jawf, and the main thing we saw was a lot of people being killed on the battlefield from both sides. The front was always moving, and people were just leaving those dead individuals laying there,” recalls Hadi. He felt he needed to do something. “Around that time, I was approached by someone who had known me before the conflict. He told me: “I know you’ve always been trying to help people with your humanitarian work. Can you assist me in retrieving the remains of my two relatives, my brother and my cousin?” So, I went to get them.”
The first body was close. They were able to get there quickly, retrieve the remains, and send them back to his family. The second one was a little bit farther from where Hadi lived. It was 2015, at the peak of the Saudi intervention, and there were many airstrikes. “We had to travel quite a distance, and it was very, very dangerous – trying to travel by road, knowing that there would be airstrikes. When we got there, I realized that there were actually a lot of remains left there. I couldn’t just take one body. I felt responsible. These people definitely had families – they had a mother, a sister, a wife waiting to hear news about them,” says Hadi. In total, he saw 19 bodies just lying there in the open. He decided to retrieve them all.
But bringing the remains back was only half the task: “We started contacting [possible relatives]. We didn’t know who those people were and were trying to identify them. We had to use our skills to contact both sides of the conflict and to convince them that we were there to help. We asked if they knew people killed in that area.” Eventually, Hadi was able to track down the person in charge and was told that he should travel all the way to the capital, Sana’a. There, he found out that all the deceased, all nineteen of them, came from the same neighborhood.
The word got out about the success of his mission, and things started to happen fast. Families, desperate for any help, began contacting Hadi. He realized it was time to grow the operation and make things official, hoping that getting registered would also make the missions safer for himself and his team. “We started to work as volunteers, but after being imprisoned several times, I felt the need to have a proper registration, so that when people asked us, we would have our papers ready. We formed an organization we called the Humanitarian Mediators,” says Hadi.
The volunteers, including Hadi, don’t have any special training and have had to learn on the job, which presents a double risk – first comes from the very act of handling the remains, despite using biohazard equipment for the transfer, and the second one is created by the fact that the conflict remains in its active phase. Despite their best efforts, many fighters still don’t trust Hadi and his volunteers and see them as trespassers – or even worse, spies. “There have been many incidents when I was detained. Once, I was driving on a mission and I lost my car, because it was targeted with a missile. I managed to escape, but the car was destroyed,” recalls the activist.
Working closely with both sides of the conflict, he saw another opportunity. Many prisoners were captured during the fighting, and Hadi felt that, with the right mediator, it would be possible to arrange a prisoners’ exchange, so his organization started doing that. In many districts there was communication disruption, power shortages, and an acute need for humanitarian aid. All of this required proper mediators who would convince the parties of the conflict to allow, for example, the communication engineers to go in and fix the lines.
Many villages have been suffering ever since the supply chains had been cut. Most of the humanitarian aid was coming from Saudi Arabia, but because of the nature of the conflict, the other side wasn’t too happy for it to be distributed, so Hadi’s team had to interfere and convince them that people do need aid, whatever its source may be. They found a simple solution for this particular issue: “We just removed any signs or logos on the humanitarian aid packages and then delivered them to those areas and villages.”
Hadi’s organization started out with 75 volunteers, both men and women, all from Al Jawf. Finding financial support proved to be hard, despite the high demand for their services, and eventually, their numbers dwindled to just fifteen people. “There are currently 1,300 missing fighters in my file. I was able to track down 700. This whole organization depends on the volunteers and me trying to provide for them, finding sources of funding, individual donors willing to help. I had to borrow lots of money, and I am deeply in debt. For now, the main source of funding that we have comes from a piece of land that I had to sell to cover the expenses,” laments Hadi.
He feels a lot of gratitude and appreciation for his family and his friends who have been supporting him from the very beginning and continue to do so. “I owe a huge debt to my own mother, because she put into my head the ideals of having to help people whenever I can, whenever I have a chance. My family are the ones who gave me a piece of land to sell so that I could continue my work. My friend Nadwa Dawsari keeps pushing and encouraging me,” says Hadi.
Nevertheless, the challenges of this work are taking the inevitable toll on his spirit. “There are many times when I feel down. The work is just too much, and I feel like I need to stop. But then I receive a call from a mother, or a sister, and I can’t allow them to be left without the feeling of peace brought by the fact that they were at least able to bury their son or brother. And that keeps me going,” says the activist. “We are all human. This feeling of responsibility, this humanitarian drive to help somehow – that’s the thing. And sometimes, when you feel down, just one call from a friend gives you that boost of confidence that you need to keep going.”