A very long engagement, Yemeni-style

A young medical student in Yemen is using social media to force the release of her fiance detained three years ago.

al-monitor Israa Waheeb poses for her graduation photos with a picture of her fiance, Sanaa, Yemen, Oct. 20, 2019.  Photo by Facebook/Isra Waheeb.

Nov 7, 2019

SANAA, Yemen — Israa Waheeb has not seen her fiance Samed al-Ameri since July 15, 2016 — four days after they got engaged in a small ceremony attended by their families.

“My joy is incomplete without you,” Waheeb wrote under the two photos posted on Facebook Oct. 20. The photos show her on the day of her graduation from the medical school at the University of Science and Technology in Sanaa — in cape and gown with the photo of her fiance displayed on her cellphone. “I know you have waited for this moment and would have wanted to be with me," she continued.

The photos and words addressed to her detained fiance went viral in Yemen and beyond, with the hashtag #WhenCanYouComeBack?"

Ameri, a young doctor with a winning smile, was detained by Houthis who picked him up from his home in Taiz, a city in southern Yemen, according to the Arab-language media. He has been detained at Al-Saleh City Prison in Taiz, though no charges have been brought against him. Al-Monitor could not verify this information.

Waheeb has refrained from saying on the record that her fiance was detained by the Houthi rebels — in fact, she hardly ever goes on the record saying anything at all. After the huge interest in her story following her Facebook post, she posted an apology to the journalists who wanted to speak to her “for not being able to speak.” She did not want to politicize the issue, she wrote.

Waheeb only consented to talk with Al-Monitor after assurances that as an international publication it would report on what she said, without interpreting it. "This is definitely not about politics, and I am definitely not involved in any political parties,” she kept saying throughout the interview.

Yemen has been involved in a complicated civil war since 2014, when the Houthi rebels — Shiites backed by Iran — seized control of northern Saada province and neighboring areas, as well as the capital Sanaa. A year later, Saudi Arabia and eight other mostly Sunni Arab states — backed by the United States, United Kingdom and France — began airstrikes against the Houthis, with the declared aim of restoring the government. The situation is further complicated by the fact that there are, on the anti-Houthi side, separatists seeking independence for south Yemen and factions that oppose the idea.

The ongoing war has created a severe humanitarian crisis, with at least 8.4 million people at risk of starvation and 22.2 million people — 75% of the population — in need of humanitarian assistance, according to the United Nations. 

Ameri was one of the people who wanted to help those in need, according to Waheeb and Ameri’s brother who talked to Al-Monitor.

Waheeb said her fiance had set up an initiative called Cordial that aimed to help families in Taiz, the third-largest city of the country. Taiz was sieged by Houthi rebels and forces loyal to deposed President Ali Abdullah Saleh in 2015.

Ameri secured funding from family, friends, expatriates and philanthropists — from within his network and through Facebook — to help families in need, Waheeb explained. "He was arrested on July 15, 2016, from his home in al-Hoban in Taiz," she said. "His humanitarian work is the reason for his arrest." 

“There are many people like Samed. These are innocent people who were detained and kept in detention without a trial. They have done nothing wrong; they were simply taken away because they were doing humanitarian work,” she added.

A recent UN report said that all parties in Yemen — Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, the Yemeni government and Houthi rebels — have committed violations of international law, including rape, torture, disappearances and “deprivation of the right to life,” during the conflict. Human Rights Watch said that it has documented dozens of cases of the Houthis and forces loyal to the late president carrying out arbitrary and abusive detention, as well as forced disappearances and torture. But the Sept. 30 release of 290 detainees by the Houthis was seen as a hopeful sign for thousands in detention.

Never losing hope during this long engagement, Waheeb has been posting messages of love and longing on Ameri's Facebook page for the last four years, even though he is unlikely to see them. "I miss you — just as the blind miss the light," she wrote in one message.

Dhi Yazan al-Ameri, Ameri’s older brother, said that he has not seen his brother since his detention but their parents have. "Only my mother and father saw him twice [at Al-Saleh City Prison]," he told Al-Monitor. Their last visit was at the end of October.

"He hasn't been tried during his ongoing detention. There is no proof that he is guilty of anything,” he explained, saying he wants his brother to be released immediately.

Waheeb said that her fiance had been allowed to telephone her and his family during the Islamic holidays, but those are the only times she has had contact with him.

Waheeb remains discreet on how she, a medical student in Sanaa, and Ameri, a young doctor in Taiz, met, possibly fearing the reaction of Yemen's conservative society. She simply said that she will continue to love him despite all the hardship.

"Everyone can fall in love and stay in love when times are good,” she noted. "But only genuine love remains steadfast in the face of war and difficult circumstances."

Her Facebook post has started a solidarity campaign on social media, with many people demanding the release of Ameri. She hopes that through the interest on social media Ameri will be released. She also called on the UN and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) to help release aid workers.

She urged that the UN protect those engaged in humanitarian work, and that this type of aid should not become a political issue. She also said the ICRC should try to secure Ameri’s release.

Should he be released, many of the followers on social media are already pledging to shoulder the costs of the wedding that would follow the long engagement.

"The first step following his release will be marriage," Dhi Yazan said.

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