After months of negotiations, last week Yemen’s warring parties
failed to agree on a prisoner exchange, but may have settled on a
preliminary swap of 1,000 corpses. Moving the war dead is a job that’s
usually done by health workers, or carefully negotiated by diplomats.
But for the past few years in Yemen, one former boy scout and his small
team have been going it alone.
After walking 10 hours carrying the dead body, Hadi Juma’aan needed
to rest. Far from where his car had failed in the mountains between the
northern Yemeni provinces of Amran and al-Jawf, without mobile phone
service, Juma’aan closed his eyes and waited for morning to come.
A few hours later, before sunrise, he awoke in a panic.
“A dog came wanting to eat the corpse,” he recalls. “I thought the dead had risen. I was terrified.”
But once he came to his senses, Juma’aan carried on. After all,
bringing the bodies of dead fighters home to their families is his job.
After three years and 10 months of war in Yemen, and more than 60,000 dead by one estimate,
Juma’aan is busy. By his count, he and a small team of volunteers have
evacuated the bodies of 360 fighters from front lines, and negotiated
the release of 170 prisoners of war, without much in the way of
financial resources, training, or even plastic gloves.
Juma’aan, who is in his mid thirties, didn’t set out to become a body
collector. Before the war, he worked as a community activist at a
government-run organisation that promoted sustainable development.
But in September 2015, seven months after the fighting in Yemen
began, the job came for him. A relative asked Juma’aan, a former boy
scout with wilderness skills, for help finding his two brothers who had
gone missing while fighting in Taiz province. He found their bodies, was
shot in the process by a soldier who mistook him for a combatant, and
found his calling.