Disappeared Under Yemen’s Saleh, Activist Found Alive Decades Later

Yemeni men chew qat as they attend a rally in Sanaa on 24 January 2013. (Photo: Khaled Abdullah - Reuters)

By: Nabil Subaye

Published Sunday, February 3, 2013

When Mathar al-Iriani was disappeared in the 1980s under the rule of former Yemeni president Ali Abdullah Saleh, it would not have been a stretch to assume that he had been tortured and left for dead. Yet just last month, Iriani was found alive, partially paralyzed and stricken with amnesia, living in a retirement home close to his family’s residence.

Hodeidah – In 1982, leftist activist and member of the Revolutionary Democratic Party of Yemen Mathar al-Iriani was arrested by intelligence agencies operating under the rule of former president Ali Abdullah Saleh.

Iriani’s family spent three decades looking for him. As they awaited his return, they had no idea that he was living only a few hundred meters away from their home.

In December 2012, the activist was found in a retirement home in the western Yemeni city of Hodeidah suffering from amnesia and hemiplegia as a result of the torture he endured post-disappearance. Tariq al-Iriani, a son-in-law of Mathar al-Iriani, related the details to Al-Akhbar.

Iriani’s family reinvigorated the search for Mathar in December 2012 after receiving a phone call from a political activist in Sanaa involved in “The Walls Remember their Faces” campaign. The effort is dedicated to remembering those disappeared in Yemen’s history and the group requested a photo of Mathar to add to a mural.

Tariq gestured to a picture of Mathar that was taken before his forced disappearance in 1982. “I took it to the Dar al-Salam Center for Mental and Psychological Illness in Hodeidah and showed it to the staff there. One person said that the man in the photo resembled a person who lived in a nearby retirement home,” he said.

In the retirement home, Tariq found an old man suffering from amnesia and right hemiplegia, but who resembled his father-in-law. He snapped a photo with his cell phone and showed his wife who also saw the resemblance. “When they saw him, they were sure it was their father. Worried about him, they took him home. For them it was a done deal,” he said.

When Al-Akhbar visited the family home a few days ago, Iriani was lying down, partially paralyzed. “No one knows the kind of torture he underwent,” Tariq said, adding that a medical brain scan revealed that Mathar, now nearing 70, had suffered severe injuries due to blows to the head. It was likely that he had suffered a stroke that left him paralyzed.

Mathar’s official papers indicate that he was transferred in 1994 from a hospital in the nearby city of Taiz to the retirement home in Hodeidah. A decade later, he was taken to the Dar al-Salam Center for Mental and Psychological Illness where he spent eight years. In 2012, he was returned to the retirement home located near his family’s place of residence.

Iriani is beset with fits of screaming, interspersed with insults directed at an imaginary person in front of him whom he often calls “dog.” Of all those responsible for his tragedy, the central target of his cursing is Colonel Ali Abdullah Saleh. It’s a name he yells often, emphasizing the military rank that the former president carried when Iriani was disappeared in the early 1980s.

Iriani also mentioned someone named Colonel al-Halali. He’s thought to be the former director of security in Hodeidah.

The aging activist is a living testimony to the gruesome ways of Saleh’s regime. Saleh disappeared many of his opponents, many of whom, it would seem, lost their minds and memories. It appears that destroying the minds and memories of the disappeared was part of a systematic process of erasure aimed at replacing their true identities with fabricated ones.

Iriani was found under the name Taha al-Tahiri. According to his son-in-law, the old man responds to Taha, Mathar, and Tariq. The latter name, the son-in-law explained, is a product of his father-in-law’s belief that he is Tariq ibn Ziad, the Muslim general who led the Islamic conquest of Spain.

Iriani’s case reinforces the claim that Saleh’s regime aimed to erase the identities of opponents whom he disappeared. The son-in-law pulled out a small photo that he said was in “Taha al-Tahiri’s” file. It’s of a young man whose features differ greatly from Mathar’s features. Tariq wondered: “Do you think this picture is of this person?”

Today, the family seems certain that this person is Mathar al-Iriani. Other than the physical resemblance, he is able to recall the names of family members and places where he lived. “There are a lot of indicators and evidence that confirm his identity,” said Tariq.

But he does not remember basic things like his own name and the names of his four daughters. “I am sure it is him,” said Tariq. “But we will wait for the DNA test results just to avoid any mistakes.”

Iriani was not the only disappeared person found at a retirement home. It appears that security forces would take whomever they suspected were disappeared people and drop them off at retirement homes under the pretext that they were insane or suffering from amnesia.

Many suspect that another sufferer of amnesia is a leftist activist named Ali Khan who was disappeared in 1978, the year Saleh assumed power in North Yemen. Yet there is uncertainty in this case. At the retirement home, this man is known as Ali Mahdi al-Rimi.

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.

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