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Five bodies at dawn: The mystery that has left this war-torn city reeling

After unidentified corpses were found in a Taiz graveyard, residents fear they could be the next victims of a perpetrator still on the loose
Taiz residents are avoiding certain areas after the news of the executions (Wikicommons)

TAIZ, Yemen — It started as whispers over meals, in the shops, on the street: a group of men was executing civilians and soldiers in the east of the city and quickly burying them in Wadi al-Madam graveyard. 

For weeks, the story spread even though no one wanted to believe something like this could happen.

'No one expected to see this thing happen in Taiz, the cultural capital of Yemen, so everyone was shocked to see those corpses'

- Farouq al-Farea, resident

But last week, after eyewitnesses came forward, security forces and a forensic team disinterred five fresh graves turning the persistent rumour into a terrifying mystery.

"Unfortunately, the disinterment created terror among Taiz's residents,” said Farouq al-Farea, who watched the bodies come up from the ground last Thursday morning alongside a crowd. 

As Farea and others watched, the team brought up five corpses, two with missing heads that had been cut with knives. The bodies smelled but still residents gathered to watch.

"No one expected to see this thing happen in Taiz, the cultural capital of Yemen, so everyone was shocked to see the corpses killed in such an ugly way."

After the corpses were taken to al-Rawdha hospital security forces were able to identify three people, each soldiers in the 22 Brigade which fought against the Salafis in Taiz last month.

Clashes broke out between battalions of Abu al-Abbas, commander of the largest Salafi force in Taiz, and security forces after several Abu al-Abbas fighters were arrested under suspicion of assassinating Hannah Lahoud, an ICRC employee.

The other two bodies remain unidentified.

The bodies in Wadi al-Madam graveyard are brought up last week (Twitter/@mamoon711188)
A military police source who spoke on condition of anonymity told MEE that they believe there are “many others” who were killed in the same way based on stories they've heard but haven't yet investigated. 

Several corpses, which usually remain unidentified, have also been found in recent months in the city's gutters and police believe these cases may be connected. 

“Those five corpses are not all of the corpses that were slaughtered by extremists. They are only a sample of the crime,” the source said.

Eyewitnesses told the police that the bodies were buried in the early morning hours by veiled men in an area under the control of Abu al-Abbas, but the source said the police cannot accuse the group until they have clear-cut evidence.

Last October, Abbas was designated as an al-Qaeda and Islamic State group supporter by the Saudis, their Gulf allies, Qatar and the US.

The investigation continues and once there is enough evidence the source said, security forces will go after the criminals.

"If not for residents, we would not know about the burial of corpses,” the source said. 

‘Worst days of their lives’

As investigators chase down the perpetrators, hundreds of families in Taiz are not only scared for their safety, but also anxious to learn whether their relatives may have been one of the victims.

There are hundreds of detainees who fought for various pro-Hadi sides in the war who are now being held in prisons across the city. Their families usually are unable to visit them and many may not even know their fate.

'The ones who were most afraid were the families of detainees who don’t have any information about their relatives in prisons'

- Abdul Ghani Mohammed, sociology professor

Sociology professor Abdul Ghani Mohammed, who teaches at private universities in the city, said it is normal that such news creates terror among civilians and even soldiers.

"Everyone was terrified by the news, but the ones who were most afraid were the families of detainees who don’t have any information about their relatives in prisons," Abdul Ghani said.

"Human Rights Watch and international organisations must intervene on this issue and at least help the families of detainees visit their relatives in prisons," he added.

"After the news of Thursday, the relatives of detainees had the worst days of their lives waiting for the forensic team to identify the corpses."

And the wait continues.

While the police have not accused Abu al-Abbas and his battalions of committing the murders, political activists say they are certain the group was involved.

Political activist and head of Huna Aden Strategic Studies Centre, Anees Mansour, tweeted on Thursday: "O, Taiz residents, do not keep silent due to the disinterring of five corpses of soldiers of the national army, two of them without heads. Abu al-Abbas battalions slaughtered them in the intelligence building in the republican neighbourhood and then buried them in Wadi al-Madam graveyard."

Abbas al-Dhaleai, a Yemeni writer and journalist working abroad, accused the UAE of supporting the group that slaughtered the soldiers. While he doesn't name the Abu al-Abbas battalions specifically, he would seem to be referring to the group which reportedly has been funded by the UAE.

Dhaleai tweeted: "What happens in Taiz is very worrying, outlaw killing and executions and burying corpses in graveyards while the local authorities do not treat the issue seriously. The government only watches, the coalition feeds the conflicts. This crime was not committed by the Houthis but by a group of the resistance supported by the Emirate of badness."

The commander of the 22 Brigade, Brigadier General Sadeq Sarhan, threatened that he will resign from his position if the governor and the leader of the Taiz army will not give directions to military and security forces to arrest the criminals.

Abu al-Abbas battalions have not commented to the media and do not want to talk about the issue until the investigation is complete, one of the group's fighters told MEE. 

Terror among people

Meanwhile, residents in Taiz fear that the message to extremists in their city is that they can do whatever they want. Many avoid areas known as Salafi haunts and steer clear of the graveyard.

Ali Fahmi, a mobile phone repairman living in Taiz city, said he had heard the rumour that people had been killed, but did not believe it had happened until last Thursday.

"We heard about extremists in Taiz and we heard about slaughtering and the burial of people, but I did not believe it because this behaviour does not belong to humanity. We only watched those kinds of crimes on TV and it became a fact in Taiz," Fahmi told MEE.

"Thursday's news terrified me and most of Taiz's residents, we will now be cautious to move around in the areas of extremists, which all of Taiz's residents know."

Eyewitnesses told the police that the bodies were buried in the early morning hours by veiled men
Fahmi stated that the authorities in Taiz have to take serious steps to stop the groups that target Taiz city and its citizens, "fighting extremists may be a hard choice but authorities have to find a solution to these dangerous actions".

This is the first time that security forces have disinterred graves in Taiz city, and while many residents said they thought it was a good start to solving the mystery, others felt it was a foreign practice they weren’t sure they welcomed.

Khalil al-Raseni said the digging up of the bodies was an undignified scandal, with photos of the disfigured corpses spreading across social media.

"I do not hope that people disinter my corpse for any reason because my dignity does not allow me to agree with this,” he said.

“So security forces committed a crime similar to the killing of soldiers by disinterment.”

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Instead, they should have investigated without disinterring bodies, he said. Or, if it was really necessary, dig up the bodies and immediately return them to the grave rather than going to the hospital. 

But Sami Alawi, a lawyer in Taiz city, disagreed with Raseni. Digging up the bodies, he said, was a necessary step to expose the culprits, and it showed that the security forces are serious about getting to the bottom of this.

"Without disinterment the security forces cannot investigate the crime or expose the killers and, even if people were terrified of the issue, I am sure they will feel happy when security forces arrest the killers,” Alawi said.

Before Thursday, he added, those with violent tendencies were behaving freely in the city, but now they will feel that they are being watched and will be cautious to commit more crimes.

"I think the security forces may disinter more graves to expose more crimes in Taiz and this will help to fight the extremists who create terror among civilians," Alawi said.

This article is available in French on Middle East Eye French edition.