On May 15, 2015, I sat between two Yemeni officers in a police truck behind the Criminal Investigation Department in Sana’a. “You’ll be free in two hours,” one of the officers told me as he stared anxiously at the building, which housed a prison run by the US-backed Counter-Terror Unit (CTU).
Earlier that day, a group of teens clutching AK-47s covered in Houthi stickers entered my home in Sana’a’s Al-Buniyah neighborhood, searched my belongings and handed me off to cops from a nearby police station. The station chief and a man in army fatigues wanted to know every detail about my time in Yemen and why I hadn’t left the country when the war started a few months earlier.
I explained that I was a journalist who had been based in the capital for three-and-a-half years, and I had tried to leave several times in recent weeks. The day before, an intelligence official at Sana’a International Airport had turned me away at the boarding gate to a UN-organized evacuation flight because my passport didn’t have the proper stamp, and the customs agent who could resolve the matter had already gone home for the day.
“Come back tomorrow,” he said.
Fighter jets had been bombing Sana’a daily for about six weeks as part of Operation Decisive Storm, a Saudi-led military campaign aimed at reversing the coup that swept the armed Houthi movement and former President Ali Abdullah Saleh to power in late 2014. In the ensuing frenzy to consolidate control of Sana’a, Houthi and Saleh forces appeared to be rounding up anyone viewed as a potential threat to their rule, or who could be used as a bargaining chip in the struggle. In my case it was a disgruntled landlord who delivered me to the de facto authorities. I’d been short $100 in rent for the remainder of May and was told to pack up my things and move out. When the landlord’s normally mild-mannered guard tried to push his way through my front door, I pushed back. He regained his balance, raised his arms as if he were holding an invisible rifle pointed at my face and said he was going to get the Houthis.
Once I was in the hands of the authorities, they kept passing me up the chain of command until I was in a maximum security prison outside the capital. The $100 in late rent never came up during interrogations.
After about 45 minutes in the parking lot behind the Criminal Investigation Department, a man with white hair and a commanding presence emerged from the building. A shiny white van with tinted windows pulled up to the man, and he ordered the policeman to bring me out. I had seen these types of vans at Houthi compounds throughout the city in recent months. Hoping that the mix up would be over in a few hours, I tried to ignore the van and what it meant: I was in Houthi custody and things were about to get worse.
“Hello, Casey,” the white-haired man said calmly in English as I approached, assuring me there was nothing to worry about. With a hint of regret in his voice, he told me I was going to be handcuffed. A soldier grabbed a traditional Yemeni shawl from the white van, twisted it into a long cord and tethered it around my wrists. I didn’t resist.
They opened the sliding door of the van and ushered me inside.
“We have to put this on your eyes,” the white-haired man said from the front passenger seat, as the soldier draped another shawl over my face and tied a knot at the crown of my head. “Okay? Too tight?” the white-haired man asked in a stern but sympathetic voice. “It’s okay,” I said, surprised by his accommodating manner.
When I tried to ask where we were going, he cut me off.
“You’ve done something terrible! You’re a liar! Shut up and put your head down!” he shouted, reaching back to shove my blindfolded head down between my knees.
With my head pinned against the back of the driver’s seat near the floor, the van spun out of the dirt lot onto a busy street. I could feel the backs of my knees sinking into the bench seat as the van accelerated. The sound of the engine blended with honking horns and a muffled Arabic conversation in the front seat. The driver had a jarring stop-and-go style. He slammed the brakes, skidding around a corner and jamming my left leg into a sharp piece of metal. Just as quickly, he was accelerating again, weaving through the unseen traffic. On my right, the soldier tightened the makeshift handcuffs, cutting into the circulation in my hands.
At some point, I’m guessing about 30 minutes later, we pulled into a secretive National Security Bureau (NSB) base in the northeastern part of Sana’a, where intelligence officers trained alongside paramilitary forces from the CTU. A prison on the base was used to detain and interrogate “terrorist elements,” former NSB director, Ali al-Ahmadi, told me recently. He said the US had helped build two newer CTU facilities on the base, but Washington had nothing to do with the construction or operation of the prison. However, guards working in the prison often reminded American prisoners how ironic it was that they were detained in a place their government had built to detain Al-Qaeda suspects.
When I arrived at the prison in mid-2015, the majority of the prisoners in the facility were suspected members of Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). Eventually, under the Houthi-Saleh alliance, the prison population would diversify to include American, European and Yemeni journalists, various other US and foreign nationals arrested in Sana’a, members of the Baha’i religious minority and political activists, including Dr. Abdulkader al-Gunaid.
The white-haired man and the soldier walked me into the prison, making sure I didn’t trip going up the stairs to the front door. After emptying out my pockets and taking my sandals, belt and jacket, two prison guards untied the cloth from my wrists and replaced it with metal handcuffs. They unlocked a heavy gate and walked me barefoot down a dim corridor lined with cells on one side.
Near the end of the hallway, they pulled off my blindfold and swung open the steel door to one of the cells. Three Yemeni faces stared back at me: a frail young man from Sana’a, a stocky guy in his 40s from Abyan and an energetic, broad-shouldered 20-something from Aden.
Our cell was about 6 x 15 feet with a waist-high concrete wall in one corner that partially blocked the in-floor toilet from the rest of the room. Above the toilet near the ceiling, a small pipe channeled fresh air, sunlight and sounds into the cell. When a missile exploded, the pipe emitted a faint popping sound from the change in air pressure. Some former prisoners later told me that when missiles struck near the prison the pressure from the blast was so strong they temporarily lost their hearing.
Locked inside the concrete cell, my initial concern was to convince the guards to bring me the prescription medication I had been taking daily for depression and anxiety. Missing even one dose was an agonizing ordeal that I had experienced more than once in Sana’a when a refill from the US was delayed and a box of the expensive drug wasn’t available from a local pharmacy. The longest I had gone without it was only a couple of days, but it left me immobilized from what felt like the flu and a painful-sensitivity to light, sound, and movement of any kind.
I told the guards where to find the prescription bottle in my suitcase at my house. Hours later, a guard returned with a couple of pills that looked like Tylenol. I wrote the name of the drug on a piece of paper and, with the help of the English-speaking Adeni cellmate, stressed that I would get very sick without it. Nobody seemed to care. The guards ignored repeated requests, and it soon became clear that they had no intention of retrieving the medication. That night, we fell asleep to the high-pitched screams of a prisoner, who for some reason was called “Casper.” My Adeni cellmate told me he’d lost his mind. Years later, another former prisoner told me Casper was an Al-Qaeda suspect who believed he was possessed by jinn.
Early the next morning, the cellmate from Abyan woke the rest of us up in a panic. His body, arms and legs were rigid and trembling. He groaned in pain and tried to sit up. The Adeni shouted for a guard, pounding on the steel door until Abu Hamza, a potbellied interrogator with an abnormally large head, appeared. Soon another man entered the cell and jabbed a needle into Abyani’s arm, connected it to a bag of clear fluid and left. Within minutes, the injection site on Abyani’s arm had ballooned to the size of a grapefruit, inducing another round of panicked cries for help. The same man returned with a scowl on his face, clearly annoyed with the situation, and ripped out the needle. When he was satisfied he had found a vein, he handed Abyani the bag and left.
Later that day, as I was settling into my cellmates’ routine, Abu Hamza flung open the door and signaled for me. He was wearing a black balaclava mask, accentuating the size of his head. I jumped up with nervous excitement, believing they were about to release me. Instead, he and a guard with an AK-47 moved me to a solitary cell. With no ventilation pipe, or any other connection to the outside world, the room felt like a bunker or a tomb, something buried deep down in the earth where no one would ever find me.
By this point, I was starting to feel the effects of missing the morning dose of my medication. A headache morphed into a migraine, my muscles started to ache and I felt shocking sensations whenever I moved my eyes, a common withdrawal symptom. To counteract the sense of doom enveloping my serotonin-starved brain, I paced around the cell and did some pushups. Then the lights turned off and my motivation vanished. Complete blackness. Alone and afraid of where my waking thoughts might lead, I tried to sleep, only to be jolted awake by the bright lights overhead, which flicked on whenever I started to doze off, or the heavy metal gate outside my door that screeched open and slammed shut at all hours.
In between twice-daily deliveries of bread and beans, prison guards shackled my wrists and ankles and shuttled me to and from interrogation rooms in which Abu Qais, a longtime NSB agent and Saleh loyalist, ordered me to confess that I was Al-Qaeda, a CIA agent or helping Saudi Arabia bomb Sana’a – sometimes all in the same breath.
I have no idea how long it went on like this. With no source of natural light inside the cell, and reeling from the effects of stopping the medication cold turkey, I lost track of time. My thoughts drifted, cracked, and bent in on themselves.
The next several days are beyond the reach of memory. Some scenes I recall, others were told to me years later by other prisoners. Sometimes the puzzle pieces seem to line up, sometimes they don’t. But my body remembers what my mind cannot.
At some point, I was transferred back to my original cell with the three Yemenis. One day, I’m not sure which, we were sitting in a circle on the floor eating handfuls of rice when Abu Shamekh, a senior Houthi guard, opened one of the slots in our door. Abu Shamekh liked to taunt people and get prisoners to turn on one another. And that’s exactly what he did. He slid two wooden clubs through the slot and ordered the others to beat me with them, or so I was told. I have no memory of this.
After that I was then transferred back to the solitary cell, where a guard forced me to stand up and sit down for about 10 minutes. It was a common form of punishment that could go on for hours, but I wasn’t able to carry out the commands. I remember the act of standing and sitting, but I don’t recall feeling any pain, though for some reason I couldn’t straighten my back once my feet were under me. In a daze, I kept trying to stand upright, but my back wouldn’t respond.
My next memory was of Abu Hamza shouting at me through one of the slots in my door, asking me what was wrong. I lay on the floor in paralyzing pain. Every time I tried to move, my diaphragm contracted. He kept shouting as I struggled to piece together what was happening. He disappeared and my mind started to drift.
I managed to crawl several feet across the grimy tile floor to the faucet and toilet in the corner, where I could wait out whatever was happening to me. Prisoners in neighboring cells said they heard me crying out for at least two consecutive nights before the guards took me away, presumably to a hospital. Maybe I did, but the memory is gone. At some point, the next day or the day after, the guards brought me back to my solitary cell. I’m told I groaned and made animal noises from the pain, but like so much from these days my mind is empty. At some point, the guards again took me out of the prison. Another prisoner remembers riding to a hospital with me in the back of a van. I was tied to a plastic stretcher with handcuffs around my wrists and ankles.
I awoke inside an MRI machine at the Saudi-German hospital in Sana’a. An elderly Yemeni doctor standing at the foot of the plank I was strapped to explained that the machine was scanning my body for injuries. I don’t recall the deafening bangs and clicks that accompany MRI scans, but I do remember the doctor. Then I blacked out.
Some time later I regained consciousness in a hospital room still strapped to the plank. Four Houthi gunmen with AK-47s sat in the corner. Three of them, probably high school-aged, stared at me. I tried to avoid eye contact, afraid that they might mistake a wince of pain for hostility. The oldest of the four, who might have been in his early 20s, seemed to be the only one who empathized with my condition. He alerted the hospital staff when my facial contortions signaled the pain was too much to bear. A nurse would then inject a vial of pain killer into the IV tube in my arm, providing a moment of relief before I passed out again.
Several times, the doctor from the MRI machine entered my room with a colleague in a wheelchair, and pleaded with the guards to send me out of Yemen for emergency surgery that couldn’t be performed there. “Without surgery he will die or be paralyzed like him,” he shouted, pointing to the doctor in the wheelchair.
Images from CT and MRI scans dated May 27 and 28 showed fractures and crushing injuries in the mid-lower part of my back, where the thoracic and lumbar sections of the spine connect. Bone shards from the crushed vertebrae were dangerously close to touching my spinal cord.
On June 1, the guards drove me to the airport, where a plane was waiting to fly me to Oman’s capital Muscat. The doctor who had harangued the guards to release me accompanied us to the airport. As I was being transferred to the plane on a stretcher, he stood over me with a concerned look. “Not all Yemenis are bad people, Mr. Casey,” he said, holding my hand in his.
After a week in Muscat, I was flown to Seattle, Washington, where surgeons replaced my L1 vertebra with a prosthetic cage and fused 11 vertebrae in total during nine hours of surgery. At that point, I had no idea how the injury had happened. The surgeons guessed that I had been in a high-speed car crash or had fallen several stories to the ground. Another theory was that the prison I was in had been hit in an airstrike, but the surgeons ruled that out because I didn’t have any other broken bones, scrapes or other injuries they would expect to see in that type of situation.
In the months and years after my release, former prisoners slowly sketched in the details of my detention: the beating at the hands of my cellmates, the nights in solitary, and how I ended up in the hospital. Based on those accounts, my best guess is that my spine was fractured during the beating – maybe I fell against a corner of the concrete wall in the corner of the cell, or maybe I was struck just right with a wooden club – and then it was aggravated during the exercises the guard forced me to do.
Recovery has taken years. The first six months after surgery were focused on building up the strength to walk again, then how to maneuver in and out of the passenger seat of a car. Later, I learned how to hop on and off busses without falling over. Heavy painkillers and valium helped blunt the physical pain during those early days. But they also numbed me to the emotional trauma of my final three weeks in Yemen and the uncertainty around how crucial moments had unfolded.
Since my release, I’ve heard the stories of a number of people who were held at the same prison. The torture that guards inflicted on them included mock executions, electrocution, strangulation, and beatings with fists, boots and wooden clubs. They tied prisoners’ limbs in painful positions for hours, forced them to sit in cold baths during winter, and threatened to tell prisoners’ Al-Qaeda cellmates that they had helped US drones target AQAP.
At any given moment, most prisoners were suffering from some form of disease or ailment: scabies from mites, panic attacks, pneumonia, PTSD, heart disease, as well as concussions and other torture-induced injuries. Jamal Ma’amari, a tribal sheikh from Marib, was paralyzed from the waist down during beatings by Houthi interrogators who abducted him in March 2015. He spent three years in prisons, including the one where I was held, before he was released. Several prisoners committed suicide. Others who survived suicide attempts were punished for it. Five months after I was released, an American prisoner died in the solitary cell where I was held. An autopsy report concluded that he died of asphyxia. A lawsuit filed by the prisoner’s family said he was strangled to death.
For years I kept my distance from Yemen. I needed time. Time to heal and time to process what had happened and how to live with it. But in 2019, I started transitioning back to reporting on Yemen. What happened to me was not unique, not for those who have been imprisoned by the Houthis. Indeed, my experience paled in comparison to what Yemeni prisoners have endured under the Houthis. My nationality helped get me out of the country when I needed to go. I had access to doctors, nurses, mental health therapists, as well as medicine to recover from the traumatic injuries. Many Yemenis who make it out of prisons aren’t in a position to leave the country, obtain medical help or even speak about what happened to them out of fear that they or their family members will be thrown back into prison. But I can speak, and so I am. Mine is but a single story, yet the experience is far from mine alone.
Casey Coombs is an independent journalist focused on Yemen and a researcher at the Sana’a Center for Strategic Studies. He tweets @Macoombs
This article first appeared in Time for a New US Policy – The Yemen Review, November 2020
The Sana’a Center for Strategic Studies is an independent think-tank that seeks to foster change through knowledge production with a focus on Yemen and the surrounding region. The Center’s publications and programs, offered in both Arabic and English, cover diplomatic, political, social, economic and security-related developments, aiming to impact policy locally, regionally, and internationally.