Sanaa, Yemen – For eight long years, Majed Albazili says he did not see the sun.
The last time was when the then-university student was walking along a street in the Yemeni capital Sanaa, before Houthi rebel fighters jumped from their cars and detained him.
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After that, darkness – and prison.
It was an ordeal that only ended on April 16, when Albazili, now 32, was released as part of a prisoner swap between the Houthis and the Yemeni government, part of wider negotiations that are continuing between Saudi Arabia and the Houthis to find a deal to end the conflict, which began in 2014.
More than 800 captives from both sides were set free, a breakthrough that left numerous families shedding tears of happiness.
After the prisoner was exchange completed, Albazili and his fellow former detainees still recalled the horror of incarceration and the ecstasy of their freedom.
Albazili had been on his way to his university’s engineering college to begin a new semester when he was grabbed. Instead of classes, he was confined to a prison cell, and he claims, was abused physically and mentally.
“Torture in prison included solitary confinement, humiliation, deprivation, beating with cables and clubs, and being electrocuted,” Albazili told Al Jazeera. “It was torture that I could not even imagine.”
Albazili still does not understand why he was taken. “[I was] a civilian person and a university student.”
During his imprisonment, Albazili was only rarely allowed visits by family members, and gifts were restricted.
“I tried to get at least one book into the prison, but they rejected it,” he said. “I tried by all means, and I offered to give them money to allow me to receive books. All my attempts failed. They destroy education and hate the educated.”
The United Nations and human rights organisations have accused the Houthis of suppressing critics and opponents, severely limiting free speech in Sanaa since the group’s takeover in September 2014.
The Iran-allied Houthis have denied a policy of torturing prisoners, and have defended themselves by arguing that detainees have often been found guilty of working with the Saudi-led coalition, which began air raids in Yemen in March 2015, in support of the UN-recognised Yemeni government.
Meat twice a year
Gamal Buhaibeh, originally from Marib, was captured three years ago while fighting a Houthi attempt to advance into the resource-rich governorate. Buhaibeh was not a member of the military, but considered his participation in the fight part of his “duty to defend his province”.
Buhaibeh says that the conditions were difficult in prison.
“The nutrition in prison was horrible,” he told Al Jazeera. “For breakfast and dinner, they used to give us lentils. The lunch was a small amount of cooked vegetables and rice. That was our food for years. We received meat twice a year, during Eid al-Adha and the [Prophet Muhammad’s] birthday.”
Medication was also difficult to come by.
“Those in charge of the prison gave the sick captives medicine for free, but that medicine would be close to expiration. In most cases, the prisoner would have to buy the medicine himself,” Buhaibeh said.
In Marib, Buhaibeh was accustomed to the desert heat and the sun shining over his head. In his Sanaa prison, high up in Yemen’s mountains, he says he longed for the daylight he was denied.
“Being deprived of adequate exposure to the sun intensified the suffering of prisoners. Because of that, our immunity weakened. Skin-related diseases, anaemia, and tuberculosis began spreading.”
Beatings and insults
Ziyad Aldaeri, 32, is one of the hundreds of Houthis, mainly fighters, who were released by the Yemeni government and Saudi Arabia as part of the prisoner swap deal.
Pro-government forces arrested him in 2018 in Hodeidah, where he fought on the Houthi side.
Speaking about his ordeal, Aldaeri told Al Jazeera, “I was subjected to beatings and insults in many prisons. I was transferred from one prison to another while my hands and feet were shackled, and I was blindfolded.”
Aldaeri said that it was worse when he fell sick. Despite pain in his joints and a fever, he received little care from his captors.
“I asked those controlling the prison to give me medicine. But I got nothing. When other prisoners protested against not giving me medicines, they were beaten. After a doctor came and prescribed medication.”
Yemeni government officials have previously called allegations of torture in prisons “exaggerated”.
The joy of freedom
For hundreds of Yemeni families, the prisoner swap replaced years of grief with joy.
Buhaibeh says that meeting his own family, after being separated for so many years, was a gift from God. “I cannot find the words to describe my feeling of joy,” he said. “The years of deprivation and separation from family have ended. Today, my happiness is boundless.”
Albazili, now reunited with his family, has to pinch himself to make sure he is finally a free man.
“I cannot describe my happiness,” he says. “I can see the sky and breathe fresh air again. Today, I ask myself, is this a dream or reality? This is a rebirth.”