Intense hostilities in Yemen have raged for more than seven years. The needs are severe and deepen by the minute with more than two-thirds of Yemen’s people in need of humanitarian assistance. All, while essential services are on the brink of collapse and people are losing hope as the conflict appears to drag endlessly. In these past decades, the ICRC has been providing a wide array of humanitarian assistance including support to hospitals, improving access to clean water, and food parcels and relief items to people who have been displaced. However, one of the more challenging activities the ICRC facilitates in Yemen is monitoring the treatment and living conditions of tens of thousands of people—mostly men and some as young as 13–detained due to the prolonged conflict. We also work to facilitate the release and reunification of the detainees with their families when agreed upon by parties to the conflict.

In this episode, we speak with Fabrizio Carboni, ICRC’s head of the Middle East region, who tells the story of the organization’s largest wartime transfer operation of detainees in the past 70 years and reflects on what it means for the future of Yemen.

Not only did this operation require weeks of advanced logistics, it also required assurance for the safety and wellbeing of the detainees released. Detainees went through medical exams to ensure they were healthy enough to fly home. [Photo: Osama Alansi/ICRC]

While waiting at Sanaa Airport, a former detainee prays. [Photo: Osama Alansi/ICRC]

One of the logistics that seemed very basic, but was actually very complicated was finding a company and pilots that would charter planes in a conflict like Yemen. [Photo: Osama Alansi/ICRC]

Although 2020 was the year of COVID, the larger health concerns was a tuberculosis outbreak in the prison. Most of the detainees had to wear masks on the plane because of it. [Photo: Mubarak Saeed/ICRC]

Important Links

Read the article here on the release back in 2020 by my UK colleague, Sam Smith.

Read more about the explosion at Aden Airport which killed 3 ICRC staff members.

Read here about the plight of the more than 3.3 million people that remain displaced in Yemen.

Read more about the most recent repatriation of 117 detainees in Yemen in May 2022.

This episode is now available for the hearing impaired.


For the past 60 years, the ICRC has been present in Yemen.

Today, the current conflict in Yemen has raged for more than seven years and follows a decade of localized fighting. The result is an almost immeasurable humanitarian crisis throughout the country.

[FABRIZIO] “You have a lack of development, economic, political, you add health, access to education.”

That’s Fabrizio Carboni – he’s ICRC’s regional director for the Middle East. He’s been keeping a close eye on the most recent conflict.

The needs are severe and deepen by the minute with more than two-thirds of Yemen’s people in need of humanitarian assistance. All, while essential services are on the brink of collapse and people are losing hope.

[FABRIZIO] “It’s devastating.”


In these past decades, the ICRC has provided support to hospitals, improved access to clean water, distributed food parcels and other relief items to people who have been displaced.

But, Gregor Mueller, deputy head of the delegation in Yemen, explains that one of the more challenging activities the ICRC facilitates in Yemen is monitoring the treatment and living conditions of tens of thousands of people—mostly men and some as young as 13–detained due to the prolonged conflict.

[GREGOR] “One way for us to achieve this is by making visits to prisoners in their places of detention and provide them with humanitarian support. We help families who have lost touch with relatives because of the fighting, so that they can get information about their fate and whereabouts.”

We also help facilitate the release and reunification of detainees with their families.

On today’s show–after all these years of conflict and media attention shifting elsewhere– we’re looking back at the largest wartime release operation of its kind since the Korean War, which offered a moment of hope in Yemen.

Fabrizio walks us through how this massive release operation took place in 2020, and reflects on what it means for the country’s future.

I’m Dominique Maria Bonessi, and this is Intercross, a podcast that offers a window into the work of the International Committee of the Red Cross and shares the stories of those affected by armed conflict and other situations of violence.


Let’s first start with the operation:

Over the span of two days, 11 airplanes took off from 5 cities to release more than 1000 detainees.

Not only did this operation require weeks of advanced logistics, it also required assurance for the safety and wellbeing of the detainees released. One of the people at the very center of this operation was Fabrizio, who has been with the organization for more than a decade and has worked in conflict zones in Lebanon, Myanmar, and Syria.

[FABRIZIO] “Yemen represents what is probably the most difficult in our work, There, you really need to navigate a very complex humanitarian environment and security environment.”

In this instance, the negotiation process started two years earlier in 2018, with an initial agreement between the parties to the conflict in Stockholm, Sweden. It would be a phased release of all prisoners, detainees, forcibly arrested and disappeared persons, and those under house arrest.

Two years later more talks took place in Amman, Jordan, in which the parties agreed on a plan to complete the first official large-scale release of prisoners since the beginning of the conflict.

After a delay in the plan due to COVID-19, a final negotiation took place in Montreux, Switzerland between the two sides in September of 2020.

[FABRIZIO] “The negotiation on the list on who would be released took place in parallel with the negotiation on how the release would take place.”

The United Nations and the ICRC co-chaired the meetings between the parties to the conflict. Negotiations took place on the scope and scale of the release–which included identifying a specific list of POWs to be released. As a neutral intermediary–Fabrizio and the ICRC team would not be involved with any of the political decisions. But, when it came time to negotiate the details of how the release would take place…

[FABRIZIO] “That’s where we would even chair the meeting and make sure that the release takes place in acceptable conditions.”

Fabrizio and his team were in the room to ensure the minimum humanitarian standards were met. Standards like informed consent from the POWs home country, identification of detainees with special needs, and…

[FABRIZIO] “For instance, when somebody is released, we want to make sure that he wants to go back home, you know, we want to make sure that the return is done safely. One of the issues we often face is the sequencing, you know, who releases first, especially in the case of Yemen, where you have different you know, first countries involved, you have different places. And in the case of Yemen, you need to fly people over frontlines. So, the sequencing of the release is, for instance, one of the issues, which is sometimes a bit challenging. In this case, in the last release the deal, which was actually not what we wanted, was that all planes would take off at the same time. I mean, sounds obvious, but technically, logistically it’s not at all.”


The negotiations were laborious with mutual mistrust between the parties. Each side fundamentally believing that the other is not capable of upholding their end of the bargain.
Ultimately the negotiations required the ICRC to conduct a near simultaneous release to satisfy the parties’ concerns.
Then finally the ICRC got the green light.

[WION NEWS] “The two warring sides in the country’s long conflict have decided to exchange prisoners. A move hailed as historic by many.”

[FABRIZIO] “Once they have the agreement, they call the ICRC, and they say tomorrow, obviously now it’s impossible. It’s totally impossible to do that. You know, it takes actually, I mean, I think the last was two or three weeks, which is already very short, because don’t forget, we need to find the planes we need to find the delegates to come in, in Yemen, you know, you need to surge. It’s not that you use what you have at hand, and you do it no, especially the last release, we’re talking about more than 1000 detainees. So it’s a, it’s a logistic and, and really challenge to, to have the planes, the ICRC staff with the needed skills and competencies. So, it means protection delegate health delegate, on the ground in different locations, doing the interview, making sure that people are fit to fly, that they are willing to go back. So, it really takes time.”

Between mid-October to mid-November the clock was ticking, Fabrizio, joined by ICRC experts seasoned at this work, and Red Crescent partners in Yemen and Saudi Arabia were preparing for the near simultaneous release of the detainees.

On top of everything, 2020 was the year of COVID, which presented its own inherent difficulties.

[FABRIZIO] “Movement in and out of Yemen was more complicated, movement within Yemen were more complicated. Now. I mean, COVID doesn’t mean the same thing in Yemen, than, I don’t know, in Switzerland or the US. COVID is one of the threats to the lives of people think in the hierarchy of needs or the hierarchy of threats. For Yemenis, you know, COVID was probably not the main threat to the lives you know, at that time.

Many of the detainees already had to wear masks due to a tuberculosis outbreak in the prison. And for most Yemenis living in dire need of humanitarian assistance, COVID was just one of many challenges they face.

[FABRIZIO] “You know, the, the measures, we were supposed we had to take, you know, the social distancing, stay home, wash your hands, you know, when you apply this to IDPs, or to poor Yemenis, it sounds a bit surrealistic, you know, wash your hand, that implies that you have water at home, you know, that you don’t have to fetch water. Stay home. Yes, sure. But, I mean, most of the people have to go to work every day, to find the resources to have the money to buy food for the family. So, the COVID was clearly a factor complicating the work and the release.”

Finally, the day of the release arrived, October 15th.

[FABRIZIO] “I remember very early it was what 536 o’clock in the morning. You know, the sun was just you know, appearing and you could feel the tension, you know, in the teams you know, because in this kind of situation Things can always go wrong.”

By mid-morning, two planes were ready to leave Sana’a, one of the three cities in Yemen where detainees were being released. But a delay at another airport meant that they could not take off. Fabrizio was in Sana’a to observe the operation and recorded this audio diary:

[FABRIZIO’S AUIO DIARY] “I’m in the airport. Detainees are lining up getting to the bus towards the planes. Still have last minute problems when it comes to planes, but we’re getting there we’re very, very close. I see my colleagues are very busy trying to iron out the last details. I see the colleagues of the Yemeni Red Crescent giving advice to the detainees on how to manage the release and also the health issues. It’s moving, it’s moving. You can see the first plane sitting on the airstrip ready to take off. It’s quite moving to see this because we know that in two different places you have exactly the same thing happening. Planes getting ready to take off. I think we can say we made it. And it has been a very long work. It’s not over.”

At the same time, other planes were flying out of Abha and Seiyun.

The next day, October 16th, more planes took off from Sana’a bound for Aden. This time Fabrizio was on one of those planes.

[FABRIZIO’S AUIO DIARY] “I’m on the tarmac, I’m going to board the plane to Aden that’s one of the last legs and I’m going to finish the operation in a couple of hours.’ I’m going to take my seat and wait for the people released to come in. We’re flying over Aden, getting ready to land and you can see people staring out the window identifying places they know, and they haven’t seen for years. It’s quite unique, it’s quite a privileged moment to be here. By the window, you see Aden the bay it’s beautiful it’s breathtaking, you see the sea, the desert, tens of boats waiting in the sea. The plane is landing…people are screaming. Very happy, very happy to be part of this.”

[Sound of plane landing, prisoners getting off plane, sound of ululations.]

[FABRIZIO’S AUIO DIARY] “All of the detainees are off the plane. It’s quite a moving scene to see all these people happy. But even for us I think as ICRC delegates, as ICRC staff it’s this scene of joy. It’s probably our reward. I mean all around the world we bring red cross messages to the most isolated places in the world to keep families together, we reunite children with their parents and now we’re doing the same thing. Gives a lot of meaning to our work and to all the sacrifices we do.”

While many of the former detainees could not find the words to speak with Fabrizio, one former detainee did anonymously speak with the ICRC following his release.

[Former Detainee] “Getting out of detention was like dreaming of paradise. In detention your only wish is to be reunited with your family and be with your children again. Freedom is a treasure and only fully appreciated by those who have lost it. Now my only focus is to make it up to my family for the time I was away from them. Be present with my kids and wife as much as possible. Sit and talk with my mother as much as I can. And try to get along again with my kids.”Fabrizio and his colleagues also felt the weight of the moment.

[FABRIZIO] “I have goosebumps suddenly. And I don’t think I thought again, about this happiness satisfaction would not capture the complexity of the feeling you have when you see those people who were detained in difficult conditions, most of them, combatants, frontlines. You also had very, very young people, among them. You have my colleagues, you know, I’m really proud of what they’ve done.”

For ICRC staff, Yemenis on both sides of the frontlines, regional experts, and the news media, the success of the operation brought about hope.

That was certainly the thinking back in 2020. Back then news reports reflected this growing optimism for lasting peace in the region.

[WION News] “The United Nations special envoy is expecting the move to pave the way for a national ceasefire.”

[CNN] 00;20-00;30 “This swap is not only about freedom for prisoners, it’s also about hope. That after years of a horrific war, maybe peace could be somewhere down the line…”

[PRI’s The World] “Yemen is in its sixth year of war, but this week there’s a breakthrough that could lead to peace.”


But just two months later, another reminder that in conflict progress is not linear.

[Video footage of explosion at Aden Airport]

22 people were killed including three ICRC staff members at an explosion at Aden Airport. Another 50 people were injured, including six staffers. Some of these staffers were involved in the planning and support of the release operation.

[Fade video]

[PAUSE with soft music]

However, the ICRC’s priority in Yemen remains to protect and assist victims of the conflict, and reinforce our support to fragile and essential systems for millions of Yeminis.

We continue to focus on delivering much needed health care and supplies, economic security programs, access to clean water, and the protection of civilians. The organization’s access to detainees in Yemen continues to be the object of ongoing negotiations between parties to the conflict.

But only a political solution can really bring an end to the suffering and renew prospects of hope.

What continues to motivate Fabrizio and others is the prospect of future releases of thousands of people still detained, for which the ICRC has stood ready to play its role when called upon.

[FABRIZIO] “It’s a matter of probability. But I think the probabilities of having another significant release of detainees is high.”


[FABRIZIO] “I have absolutely no doubt that peace is possible. The real question is, when is it going to be in six months, in a year or in a century?”

Thank you’s this week go to my colleague in the UK Sam Smith, who allowed us to borrow the audio diary for this episode. I’d also like to thank my colleagues in the Middle East Mirella Hodeib and Dalila Mahdawi.

Our question this week to listeners is prior to this episode, had you heard about this detainee release in the news? Were you aware of the ICRC’s role?

You can respond on Twitter to our handle @ICRC_DC or contact us through our website, that’s While you’re there you can see all of our most recent episodes and subscribe to our newsletter, so you never miss a podcast.

See you next time on Intercross.