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From Yemen to Saudi Arabia and back: The odyssey of Buthaina al-Raimi

A photo turned her into an icon after her parents and siblings were killed in an air strike - but that was only the start of the Yemeni girl's hardships
Buthaina's parents and siblings were all killed in a Saudi air strike, before her relatives say she was forcibly taken to Saudi Arabia and held there for over a year (MEE/Naseh Shaker)

SANAA - In her dreams, Buthaina al-Raimi still hears her parents tell her "we love you".

On New Year’s Day, the six-year-old girl was able to visit them for the first time in over a year - in the cemetery of Sanaa where her parents, along with Buthaina’s five siblings, are buried after being killed in a Saudi air strike.

Buthaina’s nearly year-and-a-half long journey before she was finally able to pray over her family’s graves was a long and complicated one.

Shortly after a photo of the young girl - her face bruised and swollen after being rescued from the rubble of her bombed home, prying one of her eyes open with her small fingers - went viral in 2017, earning her the nickname of “the eye of humanity”, Buthaina, her uncle Ali al-Raimi, aunt and cousins ended up in Saudi Arabia.

The striking image of Buthaina, then five years old, drew attention to the plight of Yemenis in the war (AFP)

But, according to Waleed al-Raimi, another one of Buthaina’s uncles, "Buthaina was not in Riyadh for treatment. She was there under house arrest, and my brother was under arbitrary detention".

The return of the al-Raimis to Yemen last month, after negotiations between Saudi Arabia and Yemeni rebels, marked another chapter in a public relations battle that has often mirrored the war’s brutality.

A photograph that encapsulated the war

On 25 August 2017, two and a half years into the Yemen conflict opposing Houthi rebels against Saudi-backed President Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi, an air raid struck a building in the rebel-held Yemeni capital, killing 14 people when an adjacent apartment block collapsed.

Buthaina was rescued from the rubble, but her parents, Mohammed Mansour al-Raimi, 29, and Amal Mohammed Saad, 27, sisters Aayah, eight, Bardees, six, Raghad, two, and brothers Alaa, nine, and Ammar, four, all died.

Saudi Arabia admitted responsibility for the strike, describing it as a "technical mistake".

A photo of the young girl - her face bruised and swollen after being rescued from the rubble of her bombed home, prying one of her eyes open with her small fingers - went viral in 2017, earning her the nickname of “the eye of humanity”

Around a month after the photo of Buthaina struggling to open her eye made her a symbol of the devastation of the Yemen war, her uncle Ali told Middle East Eye that he, his family, and his traumatised niece were taken to Saudi Arabia against their will.

Ali alleges that a Yemeni journalist convinced him to participate in a project claiming to document Saudi war crimes in Yemen, only to take him, Buthaina, his wife Umm Moayad and their three children - Moayad, 12, Maeen, 11, and Hadeel, seven - into the Aden governorate of Yemen on 24 September 2017, in an area under Saudi coalition control.

The Yemeni journalist accused by the Raimi family declined to respond to an MEE request for comment.

Once in Aden, Ali said he and Buthaina were taken to meet a representative of the Saudi King Salman Humanitarian Aid and Relief Centre, who apologised to them on behalf of the Saudi government and offered to treat Buthaina’s wounds in Riyadh.

From there, Ali said he refused to let them take his wounded niece to Saudi Arabia - but that he, his wife, children and Buthaina were forcibly put onto a plane the next day.

Saudi authorities did not respond to MEE requests for comment for this article.

Stuck in Saudi Arabia

Upon arriving in the Saudi capital, Ali and his family found themselves with no Yemeni ID or passport, as they were confiscated in Aden. Despite Saudi assurances, he was unable to enroll either Buthaina or his own children in school.

According to her uncle, Buthaina only spent one week at the King Fahd Medical City hospital in Riyadh upon their arrival with her aunt Umm Moayad, before being held with Ali and his family under house arrest in a hotel for several months, before being moved to a house.

In late September 2017, only days after being forcibly taken to Saudi Arabia, Ali published a video on Facebook stating that he did not wish to stay in the kingdom, calling for his family’s return to Yemen.

Meanwhile, Ali said, one of Buthaina’s uncles on her mother’s side who had flown in to Saudi Arabia was vying to obtain legal guardianship of the little girl - which Ali and his brother Waleed, who had stayed in Sanaa, believed to be a ploy pushed by Saudi authorities to get Buthaina in the custody of relatives more likely to comply with the Saudi narrative of redemption after the air strike that killed Buthaina’s family.

Mere days after being taken to Saudi Arabia, Ali said that he was pressured by Saudi authorities to meet with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman so that the Saudi royal could be photographed with Buthaina, but that upon arriving at the royal court in Jeddah, he was told by Saudi Health Minister Tawfiq al-Rabiah that the meeting with the prince was cancelled "until I was psychologically prepared" to comply.

Waleed, Buthaina’s uncle left in Sanaa, said he received threatening messages from unknown people calling on him to end his campaign for the release of his family in Riyadh. He told MEE that he was abducted on 9 January 2018 from Sanaa for five days before being taken to an area of Hodeidah after what he said was a botched attempt at taking him to Saudi Arabia.

Buthaina and her uncle Ali al-Raimi, pictured here in Sanaa, said they spent more than a year under house arrest in Riyadh (MEE/Naseh Shaker)

Until July 2018, Ali told MEE, Saudi authorities kept pressuring him to stop posting videos about what had happened to Buthaina’s family in the air strike and the family’s ongoing situation in Saudi Arabia, to meet with the Yemeni government in exile in Riyadh and to hand Buthaina over to her maternal uncle.

That month, Ali went to a meeting with the Special Saudi Committee on Yemen Affairs - including, he said, committee head Mohammed al-Qahtani and his deputy Nasser al-Otaibi - and Buthaina’s maternal uncle, but never returned. His family desperately asked for help from NGOs to locate his whereabouts, to no avail.

Ali told MEE that he got involved in a fistfight during the meeting and was taken to al-Haair prison in Riyadh, where he was not allowed to call his family for months, save for one call to his mother in Yemen.

Meanwhile, Ali's wife, children and Buthaina remained under arrest in a house for three more months, Ali’s 12-year-old son Moayad said.

"I am supposed to have finished fourth grade, but I am still a third grader since I received no education in Riyadh," the boy told MEE.

We knew they were coming to take Buthaina

- Moayad al-Raimi, Buthaina’s 12-year-old cousin

“I felt like I was in prison,” Buthaina told MEE of her life in Riyadh, saying that she wanted to attend school and play with other children, but was prevented from doing so.

Buthaina and Moayad posted a video on Facebook in August calling for Ali’s release and their return to Yemen. In the video, the two children quoted one of the early caliphs of Islam, Omar bin al-Khattab: "How could man enslave his fellow man when he was born free?"

Moayad said they refused to open the door of their hotel room to anyone, even for Buthaina’s maternal uncle.

"We knew they were coming to take Buthaina," he said.

The family would get food and necessities thrown over the wall surrounding the house courtyard since they refused to let either the Saudi guards or their uncle in, until 5 October, when it was stormed.

Deteriorating conditions

That day, Moayad said he headed out into the yard to take the food that had been thrown inside the compound when seven Saudi women, who had presumably climbed over the courtyard wall, grabbed him.

The women, who entered the house first as it remains a taboo in Saudi Arabia for men to enter a home without a man present, then broke into the the house and allowed Saudi forces from the General Investigation Directorate on the premises - as well as Otaibi, the Special Saudi Committee on Yemen Affairs deputy head, and Buthaina’s uncle.

We lived in Riyadh as if we were alone in this world

- Moayad al-Raimi

They confiscated the Raimis’ mobile phones, cutting off contact with their uncle Waleed in Sanaa, and moved them back to a hotel.

"We lived in Riyadh as if we were alone in this world, with no education, no neighbours," Moayad said.

Waleed said he tried and failed to contact human rights organisations about his family’s plight, believing the raid happened because of Moayad and Buthaina’s August video.

Cut off from the world in the hotel for two months, the Raimis received a call in the hotel on 17 December: Ali was going to be released and they would be returning to Yemen.

Return to Yemen

While his nieces and nephews were languishing in a Saudi hotel, Waleed al-Raimi finally obtained help from a local organisation, which put him in touch with a Houthi representative in charge of prisoner swaps.

Just as Houthi rebels and Hadi supporters were set to meet for peace talks in Sweden, Houthi representative for prisoner affairs Abdulqader al-Mortadha announced on social media on 13 December that Buthaina, Ali and his family had been included in a list of Yemenis the Houthis were demanding to be released by Saudi authorities as part of a prisoner exchange deal.

“We were following the videos that were posted by Buthaina demanding their release," Mortadha told MEE. “But because there had been no mediation between us and Saudi Arabia (prior to the Sweden talks), demanding Buthaina’s release had been at a standstill."

While the agreements reached in the December talks seem to be under threat as tensions persisted between warring parties, Ali was released from prison and sent directly to the airport, where he, Buthaina, and the rest of their family flew to Yemen on 19 December, finally returning to Sanaa on 20 December.

For Waleed, the release of the Raimis would not have happened if not for the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi on 2 October, as he told MEE he believed Saudi Arabia was afraid that Buthaina’s case would bring further scrutiny to the country right as it was undergoing a severe public image crisis.

The uncle went on to compare a photo taken by the King Salman Humanitarian Aid and Relief Centre back in September 2017 - before the young girl and her family were taken to Saudi Arabia - showing Buthaina touching the Saudi flag to one of Khashoggi’s son shaking hands with Mohammed bin Salman.

From left, Waleed, Buthaina, Ali, Hadeel, Maeen and Moayad al-Raimi pray over the graves of Buthaina's family on 1 January 2019 (MEE/Naseh Shaker)

Finally back in Yemen after more than a year, Buthaina was able to mourn at her family’s gravesite, praying for revenge against those who killed her relatives.

"I miss my brother Ammar," she said, recalling how she used to play with him on his bicycle.

The young girl says she wants to become a doctor when she grows up.

In the meantime, she continues to live with her uncle Ali and his family, with whom she has gone through so much.

“I treat her as one of my own, no question about this,” Ali said.

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

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