Abdul Rahman Ahmed entered the border governorate of Saada on March 26 after returning from Saudi Arabia, where he had worked in a restaurant for four years to support his family of nine. He stopped working on March 15, after the country announced a partial curfew to combat COVID-19, and restaurants were restricted to takeout orders only.
On his way home to the governorate of Rima, Abdul Rahman was taken by surprise when he was transferred to a quarantine station at a military post, located in a school building in Bani Ayyash. The place was crowded and had no beds, so he was forced to sleep on the floor without a blanket.
By the third day, 100 people were quarantined in the building. The guards informed them that they would be transferred to quarantine in the Ehma al-Talh school in the Sahar District.
Abdul Rahman found the new quarantine station at the school even more crowded, and the conditions worse. Over 20 people sat in one room, and more than 150 people used one bathroom, with water provided from open ponds surrounding the school.
"They gave us polluted water, showing impurities from the water well," Abdul Rahman recalls, adding that dust, insects and plastic waste were scattered on the windowsills, in the corridors and in the courtyard of the building.
Most of the response and health team members in the quarantine station mixed with the occupants without wearing masks or gloves, or using sterilizers. On top of that, the quarantined were mixed with new arrivals without isolation or sterilization procedures. They were also allowed to go out to the neighbouring markets for three hours a day, starting from 1 p.m., to buy food and water, since this was not available in the quarantine station.
Abdul Rahman, only 23 years old, asserts that he would not have minded adhering to the quarantine if beds and meals were provided, and preventive measures followed.
"I was in prison, without food or drink. Their treatment was humiliating, as if I was not human," he says.
Abdul Rahman decided to escape two days after his arrival in the quarantine station. A member of the response team helped him organize his escape by issuing him a discharge note.
Abdul Rahman is only one of 16 cases monitored by the reporter who escaped, or were allowed to leave the isolation centres and health quarantine stations of the internationally-recognized Yemeni government –– or of the Houthis (de facto authority in Sana'a) –– after paying sums of money to obtain discharge notes, or facilitating their exit without precautionary checks.
These people left mandatory quarantine after colluding with members of response, medical or military teams in isolation centres and quarantine stations, or through people who knew the workers inside these centres and stations. These acts are all in violation of Public Health Law No. 4 of 2009, which stipulates in Article 11, “to isolate those infected with epidemiological diseases, providing them with the necessary health care, and subjecting the suspected cases to health protection."
Quarantine stations differ from epidemiological isolation centres. Quarantine stations are facilities that restrict the movement of people coming from pandemic-affected areas, and are suspected of having an infectious disease but do not show symptoms. Isolation centres restrict the movement of people with infection, or highly suspected cases, to help reduce the spread of the virus.
Abdul Rahman presented a picture to the reporter showing the actual date of his entry into quarantine, and compared this to the discharge note issued for him with an old entry date; clarifying that he spent only two days quarantining in the Sahar District.
He says the response team member offered to organize his escape from day one. When he decided to escape, he paid 200 Saudi riyals. On that same day, the response team member presented him with a discharge note and, with his private vehicle, transported him and five others previously in quarantine to Saada city in the evening. Abdul Rahman paid him 300 Saudi riyals in Saada, travelled to Sana'a, and from there travelled to his family in the Rima governorate.
Youssef al-Hadhiri, spokesperson for the Ministry of Public Health and Population of the Houthi Authority, admits that there have been escapes from the authority's health quarantines in Sana'a, but did not specify numbers due to the lack of statistics. Al-Hadhiri says that security authorities have caught many escapees after being reported by citizens, and workers in quarantine stations have been arrested for their involvement in the smuggling process. These workers were held accountable according to Public Health Law No. 4 of 2009, in which the penalty may reach five years in prison or a fine of up to three million riyals.
Dr. Ishraq al-Sebaei, spokesperson for the Supreme National Emergency Committee in the recognized government, says that the committee monitored escapes from isolation centres and quarantines who were obliged to self-quarantine at home by the committee's monitoring team. She said these cases did not return to the isolation and quarantine centres due to their bad psychological state.
One escape story that spread on social media is that of Bassam Sultan, a 35-year-old from Taiz. The Supreme National Emergency Committee reported that Bassam was infected with COVID-19 on May 6, and was placed in the isolation centre of the Republican Hospital.
"They treated me brutally, as if I had committed a crime. I was not given food and my brother provided it for me from a nearby restaurant," he says.
Three days later, Bassam was transferred to the Shfak Medical Centre, designated by the local authorities to isolate people with COVID-19.
Bassam says that he slept without a blanket and was not given enough food. The announcement of his name as the second case of COVID-19 in the Taiz governorate caused him and his family public insult, he says. Another three days later, Bassam managed to escape with the help of a health worker at the centre, before the Public Health and Population Office in the Taiz Governorate announced the news of his escape.
Abdul Mughni Al-Masni, technical director of the centre, says that the harsh treatment Bassam complained of was due to requirement of “social distancing” from the health team, exemplified by wearing masks and protective clothing, not touching him, and asking him to stay in the isolation room without an escort. He adds that any other allegations made by Bassam are untrue and merely justifications for his escape. He admits that the escape incident was unexpected, and that the guard measures to prevent it were not sufficient.
As monitored by the investigative reporter and the SAM Organization for Rights and Liberties, and according to the testimonies of four members of the response teams, escape cases appeared repeatedly in five governorates, including Hadramawt (through the Al-Wadiah border crossing), Saada, al-Bayda, Rima and al-Jawf. Occasional escape cases were also monitored in four other governorates, namely: Sana'a, Taiz, Aden and Hajjah. The sums paid in escape operations ranged between 200 and 3,000 Saudi riyals, and the reasons for escaping varied: from fear of contracting COVID-19 inside the health quarantines due to lack of precaution, to fear of being transferred to isolation centres in the event of infection, to the lack of basic services such as food, areas for sleeping and toilets.
The SAM Organization for Rights and Liberties has documented more than 40 escape cases from quarantines. The organization's president, Tawfiq al-Hamidi, says that the war in Yemen and the "absence of the state as a functioning institution" rendered many of the announced measures to combat COVID-19 ineffective. He adds that in Radaa, for example, there was no quarantine in a technical sense, but rather a large courtyard in the College of Education and Administrative Sciences, which was easy to enter and exit: "Whoever pays a sum of money can get out. Quarantines were more used for extortion and collecting money, than for actual health quarantines.”
One of SAM Organization’s monitors in the Radaa quarantine, whose name is not disclosed for security reasons, says that the quarantine station accommodated more than 3,000 people who suffered from lack of food supplies. He says that the women did not find places to sleep, nor toilets to use, and that the quarantine station was a "market" frequented by sellers, adding, “To be in such circumstances, and to have the ability to escape –– it is very natural to do so, especially since being in that place was more harmful than useful.”
SAM Organization and the investigative reporter reviewed photos and videos taken by occupants of the quarantine station in Radaa, which revealed dozens of people sleeping in the courtyard of the college. They also reviewed testimonies of occupants saying that they were not getting consistent meals, and that there was a lack of preventive and precautionary measures, including uncleanliness in toilets and random entries of street vendors into the quarantine station.
One of the reasons for escaping was the fear of being transferred to isolation centres, which saw high numbers of deaths. The Al-Amal isolation centre in the Aden Governorate, for example, was formerly designated for the treatment of COVID-19 patients. On May 6, and until the end of July, Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) in Yemen took over the management of Al-Amal isolation centre from the local authority in Aden, due to the inability of the latter to control the virus. MSF received 279 cases between April 30 and May 31, of whom 143 died.
Dr. Zakaria al-Quaiti, director of the Medical and Health Facilities Department of the Health Office in Aden and director of the Epidemiological Isolation Centre at Al-Amal Hospital, spoke about deficiencies in supporting the health quarantines financially and logistically. He says that there were instances of patients escaping from the centre due to negligence, and failure of organization and planning inside the centre: "Most of the patients came on foot, and left as dead bodies. That is why escapes happened."
Asaad al-Burai, 31-years-old, accompanied by more than 45 people, left through the al-Wadiah border crossing with Saudi Arabia after the Supreme National Emergency Committee announced the temporary opening of the crossing to the 200 passengers stranded at the Yemeni-Saudi border. Before opening the crossing, the committee said that it had completed necessary medical preparations, including a laboratory and a medium-care unit, and said that all stranded people would undergo medical isolation before leaving for their homes.
Asaad did not witness any of these facilities. After his arrival at the crossing, a group of soldiers took passports and personal papers from him and others. They were escorted to the al-Tariq complex in al-Abr, identified as a health quarantine station. The soldiers in charge of the quarantine asked them to pay for accommodation and food, which sparked a wave of demonstrations and protests that led to the blockage of the main road. This persisted until a member of the 23 Mika Brigade arrived and instructed the soldiers to give the travellers their documents back, and allow them to pass and return to their homes without submitting to quarantine. The incident is documented by videos on social media, showing the protesters blocking the main road in the al-Abr area and then being allowed to return to their homes.
We contacted Dr. Khaled al-Moayad, director of Epidemic Control Department at the Ministry of Public Health and Population in Sana'a, and Mutlaq Al-Sayari, director of al-Wadiaa border crossing, along with his deputy, Ahmed al-Junaidi, to answer our questions about escapes and the conditions of isolation centres and quarantine stations in the governorates and border crossings. After many attempts, we did not receive any response or clarification.
Abdul Rahman arrived at his home in the Rima governorate. He was afraid that his family would catch the infection because of him. He thought about returning to one of the health quarantines near his village, but discovered that the quarantines did not have effective means of prevention and precaution. This was confirmed by three members of the emergency response team in the Ramaa area in the Rima Governorate. They informed him that the possibility of receiving an infected person could lead to the infection of everyone, including medical staff.
Between his fear of contracting the virus, and the poor state of the quarantine facilities that prompted him to escape, Abdul Rahman decided to stay at home. Sometimes he worries that the virus will infect one of his family members. At other times, he murmurs, "No one dies before their time.”