SANAA, Yemen — After a Saudi airstrike hit a residential apartment building in Sanaa in August 2017, 5-year old Buthaina Muhammad Mansour al-Raimi quickly became the public face of the humanitarian disaster unfolding in Yemen.
While at the hospital, pictures of her struggling to open her right eye, which was swollen shut from her injuries, went viral as social media users posted their own pictures imitating Buthaina. CNN covered her story, as did news outlets around the world.
The International Committee of the Red Cross condemned last year’s Aug. 25 attack that killed 16 people and injured 21 more as “outrageous,” and Saudi Arabia blamed the deadly strike, which killed Buthaina’s mother and father, all five of her siblings and an uncle, on a “technical mistake.”
While Buthaina’s case never attracted as much international coverage as that of Jamal Khashoggi, the Saudi journalist who was murdered and dismembered inside the Saudi consulate in Turkey, her image brought attention to the thousands of civilians who have died in the war. Saudi Arabia, which is leading a coalition involved in the Yemen conflict, says its goal is to dislodge the Houthi rebels who control large swaths of the country.
Now, over a year later, the Houthi government in Sanaa and members of Buthaina’s extended family are accusing Saudi authorities of kidnapping Buthaina in a bid to hide a powerful symbol of the war in Yemen, which has gone on for more than three years. While there is some dispute over who has legal guardianship of Buthaina, her family insists that no one agreed to send her to Saudi Arabia — which has led the military intervention in Yemen.
And her transfer to the Gulf kingdom appears to be anything but normal.
Buthaina’s journey to Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, started in September 2017, less than a month after the airstrike. According to an account provided to Yahoo News by Buthaina’s family members, Fudaad al-Mansoori, the head of a local nonprofit, approached Ali al-Raimi, an uncle who was caring for Buthaina, and proposed filming a documentary about the war in Yemen with the young girl in a leading role.
According to Waleed al-Raimi, Ali al-Raimi’s brother, they made the first shot on Sept. 20, 2017, in front of a now-demolished apartment building with Buthaina standing on the rubble along with other family members, and then went to the cemetery where Buthaina’s family members are buried.
The next day, they drove south to where similar bombings had taken place.
When the filming was finished, al-Mansoori suggested dinner at a restaurant even farther south, in an area that was not under Houthi control. Al-Mansoori drove in one car, and Ali al-Raimi in another with his wife, their three children, and Buthaina. As they approached their destination, some 16 armored vehicles blocked the road, according to the family’s account. Uniformed armed men surrounded the car and said they were from King Salman Humanitarian Aid and Relief Center, a charity created by the Saudi government to work in Yemen.
The men then asked Ali al-Raimi to come with Buthaina and his family to Riyadh, where she would receive treatment from the charity. When Ali al-Raimi declined, he and his family were forced into the armored vehicles and taken to Aden, then airlifted to Riyadh. From Aden, Ali al-Raimi managed to call a friend in Sanaa, asking him to alert his family that they had been kidnapped. From there, word spread quickly in Sanaa that Buthaina had been taken to Saudi Arabia.
Whether Ali al-Raimi or his family had some initial agreement with Saudi Arabia is in dispute. Al-Mansoori, the man accused of luring the family to the south, denies that he had any role in Buthaina’s alleged abduction and says that Ali al-Raimi had coordinated with the Saudi-led coalition. “He drove his car … some 500 km from Sanaa to Aden,” al-Mansoori said. “No sane person could imagine that someone lured a person through four provinces along with his wife and children, and his luggage, driving his own car and passing through Houthi-manned checkpoints and those manned by [Yemeni government] forces.”