In the mountains of Yemen, a strange and deadly face-off between elite soldiers and rebellious villagers could have big international consequences.
- By Joe Sheffer<p> Joe Sheffer is a freelance journalist and videographer who contributed to the Guardian newspaper and other international titles from Sanaa for nearly 18 months. He has recently moved to Kabul, Afghanistan. </p>
BANI JORMOOZ, Yemen — All that remains of nine-year-old Fawaz al-Husn’s left leg is a tightly bandaged stump that ends somewhere above where his knee once was. His right leg was also crushed in the blast, which erupted when he stepped on an anti-personnel landmine near his home in al-Khabsha village, less than 20 miles north of the Yemeni capital, Sanaa.
Fawaz had followed one of his sheep onto farmland that abuts a government military facility near the village when the mine went off on April 12. "The soldiers from the base’s towers watched me" on the ground, he says. "They were afraid to come and help."
It fell to the boy’s neighbor, Mohammed Yahya, to pull Fawaz from the field. He heard the explosion and came running toward the blast. Fawaz’s uncle managed to slow the bleeding with a tourniquet as they rushed him to a Sanaa hospital in the back of a pickup truck. He was drifting in and out of consciousness.
Fawaz is the latest — and the third member of his extended family — to fall victim to a landmine explosion since 2011 in Bani Jormooz, a district just north of Sanaa. In the midst of the Arab Spring uprising that gripped the country in 2011, members of Yemen’s 63rd and 81st Republican Guard units laid approximately 8,000 fresh landmines in the area, their immediate commanders later admitted in mediation sessions with villagers — an act that clearly violates the international Anti-Personnel Mine Ban Treaty to which Yemen is a signatory. At the time, Ahmed Ali Saleh, son of the country’s yet-to-be ousted President Ali Abdullah Saleh, was the head of all Republican Guard units.
Villagers say the mines were laid on 19 separate sites across tracts of farmland and in desert wadis surrounding two key military bases in Bani Jormooz. They also claim the mines — laid mostly in areas of non-strategic importance such as vineyards — were intended as a form of collective punishment after armed local tribesmen overran the base and harassed soldiers loyal to the regime, killing the 63rd Republican Guard’s Commander Ahmed Kolabi.
A spokesperson for Yemen’s Interior Ministry confirmed that the government is aware of the allegations made against the Republican Guard units in Bani Jormooz, and that an investigation is taking place alongside a mediation process between locals and military commanders. The Republican Guard declined to comment on the allegations for this article.
The origin of the tension between the community in Bani Jormooz and the Republican Guard unit is disputed, although the presence of the two large bases in the area has always been a point of contention for local farmers who claim that the army is occupying their land. In the spring of 2011, the conflict escalated after residents prevented Yemen’s 1st Infantry Brigade, commanded by another of the former president’s sons, Khaled Ali Abdullah Saleh, from using the road running across the district to move troops from Sanaa to suppress revolutionaries in the country’s east.
Ali Muhsin Al-Khabsha, a truck driver from Bani Jormooz, claims that tribesman made "a promise not to allow any military forces to move across our land, after we were outraged by the massacre of protesters on the 18th of March in Sanaa in which 45 of our brothers were martyred." Another man, Fares Ahmed Al-Dahrah, who lives a stone’s throw from the base, said that after the road was blocked, the water tanks in the village were repeatedly shot at and drained by small arms fire as punishment for the community’s disobedience.
A series of clashes between local tribesman — armed with small arms and rocket-propelled grenades — and the army ensued, eventually escalating into a small-scale war. Between June and September 2011, the army deployed tanks and Katyusha rockets against rebellious villagers — and it was at this point that the minefields were sown.
The mountainous region of Bani Jormooz is of enormous strategic importance to the government because it controls the airspace needed to land planes in the capital city’s only airport. Making matters worse, the area is known for its fiercely independent tribes, lawlessness, and frequent incidences of kidnapping.
Regardless of the circumstances, accusations of mine use in 2011 mean that Yemen’s government could garner the dubious accolade of being the first state signatory of the Mine Ban Treaty caught laying anti-personnel mines.
According to Steve Goose, director of Human Rights Watch’s Arms Division, such a revelation would have "huge implications for the state of the treaty," which has been hailed as a rare example of a cohesive international treaty widely observed by its members.
"If true, this would be the most serious violation of the treaty ever, and the first time use by a state would have been confirmed. How the government of Yemen and other state parties react to this will be crucial to the long-term integrity of the treaty," says Goose.
The allegations against Yemen’s government come just days before delegates from the 161 state signatories to the Mine Ban Treaty are scheduled to meet in Geneva to assess its implementation.
During a visit to Bani Jormooz in April, residents produced bags of mines recovered from the ground using rudimentary methods. They included four different types of anti-personnel mines, including large numbers of Hungarian manufactured GYATA-64 type mines, known to be among the most powerful anti-personnel devices ever manufactured. Locals also produced plastic East German PPM2 mines and two variations of Soviet wooden PMD-5 landmines — all were manufactured before the end of the Cold War.
Yemen laid thousands of anti-personnel mines during its various periods of civil strife in the second half of the 20th century. But in 1997, the country signed the mine ban treaty, pledging to abandon the practice, and in 2002 it declared that it had destroyed its landmine stockpiles — a claim which will likely now be disputed. Yemen legally retained 3,760 landmines for "training" purposes under the Mine Ban Treaty, but none of the mines seen in Bani Jormooz was of the types listed in the country’s declared inventory.
More than two years after the uprising toppled Saleh’s government, Bani Jormooz still appears to be paying the price for its disloyalty in 2011. In July 2012, a government demining team from Sanaa was actually turned back by troops stationed in Bani Jormooz. According to the region’s tribal sheikh, Naseeb al-Khabsha, "There was an agreement, truce, and acknowledgment from the Republican Guards that mines had been laid and the rough numbers of the devices confirmed… but when the survey team arrived they were told at gunpoint to leave." The base’s commander, Ahmad al-Jackee, refused to remove the mines because he claimed they were "necessary for the base’s protection," according to Khabsha.
Even if the Republican Guards were moved to demine the fields, it’s not clear they would know where to start. Adel Amir al-Hosn, a former grape and qat farmer who witnessed the explosion that maimed Fawaz, says the military planted the devices on his land without a clear plan. Whether they would even be able to locate the mines now is anybody’s guess.
"The mines were laid hastily in soft sand in the dry river beds and in ploughed fields. Many have shifted after the rains and are now scattered across the land after the flooding. Many are no longer where they were placed," says Hosn, who claims that three members of the Republican Guard were injured in an accidental landmine explosion last year.
Shiekh Khabsha, for his
part, has little faith that the responsible commanders will be brought to justice.
"We’re just looking for three things. Compensation for the victims of the mines, clearance of remaining minefields, and the removal of remaining Republican Guard posts from our land," he said.
"This nightmare has been running for nearly two whole years now. Farmers can’t farm their land, and people can’t grow their food. There is a new government in Sanaa; let them show that this is a new beginning."