Yemen: choosing guns over food
“You’re a man when you get your first gun”, stated Mugemmel, a businessman in the Mathbeh area of Sana’a.
In a country where nearly half the citizens live on less than two dollars a day, Yemen has the second most heavily armed population in the world, according to the Yemen Armed Violence Assessment. The Small Arms Survey reports an average civilian casualty rate of about 4000 people per year due to gun violence. With an armed insurrection in the Sa’ada region, a growing southern secessionist movement, Al-Qaeda control of two southern cities and the recent toppling of Yemen’s former President, Ali Abdullah Saleh, critics of Yemen’s gun culture point to the destabilizing consequences of a population possessing 61 guns per 100 people.
It can be argued that gun violence is hardly the most pressing issue facing this country, which is the only Arab nation to rank on the United Nation’s list of LDC’s (Least Developed Countries) and is currently ranked as the 161st poorest country in the world. Whether one is for more or less restrictions on weapons, all sides largely agree that the Yemeni love of guns isn’t waning.
Isolated for centuries after the rule of the Ottoman Empire, Yemen was and largely still is a tribal society with dwindling natural resources, which is contributing to a rise in tribal conflicts. Sana’a is predicted to be the first capital in the world to run out of water. Add Kalashnikovs, M60s and RPGs to this equation and the competition for increasingly limited resources means tribal conflicts can have disastrous consequences. In 2008, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees estimated there to be about 77,000 IDPs, or internally displaced persons, as a result of hostilities between the armed Houthi rebels and Yemeni forces.
Cold war satellites; the two Yemens
Following a successful Yemeni rebellion, the British ended their occupation of Aden in 1967. South Yemen formally declared independence and adopted a communist system of governance in 1970, aligning closely with China and the Soviet Union. Following a policy of containing communism, the United States and Saudi Arabia provided funding and intelligence support to North Yemen, which used much of its aid to heavily invest in arms. South Yemen was flooded with Soviet-style weaponry, with Kalashnikovs remaining the weapon of choice. The Cold War between the world’s two super powers resulted in a proxy war in Yemen with large numbers of weapons entering both the north and south. A parallel can be drawn between this proxy war and current Iranian-US hostilities, with the United States heavily funding and training the Yemeni military in order to wipe out Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and Iranians allegedly funding activists from the southern movement to gain influence in the region, according to a recent Guardian newspaper article.
A Yemeni Tradition
Yemen’s strong tribal culture and weak central government has translated into a large degree of tribal autonomy over many areas of life, including defense of territory and resources which necessitates owning weapons. However, gun culture isn’t exclusively a result of defense priorities. Guns have joined jambiyas as markers of social status and prestige, with jambiyas ranging in price from $4 Chinese-made daggers with plastic handles to former President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s rumored million dollar jambiya made out of rare (and illegal) rhino horn. Similarly, an ‘Israeli’ or ‘Chinese’ Kalashnikov (120,000-180,000 YR) is less impressive than a ‘Russian’ Kalashnikov or M60 (350,000 YR). Bullets cost from 170 to 250 YR each. The three most popular underground markets for gun purchases are in Sa’ada, Al Jinnah and Houssoun al Jillal.
Over a cola and fries, Hatem, an arms dealer in Sana’a, explains that, “A man will die of hunger before he sells his gun. It’s like a child to him.” Indeed, it’s not unusual for men to come in and buy guns as gifts for their newborn sons. Many Yemeni men receive their first gun when they’re 14 to 15, but it’s not unusual to see boys as young as 10 or 11 walking around with one slung over their shoulders, particularly in the villages. Many are taught to shoot by their fathers or older brothers, but Mugemmel reports that he taught himself how to shoot, taking his father’s gun when he was about 12 and shooting at ordinary objects around his village. The tradition continues, as he recently bought his 12-year-old son a gun.
While Hatem has never sold a weapon to a woman directly, nor seen one publicly packing, he reports that some men do buy guns for their wives and teach them how to shoot, particularly in the villages. “So that they can protect themselves if the man’s away,” he says.
Child possession of guns predictably results in many accidental deaths each year. Hatem shares a story of a family friend who bought his son a gun. While the child was playing around with it, he accidentally shot and killed his own father. “There are many stories such as these in Yemen. Children don’t always know what they’re doing.”
The gun culture differs not only from village to city, but from city to city. Prior to the Yemeni revolution a year and half ago, Taiz, the intellectual center of Yemen, was known as a city with little enthusiasm for guns. It currently exercises a policy of seizing any publicly visible guns and destroying them.
Guns: Protector of Civil Rights?
Abdulghader, a man who works at a construction firm in Sana’a, explains that the growing call for gun eradication emanates from Taiz, with their “seize and destroy” policy. However Abdulsalim, who works in an Arabic language school, disagrees that the government should, or even could, disarm the population, “A friend from Egypt once told me that we Yemeni’s are quite fortunate. In Egypt the government can come to your house in the middle of the night, break down your door, and take you away. In Yemen, the government knows that the people are armed. If a police officer or soldier tries to force his way into someones home, he’ll be shot dead.”
“Yemenis are a peaceful people, gun violence resulting from disputes is relatively low here. It’s important that people can protect themselves, especially from the government,” he added.