Landmine clearance remains difficult amid ongoing tension

Published on 16 March 2015 in Report
Ali Aboluhom (author)

Ali Aboluhom

Different types of landmines and explosive devices, referred to as explosive remnants of war (ERW)

Different types of landmines and explosive devices, referred to as explosive remnants of war (ERW)

Osama Mohammad, six, was playing with other children in front of his home in Sana’a’s Hasaba neighborhood in late 2011, when he stepped on a land mine that detonated, causing permanent damage to his left leg which later had to be amputated.

Osama is a victim of the six month conflict that erupted between fighters loyal to the powerful Al-Ahmar tribal family and the Republican Guards run by Ahmed Saleh, son of former President Ali Abdullah Saleh, following the outbreak of the country’s 2011 uprising. The conflict ended in November 2011 following the GCC initiative that forced Saleh from the presidency.

Many locals caught up in the conflict, including Osama’s family, fled their homes for other areas throughout the country. They returned following Saleh’s resignation and the cessation of hostilities in the area.

Now many locals complain that land mines, allegedly planted in Hasaba by the Al-Ahmar family to prevent Saleh’s guards from sweeping into the area, continue to pose a threat to those living in the neighborhood.

According to Osama’s uncle Mansour, four years on and Osama is still suffering from psychological trauma as a result of his disability. However, as yet his family has been unable to receive assistance from the government or any other groups to help treat his condition. The constant state of strife the country has been undergoing since the uprising has made it difficult for such residents to even have their case heard.

“Osama is a victim of conflict that took place between warring political factions,” Mansour told the Yemen Times. “However, we’ve been unable to sue or seek any reparations, as we don’t know which government body to hold responsible.”

One of the outcomes of the National Dialogue Conference’s (NDC) Transitional Justice Working Group, concluded in January 2014, is to provide reparations to victims of the 2011 uprising. Due to a lack of resources and capacity, the government has been unable to provide for all of those who have suffered in one way or another.

Shatha Harazi, rapporteur of the Transitional Justice Working Group, admitted to the Yemen Times that not much discussion surrounding the issue of land mines had taken place during NDC meetings. “There were suggestions that parties to various conflicts cooperate with the state and provide maps detailing places where they were aware that mines had been placed,” she said. “However, few of these groups were willing to admit that they had taken part in such activities.”

The government is no more equipped now than it was then to hold any groups accountable, according to Basem Al-Hakimi, a representative of independent youth groups at the NDC. “The recent takeover of Sana’a by the Houthi movement, and the subsequent resignation of the Hadi government, has further prevented any of the parties to the NDC from living up to their obligations,” Al-Hakimi said. “They’ve all been too concerned with mere survival.”

The Yemen Times spoke with Mohammad Al-Bukhaiti, a member of the Houthi Political Office in Sana’a, regarding the group’s potential to help fill the gap since its rise to power in Sana’a and other parts of the country. However, the likelihood that the Houthis, also known as Ansar Allah, would be able or willing to plug such gaps is unlikely, he said.

“Deactivating mines and other ERWs [explosive remnants of war] requires technical expertise that the Houthis simply do not possess,” he said. “This is the responsibility of state bodies; we [Ansar Allah] have nothing to do with this process. However we haven’t prevented these bodies from working effectively to perform their duties. According to the Yemen Executive Mine Action Center (YEMAC), a local NGO established in 1998 that seeks to locate, identify and deactivate mines still active throughout the country, 4,000 victims of mine attacks were recorded in Yemen in the period from 1962 to 2000, the year the group conducted its most recent survey.

“Between 2000 and 2011, 243,000 mines or explosive remnants of war have been destroyed,” according to Ali Abdul Raqeeb, YEMAC’s deputy manager. “Since 2011, we’ve recorded 63 victims, most of whom are adults,” while YEMAC has identified and destroyed an additional 13,670 ERWs, he said.

In June 2014, YEMAC began its second survey, which remains underway. The current survey seeks to register cases in areas affected by more recent conflicts, such as those that have taken place in governorates affected by war between the government and groups such as Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and the Houthis, in governorates such as Sa’ada, Amran, Sana’a and Abyan.

However, Raqeeb admitted, “The true scope of the problem is likely much larger than we’ve been able to measure, perhaps fourfold,” he said. “The total figure now is hard to know.”

The use of mines by combatants was first introduced to Yemen in 1962, during the revolution against the country’s Imamate in the north that lasted until 1967, according to Raqeeb. “Tensions between the north and south in the 1970’s and 80’s exacerbated the problem,” he said. “Particularly in the governorates of Al-Baida, Ibb, and Al-Dhale, located along the border of the former republics of North and South Yemen.”

According to Ahmed Alawi, YEMAC’s chief information officer, the Al-Sadda and Al-Nadera districts of Ibb governorate were the most affected by mines during the protracted conflict. However, despite the many conflicts between different warring groups throughout the country since then, civilians remain the largest victims, he added.

Since the group’s first survey was conducted in 2000, YEMAC has been working on deactivating mines in all affected governorates, however this has been hampered by the constant conflict the country has witnessed.

The first phase of the deactivation process is the conducting of “non-technical surveys,” according to Alawi. This consists of questionnaires being handed out to people in affected areas asking whether or not they are aware of the specific locations of any mines.

This is followed by a “technical survey” or “purging process,” in which modern mine detecting technology is used to determine the specific locations of ERWs and then deactivate them.

“The second process is lengthy, and can often take months,” explained Alawi. “It’s a dangerous process which requires that our officers are careful and accurate in order to avoid becoming casualties themselves, which has happened in the past.”

Areas affected by the most recent conflict are the last to be targeted, according to Alawi. The Arhab and Bani Hushaish districts are some of the most affected in Sana’a governorate, for example, due to ongoing clashes between Houthi and Islah supporters in the area. However, YEMAC has been unable as yet to conduct surveys and sweeps in these areas. “Most of our current work remains in relatively stable governorates, such as Ibb and Al-Dhale,” Alawi said.

YEMAC has also developed a rehabilitation department, dedicated to providing assistance in the form of crutches and prosthetic limbs to those who have been affected. “We’ve done our best to encourage those affected to register their names with our center so they can be provided with such aid,” Alawi said.

Osama and others in the capital’s Hasaba neighborhood are among those who have been provided for, he said. He admits that YEMAC has been unable to reach many of those in the most affected governorates.

Mansour Hussein, 42, a local from Abyan governorate’s Jar district, fled the area in late 2011 following fighting between the government and AQAP. “We returned a year later when the fighting had subsided,” and it was then that he stepped on a mine located next to his home that had been planted when he and others in the area fled.

Hussein’s injuries have prevented him from working and being able to provide for his family, he said, and government aid has not been forthcoming. “We’re totally reliant on aid from local NGOs, individual donors and tribal figures,” he added. “The area is still almost as dangerous as before, only now there’s much more uncertainty.”