Planting death: Yemen's landmine crisis

Planting death: Yemen's landmine crisis
In-depth: Yemen is in the grip of a landmine crisis which has claimed more than 900 civilian lives.
4 min read
Yemeni children undergo amputations after landmine blasts, if not killed in the explosion [Getty]
"At 7:00 am we heard the sound of a big explosion," said Yahya al-Sharif, a villager from Shaab al-Hashfa'a, in Yemen's Marib governorate.  

"I rushed towards the smoke in the valley and, when I arrived, I found my wife crying and embracing my two children, Nashmi and Rowaida - they were injured but still alive. 

"My other son's body - Ahmed's - was stained with blood, and wounds were visible on his face. He was dead."

Yahya lost two children on the morning of May 21, 2016. His last surviving son lost his right eye and had to be treated in neighbouring Saudi Arabia. 

Landmines are responsible for the deaths of 615 people in Yemen, and the injury of a further 924, since the government started recording mine-related casualties in 2015.

Between March and September 2016, more than 2,000 mines were extracted from previously rebel-held areas in some 16 governorates, reportedly amounting to a total of six tons of metal - according to Colonel Taher Hamid, head of the government's demining program in Taiz.

"Mines have been laid in schools, hospitals, at the entrance of villages, in wells to poison the water, and in fields to spoil any food supplies," said Hamid.

"They are planting death."

And the number of mines removed is just a drop in the ocean compared with the vast amount of mines still out there. According to Mohamed Askar, Yemen's human rights minister, there are an estimated 250,000 mines in Yemen - 100,000 of them in Taiz alone.

Mines extracted in Taiz governorate
[Photo provided by Colonel Taher Hamid]
Read more - Taiz: Life and death in Yemen's theatre of war

A recent report by the Mwatana Organization for Human Rights, a Yemeni NGO, claims that Houthi rebels and forces loyal to ousted president Ali Abdullah Saleh are targeting civilians with mines upon their retreat.

"Civilians complained that the mines had been planted at the entrances to their homes, which they considered as an act of targeting them because of their refusal to join or support the fighting," reads the report.

The targeting of civilians is a war crime, as is the use of anti-personnel landmines. Yemen banned the use of landmines in 1998, but did not take any steps to destroy its old stock, as required by international law. 

Around 200 of the extracted mines that Hamid's team found in the field were part of old stock controlled by Saleh's Presidential Guard. Some were of German origin, dating back to the Second World War - but the majority of mines were produced in Yemen. 

Houthi rebels have been trained by Iran to convert old shells into mines, said Colonel Hamid. These Yemeni-made mines range between 10 and 250 kilograms.

One example of the effects of these landmines, said Hamid, was the story of a young child who was riding a donkey near his house.

His parents were unable to distinguish the body parts of their son from those of the donkey - the explosion reducing both child and beast to tiny fragments.

Taiz, the third-largest city in Yemen and one of the epicentres of the conflict, is so heavily mined that government forces still haven't been able to clear a 30km-square area.

A mined area in Taiz
[Photo provided by Colonel Taher Hamid]

Some two tons of Korean anti-naval bombs-turned-mines - "a disastrous amount of explosives" - were cleared from the gronds of Taiz University.

Medecins Sans Frontieres reported a case of a nine-year old boy who stepped on a landmine while herding sheep near Taiz:

"His body arrived in pieces. Both his legs were separated from the torso by the blast. He must have been killed instantly."

Mwatana has verified 33 separate incidents which have killed 57 civilians, of which 24 were children.

Weam AbdulMalik, a journalist at Post, an online Yemeni publication, said the internationally recognized government was focusing on central areas and major cities such as Taiz and Sanaa - but that equally mine-plagued zones elsewhere were not receiving the same attention.

Retreating Houthis and pro-Saleh forces planted marine mines along 200km of Red Sea coastline to target ships from the Saudi-led coalition, but innocent fishermen are the ones detonating them.

Seven fishermen died this way on March 27, while fishing off the coast. Other mines float on the sea surface, and tides can easily lead them astray, causing even more indiscriminate damage.

War crimes in Yemen are not exclusive to the Houthi-Saleh alliance. The Saudi Arabian-led military coalition has carried out attacks on civilians and civilian targets in Yemen that "may amount to war crimes", according to UN experts. Saudi Arabia has denied the accusations.

Humanitarian organisations are meanwhile calling for an independent international investigation of all human rights violations committed by all parties to the current conflict in Yemen.

Gehad Quisay is a history and politics researcher, having graduated from SOAS and Georgetown University. She has also worked as a researcher at a London based think-tank focusing on post-Arab Spring nation building.

Paola Tamma is a freelance investigative journalist who recently graduated from City University, London. She is currently researching Yemeni issues and society. Follow her on Twitter: @paola_tamma