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A Yemen Free of Arms…The Impossible Dream | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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Sanaa, Asharq Al-Awsat- In Yemen, weapons are considered the main cause of murder and terrorism. However, the heavy weapons that use to be on offer in markets are no longer available due to the government’s tough stand on this matter, which arms dealers in the country have resisted. However, you still can buy what you want from black market traders: Anti-aircraft missiles, cannons, offensive weapons, as well as artillery ammunition boxes. In the regions of the north that are beset by the Huthi rebellion and in the regions of the south that are the scene of armed attacks, many security men believe that arms dealers, both big and small, are fuelling infighting between Yemenis. This infighting is not only of a sectarian or political nature, but it is also about land, and it involves vendettas. It is a matter of killings and counter-killings, with more weapons and ammunitions bought and more gains for the traders.

Nonetheless, the governor of the capital Sanaa, Numan Duwayd, hopes that the measures taken by the government, civil organizations, and other circles will stem the phenomenon of Yemenis arming themselves and will put an end to the bad, fanatical infighting, as he put it. He stressed to Asharq Al-Awsat that shops where arms are bought and sold no longer have a free hand, and anyone working there now needs an individual, specific, government controlled license related to each items he offers for sale. The governor added: “In this respect, the state has imposed its control and power, and it can, at any time, close down any shop where a trader fails to abide by the terms of the license accorded to him.”

The 1992 law that regulates the possession of firearms and ammunitions and trading in them gives Yemenis the right to possess rifles and shotguns, as well as the necessary ammunition they need, for their personal use. But the problem raised by civilian organizations is over weapons that can still be acquired in villages and in other populated areas where the text of this law is not available.

The government made this difficult decision the year before last, and it has also carried out large-scale campaigns to stem the proliferation of weapons, in cooperation with human rights organizations and educated men in the country. However, this was met with invisible resistance by the big [arms]dealers, who some in Yemen believe are linked to law makers in Parliament, as well as to influential people in some government administrations. For several years, the government sought indirect help from human rights organizations and public figures to cooperate with it in doing away with the deadly habit of people resorting to the use of weapons in conflicts and disputes between individuals and political groups. In this connection, action has been taken for this purpose on several tracks, including the closing down of the arms market and of the shops that, for long years, used to offer for sale various small and medium-sized weapons and sometimes heavy ones, without any control or rules. The second measure, according to an official from the Yemeni Interior Ministry, was an awareness-raising drive to persuade people of the dangers of continuing with the heinous vendetta habit and to encourage them to call the police, who apply the law to anyone transgressing it. This is in addition to a large-scale propaganda campaign throughout the country showing the danger that acquiring arms represent to children and to future Yemeni generations.

Thousands of children have had their hands or feet severed due to infighting involving firearms, let alone others who have lost their lives or have become orphans, and many women have been widowed.

It is no longer possible for people carrying arms to enter towns and in this respect, the Yemeni official who spoke to Asharq Al-Awsat stated that this measure is in itself seen as an achievement because many tribal sheikhs were taken aback by it. But now they all understand the decision and its efficiency in maintaining security in towns where armed clashes cause victims among innocent people who, by chance, find themselves in areas where shots are fired.

Similar measures taken by the government and currently implemented include more taxes imposed on the arms trade, in order to curtail it. Also, the price of weapons has been increased so that not everyone can afford them anymore. Another program also being implemented concerns the purchase of weapons that get into the hands of citizens. These measures have angered deputies from the extremely conservative Muslim Brotherhood group, some tribes, as well as a number of senior civil servants close to the army and Interior Ministry barracks, which are often plundered, according to the same interior ministry official source.

The Sanaa governor, breathing a sigh of relief, added: “Now, there are no weapons market in the town of Sanaa. There used to be a weapons market here, but today there are no more unlicensed markets where weapons are sold; instead, there is a legitimate activity controlled by the government.”

For his part, an arms dealer in the north of Sanaa called Khalid, from the Khawalan tribe, does not hide the fact that since the closing down of the [illegal] arms trade shops in the middle of the year before last [ 2007], he has been incurring heavy losses. He stated: “No one comes to buy a weapon and leaves his name, address, and the type of weapon he buys; we sometimes deal with people who do not want to give details of their identity. Also, the sale of weapons authorized for sale like shotguns and Kalashnikov rifles does not bring much profit, particularly with the taxes imposed by the state on sales and the demand for an invoice for every weapon sold.”

This trader is working legally, and he is known to the rebels who have been fighting against the state in the North West of the country since 2004. He is using accessible mountainous areas planted with vine trees and Qatto hide the various types of arms he buys and sells to make a profit. This man used to manage a large shop in the old arms market, which was known as Hajanah and was located in the heart of the rebel area in Sa’dah governorate. However, given the conditions of the infighting with the government there he was obliged to move from one place to another and to run his business far away from any control. He pointed out: “The (rebel) Huthis ask for weapons, and traders from the south of Sanaa sell these weapons to them, but government measures entailed a price rise. The reason is that the government is now buying weapons from people and storing them. There is also the fact that cars are checked on the roads. Moreover, the government gives money to any one telling them about an unlicensed arms trader like me, and a license is so expensive that I cannot afford it.”

In Yemen, there are 18 main arms markets dispersed in the northern half of the country, in addition to more than 500 small shops for retail sale of arms. In this connection, Yemen was submitted to a great deal of pressure from neighboring and Western states, as well as from human rights organizations, to eradicate the uncontrolled arms sales and to diminish the possibilities for Yemenis to acquire arms. This pressure is aimed at stemming cross-border arms smuggling from Yemen and at limiting terrorist crimes and killings. In fact, Yemen is second only to the United States in the category of countries where citizens carry arms.

The same trader stated that he has nothing to do with weapons reportedly being smuggled from Yemen and sold at much higher prices in Somalia, which has been the scene of instability and domestic infighting since the early1990s. He stressed also that “most of the lucky ones” who sell arms to the Somalis are from the southern region; some of them live outside the country and run their businesses through intermediaries in Aden and elsewhere. He underlined that such traders had seized large quantities of arms from the depots of the state of South Yemen when it became part of a unified Yemen in1990 and also when the south Yemeni leaders tried to secede again in 1994. The same trader believes that among those who are renewing the calls for secession, there are big arms traders who have been suffering from the measures taken by the central authorities in Sanaa to impose control via the power of the state and to impose on everybody the decision to ban the arms trade.

Arms prices doubled when arms sale shops were closed down and the prices of some types of weapons have quadrupled. A Russian Kalashnikov rifle and an Israeli Uzi submachine gun are sold at practically the same price. They used to cost no more than 35,000 Riyals each, but now they are sold at about100,000 Yemeni Riyals each (about $500). In fact, the price of a Kalashnikov used to be three times that of an Uzi. Likewise, the prices of bullets have risen threefold, particularly after reports emerged that hard-line Huthi rebels are preparing to launch a fresh war against the government forces in the areas of Sa’dah, Rah, and Umran, to the west of Sanaa. The weapons that are sold secretly at high prices, contrary to ordinary arms like the Kalashnikov and handguns, include lethal weapons like hand grenades, mines, explosives, two-wheel cannons that target low-flying aircraft, Bazookas, armor-piercing rockets, and missiles, some of which date back to the 1970s. These are the weapons of Soviet origin that the Government of South Yemen acquired for its armaments, and some of them were plundered from army depots in the early 1990s.The International Institutes for Arms Studies [as given] estimates that there are about 9 million weapons in Yemen, in the hands of the state, tribes, and individuals, and in markets. Most of these weapons are small caliber ones, and their origin is the former eastern bloc or China, or a small number of other states. Some of them date back to the early 19th century [as given].

According to Abd-Rabbuh Mansur, the vice president of the republic, before the unification in1990 about 70 percent of the budgets of the Governments of North Yemen and South Yemen used to be spent on armaments because of their respective suspicions of each other. Mansur urged citizens in the southern governorate of Abyan to work for the future because “the hands of a clock do not move backwards.”

For about two years the government has been buying weapons from citizens to the tune of about $35m from the total amount of money allocated for this purpose, which is about $50m. The government has also made an inventory of the documents placed in the depots of the armed and security forces, in addition to creating a new organization to reinforce border control. The government is depending on “a national commission to deal with the fight against the proliferation of weapons,” and it is getting international support in this respect.

The officials consider that weapons in Yemen are to blame for a large part of vendetta-related crimes, kidnappings of foreigners, the rebellion, and the calls for secession. In addition to the infighting in the north and the sporadic firing at the security forces in the south, weapons are also to blame for about 80 percent of other crimes that have left more than 614 dead and more than 2,725 wounded, according to reports by the Interior Ministry that cover the first half of this year. Other reports stress that the number of victims has reached such an extent that it cannot be overlooked, particularly during 2004,2005, and 2006 when 4,800 casualties were caused by more than 3,000 crimes.

As the Yemeni writer Dr Abdul-Rahman al-Shami raised the slogan of “a Yemen without weapons and without Gat,” several human rights and civil organizations staged demonstrations outside Parliament and Government House, denouncing the display of armament among citizens and calling for more measures to halt the blood shed caused by the presence of weapons. They displayed banners on street pavements and chanted loudly: “We want a Yemen free of weapons and of vendettas.” These organizations include “Dar Assalam,” “Siaj,” and “Aman,” whose chairman, Khalid al-Iriyani said: “The efforts to eliminate the phenomenon of revenge will be futile as long as weapons are within the reach of both young and old people.”

Al-Shami has another view, which he expresses by saying that “while in the past the Yemenis carried weapons due to social and environmental conditions in which they could not find security and safety, which led many members of our Yemeni society to go to live at the top of mountains and in places where access is difficult, searching for security and relying on their individual weapons when necessary, these conditions are now gone, and a state of security and safety prevails in the country.” He stressed the increase in security checkpoints and the deployment of police rescue cars everywhere; hence, he added: “There is practically no security-related excuse anymore to justify the possession of arms.”

Moreover, many political and human rights activists and authoritative people in Yemen believe that establishing a modern civil state capable of imposing law on everybody will stem the uncontrolled arms trade and curtail tribal hard-line behavior and the belief that possessing arms and taking revenge is an indivisible part of Yemeni identity. In this connection, a professor of sociology at Taiz University, Dr Abdul-Salam al-Dar, delivered a paper at a conference on the weapons problem, which was held last June. He estimated that 60.8 percent of people in rural and urban homes possess weapons and that the total number of weapons in the hands of Yemenis has reached 9,980million. He ruled out previous estimates saying that there were between a maximum of 50 million and a minimum of 7 million weapons in Yemen, and he pointed out that 60.5 percent of people living in rural areas and 44.7 percent of the population in urban areas have said that they possess weapons to defend themselves. He added that the rate of arms proliferation in rural areas is 66.6 percent and56.1 percent in urban areas. With regard to the factors that have fuelled the proliferation of weapons, the professor said that it has transpired that 86.1percent of this is due to traditions, 82 percent to the lack of a solution to the phenomenon of vendettas, 81.8 percent due to a weak judiciary, 78.9 percent to tribal hegemony, and 71 percent to a tendency toward boasting [all percentages are as given]. The researcher added that the paper he had prepared about the weapons issue has shown that 90.5 percent of people believe that both the official and the unofficial campaigns against the possession of arms could stem arms proliferation.

Moreover, at a workshop organized by the Saba Centre at a large hotel in Sanaa this month, the executive director of the centre, Dr Ahmad al-Misbai, said that the ability of the government to eliminate the phenomenon of armaments appears to be limited by the fact that some tribes believe that having a weapon is a part of their individual identity.

In this respect, the human rights activist Ahmad al-Qurashi, who is well known in Yemen and who has dealt with many issues pertaining to tribal weapons, told Asharq Al-Awsat: “If somebody gets married in Yemen he become indebted to the tribe into which he marries, with the duty to avenge the tribe in question. Hence, he must acquire a weapon, and if such a weapon is not there he must buy it in order to become a fully fledged member of the tribe. In other words, he must be able to pay any fine imposed on his tribe, and if the latter gets involved in a fight, he must take his weapon and fight on its side. We call these vendetta wars ‘silent fights’; they are the result of everybody possessing weapons. Some tribes have advanced weaponry such as artillery, shoulder-launched missiles, and Katyusha rockets.”

For his part, Kamal, who is from the Khawalan tribe in the north of Sanaa too, is proud of being Khalid’s relative. On the way back with him from Umran Governorate, he carried a Yemeni dagger in his belt and driving his private car, he said that a Yemeni who does not carry a weapon cannot be in possession of his full manhood. Kamal considers himself to be part of the class of masters, that is to say “the warriors of the class of rulers and princes who were in power in Yemen in the past.” He added that whoever does not carry a weapon is considered to be a sort of peddler or like one of the drummers and singers seen on religious and social occasions. An unarmed person is also seen as one of the extremely poor farming laborers in the rural areas.

Many people, however, are pinning their hope on the decision to ban the introduction of weapons into towns, which, two years on, has started to bear fruit. These people hope to see Yemen emerging from “the dark tunnel of the tribal hard-line behavior” and entering an era where they can rely on the state institutions to legally settle litigious issues between them. They hope also to see a definitive end to “the heinous tribal fanaticism,” as the Sanaa governor put it. The latter added that the role of towns is to try to “civilize such awful fanaticism.” Duwayd added that “Sanaa is originally a tribal town, and the role of a town is to try to civilize the appalling tribal fanaticism, to provide security, and to protect state institutions to get rid of tribal fanaticism.”

The governor, who comes from a deep-rooted Yemeni tribe, stressed that no one is working against tribes, but against those who are harming tribes. He added: “With regard to the presence of tribes, all the Arabs are part of tribes, and he who does not belong to a tribe is not an Arab. Belonging to a tribe is not a stigma because God created tribes and peoples, but what brings shame on tribes is the bad practices attributed to them, including the heinous tribal fanaticism that entails the phenomenon of revenge and the dreadful tribal infighting. The elimination of all this can be secured only in the presence of state institutions, including a public prosecutor, a police department, and a court of justice. This would put an end to the problem of vendettas, alongside the development of tribal life with better services in the fields of education, health, etc. When these services are available, tribal fanaticism will begin to disappear.”

The fact that many administrative sub-districts are named after tribes makes some people fear this will continue to cause problems between tribes, but the governor of Sanaa explained: “This is quite natural; we have administrative sub-districts in every governorate. They have an administrative name and then a tribe-related name, for example the sub-district of Sanhan orthat of Khawalan.” The governor added: “I want to point out that a town does not cancel out the identity of a tribe, and the question should be: Has fanaticism started to fade, is it still the same, or is it growing, in comparison to what it was in the past? I affirm that it has begun to diminish, but we now have another sort of fanaticism, namely partisan fanaticism in political action. I believe that this is influenced by tribal fanaticism. But, at any rate, now members of the same tribe belong to different political parties, whether the opposition parties or the ruling parties. And when elections come, the sons of the same tribe follow the party of their respective choices, not their respective tribes. Political party life has eaten into tribal fanaticism. You can observe that partisan life is largely in place, but what we want is moderation.”