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Asharq Al-Awsat Investigates: Tribal Violence and Extremism in Yemen | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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Sanaa, Asharq Al-Awsat -The victims of violence and domestic fighting in any country are usually innocent civilians, and the most affected by violence are mainly women and children, not gunmen, who have their own agendas.

Today, in Yemen nowadays a phenomenon of homeless and displaced people, the victims of the acts of violence that erupt for several reasons, including tribal disputes and vendettas between various armed tribes. The rebellion by the Al-Huthists in Sa’dah has led to the displacement of the thousands of people who have fled fighting and the acts of violence. There are numerous humanitarian stories that tell of the suffering of those people and how local strife and violence affect families, separating fathers and mothers from their children. Asharq Al-Awsat tells the stories of those victims who have fled tribal violence and fighting.

A 10-year-old boy turned his face toward the top of a mountain, south of the capital, Sanaa, and proudly gave his name and that of his distant city. He said: “My name is Ziyad Jabhan. I come from the province of Anas, and I belong to the Jabhan family in Dhamar Governorate.” This boy lives with his mother and three younger brothers, along with old women without grandchildren and men without sons and the children who, like Ziyad, have all fled tribal and confessional violence, and live on this mountaintop, 70 km from the province of Anas. Among their neighbors on this desolate mountaintop lives an old woman called Hakimah, who hails from the Khawlan area, northeast of Sanaa. She says that she fled the tribal fighting with her grandchildren along with many other old women and their grandchildren to live “a bleak life” here.

The Yemeni Government and human rights organizations have exerted efforts to protect those people and eliminate the causes of violence. They ban the men carrying arms from entering cities and seek to address the cult of vendetta and belligerency. However, the problem is too complicated to be addressed by appeals. According to the latest estimate by Ta’izz University, Yemeni citizens have approximately 10 million pieces of weapons. They do not seem inclined to get rid of the tradition of vendetta, abduction, and tribal and confessional fighting in the near future. This is particularly true because the ongoing fighting between two tribes in Imran Governorate (north of Sanaa) has left some40 children killed, along with dozens others wounded, who will live for the rest of their lives with permanent physical disabilities.

The Higher Council of Yemeni Women says that the talk of violence against women — killing, abduction, and other abuses — is considered a redline. Women suffer the grave consequences of armed fighting, and they are not allowed to take part in solving disputes or spreading the culture of peace.

Ziyad and his family fled the province of Anas, where strangers affiliated with the Shiite creed marched into their town, disturbing the calm life of the area and of its population. The strangers held a celebration of the so-called “Al-Ghadir Feast,” using weapons against the Sunni tribesmen who had nothing to do with this occasion. The strangers, who came from the Al-Huthists’ areas, northwest of the country, opened fire on the people, and some from the province of Anas returned fire, and dead and wounded people were scattered on the streets. The situation has not abated in that province since then.

As a result of fighting, feud, and vendetta and the use firearms and hand grenades between fighting tribes in the periphery of the province of Anas, Ziyad’s family was forced to flee and has finally taken shelter on a mountaintop overlooking the valleys and the flat land near a new residential area, where the new building of Sanaa Governorate is located. The building can be seen through the haze from the mountaintop, where a very ancient mosque, called the Ziyad Bin-Ali Mosque, had been built near a mountain slope. Poverty and lack of any source of livelihood have scattered Ziyad’s family, and only Ziyad and his three younger brothers have remained at that spot. They sit there hoping the other absent members of their family will return and that problems in the province of Anas will be solved so that they can return home and see their kinfolk.

Ziyad, who is in the fourth grade and is keen to continue his education at Ma’adh Bin Jabal Elementary School near the new building of Sanaa Governorate, said: “My father and elder brothers left to look for work months ago.” He said that his father and one of his older brothers disappeared while on a long trip to find work in business in the northernmost part of Yemen.

The province of Anas belongs to Dhamar Governorate, which is surrounded by mountains, valleys, and trees. To the west of Dhamar Governorate lie Raymah and Al-Hudaydah Governorates; on the south lies Ibb Governorate, and to the east and the north lie Al-Bayda and Sanaa Governorates, respectively.

Three people were killed and eight others were wounded when clashes erupted in December for the first time, in which heavy weapons were used in the battles between the supporters and the opponents of the celebration of the Al-Ghadir Feast. Ziyad said: “”I put my hands on my ears, and my brothers started crying. We felt we would die. When the sound of bullets and explosions would stop, I would run in and around the house looking for my father and mother. And when fighting would start again, I would run inside the house and embrace my young brothers and ask them not to cry or panic. I cried, but I put my hands on my ears and told my brothers to put their hands on their ears so as not to hear the explosions. The explosions shook our house. It was like thunder rolling on a rainy day.”

After about two hours of horror and crying, Ziyad saw his father, mother, and eldest brother running toward home, taking advantage of a lull in the fighting, from the house of one of their relatives who lived in the neighborhood. The gunfire started from the direction of the house of a cleric in the Al-Manar area near the Anas Directorate building. The cleric was known as the member of the Shiite Zaydi creed in the area. The gunfire started in protest against the cleric’s reception of the gunmen coming from the Al-Huthists’ area in Sa’dah to hold an unusual celebration of the Al-Ghadir Feast in the province of Anas. (Shiites believe that the Al-Ghadir Feast marks the day when Caliph Ali Bin-Abu-Talib, may God have mercy on his soul, assumed power). The feat occurs on the 19th of the Dhe al-Hijjah, Hegira, every year. The people of the Al-Manar area and the province of Anas had never heard of this feast.

Ziyad added: “Next day, those strangers began abducting people. I was afraid that they might kidnap my father, and my father feared that they might kidnap me and my brothers or blow up our house.” He added that the people of the Al-Manar neighborhood in the province of Anas abducted three or four of those strangers, estimated at 40 men, who were determined to subjugate the people of the area by force and surprise. To save their skin out of fear for the lives of their sons, Ziyad’s family fled the area as gunfire and explosions were continuing.

Concerned about the future of his sons, Ziyad’s father left them in an area that he believed to be safe and where the dilapidated buildings hundreds of years old still stood on the mountaintop and where Ziyad and his young bothers could take shelter. Half way along the mountain, a spring gushed forth from the rocks among the trees. There were shepherds tending their sheep and goats, and they gave some food to the refugees in the mountain. It seems that the father had a deep faith that things would improve in the days ahead, which explained why he enrolled his son, Ziyad, at a school instead of letting him waste his time doing nothing.

Ziyad wakes up early in the morning, and after reassuring himself about the well-being of his mother and brothers, he carries his books and pencils and walks down the mountain for about an hour to arrive at his school. He goes to school without breakfast or pocket money and spends half his day repeating songs and the multiplication tables after his teacher. By the time he returns home, he finds that his mother has managed to prepare some food that keeps him alive.

Ziyad said: “The fourth-grade tests are over, and I am waiting for the results. I hope I will pass so that when my father and eldest brother comeback, they will be happy along with my mother and younger brothers.” Placing his arms over the shoulders of his brothers and looking in the distance, Ziyad said that he would begin work setting up a fence around the garden of a rich man living in a nearby valley so as to be able to provide for his family during the school holiday.

From the other side of the dilapidated walls on the mountaintop came the voice of an old woman to reassure herself about Ziyad, his brothers, and mother. The old woman, Hakimah, hails from the Khawlan area, which was the scene of clashes between tribes and others who joined the Al-Huthist rebellion movement. The Bani Hashish area, near Khawlan, and on the northern approaches to Sanaa, also witnessed bloody fighting last year, which left dozens of people dead. Standing tall and proud like a queen, and although she was emaciated, teary-eyed, and suffering, she chanted verses in old Yemeni dialect expressing her pride in belonging to the Khawlan tribe. Her cares were too great to be expressed in words. Sitting on a rock, she said: “I came here with three out of five of my grandchildren two years ago. They are young and need to betaken care of. I came from Khawlan to flee the continuing fighting in the area. I saw with my own eyes the foreigners kill two women and two men along with their sheep.” Raising her arms to heaven, she said God will punish them.

After a moment’s silence, the old woman added: “In the past, tribes would kill a murderer or one of his important relatives. But since men began to afford buying machine guns, grenades, and bombs, vendetta and internecine fighting have prompted men to blow up homes over the heads of women and children without discrimination.” She added: “These types of weapons have harmed the ethics of tribes. We have never dealt with one another like this in the past. Where has men’s gallantry gone? In the past, it was ignoble and unmanly to kill women in war or in vendetta or to kill teenagers. Yemenis have changed. Where are those men to see the situation into which we have descended?”

Heaving a sigh, Hakimah, who lives between rocks with jute and branches as a thatch, said: “More than 10 families live here on the mountaintop, having fled wars and vendettas. One family is fatherless, another is motherless, and another is without sons. All of us have come from the Khawlan area along with others who have come from the southern part of the country. I have a neighbor called Halimah. Her uncle, Sa’d, and her husband, Muhammad, are without work. Muhammad tried to find work with the people living at the foot of the mountain. He worked for them as a truck driver, bringing the things they needed for their farm. He used to help us with the money he earned, but the people terminated his services. He now tends the sheep and goats of other people in the area.” The people here rely on rain for water, which collects in a hole among the rocks.

The area from which Hakimah came last year had been the scene of tribal, confessional, and political clashes, which left nine people dead and 50 others wounded. In addition to the clashes between the Al-Huthist rebels and government forces, the Khawlan area witnessed the abduction of Muhammad al-Saqqaf, son of a local official, from his house in the Hidda area, three months ago. Before his release, his relatives kidnapped 10 persons from the Khawlan area in reprisal. Yemen is notorious for tribal disputes over land ownership, influence, or other differences that can be solved by law.

Hakimah is eager to see the government extend its authority throughout the Yemeni territory and over tribes and groups, who have taken to the habit of indiscriminate killing. She said: “I want to return to Khawlan and sort out my documents to get an ID card so that I can get free health care and pension from the government.”

In addition to the Yemeni Government’s efforts to curb social violence and control the acts of violence in the southern and northern parts of the country, human rights organizations make appeals every now and then demanding the protection of children, like Ziyad, and women like Hakimah. The situation however is too complicated to be addressed by appeals. Ahmad al-Qurashi, head of the Siyaj Organization for the Protection of Children, told Asharq Al-Awsat that those victims flee fierce tribal acts of violence. They have to either take part in the fighting or flee aimlessly. He added: “The fighting that has been going on for more than 10 months in the tribal region in Imran Governorate (north of Sanaa) has left some 100 people dead; 40 percent of them were underage.” He pointed out that 50 percent of the fighters in those tribal wars are children, who were used to open fire or work as support elements in the fighting. Siyaj has addressed a humanitarian appeal to the fighting tribes in Imran Governorate and in other areas that witness tribal fighting to resort to the rules, norms, and traits of tribes, which call for avoiding the targeting of children and women in their wars, or opening fire at the civilians who are not taking part in the fighting.

Siyaj has exhorted the state officials concerned as well as tribal chieftains and figures to impose deterrent sanctions against any party proved to target women and children or who uses children in combat whether as fighters, supporters, providers of logistic support, or any sort of participation that endangers their lives. Boys and children are abducted in Yemen as a means of pressure and to solve disputes between tribes. Some children are killed in the process, whether deliberately by the abductors or during the attempts by their families to get them released. Al-Qurashi said that his organization conducted a field study of 1,100 children ranging in age from 7 to15 to find out the psychological and behavioral impact of violence against children. The organization used the ongoing fighting between the government forces and rebels northwest of Sanaa to gather data between 2004 and 2008. The study showed that 63.1 percent of the children had nightmares; 45.5 percent suffer from phobia from natural things believing they are unnatural.

Al-Qurashi added: “We have found other problems in children as a result of the acts of violence to which they had been exposed, such as involuntary urination during sleep. The result of the study indicted that 21.6percent of the children suffered from involuntary urination during sleep (the normal average is 15 percent); 5.7 percent suffered involuntary urination while awake; 21.5 percent of the children studied were inclined to withdrawal from the society and introversion; 16 percent showed a desire to cry; 4.8 percent suffered from fainting and unconsciousness on hearing a noise similar to explosions; 3.3 percent suffered from fainting on merely seeing gunmen or hearing thunder or gunfire.

Al-Qurashi pointed out that these results are a bad indication, particularly because they take place in an armed, tribal society, where children get used to weapons and the use of weapons without any problems. Discussing other problems that have changed the lives of children whether those who were directly exposed to violence or saw or heard about violence, he asked how children would feel when they hear that a tribe kidnaps a 15-year-old boy and holds him for a year because of a dispute between the kidnappers and his father? How would his brothers feel all this time? How would the children of his neighbors feel about such an experience? He stressed that the impact of kidnapping on children is horrible.

Al-Qurashi noted that at least five known kidnappings took place in Yemen in 2009, notably the kidnapping of a 12-year old boy, Khalid al-Jalal, by tribal gunmen from the Madbah neighborhood in Sanaa as he left school. He was kept in Ma’rib, 125 km from Sanaa, in punishment of his family, which won a judicial ruling of its ownership of a plot of land that the kidnappers had seized. Yemeni people have about 10 million pieces of weapons according to the latest estimate by Dr Abdul-Salam al-Dar, professor of sociology at Ta’izz University. Al-Dar pointed to the various factors that contribute to the proliferation of weapons in the hands of Yemeni people. He said that 81.8 percent of the people carry weapons because of poor judiciary, 82 percent because of lack of solutions to end the phenomenon of vendetta, 78.9 percent because of the tribal domination of the society, and 86.1 percent because of conventions and traditions.

Children under 15 years of age, who constitute 47 percent of the Yemeni population, according to a human development report, suffer more from the phenomenon of arms proliferation. In addition to being exposed to kidnapping, they are deprived of family protection for many reasons, including tribal violence. The Higher Council of Mothers estimated the number of orphaned children in Yemen at 33,180, of whom 2,432 are kept at official social foundations and 748 at non-government foundations. A government official said that some Yemeni families sponsored the rest of the orphans totaling approximately 30,000 ranging between 9 and 16 years of age.

A report by the Women National Committee, which is affiliated with the Higher Council of Yemeni Women, said that “violence against women assumes social and cultural dimensions in our county. Broaching or discussing this topic is considered to be a redline.” A report prepared by Rashidah al-Hamadni, head of the Women’s National Committee, said that “482 Yemeni girls were exposed to the acts of violence ranging from rape, murder, kidnapping, and other physical abuse.” Some 2,194 Yemeni women were the victims of various abuses. Regarding armed disputes, the report said: “Women were not usually a party to solving armed disputes but only suffered the consequences of disputes.” The report added: “Women are not allowed to take part in solving armed disputes or in spreading the culture of peace; they suffer the bitterness and consequences of wars in terms of violence, rape, homelessness, and displacement.”

Hakimah, the aforementioned old woman, who hails from the Khawlan area, said: “Yemeni men have changed; now they take revenge by blowing up homes over the heads of their residents.” Ziyad Bin-Jabhan, who hails from the province of Anas, said: “My family was scared of gunmen, and we left our home. I will continue my study on the mountain top.” The head of the Siyaj Foundation for the Protection of Children said: “Forty children were killed in tribal vendetta north of Sanaa.” He noted that 50 percent of fighters in tribal wars are children. The Higher Council of Yemeni Women said: “Women suffer the consequences of armed dispute and are not allowed to take part in spreading the culture of peace, and some consider the talk about violence against women a redline.”