HARF SOFYAN, Yemen, (AP) – Resting between frenetic bursts of fighting with tenacious Shiite rebels in the north, many Yemeni soldiers pass the day chewing qat leaves — the mild stimulant plant that is the impoverished Arab nation’s traditional drug of choice.
For the beleaguered troops dispatched to Yemen’s rugged Saada province, the chewing sessions offer a welcome high and suppress fears that the rebels may have the upper hand against an army lacking basic gear such as helmets and body armor.
The Yemeni army has been embroiled in a five-year conflict with Saada’s rebels that erupted when Shiite fighters took up arms against the central government, complaining of neglect and the widening influence of hard-line Sunni fundamentalists, some of whom consider Shiites heretics.
Shiites make up 30 percent of Yemen’s population of 22 million.
Soldiers in the front line town of Harf Sofyan, where seven brigades of some 3,000 soldiers each are stationed, are showing the strain of prolonged fighting against a tenacious and clever foe.
“They have super powers, they do not fear death,” one soldier said. Another suggested the rebels “are possessed by evil spirits” and have “alien powers no human can possess.”
Both soldiers spoke to a reporter traveling with the Yemeni military but refused to give their names, fearing reprisal from their officers.
The soldiers’ monthly paycheck is just a $100, but the troops, whose ages vary between 15 and 25 years, are allowed to take any booty the rebels leave behind, from food to equipment.
What the soldiers seek most, though, is their daily stash of qat leaves. And that is increasingly difficult to find in the devastated fields of Saada, where corpses and body parts lie scattered by the roadside, filling the air with the heavy odor of death.
The troops haggle daily for the leaves with local qat vendors, whose business is the only one still thriving in the devastated area. Even some commanders join the chewing sessions, which usually start after lunch and last up to four hours.
Qat is so popular in Yemen that cultivating the plant uses up nearly half of the country’s water supply and farmers prefer to plant it for the high income it brings.
Both sides regularly announce advances on the battlefield, but the claims are difficult to verify because authorities have cut off access to the area. Caught between two forces, the local tribes often fight with whichever side has the upper hand.
Several cease-fire attempts have foundered, and the Shiite rebels, led by Abdel-Malek al-Hawthi, have refused to hand over their weapons or release any prisoners of war.
They accuse the government of not fulfilling its obligations under previous agreements, including freeing rebel detainees, paying compensation to victims and rebuilding Saada villages ravaged by fighting.
On Monday, the rebels said they shot down a government MiG-29 jet, the second this month, near the provincial town of al-Magash. The Yemeni Defense Ministry said the plane crashed due to technical reasons.
Government efforts to contain the rebellion have been hampered by a separate, secessionist movement in the south, as well as Yemen’s crippling poverty and plummeting oil revenues. Some officials also blame corruption in the military for the failure to uproot the rebels.
The fighting, which has displaced about 150,000 people since 2004, flared up in August, with rebels capturing an army post on a strategic highway between the capital and the Saudi border.
The escalation has killed unknown numbers on both sides and crammed tens of thousands of the newly displaced into camps, schools and barns turned into shelters, while aid groups struggle to bring in supplies.
International relief agencies have urged the government to open up corridors to the trapped civilians.
“I have been living here in Harf Sofyan with my 12 family members for two months now, sleeping in the open and under the trees,” said teacher Jamal Amin al-Jatham. “We have nothing now after we fled the fighting.”
Ahmad Hassan, a 25-year-old farmer, said he walked with 10 other families across the width of Saada province, fleeing the military’s bombardment of the rebels near the border with Saudi Arabia.
“We haven’t gotten any water for the past three days, and we are living off the food given to us by some locals,” said Hassan, as he sat in the shade of a date palm tree.