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Houthi landmines wreak mayhem

anjana@khaleejtimes.com Filed on August 20, 2018 | Last updated on August 21, 2018 at 12.07 am
Houthi landmines wreak mayhem

(Ryan Lim/KT)

Victims recall brush with explosives; UAE-backed de-mining effort makes steady progress.

"Look at me. I am alive but half-dead," says 54-year-old Ali Ahmed, clutching his pair of crutches.

Ahmed lost his left leg when he accidentally stepped on a mine laid by Houthis before they retreated from Aden when coalition forces moved into the interim-capital to restore the legitimate government of Abd-Rabbo Mansour Hadi.

Ahmed is just one among the thousands of victims of landmines that scatter the urban and rural landscapes of Yemen.

The three-year-long war has turned Yemen into a killing, maiming minefield. In the face of conflict, famine, malnutrition and a crippling economy, people like Ahmed are fighting another long-enduring battle - the hidden threat of landmines. It is a sad legacy that will plague the country for decades to come.

The harrowing effects of landmines indiscriminately planted by the Houthis are visible in the hallways of the Prostheses and Physiotherapy Centre in Aden Khaleej Times recently visited. Men and children who have lost their limbs to accidents from mines and mortar attacks throng the centre seeking help.

"Mines are the biggest killers. We were clearing the mines at the airport. There were hundreds of them. I don't remember anything except I stepped on one, and it went off.

There was a sudden blast and I fell unconscious," said Ahmed, a father of three.

Though he was rushed to hospital, doctors could not save his leg.

"I did not see the mine because it was hidden under a shrub," said Ahmed, echoing the danger thousands of civilians, including children face daily.

According to government, Yemen has been the site of the largest mine-laying operation since the end of the Second World War.

Yemen's National Centre for Removal of Landmines said that the Yemeni army has removed 300,000 landmines planted by Iran-backed Houthi militias during the last two years in liberated areas. Ameen Al Aqaili, head of the centre, claimed the Houthi coup militias planted more than 500,000 landmines in various areas in Yemen, Saudi Press Agency (SPA) reported.

Ali Saleh and his son Kamal, both got disabled from landmines two months apart from each other.

"We had de-mined most of the mines at the airport. But when we were working in an area close to the compound wall, I accidentally stepped on a mine," Saleh, who was a team leader of the de-mining operation in Aden, told Khaleej Times.

"The impact of the blast threw me off metres away. When I woke up, it was a horrifying feeling to realise my right leg has been cut off from the knee."

Within two months, the landmines struck again. This time, the victim was his 20-year-old son, Kamal.

The young man was in a car loaded with explosives de-miners had removed from the ground in Aden when the vehicle hit a landmine on the road.

His left leg had to be amputated following the accident.

Thousands of children in Yemen are also crippled after stepping on mines that are dangerously strewn even in playgrounds, schools and homes across the country.

Seven-year-old Emad and four-year-old Mohammed are both victims of mortar attacks during the war. Emad lost both his legs from below the hips and Mohammed lost his right leg, in two separate incidents.

"He still likes to run and play around. He does not even understand fully what has happened to him, and what it means to grow up without both legs," Emad's father Marwan, told Khaleej Times.

"He was playing in front of our house when the accident happened. Even after the war is over, our children are not safe. Landmines are everywhere in our neighbourhood," he said.

With thousands maimed and injured, it is a challenge for the Yemeni government to cater to the medical and rehabilitative needs of victims.

Abdullah Al Qaisi, Chairman of the Prostheses and Physiotherapy Centre, says they don't have enough resources. "Every month, around 50 to 100 people need prosthetic legs. But we do not have enough money to buy them."

He said the centre needs more funds to buy raw materials to make artificial legs.

Doctors and professionals in the healthcare industry estimate thousands of civilians have been injured or killed by the explosives.

Yemen's under-secretary of the ministry of human rights, Majed Fadhael, was quoted as saying that Al Houthi-planted landmines have killed 440 people, mainly women and children and wounded more than 540 others.

The UAE Red Crescent, which is spearheading a humanitarian campaign in Yemen, has been expending the treatment costs of thousands of Yemenis injured in blasts. So far, up to 4,000 wounded Yemenis have been airlifted to hospitals in Sudan, India, UAE and Jordan.

Mohamed Abdullah, Head of the medical team at the UAE military hospital, said his team received up to 2,500 persons injured by mines in just four months. "Many were critically wounded."

De-miners risk lives to save civilians

Clearing and neutralising thousands of mines and LEDs peppering Yemen's urban and rural areas is a challenging and risky feat for the Yemeni and coalition forces on the ground.

The UAE armed forces and Yemeni troops say they harvest between 250 and 300 landmines every week in the western region.

More than 40,000 devices have been neutralised since coalition-allied forces took control of the Red Sea coast in a series of battles starting in 2016.

Last year, Human Right Watch called on the Houthis to stop using landmines and observe the 1997 Ottawa Convention ban on anti-personnel mines. Yemen signed the treaty in 1998.

De-mining specialists from the UAE army has trained dozens of Yemeni men to spot and deactivate explosives that endanger civilian lives.

Khaleej Times visited a training site in Mukalla where dozens of Yemeni de-miners, in their blue protective jackets learn to comb the affected areas with metal detectors. They dig through the sandy patches and unearth the detonation cords connected to mines hidden under the ground.

"It is a risky job. But this is a humanitarian work, and I want to help my country," Salah,30, a de-miner, told Khaleej Times.

He said six of his friends have died during de-mining. "Of course, I am scared. But these mines can last 50 years or more. It can kill people for decades. So, I am happy to be part of the team," said Salah, who is married with two children.

Clearing mines go beyond concerns of personal safety to many in the team.

Yemeni trainer Ahmed Ismail,36, started to work in the field ever since he was 16. And he has seen 45 of his colleagues lose their life in his career span.

"Every day we face death. But if we don't do it, who will do it?" asked Ismail.

He said he almost stepped on an anti-tank mine just two weeks ago in Messina. "I saw the shape of something under the plants. They could not hide the presser under the sand, and I stopped at the last minute." Ismail says the problem of landmines is thousand times worse now than it was before. "They are randomly planted, and hence difficult to find."

The commander of the de-mining team concedes. "They are everywhere. They put them on the beach, on the main highway. Some of the Russian mines we unearth date back to 1962."

Yemen has been battling the hidden threat from landmines for decades. Since 1960s, they were laid during the civil war in North Yemen and also during conflicts in the 1970s and 1980s, and again during the 1994 civil war.

The commander told Khaleej Times they have trained a total of eight teams that has 10 members each.

"It takes two months of training before they can go into the field," said the commander.

"Most of the mines are locally made. Even a chicken can trigger it. They are that dangerous."

Creating awareness among the public is one way of fighting the landmine danger. The officer said their team regularly conducts awareness campaigns and lectures. "We warn and urge people to avoid areas where mines could have been planted, and not to touch it. Slowly, people are getting aware and they report to local authorities when they find anything suspicious or similar to the items in the picture," the commander said pointing out to charts and pamphlets that illustrate the dangers of hidden landmines and IEDs.

"We have conducted eight awareness campaigns so far. But this is an ongoing war until someday Yemen is free from landmines."

- anjana@khaleejtimes.com

Anjana Sankar

Anjana Sankar is a journalist by profession and a humanist by passion. Her cluttered desk is not indicative of her state of mind.


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