By Abdul Nasser al-Hilali
Koth, Abyan Governorate, Oct. 22, 2014 (Al-Thawra) — The free artificial limbs given to Hamdi Ali Abdo, 14, who lost both hands while herding sheep in the mine-infested Koth district in Abyan Governorate on August 5, 2012, did not help him return to a normal life.
The limbs, provided by Yemen’s state-run Artificial Limbs and Physiotherapy Center in Sana’a, were bigger than the hands he lost.
Hamdi’s father blames the government for disrupting the life of his son. “Shrapnel remains in Hamdi’s body. I’m penniless and I already spent a lot of money. I don’t have enough to treat him” says the father, who feels helpless and betrayed by the state. He is crying out for justice.
Hamdi was hurt in an area that was supposedly fully cleared of mines by end-July 2012 as declared at a press conference by Abyan Governor Jamal al-Aqel and Qaed Haitham, the head of the Aden’s branch at the Yemen Executive Mine Action Center (YEMAC) in the presence of UN organizations, refugee aid groups and local dignitaries.
The YEMAC, the implementing arm of the National Mine Action Committee (NMAC), also declared Abyan “safe”.
But this investigation shows that these public declarations had nothing to do with the reality on the ground.
Hamdi’s family was among 105,000 of 200,000 displaced Yemenis who returned to their homes in Abyan Governorate after fleeing it when Al-Qaeda took over in 2011 and began planting Advanced Improvised Explosive Device (IED) technology similar to those used by irregular militias in Iraq and Afghanistan to impede the advancement of army troops.
At that July 18, 2012 press conference, officials said the districts of Zinjibar, Koth and Ja’ar, all in Abyan Governorate, were fully cleared after the army repelled Qaeda fighters. Haitham told the displaced residents they could return.
Ahmad al-Kahlani, head of the executive unit running camps for the displaced, also told this reporter that YEMAC informed his department in mid-July that the above mentioned three areas in Abyan had been cleared of landmines.
“In light of these assurances from the center, we sent a letter to Abyan Governor informing him about the possibility for the displaced persons to return to the areas that YEMAC told us were cleared”.
The majority of Abyan’s residents were staying at 100 schools in Aden and Lahj.
In spite of failure to remove the mines within a specific timeframe, local authorities rushed to declare these areas safe for “political, military and logistical reasons” at the expense of personal safety, this reporter has documented after talking to various officials, local observers, aid sources and diplomats over the past six months.
Officials wanted to ease potential conflict within local communities hosting the displaced. The army wanted Abyan residents to return to their villages so they could redeploy to other areas to pursue Qaeda militants.
Jamal Hussein, head of the Ibn Rushd Human Rights Organization, says that 100 people were killed and 188 were injured – half of them children – in landmine explosions in Abyan between 2012 and 2014.
The untold story of the plight of Abyan’s displaced who dared to return to their homes also shows the secrecy surrounding the YEMAC operations; specifically regarding the portion of allocated funds for the demining activity that is spent on local salaries. It also shows how Qaeda’s take-over of Abyan has derailed Yemen’s national demining targets. And it has exposed a weak rehabilitation system for the injured that has left many angry and frustrated.
Promised medical assistance, including physiotherapy, orthopedic shoes and other medical appliances, covered only half of the 457 registered mine explosion survivors – nearly 50 percent children – within the rehabilitation and reintegration project for Abyan in 2013, according to data collected by this reporter.
Further demining activity in Abyan was slowed down by outdated equipment. The 500 mine-sweepers, bought between 2000 and 2008, do not work anymore. There is no money to replace them, according to a source at YEMAC. In addition, YEMAC’s overall budget deficit has increased due to a rise in running administrative costs, including salaries of 500 field workers – a third of which work in Abyan.
Mansour al-Azi, former YEMAC director, had promised to clear the area stretching over 21,000 square km by the end of 2012. His successor, Ali al-Qadri, promised to achieve that goal by end-2013.
Haitham, the director of Aden’s YEMAC branch, also says Abyan residents share the blame as many started to return home to inspect their property around June 12, 2012 after hearing news that Abyan was liberated. But in the process, they faced death and injury.
He insisted that local authorities only asked the residents of Zinjibar, Koth and Ja’ar to return after clearing their areas of landmines on July 18, 2012.
This investigation partially also reveals the unexpected challenge to YAMAC’s demining targets after Qaeda’s sudden takeover of this region. YEMAC was set up in 1999 to implement Yemen’s mine action commitment to clear 923,328,281 m2 of land contaminated by mines over 12 civil wars in six decades.
Of this land surface, 85% was cleared by 2012 and Yemen was on track to complete the scheduled objectives in 2015. It was hailed as a success story and a model for the region.
For Abyan, the plan was to clear 8 square km of minefields spread on a total area of 73 square km by end-2013. But YEMAC only managed to clear 1.7 square km – a 21% success rate. This compares to a 54% success rate at five other governorates that were included in the demining operations in 2013, according to the same data.
In that year, 2,427 out of 4,543 identified landmines and remains of explosive in Yemen were cleared, according to Aden’s YEMAC branch. A total of $7.5 million were allocated in 2013 to clear the contaminated areas in Abyan and other governorates. For that YEMAC received $4 million from international donors (US, Germany, and UNDP). The government paid for the rest.
Abyan Governorate received $670,000 from donor funds, says Al-Qadri.
But Al-Qaeda aborted YEMAC’s achievements and planted landmines and explosives in areas that were cleared in Ayban and in other areas it occupied on and off.
This challenge was further complicated by confusion in decision-making and NMAC’s lack of transparency with the public regarding its responsibilities, objectives, and operations due to “confidentiality of sovereign security institutions.”
Remaining minefields from the second half of the 20th century and contamination of other areas between 2010 and 2011, including Abyan, prompted the extension of YEMAC’s mandate until 2017, according to an agreement reached in February 2013 between the Yemeni government and UNDP.
These interrelated factors quickly dashed the hopes of thousands of families who returned to Abyan. And they showed the need to strengthen YEMAC’s ability to educate the population on the dangers of landmines planted after Qaeda’s return.
Across the country, one million Yemenis remain at risk of mine explosions in 13 governorates. But for residents of Abyan Governorate, life means living with the threat of death.
The case of Abdo, who lost both hands while herding his sheep is not better from that of Ghaleb Ahmad, whose right hand was blown off by an explosive remnant.
But while Abdo received artificial limbs, Ghaleb and 89 children, did not get any medical treatment from YEMAC. They are among 188 civilians injured in Abyan in 2013 alone from explosive remnants like mines and IEDs. Injuries among Abyan’s children are higher than elsewhere.
According to an independent survey by UN teams, these figures are not final. A total of 755 Yemenis in Abyan were categorized by December 2013 as victims of other forms of acts of war including suicide bombings after their return to areas that were declared as cleared.
Meanwhile, the stories of human suffering continue.
Mohammad, 18, miraculously escaped death when his father, older brother, and uncle were killed in an explosion a few meters away from their home while returning to Abyan from Aden. A landmine exploded under their car.
Mohammad’s three relatives were among 73 people killed in mine explosions between June and July 2012, according to the Yemeni Defense Ministry website. The list of deaths included nine YEMAC personnel who were not trained to clear highly dangerous handmade booby-traps, according to a Western diplomat. After their death and the injury of 24 others, YEMAC suspended its demining operations in July for a month to train its teams on how to deal with the new challenge of clearing IED’s.
It was during that month that the casualty rate of Abyan residents went up amidst total silence by YEMAC both on the cleared and un-cleared areas.
Another complicating factor is that YEMAC’s tasks remain purely technical. It is only responsible for supervising the survey and clearance of the land — not protecting the land from replanting mines or guaranteeing it will remain clear.
The army and local authorities are responsible for cleared areas released by YEMAC.
Sources say that the local authorities returned to Abyan in the beginning of 2013. Before that, they had been administering the area from the governorate of Aden. Regular forces and popular committees only took over in Abyan end-2013.
Abyan Governor Jamal Al-Aqel has refused to talk to this reporter during the course of this investigation.
Vague information made available to the public, donors and refugee organizations put NMAC and YEMAC under pressure to reveal the truth on Abyan Governorate’s surveyed and cleared lands.
Days later, and upon the encouragement of diplomats and international parties, the director of NMAC sent a letter to the Yemeni president explaining that the “committee will provide everyone with the required information. But NMAC will not be responsible for any harm the may be incurred on the displaced upon their return to their areas in the absence of a transportation mechanism and forces to protect the cleared land”, says one Western diplomat.
The letter was copied to the prime minister, relevant ministries and the UN relief coordination office, according to a Western diplomat and other refugee aid sources.
But NMAC director Qassem al-Aajam told this reporter in the interview that he “did not send a letter to the president disclaiming responsibility for any harm that may affect the displaced”.
Mohammad al-Khadr and his family of four live in sorrow and pain since the death of their father. He was killed when an anti-tank mine exploded near his house in Abyan’s city of Zinjibar, 50 km from Aden, in mid-2012.
This reporter also documented five deaths and seven injuries between August 2012 and 2014 among displaced Yemenis who returned to Abyan areas that were officially declared clear of mines.
Official figures and data documented by this reporter showed that 100 people lost their lives in the past two years. The same figure was also confirmed by Jamal Hussein from the Monitoring Center in Abyan of the Ibn Rushd Human Rights Organization. “The majority of landmine casualties were killed or injured in Abyan after their return to areas that the YEMAC had declared clear from mines”.
Amidst popular discontent, skepticism is growing over YEMAC’s ability to complete demining operations in Abyan and across Yemen on time. The YEMAC might be forced to stop its operations before the end of the year due a growing budget deficit. It has secured $6.5 million out of a total projected budget of $13.2 million, half of which came from the Yemeni government and the rest from the UN, Japan and the USA.
Some 500 demining devices bought between 2000 and 2008 have become obsolete. YEMEC does not have funds to replace them. A senior YEMAC source who requested anonymity, says the mine detection machines include “German-made Binger 420-421 dating back to 2000 and Italian-made CEIA from 2008.”
Citing his experience in landmine clearance, he says both types of equipment have lost their capacity after continuous use. “They no longer distinguish between a mine and other types of metal”.
He blames the failure of the demining scheme on the “inefficiency of very old equipment.”
YEMAC executive director Al-Qadri says it is difficult to estimate the cost of clearing one mine. However, he estimates at $87,000 the cost of clearing one square kilometer of landmines.
The overall budget, he says, covers salaries of 926 employees, including 500 field workers, awareness campaigns and treatment of the injured.
According to this calculation, YEMAC should have spent $147,900 to demine an area of 1.7 sq km officially declared free of mines in Abyan — or less than 3 percent of the $5 million it obtains annually.
Al-Qadri attributes the slow pace and delays in implementing the demining plan to “prevailing security conditions.”
His vague answers make it difficult for anyone to point out whether the budget for mine clearing operations has not been properly used, especially when compared to the cost of clearing one square kilometer of landmines in Kuwait after Iraq invaded it in 1991. The cost stood at between $31,000 to $67,000, according to a book published in 1997 by the Kuwaiti Research and Studies Center entitled: “Landmines and the Destruction of the Kuwaiti Environment: An Iraqi Invasion Crime.”
According to Kuwaiti statistics, one square kilometer of land contained an average of 92 mines. Kuwait managed to clear 17,934 sq km in 22 months.
Yemen vs. Kuwait landmine clearance Yemen Kuwait
Cost of clearing 1 sq km $87,000 $67,000
Areas cleared 838.1 sq km 17,934 sq km
Duration of demining 14 years 22 months
YEMAC has spent a total of $73.4 million between 1999 and 2012 before its mandate was extended for another five years. During this period, it cleared 292,000 mines and explosive munitions from 838.1 sq km, or 71% of the total mine-contaminated lands (1,176.6 sq km) in Yemen, according to a UNDP newsletter in August 2013.
Al-Qadri refused to give this reporter the YEMAC’s expenditure statement. But he says the government funds given to YEMAC are spent on the salaries and allowances of the commission’s employees while foreign funds are spent on the actual demining effort.
YEMAC’s rehabilitation and reintegration project, established in 1999, has also stumbled due to lack of necessary allocations, according to Al-Qadri.
The promised medical aid for Abyan covered only half of the landmine survivors by the end of 2013. All required medical assistance, especially children who need more extensive surgery at higher costs due to their constant growth. However, a source inside the YEMAC’s medical administration says the average medical support bill for one injured stands at $250.
But a calculation of the entire medical bill for treating 133 landmine survivors at the May 22 Hospital in Aden stood at $104 each, according to hospital director, Mohammed Munir. For six months, this reporter tried in vain to get hold of YEMAC’s list of names of mine casualties in Abyan who received medical support. He was denied the data because of “professional confidentiality.”
This reporter interviewed 10 landmine survivors. They all complained they did not receive medical assistance — not even artificial limbs — from YEMAC. But Western diplomats say YEMAC provided 31 artificial limbs for victims of Abyan since 2012.
Well-informed diplomatic sources also rule out claims of mismanagement of the medical file at the YEMAC. They insist that the head of the treatment unit is an efficient and committed person but he works within the limits of a system.
But the complaints of residents continue. Ali Nasser Al-Merkhi, 49, was injured in a landmine explosion on August 20, 2012 in Zinjibar after his return home from Aden. He says: “I did not receive financial or medical assistance from the center.” He followed the rules in the book. He registered his name in April 2013 on the list of landmine survivors, but officials from the YEMAC have not called him yet.
Similarly, Abdallah Ali, 28, has not received financial or medical aid.
“I registered my name at the beginning 2013 but no one called me”.
Ali, who was injured in the neck by an explosive shell in Koth in August 2012 needs treatment abroad now that he has spent $1,000 in treatment at local hospitals without improvement.
The father Omar Qassem, 13, had to use personal funds to take his son to Jordan for medical treatment to a spinal injury caused by a landmine that exploded in December 2012 in Ja’ar.
The families of 12 landmine victims — including five who were killed while they returned to their homes in Zinjibar, Koth and Ja’ar in Abyan – told this reporter that uncleared mines pose a real threat on their lives. They also said they did not attend any awareness campaigns.
Al-Qadri also refused to reveal the YEMAC’s allocation for national awareness campaigns.
A questionnaire distributed by this reporter to 100 family heads displaced from Abyan and living in Aden showed a majority are not encouraged to return home because of the way the YEMAC has handled the mines-clearing effort in their governorate.
Six out of 10 said they will not return while two out of every ten say they had a relative who was injured or died in mine explosions upon their return to Abyan.
Hassan Ali Mansour, 8, was killed in Koth in a landmine explosion on August 5, 2012 while herding sheep. Hassan’s father says: “We returned at the end of July, but 10 days later, my son was killed. No one told us how to deal with these unusual objects before Hassan’s accident.”
Until the publication of this report, the family of Saleh Salim Abu Khalil continues to live in a rented house in Aden after its only breadwinner died in a landmine explosion in June 2013 while on his way back to inspect his house.
His widow says: “Life is difficult after we lost him, and other than a few relatives no official in Aden has helped us”.
Majed Saleh, also displaced from Abyan, shares her fears. “We live in very difficult conditions here… There are no economic opportunities for the displaced to make a decent living. But those who returned became victims of landmines. My cousin, Anis Nasser Daous, was killed in a landmine explosion in front of his house in Zinjibar. We don’t want to become new victims.”
Demining activists and supporters of landmine survivors recommend that the Yemeni government allow foreign NGOs with experience in this field to operate in the country. Experts say that such international organizations enjoy practical experience and receive nearly 60 percent of the total international funds allocated for demining programs and for the rehabilitation of survivors. This would allow Yemen to benefit from global funding.
Furthermore, it is far easier for these foreign NGOs to deal with warring factions such as the Houthis, who do not trust the YEMAC. These NGO’s could also build the local capacity of staff at both the YEMAC and NMAC by passing on their expertise.
Such extra financial support and technical expertise will allow Yemen to achieve global standards related to mine clearing and rehabilitation of survivors.
This investigation was completed with support from Arab Reporters for Investigative Journalism (ARIJ) – www.arij.net and coached by Saad Hattar.