HodeidahNet, Yemen, March 2014 – Hasan Abkar, Shoba’ Suleiman and Mohammad Seeli follow with sorrow the movement of the cement and iron trucks dumping construction waste on their agricultural lands in the village of Al Jameesha in the governorate of Al Hudeidah, in Western Yemen.
Their plight is similar to hundreds others in their village who cannot get to their lands or plant their fields to earn an income because their land had been slowly confiscated by officials and military men.
These farmers are fighting their battle against these officials and officers, sometimes confronting them due to the failure of the executive authorities, parliament and the judicial system to help them reclaim their lands.
All attempts at restoring the ownership of their lands have failed because of the immunity enjoyed by these occupiers, some of whom hold high state positions. Their attempts have been hampered by: special and complicated procedures dealing with members of the executive authority; the need to have accusatory laws dealing such high profile officials and both the dallying of the security forces and/or their inability to stand up to rebelling armed forces.
The situation has been worsened by the inconsistent responsibilities of the land registration departments and the absence of a political decision to end this crisis after the overthrow of the regime of Ali Abdullah Saleh in 2011.
After a year of investigating the issue and documenting facts, this reporter is able to demonstrate the injustice carried out against farmers who have been denied their lands; since 2010. A total of 450 cases of violation have been registered with the Department of Public Finances. Between January and August 2013, a total of 79 cases were registered at the same department. Out of those, officials have been able to deal with 58 and 21 are still pending.
According to villagers, soldiers from the 10th brigade parachute battalion /former republican guards took armed control of the lands of Al Jameesha village in early 2013. This act left 64 families with no land.
Hasan Abcar (40 years) is the breadwinner of a ten member family most of whom are farmers and herders. He says that soldiers from the 10th brigade took control of his 12600 square metre piece of land in early 2013. He has been without work for over eight months after they destroyed the well and irrigation system on his land. He is threatened with their having to move to the city of Al Hadeeda, but there he will have to become a beggar to make ends meet.
As for Shoba’ Mohammad Suleiman (30 years), the soldiers confiscated his agricultural lands despite it being not good for construction. His neighbour Mohammad Abdullah Seeli says life in the village has become hell: “We and our families have no work. We have orders from the Prime Ministry, the Ministry of Defence as well as the local authorities and the governor to get back out lands, but our lands have not been returned to us.”
He adds: the soldiers under the command of the parachute battalion leader Colonel Abdo Al Russi began as of early September 2010 to build housing units. They convinced the villagers that civilian and military units would be set up in return for sums of money to be paid to the architects with special payment slips carrying official battalion stamps.
According to the Communiqué No. 150 from the chief of the local council, the Al Jameesha lands are estimated to measure one million 300 thousand square metres. They are divided into two sections: over one third is owned by the citizens (361 thousand and 547 square metres) and the rest by the state and leased to farmers. According to the villagers, the leased state-owned lands have all been confiscated and all that remains is a few simple houses they currently live in.
The 10th brigade violations did not stop there. On January 28, 2014 a battalion stormed the municipality building in Al Hadeeda and took it over for a number of hours until they were forced out by Central Security forces during a confrontation that resulted in injuries.
According to the governor of Al Hadeeda, the reason for this attack was his refusal to sign on the special order to lease the potable water areas as living quarters for the soldiers. This decision clashed with the prime minister’s resolution number 217 for the year 2010 not to take action against these lands, nor to delineate their borders.
Land director Abdullah Bafayad had ordered that the water wells be handed over to the battalion but the governor had signed a stop to the order.
The local authority and all its departments went into strike for two days to protest against the attack on the municipality and asked the government to remove the brigade from the governorate, but to no avail.
This investigative journalist unveiled a document at the Tihama Popular Organization dated January 19, 2013. It was sent by the former commander of the brigade General Ahmad Ali Nasser Al Hawari to the Secretary-General of the Local Council and the governor asking them to assign land for the building of housing for the 10th brigade who were situated at a nearby military base close to Al Jameesha lands. The document relies upon the closeness of the camp to lands along the lines of the Al Hudeidah. However, there was no legal precedent.
The Secretary-General of the local council, General Hasan Al Haige, forwarded the issue to “ Tihama Land Development Authority”. The latter said it is unable to carry out the order, as the lands are property of (the descendants of Abdullah Qa’ed Al Bawa and Ahmad Taher Rajab and Saleh Baouda).
According to its memo number 150 and dated March 11, 2013, the Tihama Land Development Authority stated that the lands had been used by farmers for decades.
Despite this, the confrontation continued, one of which took place during our visit to the village on the afternoon of March 18, 2013. Then, one of the soldiers used his rifle butt to hit citizens. Four were injured, including one who was taken to hospital where he lay in a bed, unconscious.
The citizens have spoken to the land authority, the governor and the local council as well as the Minister of Defence Major-General Mohammad Nasser Ahmad. They carried out protest rallies hoping to regain their lands, their only source of income. On April 5, 2013, activists from the “Tihama Movement” joined forces with them at the Friday Noon Prayer at the Eastern entrance of the Al Hadeeda city, in an attempt to get the government’s attention, but this did not succeed.
This reporter attempted a dozen of times to get in contact with the former commander of the 10th brigade General Ahmad Ali Nasser Al Hawari. However, he refuses to talk to journalists.
Land plundering has become prevalent in Al Hudeidah with many confrontations between the occupiers and the legitimate owners. According to security sources, 23 crimes were registered between January 2012 and August 2013; 31 died at the hands of 72 violators.
Sheikh Hadi Haige is one of the community leaders calling for an end to the land looting. He says the problem “stems back from the eighties, a time of prosperity and good investment when military and civilian authority forces attempted to take large areas of land. When the conflict intensified a new land law was issued putting all Tihama lands far from the centre of the city under state ownership. In the nineties the government gave some lands away as gifts to officials; this caused strife and encouraged looters.”
Director-General of the Land and Real Estate office, Abdullah Bafayad denies any negligence on his part. He stresses that “in accordance with 2012 statistics, in the last ten years the Land Authority dealt with 450 cases in various courts against civilians and officials who had confiscated lands.” According to him, in return, owners who had lost their lands, filed cases against the Land Authority citing interference and faulty planning and specification by the state. Bafayad refuses to give any other information, however he does say that the Land Authority is unable to provide any solutions due to a lack in logistical support as well as legal and financial resources. He has also confirmed that the Authority has suspended all compensation to beleaguered land-owners.
Chief of the Public Finances Prosecutor’s Office in the governorate of Al Hadeeda, Wadah Al Qurshi, confirms that in the period between January and August 2013, 79 cases had been filed, 58 of which have gone to court and 21 still pending; most of these are cases against civilians and officials filed by the state. Some cases at the prosecutor’s office take years, as long as thirteen, such as the compensation case for owners whose lands are within the boundaries of the Al Hudeidah airport, which has languished since 2000. A total of 67 have been accused of pilfering compensation money and the courts have refused to give out any information until the matter is resolved.
The land confiscation case has garnered huge interest at the national level since 2010. On March 3rd 2010, parliament (resolution no. 8/1/20) formed an investigative committee charged with finding out the truth surrounding the land confiscation in Al Hudeida. After the survey was completed, a report was compiled with 148 names of “high ranking officials” including three ministers, 20 officers, and 33 tribal leaders. The rest of the names included merchants, parliamentarians and artists. The report also documented 400 cases of aggression and 106 complaints from owners whose lands had been looted.
Committee secretary Mufadel Ismael says: “what Al Hudeida has suffered from land looting in the north is far greater than what happened in other governorates in the south after the 1994 war, however, the committee report was not implemented as no one was able to go to the area during the 2011/2012 protests.”
The findings of the parliamentary committee confirm that laws were violated when lands were confiscated and looted. The report, which was issued on April 5, 2010, mentions several reasons behind these violations including: the length of the judicial process, the failure of punitive measures for falsifying documents carried out by buyers and sellers as well as notary publics and the fact that many officials remain in their positions for long periods of time.
An unnamed judicial source views that the length of the judicial time stems from a legislative fault in that no set time period for the case has been established as well as the fact that certain cases can remain pending until all evidence has been heard.
Conflicts of Interest
In 2006 the offices of Real Estate and Land were merged. This created a new entity. According to attorney, Jameel Al Qudsi, prior to the merger, the real estate office would carry out registrations without referring to the State Land office and at the time had issued a number of legitimate landownership deeds to new owners; these were later rejected after the merger. The Land Office stated that no land deeds would be recognized without prior approval from the Office, as they were the sole legal authority. This situation created more chaos and did not distinguish between the real owner and the looter.
Wadah Al Qurshi attributes the large number of land confiscation cases to the immunity that many high ranking officials enjoy which makes them in a sense ‘above the law’ as well as the lack of a judicial police that would help implement the laws that are not executed.
Meanwhile, lawyer and activist Salah Al Qumeiri, says that “ the worsening security in the south has permitted many looters – including military officials – to move to Al Hudeida.” He adds that the looting reached an all time high in 2011/2012 during the protests that the country witnessed; worried about the situation, the old regime started to issue orders to give lands to high-ranking officials.
In 2011, members of the 67th aviation brigade, the 130th air force battalion and the Republican Guard Battalion (those who had received the presidential memo number 4517 dated October 15) attacked lands that were within “the boundaries of Al Hudeida airport,”. These areas are internationally recognized for aircraft landing and take-off, which are estimated at 1400 metres.
The soldiers took over the airport territory after a memo from the governorate was issued (from the secretary-general of the local council, General Hasan Ahmad Al Haige) to the director of the Land Authority Department asking him to survey the territory and take the necessary steps to convert it into housing for the soldiers.
When the situation worsened, the matter was referred to the president who issued an order in August 2012 for the setting up of a fact-finding committee to delineate the airport boundaries, remove any obstacles and investigate with the looters and those high-ranking officials and collaborators. Despite this, according to the airport deputy director Ali Al Tweety, the lands remain confiscated until today.
Al Hodeida governor Akram Attiya explains “the airport crisis is old but has intensified recently due to the situation in the country, with complications arising and soldiers using arms. I met with the security committee chaired by the air force commander as well as the leader of the 67th brigade and explained that we cannot as leaders allow the situation to get out of hand in such a manner, however, the committee members told us that they cannot stand up to the military in such a precarious situation with the soldiers rebelling.”
Airport sources (who preferred to remain anonymous) confirm that sensitive navigation equipment belonging to the airport was confiscated by the soldiers who are unaware of the importance of such equipment to flight safety and monitoring.
Deputy director of the Civil Aviation Authority in Al Hudeida Ali Al Tweety explains that international aviation safety regulations call for a 1400 metre area of land surrounding the airport. However, due to the confiscations, this has now gone down to a mere 400 metres. If the situation continues the airport will have to close down soon.
When this reporter met with a leader of the air force battalion and the republican guard battalion regarding the 1000 metres of airport land they had confiscated they told us that the land had been purchased by the Ministry of Defence for military housing. They also said that a number of high-ranking officials also had land in their possession, but they had not been asked to vacate the areas near the airport. Air force officer, Major Hasan Al Bari’, says: “Former air force and aviation defence commander Mohammad Saleh Al Ahmar has confiscated all the lands. However, we soldiers do not have any housing.”
This reporter called the office of the Minister of Defence and the Armed Forces Moral Incentives Bureau to get confirmation on the matter, but her requests were not answered.
The chief of the military housing fund Staff-General Abdul Rahman Al Adeemy confirms that the ministry usually builds military housing and hands it over to soldiers in instalments. However, he had no knowledge of land bought near the airport. The director of the Al Hudeida Land Office branch says: “the Authority considers the soldiers in violation and they have not been given any ownership deeds.”
As to the reasons behind the soldiers of the 10th brigade and the air force not leaving Al Jameesha lands nor the airport, the governor clarifies that “the security forces alone are unable to confront the soldiers and Ministry of Defence orders were to send a unit to remove them. However, these were repealed since the bases were now in the hands of rebel soldiers with large amounts of ammunition as well as tanks.
Al Hodeida governor, Akram Attiya, considers the land confiscation the main source of tension in the area. The looting, which has now turned into a political movement known as the “Tihama Movement” requires a fair solution for the “Tihama Crisis”. Analysts fear that this might turn into a conflict in the area especially since most of the officials were from other governorates such as Sana’a, Abeen, Thamar, Ma’arab, Dale’ and Ta’ez.
Journalist and legal activist Baseem Al Janani says: “Most of the demands regarding this issue have recently become part of a peaceful movement mainly relying on speeches calling for an end to the looting.” Many fear that this might take a highly politicalized turn as in the case of the movements in the southern governorates, which went from calls for legitimacy to separation and independence.
The citizens of Al Jameesha village are still waiting without land and source of income, with their situation worsening from day to day after the soldiers had commenced building on the confiscated lands.
Abcar Shleeta, Shoba’ Suleiman and tens of others are looking for someone to protect them and have their lands retrieved. The citizens are hoping for an implementation of the president’s promises to solve this problem; and a new fact-finding committee has been established. However, those we have spoken to, be they ordinary citizens or movement leaders, have voiced their fears that this one’s fate may be the same as its predecessor. The old scenario may be repeated with a condemnation of the acts of looting without the implementation of any measures to retrieve the lands.
This investigation was completed with support from Arab Reporters for Investigative Journalism and coached by Hussein Al Wadei