By Ahmed al-Wase’ee and Aseel Sariah
Sanaa, Yemen, March 2,2017 ( Yemen Observer )- Sixty-six years after the anti-slavery convention and 44 years after Yemen’s implementation of that treaty, Yemen still has “masters and slaves”.
The International Day for the Abolition of Slavery recalls the adoption of the UN Convention for the Suppression of the Traffic in Persons and of the Exploitation of the Prostitution of Others (resolution 317(IV) of December 2, 1949).
This is what journalists Ahmed al-Wase’ee and Aseel Sariah found after a six-month investigation across Yemen, especially in Hajjah and Hodeidah — scene of ongoing confrontations between the military and popular committees on one hand and the Saudi-led/US-backed Coalition on the other hand.
This prompted both journalists to follow the case to determine, with proof, the validity of allegations on continued slavery with proof.
The Beginning Of The Story
In the northern outskirts of Yemen and near the border with Saudi Arabia, where the endless desert stretches hugging towering mountains, dozens of forgotten stories are hidden. The lives of these slaves are as dry as the terrain while their eyes hide an eternal distress since the moments of their birth.
The investigation started in the city of A’abs, 233-km northwest of Sana’a, where both journalists met Mohammed Kal’oom, 50, at his modest house to talk about slavery in the region.
Referring to the black color of his skin, Mohammed said: “Slavery still exists and is rooted… we still suffer from it, especially from those with light skin, whether they are Sayyids (Descendants of Prophet Mohammed through his daughter Fatima and his Grandsons, Hassan and Hussein) or other Arabs, who look down at us and call us slaves”.
All this, despite the fact that “we are free and slaves to no one”.
Mohammed, working in the education sector for many years, said he did not get his professional rights because he is descendant of slaves.
“I started working in 2002 as Deputy Director of the Department of Education, and when the former Director Abdulrab Sa’el died, some local social figures in the district refused my appointment as his predecessor because they view me as not suitable on ground I’m still a slave”, they say.
Mohammad is no exception. There are many like him in this region.
Accompanied by Mohammed, both journalists went toward the Aslam District of Hajjah Province, 140 km north of the capital Sana’a and close to the military operations’ zone on the border with Saudi Arabia.
In one of the valleys of Aslam District, we met Khalid, who belongs to the so-called “slaves”. In response to our question, he said slaves still exist in his area. “There are people in the region, who are called the slaves of certain families or clans”. He said he knew some of them, all followers of some of the tribal Sheikhs (leaders).
Although Khalid is a descendant of a family of slaves, he wanted to meet a slave who is still owned. “They are still present in the al-Thalouth area, about 20 km away from my village” he said adding: “I’m honestly afraid anything would happen to you”.
To reach our goal, we headed to the Valley of Wadi Mawr, one of the Districts of Hodeidah Province west of Yemen. On our way, discrimination against the so-called descents of slaves was clear.
Houses of Clay
Khabti Sho’ee, 36, is one of the so-called slaves in the Wadi Mawr District of Hodeidah Province . He said: “A slave is still a slave, and is treated as a slave… Segregation and racism still exist,” Wondering with a sigh, he asked: “Have you seen a slave become a sergeant? Have you seen a slave become a Director of a District? Have you seen a slave become a doctor? Have you ever seen a slave become a TV presenter?”
The descendants of the so-called slaves here are denied many things compared to the Arabs. This is a custom with rules. The so-called slaves in some areas of Wadi Mawr are prevented from owning land or building houses from stone. Khabti confirmed this saying: “Our houses are made of clay and we have no right to build houses from rocks or brick stone because we do not own any lands and we suffer unemployment”.
He said that if a “slave wants to buy a piece of land he is denied to do so by the light-skinned people, God created you a slave for other people…”.
Khabti confirmed that the “masters allow them to exercise certain rights associated with the masters and Sheikhs in the area”. He said that they “only have the right to vote on the elections’ day. And they order us to vote for whoever they please and that’s it, this is the only right we possess by order of the Sheikh or the governor, I bear witness that we only possess this right, and nothing else”.
Other much simpler rights are also denied to the so-called descendants of slaves such as getting married to Arabs or Sayyids.
We met Ibrahim Ashour, 35, who fell in love with an Arab girl and wanted to marry her. However, he was shocked by the position of society though the girl loved him as well.
“I tried more than once over three years by proposing or via Sheikhs or court officials , but my request to marry this was rejected because she was from a higher class of society, and I am, as they say, a slave”. Ibrahim, however, did not lose hope despite having to go through a tough times and now the couple is happily married with a boy and a girl.
An Owned Slave
We continued our search for a slave owned by a tribal sheikh through an intermediary living in an area close to the border with Saudi. There we met Mansour (alias name), a 28-year-old slave owned by one of the sheikhs. He and his family were inherited through his first grandfather, as Mansour recalled.
Although Mansour had given us approval to be video recorded, he disappeared after he was contacted by his master, the sheikh, from Sana’a and asked to take his approval before filming.
We contacted the Sheikh asking for approval to interview Mansour on camera but out request was turned down. We were told that we can pay money to free Mansour and then “film with him whatever we want”.
Back to Sana’a
The way back from the tribal areas toward the capital carried traces of a revolution that lost its priorities. Even after all these years, the presidency had no solution other than pointing a finger at local authorities.
In Sana’a we met the official of the Commission on Human Rights at the Presidency, Sha’if Jarallah and briefed him on our findings. He responded: “This is a violation of the law and the constitution. It runs contrary to human right values and conventions which Yemen has signed. We hold the local authorities of the provinces of Hodeidah and Hajjah responsible for effectively carrying out their duties and roles”.
A Dead Revolution
In 1962, a coup d’état started the Yemeni revolution. It has six goals including the abolition of slavery and an end to social discrimination. The first president of Yemen, Abdullah al-Sallal, issued a decree in 1962, abolishing slavery and liberating slaves. But the decree did not state any penalty for those who still own slaves.
However, Article (248) of the Penal Code of 1994 reads as follows: (Punishable by imprisonment for not more than ten years are:
– Both parties that bought, sold or dedicated any act or conduct using a man as an object (slave).
– both parties that imported or exported man as an object (slave).
Journalist Ahmed Afif said: “Before the republican era, slaves were emancipated by decrees from the royal family of Hamid Adin and by legal documents before they began being liberated in the beginning of the republican by republican decrees “.
Nearly half a century after the revolution, a court in Hajjah Province northwest of Yemen ratified the legitimacy of a slave in 2010, putting the issue in the limelight. After accusations and counter-accusations, the case was closed.
The case was considered politicized by official bodies aiming to stir up political differences in the country, according to the official at the Commission on Human Rights at the Presidency, Sha’if Jarallah.
Though Yemen is party to international agreements since 1972, and despite the issuance of a presidential decree to abolish slavery in 1962, these agreements did not see any commitment by Yemen to implement the resolutions issued by the heads of successive governments. This was also confirmed by Yahya Saleh, President of the Yemeni anti-discrimination organization. He said: “Yemen is party to the Convention on Human rights, especially racial discrimination and slavery since 1972. Yemen signed an international convention that was ratified in 1972. But there have been no change as discrimination and slavery still exist”.
Saleh assureed the journalists that the purchasing and selling of slaves still existed. “…Purchasing and selling slaves in an encapsulated way via sophisticated means still exists. A slave cannot be free and is stuck in a master-slave relationship unless the slave is freed. In front of people he is considered a worker but in reality he is a slave”.