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Land mines in Yemen: Where every step could mean death

Safia Mahdi in Sanaa, Yemen
September 29, 2022

A cease-fire in Yemen war has mostly held. Civilian deaths as a result of bombing or shooting have gone down as a result. But they are rising in another area — because parts of Yemen are littered with land mines.

A young mine victim in Taiz walks on one foot.
Hundreds of Yemenis have been injured by land mines, local monitors sayImage: Khaled Al-Banna

The worst of the war in Yemen, which started in 2014, is likely in the past. Even though the cease-fire that was negotiated earlier in the year is still occasionally being broken and the war is ongoing, there is far less fighting than previously.

A cease-fire between the two sides in the Yemeni conflict —  the Houthi rebels and an international coalition led by Saudi Arabia —  went into effect in April and has since been prolonged twice, most recently in August. The peace deal is giving the millions of Yemenis threatened by war and famine some small respite.

Ever-present danger

But there is another threat that isn't going away, no matter whether fighting stops or not. During the war, many mines were laid and while both sides accuse the other of placing the mines, both deny they have done so.

As a result, some parts of the country have become literal minefields, and for ordinary locals just going about their daily business, there is the omnipresent fear that they might step on one.

"Danger land mines," sign on a wall in the city of Taiz alerts passersby.
'Danger, land mines,' says a sign on a wall in the city of TaizImage: Khaled Al-Banna

In July, the UN's Special Envoy for Yemen, Hans Grundberg, noted that the number of people wounded in regular fighting had decreased by around two-thirds but that now most of the injuries being reported were as the result of land mines and unexploded ordnances.

On Sept. 22, a joint statement by 30 different humanitarian organizations to the UN's General Assembly, reported on this ongoing problem again. "While civilian casualties dropped by more than 50% during the first three months of the truce, compared to the three months prior, casualties as a result of land mines and unexploded ordnances have continued to rise, even while the truce holds," they wrote.

Humanitarian organizations have also said that mines hamper the distribution of badly needed aid and prevent Yemenis from planting or harvesting crops.

Map of countries contaminated by landmines

Yemeni authorities have not released any statistics with regard to how many people have been injured or killed by land mines. But Fares al-Hamiri, head of the Yemen Landmine Monitor said his organization has counted 426 people killed by mines, from the middle of 2019 up until August 2022. That includes more than 100 children.

The organization has also registered more then 560 injured in these kinds of incidents. Once again, women and children make up a significant proportion, with 216 children and 48 women among the wounded.

A tragic step

Mohammed Zuhair is one of the latter. After leaving his home in western Yemen with his family because of the war in 2018, the 45-year-old eventually returned home, several months later. Security conditions in the area had improved substantially and it seemed to Zuhair that a comparatively normal civilian life might be possible there again.

But on the way back, Zuhair walked over a mine that was hidden at the entrance to his village. His lower extremities were badly injured and he was brought to the local hospital. As Zuhair recounted to DW, when he awoke, he was shocked to find that one of his legs had been amputated.

Dalilah, a Yemeni woman - An anti-personnel landmine explosion turned her wedding into a tragedy and her feet were amputated.
Dalilah, a woman from Taiz, lost both her feet after stepping on a mine just before her wedding dayImage: Khaled Al-Banna

Dalilah, a 33-year-old local woman living in the city of Taiz in southwestern Yemen, suffered a similar fate. She lost her lower legs after stepping on a mine around five years ago, just one day before her wedding. Three other women in her family were with her and were mutilated by the explosion. Dalilah now gets around using prosthetic legs she only recently received.

The accident didn't just hamper her mobility, it also brought her family close to financial ruin. As is traditional in Yemen, her family had arranged to pay a dowry to her husband-to-be and to do so, they had to borrow money. However after her accident, the groom said he no longer wanted to marry Dalilah. Even so, he kept the money, leaving Dalilah's family with huge debts.

"I can hardly bear it, having to move around without legs and with these prosthestics," she told DW.

Dalilah is grateful to the organization, Doctors Without Borders, which gave her the prosthetic limbs via her hospital, even if these are not necessarily in the best condition and often need repairs. Dalilah still works as a street vendor. At least, she is able to earn some money, she said.

Yemenis walk in the rebel-besieged city of Taez.
It will take years to de-mine all of Yemen, local experts saidImage: AHMAD AL-BASHA/AFP/Getty Images

The danger posed by mines in Yemen was exacerbated by recent floods and heavy rain. The excess water not only destroyed the homes of poorer families it also unearthed and floated mines into areas that previously had none.

Clearly it will take a huge effort to de-mine all of these areas, Amin al-Aqili, head of the Yemen Executive Mine action Center, which is run by the internationally recognized government, has said. And most likely decades too, he told local journalists in August.

This story was originally written in Arabic.