Revenge Landmines of the Arab Spring

In the mountains of Yemen, a strange and deadly face-off between elite soldiers and rebellious villagers could have big international consequences.

BANI JORMOOZ, Yemen — All that remains of nine-year-old Fawaz al-Husn's left leg is a tightly bandaged stump that ends somewhere above where his knee once was. His right leg was also crushed in the blast, which erupted when he stepped on an anti-personnel landmine near his home in al-Khabsha village, less than 20 miles north of the Yemeni capital, Sanaa.

Fawaz had followed one of his sheep onto farmland that abuts a government military facility near the village when the mine went off on April 12. "The soldiers from the base's towers watched me" on the ground, he says. "They were afraid to come and help."

It fell to the boy's neighbor, Mohammed Yahya, to pull Fawaz from the field. He heard the explosion and came running toward the blast. Fawaz's uncle managed to slow the bleeding with a tourniquet as they rushed him to a Sanaa hospital in the back of a pickup truck. He was drifting in and out of consciousness.

Fawaz is the latest -- and the third member of his extended family -- to fall victim to a landmine explosion since 2011 in Bani Jormooz, a district just north of Sanaa. In the midst of the Arab Spring uprising that gripped the country in 2011, members of Yemen's 63rd and 81st Republican Guard units laid approximately 8,000 fresh landmines in the area, their immediate commanders later admitted in mediation sessions with villagers -- an act that clearly violates the international Anti-Personnel Mine Ban Treaty to which Yemen is a signatory. At the time, Ahmed Ali Saleh, son of the country's yet-to-be ousted President Ali Abdullah Saleh, was the head of all Republican Guard units.

Villagers say the mines were laid on 19 separate sites across tracts of farmland and in desert wadis surrounding two key military bases in Bani Jormooz. They also claim the mines -- laid mostly in areas of non-strategic importance such as vineyards -- were intended as a form of collective punishment after armed local tribesmen overran the base and harassed soldiers loyal to the regime, killing the 63rd Republican Guard's Commander Ahmed Kolabi.

A spokesperson for Yemen's Interior Ministry confirmed that the government is aware of the allegations made against the Republican Guard units in Bani Jormooz, and that an investigation is taking place alongside a mediation process between locals and military commanders. The Republican Guard declined to comment on the allegations for this article.

The origin of the tension between the community in Bani Jormooz and the Republican Guard unit is disputed, although the presence of the two large bases in the area has always been a point of contention for local farmers who claim that the army is occupying their land. In the spring of 2011, the conflict escalated after residents prevented Yemen's 1st Infantry Brigade, commanded by another of the former president's sons, Khaled Ali Abdullah Saleh, from using the road running across the district to move troops from Sanaa to suppress revolutionaries in the country's east.

Ali Muhsin Al-Khabsha, a truck driver from Bani Jormooz, claims that tribesman made "a promise not to allow any military forces to move across our land, after we were outraged by the massacre of protesters on the 18th of March in Sanaa in which 45 of our brothers were martyred." Another man, Fares Ahmed Al-Dahrah, who lives a stone's throw from the base, said that after the road was blocked, the water tanks in the village were repeatedly shot at and drained by small arms fire as punishment for the community's disobedience.

A series of clashes between local tribesman -- armed with small arms and rocket-propelled grenades -- and the army ensued, eventually escalating into a small-scale war. Between June and September 2011, the army deployed tanks and Katyusha rockets against rebellious villagers -- and it was at this point that the minefields were sown.

The mountainous region of Bani Jormooz is of enormous strategic importance to the government because it controls the airspace needed to land planes in the capital city's only airport. Making matters worse, the area is known for its fiercely independent tribes, lawlessness, and frequent incidences of kidnapping.

Regardless of the circumstances, accusations of mine use in 2011 mean that Yemen's government could garner the dubious accolade of being the first state signatory of the Mine Ban Treaty caught laying anti-personnel mines.

According to Steve Goose, director of Human Rights Watch's Arms Division, such a revelation would have "huge implications for the state of the treaty," which has been hailed as a rare example of a cohesive international treaty widely observed by its members.

"If true, this would be the most serious violation of the treaty ever, and the first time use by a state would have been confirmed. How the government of Yemen and other state parties react to this will be crucial to the long-term integrity of the treaty," says Goose.

The allegations against Yemen's government come just days before delegates from the 161 state signatories to the Mine Ban Treaty are scheduled to meet in Geneva to assess its implementation.

During a visit to Bani Jormooz in April, residents produced bags of mines recovered from the ground using rudimentary methods. They included four different types of anti-personnel mines, including large numbers of Hungarian manufactured GYATA-64 type mines, known to be among the most powerful anti-personnel devices ever manufactured. Locals also produced plastic East German PPM2 mines and two variations of Soviet wooden PMD-5 landmines -- all were manufactured before the end of the Cold War.

Yemen laid thousands of anti-personnel mines during its various periods of civil strife in the second half of the 20th century. But in 1997, the country signed the mine ban treaty, pledging to abandon the practice, and in 2002 it declared that it had destroyed its landmine stockpiles -- a claim which will likely now be disputed. Yemen legally retained 3,760 landmines for "training" purposes under the Mine Ban Treaty, but none of the mines seen in Bani Jormooz was of the types listed in the country's declared inventory.  

More than two years after the uprising toppled Saleh's government, Bani Jormooz still appears to be paying the price for its disloyalty in 2011. In July 2012, a government demining team from Sanaa was actually turned back by troops stationed in Bani Jormooz. According to the region's tribal sheikh, Naseeb al-Khabsha, "There was an agreement, truce, and acknowledgment from the Republican Guards that mines had been laid and the rough numbers of the devices confirmed... but when the survey team arrived they were told at gunpoint to leave." The base's commander, Ahmad al-Jackee, refused to remove the mines because he claimed they were "necessary for the base's protection," according to Khabsha.

Even if the Republican Guards were moved to demine the fields, it's not clear they would know where to start. Adel Amir al-Hosn, a former grape and qat farmer who witnessed the explosion that maimed Fawaz, says the military planted the devices on his land without a clear plan. Whether they would even be able to locate the mines now is anybody's guess.

"The mines were laid hastily in soft sand in the dry river beds and in ploughed fields. Many have shifted after the rains and are now scattered across the land after the flooding. Many are no longer where they were placed," says Hosn, who claims that three members of the Republican Guard were injured in an accidental landmine explosion last year.

Shiekh Khabsha, for his part, has little faith that the responsible commanders will be brought to justice.

"We're just looking for three things. Compensation for the victims of the mines, clearance of remaining minefields, and the removal of remaining Republican Guard posts from our land," he said.

"This nightmare has been running for nearly two whole years now. Farmers can't farm their land, and people can't grow their food. There is a new government in Sanaa; let them show that this is a new beginning."



The 5-Star Tent Village

Life is hard for the millions of Syrians fleeing war. But it's a bit easier at the gleaming Emirati-funded refugee camp in Jordan.

ZARQA, Jordan — The elderly Syrian woman dressed in the traditional jalabiya robe and khimar head covering was tired, but she patiently answered the questions posed to her. "Yes, they killed everybody," she said, alluding to her village in southern Syria. "My son Muhammed … he was serving in the army, and the regime killed him."

The woman, like all those around her, was a refugee from the brutal two-year civil war raging in her homeland. Along with a few members of her immediate family, she had walked across the border into Jordan a few days before and was now waiting in a shaded reception area to be registered at Jordan's newest refugee camp, known as the Emirates-Jordan Camp (EJC).

Her family, along with a few dozen other Syrians of all ages, gathered around to answer questions, to have their voices heard. Unlike this old woman, many were laughing and smiling. They were the lucky ones: Not only had they fled the carnage with their lives, but they had been sent to this specific camp.

An estimated 500,000 Syrian refugees already reside in Jordan, and there is no end in sight to the influx. Opened in April, the EJC is the second camp for Syrian refugees established in the country. Located in a remote desert in Jordan's Halabat district near the city of Zarqa, an hour's drive north of Amman, the United Arab Emirates-funded camp is a marvel of humanitarian work. If there is such a thing as a "five-star refugee camp," international aid workers and refugees agree, this was it.

People on the ground in Jordan rightly praise the conditions at the EJC because they've seen the alternative firsthand. The new camp lives in the shadow of its older, larger, notorious neighbor -- the Zaatari camp, a few dozen miles north.

Zaatari, which holds an estimated 150,000 refugees, is now described as "Jordan's fifth-largest city." It is a teeming shantytown of tents, a massive strain on local and foreign resources, and a potential incubator of unrest. On April 19, a mass riot broke out in the camp, pitting stone-wielding refugees against Jordanian gendarmerie. Such disturbances have increased in recent months, leaving aid workers perplexed.

"No one knows what they want," a Jordanian aid worker employed by an international organization told me. "[Rioting] seems to be their way of communicating recently."

But the EJC, which as of late April held 2,000 refugees (with plans to expand up to 25,000), seems a world away from the headaches in Zaatari. It is located off a dusty two-lane highway in a far-flung corner of Jordan's vast eastern desert -- for miles all around, nothing is visible except brown sand. Rising out of this landscape is row upon row of identical white prefabricated caravans, laid out neatly at equal distances, surrounded by high metal fencing. The caravans are the EJC's first and most prominent innovation: Instead of tents, refugees are essentially provided with mobile homes.

The EJC is intended for families because, as one camp official explained, it doesn't make sense to "provide one caravan for two people." This one fact has a broad impact on camp life: It's not a coincidence that I heard the EJC referred to by refugees, with an ironic flourish, as a "VIP camp."

The "VIP treatment" permeates everything at the EJC. Large prefab hangars serve as television rooms, while others serve as "pantries" for coffee and tea, separate from the actual kitchens. An expansive plaza will function as a public commercial space, replete with a stand-alone minaret and a large supermarket selling goods at below-market prices. A hairdresser has already set up shop there.

Solar panels provide electricity to each zone of the camp, a battery of water tanks connected to underground plumbing offer clean running water, and a playground gives kids a chance, as one educational volunteer put it, "to be children again." The camp also has an enclosed school area with room for 4,000 students, and tidy medical facilities staffed primarily by Syrian doctors, refugees themselves. It all gives the impression of a real town, of permanence -- and camp officials weren't shy at pointing out that the standard of living inside their "town" was likely higher than in neighboring Jordanian communities.

On several occasions, I had to ask my hosts from the Emirati Red Crescent, who were touring me around the camp, to repeat what they said, so incredible did their descriptions sound. For instance, an entire "green area" was in the works, where in six months trees and grass were to grow out of the barren desert soil. The vast hangar where refugees received free clothing featured new garments with their price tags still attached -- a $500 coat, a $160 pair of jeans. "I can't even afford to buy this in my country," an Emirati volunteer said sheepishly.

Given the limited resources at play and the unprecedented scale of the Syrian refugee crisis, why lavish so much money on a camp set to only hold 25,000 people? The volunteer shrugged, and said, "It's the decision of the [Emirati] government." This is apparently the way the United Arab Emirates (UAE) does humanitarian work.

The camp's conditions were succeeding in cultivating goodwill for the UAE among the Syrian refugees, but it did nothing for their opinion of the United States. In conversations with the refugees at the EJC, only one man, Faisal, a 60-year-old mukhtar, or representative, of one of the camp's seven zones, explicitly wanted to thank "all the governments of the world for their help to the Syrian refugees." More common, however, once people found out I was an American journalist, was the refrain, "Where is Obama?"

"We need American planes," one middle-aged Syrian man told me. Another younger man added, "If America wanted [Bashar al-Assad] gone, he'd be gone in one day … but Israel wants it to be the way it is."

The Syrian refugees wanted the world to know how the Assad regime was "butchering and massacring" his own people; they wanted to emphasize the worsening conditions inside Syria. But above all they wanted American help. Daraa, the southern region where most of the refugees were from, "was finished," one refugee told me. "Everyone is here."

I asked these men how long they expected to remain as refugees -- how long, in fact, did they imagine the war would go on for? They looked at me quizzically. "You tell us," one older Syrian man said.

Despite the fact that the United States has contributed the bulk of international humanitarian aid, the refugees expect more. The massive Zaatari camp, managed by what they view as the "Western" United Nations, is seen as a blight ("zero stars"), while the Emirati-run EJC is described, rightfully, as a "five-star" home.

The EJC's lavishness is even more perplexing given the United Nations' well-publicized cash shortfalls in tackling the Syria crisis. Even with a $300 million infusion by Kuwait and an additional $300 million given by U.S. President Barack Obama's administration over the past three months, U.N. humanitarian agencies say that they have only half the funds to cover their activities for the first half of this year. According to the latest figures from the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, there is a $250 million funding gap in Jordan alone. A January donor conference in Kuwait drummed up over $1.5 billion in pledges, but the U.N.'s money troubles have persisted as donors have failed to make good on their promises.

One veteran Jordanian aid worker I spoke to in Amman said that the sizable difference between donor pledges from Persian Gulf states and the actual money given came down to "politics." "They want control over events on the ground," he told me. Instead of working solely through international channels, the Emiratis decided to build the EJC directly in cooperation with the Jordanian government, with international relief agencies subsequently brought in as partners.

Providing Syrian refugees with safe, humane, and comfortable accommodations, after all they've been through, is of course noble work. But as I walked around the camp, there was little doubt that the Emiratis had other motives as well.

It is no coincidence that a large billboard at the camp's entrance projects the images of Jordan's King Abdullah side by side with Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan, the president of the UAE. Every medical facility in the camp has a small white sign at the doorway stating that it is a gift from the "Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan Foundation -- United Arab Emirates." The Emirati staff running the camp appeared to be on a first-name basis with many of the refugees, hugging and joking with them. While Washington debates the merits of a "hard-power" military intervention in Syria, the Gulf states have already been arming the rebels; while Washington provides large amounts of humanitarian aid money, it is countries such as the United Arab Emirates that have been steadily increasing their "soft power" among the Syrian people.

The relative luxury of the EJC can almost make a visitor forget the brutal reality of why all those Syrians were there in the first place. As part of their activities, the educational volunteers asked the children to draw images of familiar places and people -- "their sources of strength," one volunteer called it. Among pictures of their old homes, of moms and sisters, and of relatives still in Syria, some drew a place they surely had never been, yet probably felt like they already knew: "The Emirates."

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