(Beirut) – The use of landmines by Houthi forces and their allies in Yemen’s third-largest city of Taizz has caused numerous civilian casualties and hinders the return of families displaced by the fighting. The Houthis, also known as Ansar Allah, and allied forces loyal to former president Ali Abdullah Saleh should immediately cease using these weapons and all parties to Yemen’s conflict should observe the 1997 Mine Ban Treaty, which Yemen joined in 1998.
On August 9, 2016, 11 civilians, including seven children, were killed by an antivehicle mine in al-Waziyah, a western part of Taizz, a local activist told Human Rights Watch. Two of the children were 4 years old.
“Houthi and allied forces are showing cold-hearted cruelty toward civilians by using landmines,” said Steve Goose, arms director at Human Rights Watch. “Yemen’s warring parties should immediately stop laying mines, destroy mines in their possession and ensure that demining teams can work unimpeded so that families can safely return home.”
Human Rights Watch interviewed 14 people in Taizz, including landmine victims or their relatives, and Taizz-based medical professionals and deminers. Human Rights Watch also spoke with Yemeni mine clearance officials from northern Yemen and a demining activist from the south.
While total figures for landmine casualties in Taizz are not available, landmines killed at least 18 people and wounded more than 39 in the Taizz governorate between May 2015 and April 2016, according to Against Mines National Organization (AMNO), a Taizz-based group. All but one of the 18 deaths documented were caused by antivehicle mines, while nine of 11 permanent injuries were from antipersonnel mines. The group documented that landmines in Taizz killed five children, caused permanent disabilities to four, and otherwise wounded 13.
Yemenis clearing mines in Taizz and medical professionals said that landmines have caused dozens of civilian casualties since March. Human Rights Watch investigated the cases of five people who have been maimed by antipersonnel mines in Taizz since March.
In June, Dr. Suhail al-Dabhani, general director at Taizz’s al-Rawda Hospital, told Human Rights Watch that since late April, the hospital had treated 50 people – 30 men, 8 women, and 12 children – who had one or more limbs amputated and who he believed had been wounded by landmines. One landmine victim he treated was 9 years old.
Essam al-Bathra, who leads a volunteer group at a Taizz rehabilitation center that assists people with prosthetic limbs, said the center has had at least 29 cases of landmine-related injuries since it reopened on May 9, after being closed for nearly a year because of fighting in the city.
The Houthis and allied forces loyal to former president Saleh occupied parts of Taizz from March 2015 until March 2016, including areas where Human Rights Watch has documented civilian casualties from antipersonnel mines. Deminers who entered these areas soon after Houthi and allied forces withdrew have since cleared and destroyed mines from areas that were not known to have been mined before the conflict.
Officials at the Ministry of Human Rights in Sanaa, controlled by the Houthis and Saleh’s General People’s Congress party, told Human Rights Watch in late July that the Houthis and allied forces did not use antipersonnel mines. An official with the office of the Supreme Revolutionary Committee, a Houthi body, said in early August that the group did not plant antipersonnel mines in the city of Taizz. He acknowledged Houthi use of antivehicle mines, but said the use was “in military areas” only and claimed that civilian casualties from antivehicle mines were rare. The official alleged that other, unnamed, armed groups in Yemen had used antipersonnel mines.
In a September response to a Human Rights Watch letter, the Foreign Affairs Ministry in Sanaa, controlled by the Houthis and the General People’s Congress, did not address Human Rights Watch findings, but stated that Yemen was committed to the Mine Ban Treaty and prepared to create a committee to investigate the use of landmines in Taizz after the conflict ended.
Authorities in Sanaa should not wait to investigate Houthi and allied forces’ use of landmines, Human Rights Watch said, but should take immediate steps to ensure that affiliated forces cease using antipersonnel mines, destroy any antipersonnel mines they possess, and appropriately punish those using these indiscriminate weapons.
Col. Taher Humaid, a volunteer engineer with the Taizz National Association for Demining, said his demining team began work in Taizz in early March in neighborhoods from which Houthi and allied forces had recently withdrawn. His team cleared landmines from 16 locations, including al-Hasseb and al-Zounog neighborhoods, where Human Rights Watch documented civilian casualties from antipersonnel mines.
Humaid also reported that his team cleared and destroyed 24 improvised explosive devices (IEDs) between March and April. Victim-activated IEDs that explode due to the presence, proximity, or contact of a person fall under the definition of an antipersonnel landmine and are prohibited by the Mine Ban Treaty.
In August, the national Yemen Executive Mine Action Center told Human Rights Watch that their staff had cleared 32 antipersonnel mines and 25 antivehicle mines in Taizz governorate since March.
The 1997 Mine Ban Treaty prohibits the use of antipersonnel mines under any circumstances. Antivehicle mines, while not internationally banned, are often used in violation of international humanitarian law, for example when used indiscriminately or when inadequate precautions are taken to avoid civilian casualties.
International assistance is urgently needed in Yemen to equip and train personnel to systematically survey and clear mines and explosive remnants of war from areas that have recently experienced fighting, Human Rights Watch said. Appropriate compensation, assistance, and support should be provided to those wounded and to the families of victims, including medical care and rehabilitation.
The United Nations Human Rights Council should adopt the recommendation of the High Commissioner for Human Rights to create an independent international commission of inquiry to investigate serious laws-of-war violations by all parties to the conflict in Yemen, Human Rights Watch said.
Human Rights Watch is a founding member of the International Campaign to Ban Landmines, which received the 1997 Nobel Peace Prize for its efforts to bring about the Mine Ban Treaty and for its contributions to a new international diplomacy based on humanitarian imperatives.
“Antipersonnel landmines are inherently indiscriminate and should never be used by anyone under any circumstances,” Goose said. “Their use in Yemen is adding to the misery of a devastating war whose effects will last for years to come.”
Landmine use in Taizz
Taizz is Yemen’s third-largest city, located between the capital, Sanaa, controlled by the Houthis since late 2014, and the port city of Aden, which was recaptured by pro-government forces in July 2015. Since at least September 2015, the Houthis and their allies, including forces loyal to former president Ali Abdullah Saleh, have restricted deliveries of food and medical supplies to Taizz, effectively surrounding the city and maintaining checkpoints at the city’s two main entry points. After the recent conflict began in March 2015, at least two-thirds of Taizz’s pre-war population fled the city, according to the United Nations.
Forces opposed to the Houthis control the city center, including Islah, a Sunni Islamist political party, youth activists, Salafists, and other militant Islamists, according to local residents.
In March and April 2015, Houthi and allied forces took over the residential al-Hasseb and al-Zounog neighborhoods, as well as many other areas in the city. Hael al-Hlaly, a Taizz-based lawyer and human rights activist, told Human Rights Watch that the Houthis and their allies remained in continual control of these areas for about a year. Beginning in early 2016, forces opposed to the Houthis began forcing Houthi and allied forces out of various parts of the city.
Intense fighting in both areas caused many residents to flee. When some residents tried to return home, they found their former neighborhoods contaminated by landmines. Roads leading into Taizz from which Houthi and allied forces withdrew, as well as areas around the city, are also heavily contaminated with landmines, said local demining officials and activists.
In a March report for Sky News, Mohammed al-Qadhi, a Yemeni journalist based in Taizz, reported that Houthi and allied forces laid landmines in many neighborhoods in western Taizz, including al-Hasseb. A resident who had recently returned to Taizz following 11 months of displacement said many other residents were unable to return to their homes due to the continued danger from landmines. A local demining official told Sky News that his team had found 30 IEDs and 27 antivehicle mines along one of the main roads leading into Taizz, which is used to transport much-needed supplies into the city.
Taizz National Association for Demining clearance teams entered al-Hasseb and al-Zounouq neighborhoods after Houthi and allied forces withdrew, said Colonel Humaid, and his demining team began work in early March, clearing and destroying landmines from at least 16 locations.
As peace talks broke down in late July, fighting throughout Yemen intensified. A demining activist in southern Yemen told Human Rights Watch in late July that residents of the town of Karesh reported that Houthi and allied forces had laid antivehicle and antipersonnel mines in their area, between Lahj and Taizz.
Landmines, including mines newly laid during the current conflict, have caused civilian casualties in other governorates of Yemen, experts reported. Yemen Executive Mine Action Center officials reported that Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (which opposes the Houthi alliance) laid landmines in Abyan, and these prevented civilians from returning home to the governorate. A demining activist in southern Yemen told Human Rights Watch that officials found large stockpiles of antipersonnel and antivehicle mines in the port city of Mukalla that allegedly belonged to Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula after the April 2016 coalition campaign to drive the group from the city.
Human Rights Watch previously reported use of antipersonnel mines by Houthi and allied forces in Aden in September 2015, and in Yemen’s southern and eastern governorates in November 2015. Over a two-month period from September to November 2015, landmines killed at least 12 people and wounded at least nine in Aden, Abyan, Marib, Lahj and Taizz. Antivehicle mines accounted for nine of those killed and five wounded, although whether the mine is antivehicle or antipersonnel is often not detailed in local reporting.
Five incidents over the past year in which landmines killed or wounded people in Taizz are detailed below. For security reasons, only victims’ first names are used.
Tha’abat neighborhood, June 21, 2016
Sami, a fighter with forces opposed to the Houthis in Taizz, was wounded by an antipersonnel landmine on June 21, 2016 while walking home through Tha’abat, a residential neighborhood, according to his older brother Rami, 29. The people who rescued Sami told his brother that Sami had been walking through the neighborhood at about 7:30 a.m. when something on the ground suddenly exploded. Rami told Human Rights Watch a month later that Sami was still at the hospital as he was severely wounded by the blast, which blinded him and resulted in the amputation of both his legs below the knee. He now has trouble speaking.
Al-Zounog neighborhood, April 23, 2016
A landmine wounded Ammar, 32, a Taizz resident, in the al-Zounog neighborhood on April 23. Ammar told Human Rights Watch that he went to al-Zounog to try to recover the body of a 20-year-old friend who had been killed a few weeks earlier. No one had been able to retrieve the body, as snipers affiliated with the Houthis and allied forces were in the area.
When Ammar arrived at about 9:30 a.m., the neighborhood “was empty – all the residents had left because of the war,” he said. “Suddenly, an explosion happened… I got confused. I thought it was a grenade, so I started running and I was limping and I felt like I became shorter or I was stepping into a hole. Then I looked and I saw I was missing my left foot.” Ammar was treated at al-Rawda hospital, where the remainder of his left foot was amputated.
Al-Hasseb neighborhood, Taizz, April 1, 2016
Yaser, 23, said he was working with a demining team in al-Hasseb on April 1. The team of 10 deminers arrived at about 8 a.m.:
I was scanning a bystreet [a small street] … I saw some twigs on the ground, so I moved them, and suddenly something exploded and I didn’t feel anything, I just couldn’t move. Seconds later, the team came and took me to al-Rawda hospital. I lost two-thirds of my left foot.
Al-Hasseb neighborhood, Taizz, March 9, 2016
On March 9, a landmine wounded Ra’ed, 27, a college student, and Qayed, 26, his brother, as they attempted to return to their family’s home in the al-Hasseb neighborhood. The family had fled in June 2015 because of the fighting. Houthi forces had occupied the neighborhood but had withdrawn, he said.
They went to their house at about 10:30 a.m., believing it was safe. They found the front door stuck shut so they walked to the back of the house. “Suddenly something exploded,” Ra’ed said. “I didn’t feel anything, but I fell down on the ground and I saw my brother also fell down, and dust was all around. I couldn’t walk, I saw my right foot was bleeding.”
Qayed tried to stop his brother’s bleeding. Hazem, a man who heard the explosion, ran toward them to help, but another mine exploded when he was five meters away and he “fell to the ground with his left leg bleeding and smashed,” Qayed said. All three men were treated at al-Thawra hospital.
I have an amputated right foot now and that is because of the landmine, as everybody later told me… It is a civilian neighborhood, and now the resistance [a reference to armed groups opposed to the Houthis and its allies] has stopped everybody [from going] to the neighborhood, because it is very contaminated with landmines.
Hazem’s left leg was also amputated.
Al-Dubab Road, outside Taizz, September 23, 2015
On September 23, six members of a family, including a child, were killed and three others wounded when their van hit an antivehicle mine. Amt al-Khalek, 27, who survived, said they had been on their way to Taizz from Sanaa to spend the Eid al-Adha holiday with their relatives.
Amt al-Khalek said that nine people were in the van, including her 32-year-old husband, her 5-year-old daughter, and two other children, ages 11 and 13. She said that after the explosion, “I lost consciousness for a few minutes. My little daughter was wounded. All the men died. I remember seeing them bleeding on the ground.”
Ali, the father of one of the men who died, said that after the attack he learned that the family had been warned as they left that the Houthis had mined the road that day after an airstrike on a nearby checkpoint. Amt al-Khalek’s husband, who was driving, tried to turn the car around. “The tire moved just a few centimeters off the road and the explosion happened,” Ali said.
Yemen and the Mine Ban Treaty
Yemen ratified the 1997 Mine Ban Treaty on September 1, 1998, making a commitment never to use antipersonnel mines under any circumstances, and to prevent and suppress the activities prohibited by the treaty. A total of 162 countries are party to the treaty, which comprehensively prohibits the use, production, transfer, and stockpiling of antipersonnel mines and requires their clearance and assistance to victims. In keeping with the international norm being established by the Mine Ban Treaty, Human Rights Watch condemns any use of antipersonnel mines by any party at any time.
In April 2002, Yemen reported to the UN that it had finished destroying its stockpile of four types of antipersonnel mines as required by the treaty. Yet, other types of antipersonnel mines not reported stockpiled by Yemen have since appeared in the country.
From March to August 2016, the Taizz National Association for Demining had cleared 25 PPM-2 mines, Colonel Humaid said, including three from the al-Zounog neighborhood in August. The PPM-2 mines were manufactured in the former East Germany.
Yemen did not report stockpiling the PPM-2 mine, which suggests either that the 2002 declaration to the UN secretary-general on the completion of landmine stockpile destruction was incorrect, or that these mines were acquired from another source after 2002. In its September 2016 letter, the Foreign Affairs Ministry alleged that individuals had smuggled weapons, including landmines, into Yemen in recent years, noting that the government had not been able to control its land or sea borders due to instability and fighting. The ministry did not provide any evidence for this claim.
It is unlikely that any of the PPM-2 antipersonnel mines found in Yemen were manufactured recently. The PPM-2 antipersonnel mines found by deminers in Taizz were marked with a 1981 production date.
Houthi and allied forces also appear to have used antivehicle mines, including TM-62 and TM-57 mines manufactured in the former Soviet Union, and UKA-63 antivehicle mines manufactured in Hungary. Humaid, the local demining official, said that clearance teams cleared and destroyed 66 TM-57 mines in Taizz between March and August 2016, including six from al-Dubab road in August.