Desperate Yemenis dig up and sell landmines as 'booty of war'

Flooding has brought explosives to the surface in one of the world's most mined countries

Floodwater has unearthed a number of large anti-tank mines in Yemen. Credit: Project Masam
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In Yemen, years of war, hunger and economic hardship mean landmines have become a form of currency, as people risk their lives to exchange the deadly metal for cash.

Yemen is one of the most mined countries in the world, although the exact number of mines, estimated to be in the millions, is unknown.

In recent weeks, major flooding that killed at least 50 people and impacted tens of thousands of families has also displaced and unearthed dangerous mines.

Civilians, however, have capitalised on this, and have begun hoarding them in the hope of making money by selling them illegally.

“On countless occasions, we have unfortunately witnessed civilians stockpiling landmines and other explosive devices in their homes as a booty of war,” Saudi non-governmental organisation Masam, which has been leading work on de-mining in liberated areas of the country, said in a report obtained exclusively by The National.

Masam said several of its team members have been approached by locals inquiring about the mines the group has collected.

In one weapons market, Masam found landmines selling for an average of 5,000 Yemeni rial, or $20, each.

Masam said it refuses to purchase mines from local traders, fearing that would further encourage the black-market sale of mines.

“Instead, Masam has adapted the policy of food for mines,” managing director and programme manager Ousama Algosaibi told The National.

“This is where Masam offers food and seeds that could be grown in exchange for landmines that civilians have collected.”

Brutal methods

The Houthi takeover of the capital Sanaa in 2014 brought a form of warfare brutal even to the most well-versed experts in the field of de-mining.

Two types of mines are generally found in war zones: anti-tank and anti-personnel mines. The latter are banned by an international treaty.

“Anti-personnel mines have been used in Yemen since 2015 despite the ban and have been booby-trapped in some instances to target the de-miners themselves,” Mr Algosaibi said.

Using even deadlier methods still, the Houthis have modified anti-tank mines, which have a much higher explosive pay-off, to use in an anti-personnel capacity.

Anti-tank mines typically need a weight of about 120kg to activate without the use of a pressure plate.

But, with an added plate switch, they only need as little as 1.8kg to detonate — more than enough to kill a child.

“The sheer number of mines encountered in Yemen, coupled with the deliberate laying designed to target civilians along with the adaptation of anti-tank mines to be triggered as if they were anti-personnel mines among others make Yemen one of the most brutal and inhumane usage of landmines as a terror weapon since the Balkan wars of the 1990s,” Masam's director of special operations, Chris Clark, a veteran mine action expert, told The National.

Masam, the UN and other organisations have documented occasions when the Houthis have planted mines in civilian areas, close to wells, schools and outside mosques.

It means displaced families can find themselves returning home to what is literally a minefield.

Rights groups and NGOs say men have been the most affected by these fatal devices, followed by children.

With the conflict now in its eighth year, the deadliest impact of the war has been landmines, which have caused “more casualties than the fighting”, Masam’s report said.

Updated: August 23, 2022, 8:06 AM