SANA'A // Yahia al Umaisi, a flagstones worker, considers guns and jambiya, the traditional curved daggers worn by nearly all Yemeni men, symbols of status, power, manhood and responsibility. "Once my boy becomes a grown-up, I will buy him a jambiya and a gun. They are part of our tradition, which we have to cling to and respect. It is a tradition we inherited from our ancestors," Mr al Umaisi said.
But with 35 people having died in June this year because of the misuse of firearms and with more than 2,000 people losing their lives yearly in gun-related disputes, Yemeni officials are voicing their concerns about the easy access to weapons. "Weapons are a real problem for national unity, investment, the economy and tourism and you MPs have a responsibility to act," Rashad al Alimi, the deputy prime minister, told parliament last month.
Mr al Alimi urged parliament to pass a law proposed by the government several years ago to criminalise unlicensed weapons and carrying arms in public. In both 2005 and 2007, bills that stipulated that Yemenis living in urban areas obtain a licence for each weapon they possess and gave the interior ministry more power to control arms were rejected by influential tribal MPs from both the ruling and opposition parties.
"The government is weak to organise the bearing of arms, let alone the ownership as it does not apply the ban of bearing arms equally on all people," Abbdulkareem Shaiban, a member of the opposition Islah caucus in the parliament, said. "I would be stopped and checked at security checkpoints when I have my pistol despite my immunity. But tribal chiefs escorted by dozens of armed men would pass through without being checked. Some tribal MPs come to parliament accompanied by 20 guards."
Despite parliament's inability to act, the interior ministry has been implementing a campaign against unlicensed firearms in major cities. "The campaign is ongoing since it started in August 2007. But whenever the ministry of interior feels there is respite on the part of the security apparatuses implementing the campaign, orders are refreshed," Ahmed Hail, the head of the interior ministry's information centre, said.
Usually people coming from outside the cities have to submit their arms at the security checkpoint before entering. They get a receipt and can collect them when they are leaving. But those caught trying to take their arms into the cities have them confiscated. The interior ministry said about 300,000 unlicensed firearms have been seized since the campaign started and dozens of weapons shops have been closed for selling unlicensed guns. There are about 18 main weapon markets and an estimated 300 small gun shops across the country. The most important markets are Suq al Talh in Sa'ada province, which has been a battlefield for a sporadic conflict between the al Houthi rebels and the government since 2004 and government officials have said that the rebels obtain their weapons from the local markets. Prior to the most recent campaign, the government started in 2005 a buy back programme, supported by the United States, of heavy weapons from tribesmen, which included rocket propelled grenades, anti-aircraft missiles and hand grenades. The Yemeni government said it spent $US40 million (Dh146.9m) on the campaign. It showed journalists in August 2007 piles of weapons it said were bought back from the tribes. The effort has not continued, however, as a result of inadequate funding. There are no exact figures for the number of firearms in circulation in Yemen. But a recent study carried out by Abdulsalam al Hakimi, a professor of sociology at Taiz University, showed that firearms are in about 60 per cent of the country's households and that Yemeni citizens possess about 10 million firearms. A United Nations-sponsored small arms survey, released in August 2007, concluded that Yemenis own between six million and 17 million firearms. Mr Hail said the interior ministry lacks the legal grounds to confiscate weapons, but says the proposed legislation would change that. Adel al Sharjabi, a professor of sociology at Sana'a University, disagrees. "This problem of weaponry will not be solved if the new draft law is passed," he said. "We do have nice laws but most of them are not enforced. "I know there are some influential tribal chiefs and weapons mongers whose interest lies in such a chaotic situation. "But when citizens finally receive equal treatment and get justice when they approach the judiciary, they would not have to use arms to defend their rights. Their weapons will collect dust at home and be pieces of heritage if the government does them justice." However, the current security situation in parts of the country have many Yemenis, such as Mohammed al Kunani, a 32-year-old teacher, compelled to buy a gun for personal protection. "I tried to avoid possessing weapons for several years while living in Sana'a. I resisted the insistence of my friends that I should own a gun or two for self-defence. However, at last I bought a Kalashnikov gun eight months ago. "Security problems are on the rise and I can hear the gunfire over land disputes even in the capital and the government is not able to stop them. "I realised that everyone should possess a gun for self-defence." Mr Hail counters this argument by saying government efforts to keep weapons out of cities have helped in reducing crime. "I can confirm that there has been a significant decrease in the number of gunfire disputes in the urban areas. People used to hang around with their arms and any slight problem might flare [into] the use of gunfire. Small problems used to turn to bigger criminal issues with firearms at hand," he said. firstname.lastname@example.org