Arhab’s Unfinished War

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Ali Saeed Published:26-01-2012

Lacking safe access for media coverage, the war which erupted last May between opposition tribesmen and the Republican Guard in Arhab continues to be waged.

Arhab, which sits 30km north of Sana'a and has a population of about 200,000 people, is full of armed tribesmen who strictly adhere to tribal customs and have a very limited tolerance for state soldiers unwilling to listen to their demands.

The eight-month-long war commenced after local tribesmen sided with the youth revolution calling for the fall of Ali Abdullah Saleh’s 33-year-old regime.

The Republican Guard, Yemen's elite army division, is commanded by outgoing President Saleh’s son and has five military bases in Arhab.

“Arhab represents the gate to Sana'a – if tribesmen took control of the area, it would mean that Sana’a was in their hands,” Saleh Al-Zubair, an Arhabi tribal leader loyal to Saleh’s regime, told the Yemen Times.

Dr. Mohamed Saeed, a community leader in Arhab, said in a conversation with the Yemen Times that when the youth revolution broke out in Sana’a, tribesmen sent a tribal mediation committee to leaders from the area's Republican Guard military bases asking them to take a neutral stance and not to side with any particular political party.

According to Saeed, tribesmen in effect told the military leaders: “You are the army for all Yemenis; to remain in our land, you should be neutral.”

However, the area's military commanders responded that citizens have no right to imposes opinions on the state and declined to engage with the mediation committee.

Following this failed attempt at communication, the Republican Guard began setting up new checkpoints in Arhab. Clashes ensued almost immediately.

The spark of war

The killing of four tribesmen by at these new checkpoints by Republican Guard soldiers sparked the war on May. 25, 2011. Local tribesmen vowed that they wouldn't see their fellow men slaughtered by soldiers in their area.

Since that point, fierce battles have continued, with large numbers of human casualties and high amounts of property loss, leaving thousands of local citizens displaced.

Despite the formation of a military committee in accordance with the GCC power transition deal, the committee has yet to achieve many of its stated tasks, those focused on Sana'a included.

“Up until now, we have not heard of any interventions by the military committee to halt the fighting in Arhab,” Dr. Saeed said.

The same understanding can be applied to the national consensus government, which vowed to Parliament that it would prevent all armed confrontation in the country.

Though Republican Guard brigades in Arhab are more militarily advanced, tribesmen have managed to occupy military bases and even succeeded in shooting down a warplane in September.

Local tribesmen also killed eleven soldiers and officers in late September. Among the slain was the brigade's commander, General Abdullah Al-Kulaibi. The tribesmen also took control of the brigade's base and confiscated available weapons.

The base has since been retaken following the use of warplanes against the tribesmen.

Government warplanes were also used to retake the Al-Sama’ military base, which tribesmen had earlier stormed, capturing dozens of soldiers in the process.

“When the tribesmen stormed Al-Sama' and some soldiers joined the tribesmen, warplanes came and shelled the tribesmen with the soldiers,” said Saeed.

However, Deputy Minister of Information Abdo Al-Janadi denied the use of warplanes against any opposition groups or factions in Yemen.

Damage done

In December 2011, a Yemeni team of human rights activists and lawyers working with the Yemeni National Organization for Defending Rights and Freedoms (known as HOOD) visited Arhab to assess the human losses and property damage.

Around 151 people from Arhab's population – including armed tribesmen, women and children – were killed from May 25 until early January, Ahmed Al-Rehabi, a lawyer at HOOD told the Yemen Times.

499 homes were damaged during the same time period. Some were partially collapsed, while others were left completely destroyed.

All school activity had been suspended, and 14 schools had been directly targeted using shells. Operations at health centers were also suspended amid constant shelling by both sides, according to HOOD.

The people of Arhab depend on agriculture for their income. Varieties of corn, grapes, oranges and qat are the district's main crops. Citizens rely on rainwater and use pumps to extract groundwater to irrigate crops.

The bombing and shelling of past months has, however, brought agricultural production to a complete halt.

“People who fled the war can’t return at the moment since battles are still being waged and farms have been completely destroyed – particularly those farms located around military camps,” said Mohamed Saeed.

“Murders have been reported on farms, and other farms have been targeted, leaving equipment damaged,” said Al-Rehabi.

“What is happening in Arhab is really a tragedy. Thousands of displaced families have not returned home,” he said. “The lack of safe access has also made it difficult for aid organizations to go and help.”