The ongoing civil war in Yemen and its concomitant humanitarian crisis have pushed millions into an existence of untold miseries and endless despondence. While thousands of Yemenis have been killed in the eight-year strife, the danger of landmines continues to pose a serious threat to life and livelihood in the country, with these deadly traps claiming hundreds of lives every year.
Landmines and other explosive devices killed or injured one child every two days in Yemen last year – the highest rate in the past five years – according to a humanitarian organization called Save the Children.
To ensure stronger security measures and provide for stability and rehabilitation of the Yemeni people, Saudi Arabia has launched a landmine clearance initiative called Project Masam, in partnership with the Yemeni government.
“Our main goal is to safely remove landmines, improvised explosive devices (IEDs) and unexploded ordnance to ensure Yemenis can live safely again and are able to restart the local economy and rebuild their country,” Program Manager for Project Masam Ousama Algosaibi told Al Arabiya English.
The project has destroyed 413,743 explosive devices in Yemen since its launch in mid-2018 and continues to dismantle hundreds of landmines every month, with the estimated number of explosive devices and landmines in the region between one to two million, according to Algosaibi.
Working for a mine-free Yemen
Hundreds of children are either killed or maimed every year due to landmines planted by the Iran-backed Houthi militia across Yemen in residential areas, farmland, water sources, schools and even medical centers.
“Imagine your child getting ready for school. They say they will see you later as they walk out of the door; and the next thing you hear is a loud explosion that makes the walls of your house tremble. Your child has either been killed or maimed, walking on the same road that he or she takes to school every day,” Algosaibi said, describing the dreadful situation in the country.
Project Masam’s main initiative is to create a “life without landmines” for the Yemeni people, he said.
The project aims to save limbs and lives and provide people in the war-torn country with shelter, safe access to schools, places of worship and emergency healthcare.
“Only in a safe and mine-free Yemen, can development and redevelopment happen,” Algosaibi said.
Other than demining, the Masam team also leads Mine Risk Education sessions for civilians by collaborating with the National Mine Action Program (YEMAC) to educate villagers, farmers, school children and elders about the risk of foreign objects and what to do when encountering a suspected landmine.
Demining process and the risk to life
The Masam demining teams follow a strict process whereby, they set up operations in suspected minefields and each individual deminer carefully combs the area.
Once the deminer identifies an explosive device or landmine, it is defused using specialized equipment, Algosaibi explained. The mine is then moved to a demolition site for destruction. At times, when the threat of the explosive device is too high, it is disposed of at the site itself by remotely incinerating it and burning away its explosive contents.
Even though utmost care is taken by the team during demining operations, many Masam team members have still suffered casualties while at work. So far, 30 team members have died and 47 have been injured, according to Algosiabi.
“Our deminers are trained to international standards and are overseen by some of the most talented individuals in our field of work. Yet, unfortunately, demining is one of the most dangerous professions in the world,” he said.
The team usually works in harsh conditions, under extreme heat and dust and in difficult terrains such as rocky mountains.
Menace of replanted landmines
Some areas that were previously cleared by the Masam team have been replanted, nullifying months of hard work.
According to Algosaibi, areas such as Al Jawf and Shabwah, which were previously cleared, have been mined for the third time.
“We have had to return to these previously cleared areas to carry out new clearance operations,” he said. “In my decades in these operations, I have never encountered as many IEDs anywhere else as found so far in Yemen.”
In spite of repeated and continued demining operations, it is nearly impossible to calculate how many landmines and explosive devices remain in Yemen due to the issue of replanting, he added.
The faltering ceasefire in the country has also contributed to a resurgence of landmine planting in Yemen.
According to data from the Masam team, some areas have been particularly targeted, such as the West Coast in Hoeidah and the border with Saudi Arabia in Al Jawf, Taiz and Marib in north-central Yemen.
“While the type of area may differ, these landmines only have one impact: They target civilians,” Algosaibi added.