The full set of images from this story can be found here
A shorter version of this story as run by Al-Jazeera can be found here
In a covered corner of the ancient souk, overshadowed by the great-whitewashed domes of the city’s mosque, young boys hawk pigeons, falcons and porcupines from traditional wicker containers. It was to these children that we made our first inquiry about the illegal purchase of exotic animals.
It would lead us into an illicit, multimillion-dollar trade that is fast becoming known as the new blood diamonds industry of the Horn of Africa. It would also uncover an even darker trade in trafficked goods, which flourishes in a region with a culture of lawlessness.
Beit al Faqih’s souk has remained largely unchanged since the Middle Ages.
The crumbling city, 150km south-west of Sana’a, once hosted the 14th Century Arabian explorer Ibn Battuta, and has long been a crossroads for trade, knowledge and goods arriving across the Red Sea from the eastern coast of Africa.
While Beit-Al-Fakih’s importance has waned since Battuta’s visit, it still retains an Arabian Nights magic on Fridays when hundreds of traders and Bedouin shepherds descend on the town for the weekly livestock market. Camels from Yemen’s interior, fat tailed sheep from Ethiopia and large dairy cows shipped from Somaliland are bargained and bartered over, in a hot, brooding mass of animals and humanity.
It only took two phones calls from the boys selling small birds and animals to lead us to the bigger game. We were led out of the bazaar’s warren of tunnels, past traditional healers cupping blood from patients on street side stalls, to a waiting motorcycle. None of the teenagers tending to their stock seemed concerned or surprised that two tall, Arabic-speaking Europeans were seeking to buy African wild animals in a rural backwater of Yemen.
The Gulf states’ appetite for collecting wild cats and endangered species has probably made the presence of outsiders in Yemen’s bazaars an ordinary occurrence. Video clips of cheetahs that have survived their journey from East Africa often surface on Youtube. They are filmed on mobile phones sitting by their owners while they drink tea by a corniche, or for sale in some Souk pet shop.
In the last few weeks of my Yemen time I’ve been spending some more time working on my project on cinema in Yemen. I’m currently finishing my long article up.
A few people have asked why I’m bothering with this kind of thing. And my answer to them, is that the loss of cinemas might seem anecdotal in a country that constantly teeters on the verge of crisis, the story of cinema in Arabia-Felix is a metaphor for the country’s recent history. The influence of imported culture, terminal economic decline, social strife and internal political unrest; all stoked by stakeholders outside of Yemen’s borders, have had consequences well beyond the big screen. It’s the perfect Yemeni story.
This article originally appeared in Foreign Policy Magazine.
GPS coordinates of the Republican Guard base, site of Fawez’s injury and general mapping information for use Google Earth can be found: here
BANI JORMOOZ, Yemen — All that remains of nine-year-old Fawaz al-Husn’s left leg is a tightly bandaged stump that ends somewhere above where his knee once was. His right leg was also crushed in the blast, which erupted when he stepped on an anti-personnel landmine near his home in al-Khabsha village, less than 20 miles north of the Yemeni capital, Sanaa.
Fawaz had followed one of his sheep onto farmland that abuts a government military facility near the village when the mine went off on April12. “The soldiers from the base’s towers watched me” on the ground, he says. “They were afraid to come and help.”
It fell to the boy’s neighbor, Mohammed Yahya, to pull Fawaz from the field. He heard the explosion and came running toward the blast. Fawaz’s uncle managed to slow the bleeding with a tourniquet as they rushed him to a Sanaa hospital in the back of a pickup truck. He was drifting in and out of consciousness.
Fawaz is the latest — and the third member of his extended family — to fall victim to a landmine explosion since 2011 in Bani Jormooz, a district just north of Sanaa. In the midst of the Arab Spring uprising that gripped the country in 2011, members of Yemen’s 63rd and 81st Republican Guard units laid approximately 8,000 fresh landmines in the area, their immediate commanders later admitted in mediation sessions with villagers – an act that clearly violates the international Anti-Personnel Mine Ban Treaty to which Yemen is a signatory. At the time, Ahmed Ali Saleh, son of the country’s yet-to-be ousted President Ali Abdullah Saleh, was the head of all Republican Guard units.
Villagers say the mines were laid on 19 separate sites across tracts of farmland and in desert wadis surrounding two key military bases in Bani Jormooz. They also claim the mines — laid mostly in areas of non-strategic importance such as vineyards — were intended as a form of collective punishment after armed local tribesmen overran the base and harassed soldiers loyal to the regime, killing the 63rd Republican Guard’s Commander Ahmed Kolabi.
A spokesperson for Yemen’s Interior Ministry confirmed that the government is aware of the allegations made against the Republican Guard units in Bani Jormooz, and that an investigation is taking place alongside a mediation process between locals and military commanders. The Republican Guard declined to comment on the allegations for this article.
The origin of the tension between the community in Bani Jormooz and the Republican Guard unit is disputed, although the presence of the two large bases in the area has always been a point of contention for local farmers who claim that the army is occupying their land. In the spring of 2011, the conflict escalated after residents prevented Yemen’s 1st Infantry Brigade, commanded by another of the former president’s sons, Khaled Ali Abdullah Saleh, from using the road running across the district to move troops from Sanaa to suppress revolutionaries in the country’s east.