The government has started imposing tough new restrictions on arms dealers in local markets, but this is merely pushing the trade underground, say local NGO activists and military officials.
“In the past, various types of small and medium-sized weapons were sold openly in arms markets inside or outside main cities,” Tawfiq Haddash, a Defence Ministry official, told IRIN.
“Nowadays, arms dealers in the main cities open their shops with no weapons on display, but take buyers to their homes to sell arms and ammunition in secret deals.”
He said undercover arms deals were taking place in markets outside cities such as in Jihana District in Sanaa Governorate, and Sowadia District in Beidha Governorate, some 250km south of Sanaa.
According to Abdurrahman al-Marwani, chairman of local NGO Dar al-Salam, which campaigns against armed violence and the bearing of arms in Yemen, there are more than 300 arms shops throughout the country.
A survey carried out in 2009 by Abdussalam al-Hakimi, assistant professor of sociology at Taiz University, concluded there were 9.9 million small arms in Yemen, including 1.5 million in the hands of government security and military forces, and 30 000 available in arms shops.
The rest were owned by individuals, with 60% of families surveyed saying they had weapons in the home.
The survey said the possession and misuse of firearms was one of the causes of psychological problems among children; they aggravated land disputes, facilitated highway robberies, and hindered development projects in both rural and urban areas.
According to Dar al-Salam, up to 1200 people die annually in Yemen as a result of armed violence or the misuse of small arms.
Al-Marwani said irrespective of any restrictions placed on the small arms trade, the number of victims of armed violence was unlikely to be reduced “because the absolute majority of Yemeni people have been possessing arms for decades now”.
Livelihoods at risk?
Arms dealers who depend on the trade for their livelihoods in the impoverished country are worried.
“If I stop this trade, how can I and my family survive? This shop is the source of income for my eight-member family,” Ahmad Ali Mutahar, an arms shopkeeper in Jihana market, told IRIN. He said his business had already been hard hit by a deteriorating economy, political unrest and arms crackdowns.
“Ten years ago, I used to sell four or five guns and up to 90 bullets a day, compared to only three or four guns and 100 bullets a week now.”
Alawi Abu Saif, an arms dealer in Sowadia market, said he would not quit the trade unless the government provided an alternative job to support his family. “I inherited this trade from my father, as did the majority of sellers in this market,” he said.
“Without getting alternative livelihood sources, these dealers and brokers will not stop practising the trade,” Khalid al-Anisi, executive director of the National Organization for Defending Rights and Freedoms, known as HOOD, said.
“Part of our culture”
Al-Marwani said possessing arms was part of Yemeni culture, particularly in the northern and eastern parts of the country, and could not be outlawed easily.
Even people who had lost their own children to weapons’ misuse continued to support their right to bear arms.
“Last year, my two children – Mohammed, 8, and Aref, 6 – were killed after a hand grenade they were playing with inside our sitting room exploded. Their four-year-old sister Afaf was seriously injured in the incident,” said Ateeq al-Jashoush, 40, from Ans District in Dhamar Governorate, some 100km south of Sanaa.
But he said the incident had not stopped him bringing grenades into his home, and that about half the 90 families in his village still kept guns and grenades in their houses “to defend themselves and their property because they don’t trust the authorities”.
“Arms’ bearing is part of our culture, which is why the trade continues, even through secret deals,” he told IRIN.
Pic: Yemen weapon merchant