Firearm sales are brisk across the country as weapons dealers lure poverty stricken Yemenis to sell off their personal guns.

A man holds up a rifle and a Yemeni national flag as he takes part in a ceremony commemorating the anniversary of the 2011 uprising that toppled Yemen's former president Ali Abdullah Saleh in Taiz, Yemen February 11, 2018.
A man holds up a rifle and a Yemeni national flag as he takes part in a ceremony commemorating the anniversary of the 2011 uprising that toppled Yemen's former president Ali Abdullah Saleh in Taiz, Yemen February 11, 2018. ( Anees Mahyoub / Reuters )

TAIZ, Yemen— Like most Yemeni teachers in the northern provinces, Ayman Mamoon, 54, has not received his salary for a year and half. He has already sold his wife’s jewellery to support seven family members. Now that the money from the sale has gone, he has had to sell another valuable family possession.

After much thinking, Mamoon decided to sell one of two rifles he inherited from his father – as the price of a gun was equivalent to nine months' salary.

Owning firearms is a source of pride among Yemenis. And selling them off carries deep shame. Yemenis use firearms at weddings and other occasions, firing them in the air to mark the celebrations. But Mamoon, casting aside social norms, sold his weapon off to buy desperately needed food for his family.

"I hesitated before selling my rifle, but there was no other choice to get money, so I decided to sell it and face the criticism of the society," Mamoon told TRT World.

Mamoon took one of the rifles and went to sell it at Al Turba market, 70 kilometres from Taiz city. He received for $960 (YR450,000) it, which was enough to buy basic food supplies for ten months.

"I am so lucky that I inherited two rifles as they help me to overcome the suffering of the life and I do not worry about the future because I still have another one," he said.

Mamoon stated that some of his neighbours denounced him for selling the rifle, but once he explained the reason, they understood. 

Before the war there were at least  60 million pieces of arms owned by civilians in a country of less than 25 million people; Yemeni fathers would pass them down to their sons or buy them from markets.

There are still some old markets in several provinces in Yemen where people can buy and sell arms; Juhannah market in Sana'a province is one of the largest. 

For rich Yemenis, owning finely wrought, valuable guns is a high-status symbol. 

Abdul Hakeem al Massani used to work as an accountant before the war, so he bought an expensive rifle. But when the war broke out, he lost his job and his situation gradually worsened until he became impoverished. 

"After I lost my work and I did not get any chance to work, I decided to sell my rifle," Massani told TRT World

He sold his rifle for $1,280 (YR600,000) and opened small shop that helped him earn $2 (YR1,000) per day.

"I am sorry about my rifle but I am also happy that I had a rifle to sell," he said.

A recent wedding in Taiz, Yemen is attended by rifle-wielding guests celebrating the union.
A recent wedding in Taiz, Yemen is attended by rifle-wielding guests celebrating the union. ( TRTWorld )

Fighting fuels gun trade

During the last three years of war, the arms trade throve in Yemen because of the economic crisis, and guns doubled in price. 

An  arms dealer in Taiz city who wished to remain anonymous  said that more and more people had been selling their arms in the last three years, "There are more people are selling their personal arms because they do not have a regular  income, so they resort to selling their personal arms that they inherited them or bought them when they were rich people."

This dealer who took over his father's business has more than 15 years' experience in the trade. For him, the spike in arms prices is unprecedented.

He says business is brisk because there is demand both residents and fighters.

"I buy arms from residents and sell them either to rich residents or to fighters but I sell most of them to new fighters of the Popular Resistance who want to join the battle," the dealer said.

The Shia militias supporting the Houthi rebels and several other proxy groups are constantly short of arms supplies. So these groups prioritise recruiting those fighters who have their own guns.  Sometimes, the leaders of militias turn to arms dealers to procure weapons for new recruits. 

The Saudi-led coalition provides the Popular Resistance in Taiz with enough ammunition, so fighters sometimes sell ammunition to buy arms. "The price of ammunition did not soar because there is enough ammunition in the market. We buy the ammunition from the fighters and sell it to residents who shoot in weddings and other occasions."

The average price of a rifle  used to be $530 (YR250,000) before the war; it is $1,060 (YR500,000) today and prices are still soaring. Ahmed believes that the prices of arms will decrease once the war ends.

Some people might have sold their personal arms but yet others have bought rifles from the market to join the battlefields to get a regular income.

Basem, 33, who refused to give his surname, used to work as a builder but when the war broke out, jobs became scarce, so he joined the fighting for a monthly stipend. 

He said, "When I went to join the Popular Resistance, they told me that they cannot provide me with a rifle and I should bring my weapon with me."

Being poor, Basem did not have a rifle, so he resorted to selling his wife’s necklace and buying a cheap rifle for $745 (YR350,000).

"I joined the resistance in December 2016, and then I was merged into the Yemen army, so now I am a soldier and receive a monthly salary as any other soldier in Taiz," he said.

Basem confirmed that many people had bought arms and became soldiers in the Yemeni army. "The rifle helped us to get jobs, so we can eke out a living for our families." he said. 

Yemenis use firearms at weddings and other occasions, firing them in the air to mark the celebrations.
Yemenis use firearms at weddings and other occasions, firing them in the air to mark the celebrations. ( Azzam al-Zubairi/ TRTWorld )

Clampdown efforts 

The Yemeni government has tried to shut down the arms markets, but has not succeeded. 

A source in the interior ministry in Sanaa , said arms trading was an time-honoured tradition in Yemen and it was not easy to prevent people from doing it. He suggested the government should strictly monitor the trade.  He did not want to be identified for security reasons. 

The source told TRT World, "In 2007, the government tried to close Juhannah market and other markets but arms dealers confronted the forces, disobeying the decision of closing the arms markets, so the interior ministry canceled all plans to close the arms markets then."

He said that Yemeni law forbade the trade in arms and firing celebratory shots in the air at weddings but such laws were difficult to enforce. 

During the last three years of the war, the arms sellers started to use social media to market their goods, with photos and contact numbers of the merchants. 

The source confirmed that during the last three years of the war, any oversight on the dealers and the arms markets disappeared as the country plunged into economic and political despair. 

The arms dealer said that prior to the war, the government launched several campaigns against the arms sellers. But the campaign failed as the conflict in Yemen intensified. 

Mamoon, who sold his Kalashnikov, said Yemenis should continue to bear arms after the war and the government shouldn't stifle traditions by imposing restrictions on local arms markets. 

"Arms helped many poor people from starving to death, so I advise anyone who can buy arms to buy. The prices of arms are increasing daily, so they can be a kind of reserves and not only arms for fighting," he said.

Source: TRT World