KHOKHA, YEMEN: Months after heavy clashes between Huthi rebels and pro-government fighters forced them to flee their coastal village in Yemen’s western province of Taez, the Ghaleb family had finally returned home.
But their relief was cut short just days later when a landmine left in their home exploded, wounding their seven-year-old son.
The blast ripped off one of Abdullah’s thumbs and left him with a compound fracture to one of his legs.
In their humble home in the village of Al-Hameli, between the towns of Mokha and Hays, relatives help the boy into a wheelchair, covering him with a bright pink blanket.
“We took refuge east of the town of Bayt Al-Faqih and returned home after the fighters left,” said Abdel Fattah Ghaleb, Abdallah’s father, motioning towards their hut made of dry branches.
“Two or three days after returning, a device exploded inside our home,” he said, adding that Abdullah had been lucky to be rushed to a clinic supported by international medical charity Doctors Without Borders.
Devastated by hunger and war, civilians on Yemen’s western coast, south of the flashpoint port of Hodeida, are coming face to face with the lingering threat posed by thousands of landmines planted mostly by the Huthi rebels.
The Iran-aligned insurgents have been accused by human rights groups of extensively using landmines to hinder the advance of Saudi-backed pro-government forces.
The Huthis denied the use of landmines in a letter to Human Rights Watch (HRW), but the New York-based watchdog insists the rebels have routinely planted explosives before retreating.
“Huthi forces have repeatedly laid anti-personnel, anti-vehicle and improvised mines as they withdrew from areas in Aden, Taez, Marib and, more recently, along Yemen’s western coast,” HRW said.
Not far from Al-Hameli, children walk barefoot through the dusty desert terrain along the edge of a minefield, demarcated by small rocks and a red and white sign marked with a skull and crossbones.
Here, mine clearing teams are searching the sand trying to remove the dangerous devices.
“Following lots of suffering, exhaustion and threats while living as displaced, we thought we will find rest in our home,” said Abdullah’s uncle Abdel Latif.
“Instead we found the threat of landmines, among others.”
Towns and villages along the western coast have changed hands multiple times in years of fighting, and residents have often been forced to move en masse to avoid gun battles and bombs.
But fighting has slowed since mid-November as the UN pushed to revive a stalled peace process, and government and rebel representatives arrived in Sweden this week for the first round of talks since 2016.
A source in the government delegation said President Abedrabbo Mansour Hadi’s camp would seek maps detailing minefields laid by the rebels as part of “confidence-building” measures between the two sides.
Hassan al-Jahwari, head of the Saudi-backed Masam landmine clearance project, said he had 16 teams working around Mokha to clear mines.
“The first team arrived in August and in collaboration with the United Nations Development Programme, we were able to clear 9,000 mines planted by the Huthis in addition to other explosive devices,” Jahwari said.
In Nuhaira, another village on the west coast, 18-year-old Mohammed Ahmed Ibrahim is mourning his father, who died trying to save him after he was wounded by a mine.
“I was returning from a fishing trip along with my brother and a friend … I stepped on a mine that tore my leg off and threw me to the ground,” Ibrahim said.
His brother and friend narrowly escaped and quickly ran to fetch Ibrahim’s father.
“He came to my rescue but as he approached he stepped on a mine and died in front of me,” he said.
Nearly 10,000 people have been killed since Saudi Arabia and its allies joined the government’s fight against the Huthis, according to the World Health Organization, triggering what the UN calls the world’s worst humanitarian crisis.