Jails in war-stricken Taiz overcrowded with prisoners driven to steal by poverty and hunger following collapse of government welfare system
TAIZ, Yemen – Languishing in the overcrowded cell that he shares with 11 other prisoners, 'Mohammed' said that the worst thing about being locked up was not knowing whether his wife and four children were starving.
“I lost my job at the beginning of the war,” said the 35-year-old construction worker, who has been held in the prison at Taiz’s al-Turbah police station since late August, referring to the more than 18-month conflict between Houthi rebels and pro-government forces loyal to Yemen's exiled President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi.
Unable to afford the family’s monthly rent of 15,000 rials ($60) and threatened with eviction by their landlord, Mohammed, not his real name, described to Middle East Eye how weeks before his arrest he had been faced with a dismal choice.
"I’d sold most of the equipment and furniture in my house, including the bottle of propane [a gas cannister used for cooking] and the beds. My children were starving to death so I had only two choices: either to beg or to steal. I preferred to steal to keep my dignity."
At midnight on 20 August, Mohammed stormed into a local shop and stole mobile phone cards worth 50,000 rials ($200).
He proceeded to sell the cards to other shops in the same area and used the money to pay his landlord and feed his family.
By the time he was caught by the police he was penniless again – and unable to pay the shopkeeper back.
'My children were starving to death so I had only two choices: either to beg or to steal. I preferred to steal to keep my dignity'
Now the only hope for Mohammed and prisoners like him is that either their victims will grant them forgiveness or others will come forward to pay their debts.
Faisal Mahyoub, an officer in al-Turbah police station said there were currently about 20 prisoners being held who had admitted stealing from homes and shops to buy food for their families.
Many other prisons in Taiz province were filled with inmates driven to crime in similar circumstances, he added.
Similar cases have also been reported in several other provinces controlled by both pro-government forces and the Houthis.
Last month, Yemeni media reported on the case of a man who stormed a shop in Sanaa, the Houth-held capital, and threatened the shopkeeper with his jambiya, a traditional Yemeni curved dagger, before making his escape with a bag of flour.
Al-Turbah prison is under the control of the popular resistance, which is loyal to the government and has been battling the Houthi forces for control of the southern city.
"I visited the houses of some prisoners, and their families barely had anything. They were all desperate for food. But we cannot free them, as they have to pay back the debt to the victims," Mahyoub told MEE.
“Some charitable people have cleared the debts of some prisoners, and they have already left, but those still here must wait for forgiveness or for someone else to pay their dues.”
Collapse of welfare system
Mohammed said that the prisoners were well fed with bread and rice, despite the poor conditions.
"I get proper food, but I have not got used to living in a room with 11 others. Life in prison is so difficult, and the toughest thing is that I do not know if my children have enough food to eat.”