'No one wants to fight at this age': Yemen's old soldiers battle into their dotage

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Fathers often bury their sons in times of war. In Yemen they are fighting into their 50s and 60s, with no end in sight

An old man walks past a scene of fighting in Taiz (AFP)
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Tuesday 28 February 2017 9:27 UTC
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TAIZ, Yemen - Abdulwasse Mohammed wakes at 5am every day and is at his checkpoint near the Taiz frontline, Kalashnikov in hand, by 6am. In the slow hours he waves through cars and eats his meals in the sun. At busier times, he is rushed to the front to blaze away at the Houthis with a heavy machine gun.

This is not Mohammed's first war, nor his second. Mohammed is a veteran of three conflicts in Yemen, stretching over 30 years. Now in his 50s, this weather-beaten soldier has, like many his age, been dragged back into war as a member of the Popular Resistance.

"No one wants to fight at this age, but I am a soldier and that is my task," he told Middle East Eye, resting his arms on the ammunition belt slung across his midriff.

"Many of my comrades were promoted or have retired. I have no education, and no options. I depend on my salary for my eight family members.

"I want to retire, but the war needs everyone."



Abdulwasse Mohammed stands to attention at his checkpoint on the outskirts of Taiz (MEE)

Mohammed doesn't know the exact year of his birth, but from an early age, much like his country, he has known little else but violence.

He joined the national army as a fresh-faced recruit in 1982, fired his first shot in anger in 1994 as a brief separatist conflict tore through his country, and then again 10 years later in the Houthi uprisings against the then-president, Ali Abdullah Saleh.

He has fought in Sanaa, Saada, Shabwa, Abyan and Imran. But this latest war, predicated by the fall of Saleh in 2012 and the rise of the Iranian-backed Houthis, has been by far the hardest.

"In 1994 I was still a strong man and I was on the frontlines, but the fighting didn't last more than a few days," he said. "The wars against the Houthis rebels were not as dangerous - they were only in Saada province.

"This one is far worse. It has affected more people, and the economic crisis hits everyone, everywhere."

While a man in his 50s might be considered relatively youthful, Yemen ages its people fast. Male life expectancy is a low 64 - a full 20 years behind the UK, for example.

And no country would send its senior citizens to battle unless, perhaps, it was facing total defeat.

For Mohammed and his commanders, his advancing years are a mere detail.

'I want to retire - but the war needs everyone. I am a soldier and that is my task'

- Abdulwasse Mohammed

Certainly, it is harder to fight in older age. Veterans are often hauled onto military vehicles to avoid a hard slog by foot, directing their more agile comrades and manning mounted machine guns to cover their advances.

"The old fighters also have experience, and they advise the new recruits. This is one of our duties," he said.

Indeed, a leader of the Popular Resistance in Taiz province told MEE that he needs old fighters as advisers: the brawn of thousands of new recruits, many of them younger than Mohammed when he joined, needs the brains of their elders.

"Not all fighters join the battle in the frontlines," the commander said. "There are different tasks for recruits. The main role of old fighters is to teach new recruits the skills of fighting, and it is rare that old fighters join the front."

Nevertheless, in the months of vicious battles that have torn Taiz apart, Mohammed said, he has not flinched from his duty.

Ziad al-Halaq, 28, joined the Popular Resistance last year and received a month's training, not nearly enough to prepare him for war.

"I usually seek the advice of old fighters. They have the experience, and this is what many new fighters do either in the camps of in the battlefields," Halaq told MEE. "They are indispensable."



Mohammed said he is often drafted into manning heavy machine guns on the frontline (AFP)

Other motivations inspire the old to take up arms. Adburrab Aqlan, a Salafi fighter in his 60s, considers resistance to the Houthis to be a religious task.

Aqlan, like Mohammed, fought in 1994 and took up arms in Saada against the Houthis a decade later. "I am still a strong man who can fight, and I should support Islam from the Shia invasion," he said.

"The Houthis do not understand peace, so we should fight them and clear Yemen of their thoughts."

Aqlan has three boys, one of whom is a fighter with the pro-government forces in Marib while the others work in Saudi Arabia.

Mohammed, however, has other thoughts: violence will not save his country. He is illiterate, and knows nothing else, but the future belongs to the youth of Yemen, his four daughters and two sons among them.

'Soldiers have no home and and the earth is their bed. I do not want to see my sons as soldiers'

- Abdulwasse Mohammed

Mohammed said he had seen too much death and betrayal in his years. The president he fought for in Saada all those years ago is now aligned with those he was ordered to kill.

"This war revealed that Saleh and the Houthis were allies and the normal soldiers were the victim of the wars in Saada," he said.

"I will fight until death, but I think that reconciliation is the only solution.

"Soldiers have no home, and the earth is their bed. I insisted my sons got an education. Now one of them is a teacher and another is an accountant. I do not want to see my sons as soldiers."

This article is available in French on Middle East Eye French edition.