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Troops refuse to fight: Thousands of Yemeni soldiers shun civil war

Up to 10,000 have thrown away their guns in protest at Yemen's war. The result has been claims of treachery, fear of arrest, and poverty
Many replacements are young, raw recruits who fight only to make ends meet (AFP)

TAIZ, Yemen - Mohammed Abdullah Saeed used to wake up by 5am every day to begin his daily military drills. But when the civil war broke out in Taiz he refused to fight his own countrymen, and fled to his home village.

"Our leadership told us that we should liberate Taiz province from al-Qaeda fighters, but I did not see al-Qaeda in Taiz, I only saw Yemenis kill each other, so the leadership could not convince me to fight," he told Middle East Eye.

"I realised this civil war would destroy our country, and so I fled."

Saeed was not the only conscript soldier to do so - dozens of his colleagues threw down their guns in protest at the coming conflagration, joining an estimated 10,000 who are believed to have deserted.

The result for many were accusations of treachery and isolation, and the loss of any means of support.

I did not see al-Qaeda in Taiz, I only saw Yemenis kill each other. Mohammed Abdullah Saeed 

The one-time corporal and his comrades came under the control of the Houthi movement after it kicked out the government of Abd Rabbuh Mansour Hadi.

"When I fled the camp, the Houthis stopped my salary, and demanded that I join battle. I refused," he said. 

He still gets up at 5am, every day. But instead of training he sells qat, the mild narcotic ubiquitous in Yemen, to make ends meet.

"I do not have another alternative," he says, pointing out that he makes about 20,000 riyals a month - about $80. His soldier's salary was almost twice as much.

He is stuck where he is, as the Houthis hunt for deserters they consider traitors.

"The Houthis have caught hundreds of people, some of them deserters, and until now no one knows where they are," he said.

"If the Houthis caught them, they will go to jail."

A question of faith

Other deserters refuse to kill on the basis of religion - it is considered a terrible sin to kill a fellow Muslim.

Fras Alwan, 45, left his unit in Marib province last April, and fled to his village in Taiz's al-Shimayateen district. His salary was stopped a few months later.

"I am a Muslim, and I trust that Allah will not forget me if I am doing according to the Quran, and the Quran says that it is a big sin to kill a Muslim," he said.

Alwan was conscripted into the Yemeni army and fought armed tribes in Marib before the civil war erupted.

"We fought in military campaigns against the tribesmen who attacked power and oil pipelines, but those were thugs and it was our duty to fight them," he said.

The civil war, he said, had turned into a battle between mercenaries fighting for foreign powers, none of whom care about Yemen nor Islam.

"My neighbours respect me so much, because I did not take part in the war, and most of them help me by providing me with work," Alwan said.

But he, too, is trapped in his village and aware that the Houthis consider him a traitor. 

Alwan now works as a labourer, earning more than he did as a soldier, but the work is hard.

"I am suffering from arthritis and this profession is very hard for me, but it is the only solution to get money," Alwan said.

Meanwhile, the war rages on around him even despite a UN-backed attempt to end the fighting, with a ceasefire agreement coming into effect earlier this month.

That truce, however, has been violated by all sides and on multiple occasions. Taiz city is still besieged by the Houthi movement, as it seeks to gain control of the province, and Saudi coalition forces continue to drop weapons to their allies.

As both sides gear up for much-delayed peace talks in Kuwait, the US has agreed to join Saudi-led patrols to prevent Iranian weapons reaching Houthi fighters.

Blood and treasure

A source at the defence ministry in Houthi-controlled Sanaa told Middle East Eye that an estimated 10,000 soldiers had refused to fight for any side in the civil war, and a similar number had rebelled against Houthi control and were now fighting against the movement.

In response, the Houthis had enlisted thousands of civilians into its "Popular Committee" forces as replacements, many of whom are raw recruits who have no other means of support in the war. 

The source added: "The ministry has stopped the salaries of more than 20,000 soldiers either because they are pro-government soldiers or because they are peaceniks. 

"The ministry does not pay salaries for the pro-government and deserters. That money now goes to the Popular Committees."

Ammar al-Wardi is one of those soldiers who decided to side with pro-Hadi forces.

He left his brigade in Taiz city when it came under the control of the Houthis, and crossed over to the Popular Resistance forces fighting them.

"I swore to defend my country, and nowadays I defend my country from the Houthis rebels who try to control the country by force," he added to MEE, stating that he gets the same salary of 35,000 riyals ($140) a month, plus 1,000 a day extra "pocket money" from his commanders.

Ahmed Obaid, a retired army officer, said that Sanaa's defence ministry was acting illegally by stopping payments to its soldiers - it can only dock a certain percentage.

"The ministry has to continue giving salaries to all soldiers as this is the right of their families, but the ministry can use some of the salary if the soldier did not obey the ministry," he said.

He stated that Yemeni law has been violated by the different sides, and the language of force has become the only one that can be heard.

Saeed contemplates the consequences of refusing to fight in a war that has killed thousands of his countrymen. 

"I hope the war will stop soon," says Saeed. "Then I will stop selling qat and will join the special forces again."