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Yemen: Stray bullets kill civilians during celebration of football win against Saudi Arabia

The jubilation turned into mourning in Sanaa as the country’s junior football team won the West Asian Cup after beating Saudi Arabia for the first time
Yemeni fans gather at a stadium to watch the West Asian Junior Championships Cup football match between Yemen and Saudi Arabia, in Sanaa on 13 December 2021 (AFP)
By MEE correspondent in Sanaa

At least five people were killed and dozens injured by stray gunfire in the capital Sanaa on Monday as the nation celebrated an unprecedented win over Saudi Arabia in the West Asia junior championship. 

Thousands took to the streets following the match on Monday night, in rare scenes of jubilation in the war-torn country. 

Shooting in the air is a common sight during celebrations in Yemen, where gun ownership is among the highest in the world.

According to the health ministry in the rebel-held Sanaa, the victims as of Tuesday reached five deaths and 124 injured as a result of stray bullets. 

'Congratulations to Yemenis on this cup which entered happiness to our hearts... but we are sad for the victims who died as a result of irresponsible behaviour'

- Taha al-Mutawakkil, health minister, Sanaa

The health minister in Sanaa, Dr Taha al-Mutawakkil, said that most of the victims of random gunfire were children, and that many of the injured are in hospitals in critical conditions.

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“Congratulations to Yemenis on this cup which entered happiness to our hearts amid the aggression and siege, but we are sad for the victims who died as a result of irresponsible behaviour,” Mutawakkil said.

Yemen has been ravaged by a bloody conflict since 2014 between Iran-aligned Houthi rebels and a Saudi-led military coalition supporting the government of Abd Rabbuh Mansour Hadi.

The war, according to UN figures, will have caused the deaths of 377,000 people by the end of 2021, including around 227,000 deaths due to the indirect consequences of the conflict, such as lack of clean water, hunger and disease.

Most of the population is currently dependent on international aid. 

“Yemenis everywhere celebrated thanks to this football team. We are in need of such happy news,” Ahmed Aref, 42, a resident of Sanaa, told Middle East Eye.

“The fireworks and shooting covered the sky. I was happy to see all Yemenis united in their celebration of the same achievement,” Aref added.

yemen football win saudi
The Yemeni team crowned the West Asian Junior Championships Cup on Monday after defeating the Saudi team in the penalty shootout (AFP)

For Aref, the high morale in Yemen's streets was a message to the warring parties that Yemenis "are looking forward to celebrate the end of the war”.

“This victory made us forget the war and the suffering we live in. We just needed to be happy,” he said.

Meanwhile, the office of the UN Special Envoy for Yemen also conveyed congratulations through Twitter: “Warm congratulations to Yemen's juniors football soccer team for winning the West Asian U15 Boys Championship 2021. Heartwarming to see the unity, joy and celebrations across the country.” 

'We chanted for Yemen, not for the south, as the team belongs to different provinces and raised the Yemeni flag for the first time in years in Aden'

- Mohammed Maqtari, Aden

In Aden, celebrations spilled into the streets and the Yemeni flag appeared widely for the first time since the beginning of the war.

Mohammed Maqtari, 38, a resident in Aden stated that he felt a sense of unity for the first time since 2015 as they raised the Yemeni flag rather than the southern independence one.

“We chanted for Yemen, not for the south, as the team belongs to different provinces, and raised the Yemeni flag for the first time in years in Aden,” he told MEE.

“Happiness was everywhere and southern people forgot disputes with the north and demands of independence.”

Happiness turns to mourning

However, stray bullets have ruined the happy occasion for many.

Awadh, nine, was one of the children lying in hospital to receive treatment.

To celebrate the football victory, his father Abdulhakeem (who did not want to reveal his real name) watched the fireworks from the roof of his house in Sanaa. When the fireworks stopped, a bullet hit his child's shoulder.

“At the beginning I wasn’t aware that it was a bullet, but then I saw bleeding and the bullet appeared from the other side of the shoulder. So immediately I took my son to the nearest hospital,” Abdulhakeem told MEE.

“In the hospital I found dozens were injured by bullets and heard about deaths, but my son was lucky as the bullet wasn’t in his head.”

Abdulhakeem stated that his child's situation is stable now, but he is still in the hospital to receive proper care and may leave in a few days.

“It is the responsibility of the authorities to stop this habit [of shooting in the air]. But unfortunately even soldiers do it, so my child is somehow a victim of the authorities.”

Abdulhakeem said that "the lives of Yemenis are more important than the cup".

“Happiness is for a day or two and will go away, but sadness will last forever with the families of the victims.” 

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