Yemen's poverty-stricken teachers swap class for Kalashnikovs
Taiz, Yemen - Jamal Aidarows used to teach his students about the heroism of the Prophet Muhammad and his followers on the battlefield. But he did not think that one day he would be forced to take up arms himself.
Before the war, Aidarows taught at al-Fawz school in Bani Shaiba area, 50km south of Taiz city. A graduate in Islamic education, the 39-year-old has been in the profession for 12 years.
'But when our salaries were stopped and we were unable to eke out anything for our families, then it became necessary to join the battlefield'
- Jamal Aidarows, teacher
But during the past year the authorities have stopped paying many public sector salaries, including those of teachers. So Aidarows turned to one of the few professions still paying well – that of a soldier.
"During the last two years of war, I did not join the battle because I believed that we have another important task," Aidarows tells MEE, "which is the education of students. There are soldiers who are responsible for fighting.
"But when our salaries were stopped and we were unable to eke out anything for our families, then it became necessary to join the battlefield."
In Yemen, most homes have rifles
Education, like many aspects of life in Yemen, has suffered during the current two-year war.
In Taiz, the nearest big city to Aidarows, schools went on strike over conditions a year ago. The situation worsened in September when the Yemeni government relocated the central bank from Sanaa to Aden, after the prime minister accused the Houthis of using its reserves for supporting its own fighters.
The government only pays for employees and services in southern Yemen. As a result many public sector employees in the rest of the country - such as Taiz, one of the biggest cities - have not received salaries.
But troops are still being paid. In January 2017, the Yemeni government merged resistance fighters with the army and doubled the salaries of pro-government soldiers. MEE tried to contact Rageh Badi, the spokesman for the Yemeni government, for comment about the pay situation, but received no reply.
When he was a teacher, Aidarows used to receive YR64,000 ($256) per month. Now he earns YR60,000 ($240), a drop of only YR4000 ($16).
So he joined with the Popular Resistance in February 2016, together with two of his school colleagues after a month of training.
"When I entered the military camp for training, I found two of my former students receiving training in the same camp," says Aidarows. "Really, they were braver than me to join the battle before me."
'When I entered the military camp for training, I found two of my former students receiving training in the same camp. Really, they were braver than me to join the battle before me'
- Jamal Aidarows, teacher
Currently Aidarows and his colleagues are engaged on the al-Kadaha frontlines, fighting on the main road between Taiz and al-Hodeida provinces, where many observers believe there will be a coming battle.
The Popular Resistance in Taiz, of which Aidarows is now a part, formed in March 2015 from civilians and soldiers under the leadership of Sheik Hamoud al-Mikhlafi, fights the the Houthis in Taiz.
The number of fighters now exceeds 15,000, including women and children. A source in the resistance, speaking to MEE on condition of anonymity, said that teachers were just one profession who had signed up: others included male nurses, students, accountants, even doctors who treat the injured.
In Yemen, it’s not unusual for office workers to know how to fire a rifle. The country has one of the highest rates of firearms ownership in the world and rifles are a common feature of life, and can be found in almost all homes or are shot into the air during weddings and other celebrations. Most Yemeni men can fire a gun and own a rifle such as a Kalashnikov.
"The Popular Resistance consists of civilians fighting the Houthis. Teachers joined the resistance from the first day it was formed in March 2015," the source said. "While it is not true that they joined just for the sake of money, recently some have joined the battle for money and also the desire to liberate their city.
"It is testament to the honour of Taiz that civilians did not surrender to the forces of the Houthis and [former president Ali Abdullah] Saleh, but were educated enough to fight the Houthi invaders."
Society frowns at fighters
But not everyone is happy with Aidarows' decision: his wife objected and left the family home, returning to her father's house with her youngest son. The other three children went to live with their paternal grandfather.
Aidarows said he was sorry his wife listened to other people rather than him and believed he was doing something bad - but added: "Our prophet faced problems more difficult than this, so I have to be patient.
'Yemenis use weapons but also they have high moral standards. They use weapons at weddings and occasions, but society rejects civil war and criticises fighters'
- Fadhl al-Thobhani, social professor, Taiz University
"It was easy for me to fight in the frontlines as I am a Yemeni and know very well how to shoot, but it was so difficult to face the criticism of society, which has left me isolated."
Fadhl al-Thobhani, a social professor at Taiz University, told MEE: "Yemenis use weapons but also they have high moral standards. They use weapons at weddings and occasions, but society rejects civil war and criticises fighters."
Thobhani says that many of the fighters, either with the Houthis or the Popular Resistance, now face family and relationship problems from those who regard them as abnormal.
But not all of the fighters face such difficulties: some were encouraged by their families to join the resistance and get paid.
At a checkpoint at the southern entrance of Taiz city stands "Sami" (not his real name), a teacher of history, holding his Kalashnikov.
Sami joined the resistance in December 2016 to help his wife, five children and blind father.
"When the food ran out in our house, I did not dare to ask people because my dignity does not allow me to do so," he says, speaking on condition of anonymity.
'If the government pays my salary, immediately I will leave the checkpoint and return to my school. I do not like this job but the hunger forced us to do it'
- Sami, teacher
"Moreover I cannot borrow from friends as most of them are suffering nowadays, so my wife encouraged me to join the resistance. It’s what some of my neighbours did before."
But Sami said that he does not want to fight, that he cannot face the prospect of killing someone else – so he decided to help man a checkpoint, which he considers peaceful employment.
"If the government pays my salary, immediately I will leave the checkpoint and return to my school," he says. "I do not like this job but the hunger forced us to do it."
My wife disapproves
Some of the office workers interviewed by Middle East Eye said they would leave the battlefield once they were paid.
But Aidarows – who says that lack of pay was only one reason to sign up - does not intend to return to the classroom until the complete liberation of Taiz province.
"If I am going to die in this war, I will be a martyr and will go to heaven but my wife and others who fought me will repent of their attitudes against me," he says.
"It is true that we initially joined the battlefield to get salaries, but now I will not leave the battle until we liberate our province from the Houthis.
"I am a teacher of Islamic education and Islam says that Muslims are not cowered and should defend Islam from anyone who wants to distort it.
"Now I feel that I am a good Muslim and Allah will support me."