A country armed to the teeth

Fri Jun 7, 2013 8:17am EDT

1 of 8. Khaled Abdullah

Jihana, Yemen

By Khaled Abdullah

If you are looking for an AK-47, a sniper rifle or even an anti-aircraft gun, it takes only half-an-hour of shopping around in this arms market, one of Yemen’s biggest weapons markets, to find one. The market is located in Jihana, a village some 30 kilometers (18 miles) southeast of the Yemeni capital Sanaa.

Yemen is one of the countries most heavily armed with deadly weapons.

Although this is mainly a tribal society where tribes are armed to the teeth, there are still too many guns for sale in the country’s robust arms markets, as if the entire population must be armed. “Here, you can get fully armed as you can be,” Jihana arms dealer Mohammad Sharaf said. An AK-47 can cost between $700 and $1,700 depending on age, make and quality. The only man shop owners do not welcome is a photojournalist. Many of them believe that the more publicity their market gets the more government crackdown they receive.

“Please go away!” shouted one trader in Jihana. “We don’t need more problems because of you mediamen!” shouted another. But some were happy to display their goods; machine guns, assault rifles and pistols to the camera.

In an attempt by the Yemeni government to control the arms trade, it launched a nationwide campaign in 2007 to close arms bazaars, including Jihana, and although police forced around 300 weapons shops in 18 arms bazaars to close, the shops were allowed to reopen just six months later.

Yemen is struggling to restore normality following the armed confrontations in the capital Sanaa and other cities amid the Arab Spring-style uprising that forced former president Ali Abdullah Saleh to step down. Although one of the main hindrances to restoring security and stability is the weaponry in the hands of civilians, militiamen and tribesmen, a visitor to one or more of the weapons markets around Sanaa can easily realize how business is still booming at those markets.

Whether they are local tribesmen involved in a deadly feud or even militants fighting for a militant group, they rush to stock up on weapons from markets like these. It is not only the political violence that hits Yemen hard. There are bloody rampages that take place from time to time between government forces and al Qaeda militants.

With an estimated average of at least two guns per citizen in its 23 million strong population, the country’s social violence and tribal clashes, most often caused by water and land disputes, claim thousands of lives each year. But changing Yemen’s culture is no easy task. At weddings and social events, Yemeni men proudly display their weapons.

At one of the weddings in Amran province, around 60 kilometers (37 miles) northwest of Sanaa, I saw a seven year-old boy carrying an AK-47. It was a strange thing to see as it is impossible to a boy at such a young age to use such a weapon. I hurried to take pictures of him as he left the ceremony site.

“I want him to get accustomed to holding weapons,” a smiling man walking behind me hinted. He is his father.

The abundance of weapons in Yemen also creates ample opportunity for militants to arm themselves and to operate more freely than they could elsewhere. Yemen’s heavily armed society means the state can exert little control over certain areas, making it a perfect hideout for insurgents, such as al Qaeda members.