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STORY IN FOCUS – INTERVIEW WITH MATT SMITH, YEMEN PROGRAMME MANAGER AT HALO TRUST

8 December 2021

 

Q1: Please can you explain the work and mission of the HALO Trust and your role with HALO Trust in Yemen?

 

HALO is an international NGO whose mission is to protect lives and restore the livelihoods of those affected by conflict. In the service of vulnerable communities, we survey and clear landmines and explosive ordnance (EO), and provide explosive ordnance risk education (EORE) and weapons and ammunition management services.

 

We can distil our work into four main outcomes. We reduce the risk of casualties to humans and livestock. We put land back into productive use. We employ, train, and develop a large number of women and men from the affected communities in which we work. Lastly, we create the conditions whereby fear is reduced and confidence returned for investment and recovery in conflict-affected areas.

 

Yemen is now one of the world’s most mine and EO affected countries. My role here since 2019 has been to start and grow our work into what we intend to be one of HALO’s larger programmes in future, with hundreds of deminers working across mine action disciplines. We currently have a staff of around 80 – mostly local women and men – engaged in the survey and clearance of mines and EO. With the opening of our offices in Aden and Taiz, we are working in some of Yemen’s worst affected communities.

 

Q2: Could you explain how your work relates to the link between conflict and hunger? For example, how landmine contamination impacts food security and why it is so fundamental to consider?

 

Mine action addresses the links between conflict and hunger in a number of ways. Mines left behind after conflict don’t just cause injuries to people. They also prevent access to resources that people rely on to put food on the table. They might injure livestock that pastoralists take to market or use for subsistence. Very frequently, mines are found in land otherwise used for agriculture, denying harvests and grazing opportunities. Mines might also affect road access to markets, adding costs for moving goods in huge diversions. So people can suffer from hunger due to loss of agricultural opportunities for themselves, but most often due to the wider socio-economic impact of mines.

 

In Yemen we are surveying land for follow-on mine clearance used in agriculture. Clearance of these areas is of the highest priority, given you will often find farmers using contaminated land due to a lack of other choices. Accidents in these communities can lead to negative coping mechanisms such as the sale of assets, or – at the very worst – children into marriage or employment.

 

We are also concerned about the presence of mines and EO around port infrastructure in Yemen. Hodeidah Port, for example, has experienced heavy fighting over several years of fighting. The port and its facilities cater for the transit and storage of most of Yemen’s imported foodstuff. Port infrastructure is damaged and contaminated by EO, and mines have been laid in its vicinity. Considering Yemen imports most of its food, these factors affect costs, time to market and ultimately the amount of food that people can put on the table. It’s worth noting that much of the hunger in Yemen is not because of the unavailability of food but because of its cost. We want to help reduce those costs and access issues as a matter of priority.

 

Q3:  What do you think are main present and future challenges ahead in addressing the issue? How do you envisage addressing such challenges?

 

The ongoing conflict obviously presents the chief risk to our operations. Clearing mines and EO in a post-conflict environment is a very different prospect to operating in an ongoing conflict. We have security risks to manage in every aspect of our work, including an assessment of what land we can survey and clear safely without putting our teams at risk. This means constantly monitoring the political and military developments and reacting quickly. This affects planning – we need to consider in advance where we deploy our teams to ensure that we’re reaching those most in need, while ensuring safety. We also need to be sure that the mines and EO we clear are not considered of tactical benefit to a belligerent party – the perception that we are not a neutral party, or we are damaging a party’s war effort, could have very negative repercussions across the programme and the sector.

 

More fundamentally there is also a lack of trust in Yemen. The fighting has torn institutions, governments and communities apart. There is a lack of basic services and human security that can inspire negative behaviour from political and military/militia actors, and even from local communities. Without the central authority of the state, we are left to negotiate access and implement our activities with overlapping authorities: what you agree with a ministry in Aden often does not translate to permissions in the field further away, where militia leaders on the ground have different motives and incentives. Until a wider peace process can take hold, we will continue to operate and manage in uncertainty. All this while we need to keep the confidence of donors high that the investment is worth the results, where the latter can be negatively affected by a wide range of factors.

 

Q4: In our recently released report entitled “Starvation Makers”, GRC and Mwatana have documented the widespread and indiscriminate use of landmines by Ansar Allah in wholly civilian areas in Yemen. GRC were grateful to you and HALO for your insights and collaboration with our investigations. As you may recall, the report indicates that residents of areas where landmines had been laid “stopped herding, logging, and agriculture, and [their] water has been cut off.” How does HALO cooperate, if so, with belligerent parties in its work towards reducing contamination in areas affected by active conflict?

 

HALO Yemen invests heavily in liaison and coordination with a range of actors on the ground to access those most in need of our services. Everyone from the regional management in HQ, through the programme and operations managers on the ground, our national liaison and security officers and operational team leaders is engaged in constant negotiations to ensure this access. We also rely on other INGO and UN partners and the humanitarian infrastructure in place in Yemen for support.

 

Mostly, our access in enhanced by our partnership with the Yemen Executive Mine Action Centre (YEMAC). As the national operator, YEMAC has national responsibility for the coordination and execution of mine action activities in Yemen. Their institution has been badly affected by the conflict – they lack the support of a central government, and are faced with a myriad of technical and operational challenges posed by the mines, IEDs and other explosive remnants of war. They have suffered a high number of casualties since 2015. HALO’s intervention in Yemen is predicated on training, deploying, mentoring and paying YEMAC teams to conduct the hard work in the field. We consider these teams ‘HALO-YEMAC’ as they are with us for the long haul, as we develop their skills and provide mentorship. Their status as the national operator helps us with access to those hard to reach areas, and liaison with the parties we need to convince.

 

We are currently working with YEMAC in areas of the south controlled by the internationally recognised government (IRG) and its allies and affiliates. We hope in due course to register with the de facto authorities in the north and to provide the same support to YEMAC teams based there.

 

Q5: In particular, what are the main hurdles faced by HALO in relation to Armed Non-State Actors (ANSAs), such as Ansar Allah in Yemen, including in seeking their adherence to commitment to the landmine ban?

 

The main hurdle currently is access to the north and Ansar Allah controlled areas – we are only registered in areas not under their control. We have started the initial conversations with the de facto authorities in Sana’a, with the support of UNDP, to explore how we might deliver services there in the future.

 

From what I have seen of YEMAC North, they have a sincere commitment to the Anti-Personnel Mine Ban Treaty and its outcomes. HALO is confident that, should we gain access, we will be able to implement activities in line with pillars of mine action described in the treaty, and to affect change at the national level.

 

Q6: In addition to Yemen, where else has HALO witnessed the use of landmines having a negative impact on food security and an impediment to the humanitarian response?

 

HALO is active in 28 countries worldwide, and has been registered in more during its 33-year history. During that time we have cleared mines and EO in wildly differing contexts. Where mines and EO have affected food security the most is certainly within those countries where agricultural lands have been most affected. While we do a lot of urban clearance nowadays (think of damaged buildings like those you see in Syria and Libya) we have been heavily engaged in rural clearance throughout our history.

 

Countries most affected by food insecurity include Cambodia. It still suffers from the wars of the 1970s and 80s, where hundreds of thousands of mines (if not millions) were laid along 750km of the border with Thailand, and within the interior. Over 60% of the land we clear there now is intended for future agricultural use. It is a remarkable experience to witness people waiting with agricultural supplies and homeware as demining teams finish their work, ready to move onto the land and start producing crops.

 

The same is true in countries like Mozambique, now declared mine-impact free, and Zimbabwe, Somalia and Somaliland, Angola and Sri Lanka. Where I worked previously in Somaliland, I witnessed three men digging two water storage pits for livestock on a minefield we had just cleared. They had not been able to use the land since the late 1980s, and you could see the marking where mines had been found running down the border of their excavated pit. So the impact of mine clearance on food security – and access to socio-economic resources that ends with food on the table – is wide and multifaceted. Crucially, it’s also not always obvious. HALO and the wider sector are focused these days on monitoring and evaluation, and demonstrating not only the immediate output of our work (e.g. how many mines we found or square metres we cleared) but also on the long-term impact. It’s harder to ascertain how many meals our clearance resulted in from farmland we cleared in 2007, for example!

 

Q7: How do you advocate for the effective elimination of the use of landmines in Yemen and what has been the international community’s response, both in terms of political will and concrete action towards the goal of Landmine Free 2025?

 

HALO invests in advocacy on behalf of the organisation, the wider sector and our beneficiaries at the global level. The Landmine Free 2025 campaign has been instrumental in generating engagement and support with a wider range of international donors. We have, and continue to be, funded mostly by donor governments and international organisations such as the UN. However, we are generating more and more funds from private foundations and individual donors of all varieties than ever before in our history.

 

In Yemen, we provide capacity development and advisory support to YEMAC in the writing of their Anti-Personnel Mine Ban Treaty submissions. Their requests to the convention form the basis for international support to the country. Many donors don’t wish to fund states that are not signatories, and all donors are looking for concrete plans for clearance to go ahead in a timely, efficient and effective manner.

 

To support YEMAC, we have helped to conceive and develop the Yemen Baseline Survey (YBS). This project aims to systematically survey all governorates in Yemen on a community-by-community, district-by-district basis. This will help us to ascertain the type of mines and EO present, their extent and their location. With this information not only can we plan our clearance properly, but we can advocate effectively to donors. We can tell them what we believe it will cost to clear the country, what the priorities are, and to where we recommend the resources are allocated.

 

But we have to be honest about our limits in Yemen. HALO and the mine action sector have little to no influence on the conduct of the warring parties. Apart from humanitarian clearance that saves lives, or clearance in support of development outcomes like agricultural restoration, we also talk about our work in terms of peacebuilding and stabilisation – creating the conditions for peace to take hold, and stability to return in affected communities. This could see HALO and YEMAC clear land in support of local or national peace agreements. It could see us employ former fighters to support reintegration of young men who haven’t known much or anything other than war. These activities and outcomes are generally harder to achieve, but this is where mine action can engage and impact on the conduct of warring parties. We need sustained support – both in funding, and to the concept of peacebuilding and stabilisation – from donor governments to make this happen.

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