The Shabwah governorate’s terrain consists largely of desert plains, but beneath the mundane landscape lie lucrative natural resources – oil predominantly, but also a vast mineral wealth. The desert expanses however are haunted by tribal feuds, which overcast the region with a prevailing sense of sadness and oblivion.
Shabwah has, for more than a decade, suffered from tribal conflicts and extreme violence that frequently see bloodshed. The frequency have increased particularly after the civil war that Yemen witnessed in the summer of 1994.
Without warning or prior indication tribal disputes have ravaged Shabwah governorate. Such blood feuds have largely and dreadfully spread into many regions and have become a real threat for the different aspects of daily life of the people of Shabwah.
Provincial security authorities have repeatedly failed to establish lasting peace in the city of Ataq, the capital of Shabwah. According to some, the city has resultantly become a convenient hotbed for crime and tribal vendetta.
The disruptions of tribal feuds stop only to start again elsewhere in a nearby area, and the violent phenomenon is incessantly repeated. As soon as life gets back to normal, sparks from a tribal dispute soon erupt into a blaze, engulfing the communities of the disputing tribes.
Blood feuds cast shadows on the daily rhythm of life in Shabwah, complicating an already intricate and increasingly delicate state of affairs in the area. The negative effects of this phenomenon are accentuated in a society where the logic of violence and extremism has become dominant, in addition to the crystallization of many obstacles that hinder social reconciliation.
It is no wonder that the reality necessitates adjudication by blind and now obsolete tribal traditions. Indeed, this reflects the ignorance prevalent in Shabwa, as the tribal customs nowadays are no different from those enforced in early pre-Islamic periods.
Sheikh and Islamic jurisprudent, Mohammed Bin Abdullah Al-Hoot Al-Mihdhar, Head of Rebat Al-Zahra’a in Habban preaches against the rising spate of tribal revenge killings, known as “th’ar” in Arabic.
“Allah has promised murderers severe perdition on Judgment Day for the killing of the human soul,” he says after Friday prayers.
He went on, justifying his position, drawing authority from Qu’ranic quotations: “If a person spares a life, it is like he has spared all the human kind.”
The National Yemen spoke to Al-Mihdhar about tribal disputes, which have been an aspect of life in Shabwah from time immemorial.
“Before the unity, tribal disputes occurred, but at a manageable rate. However, since unification, tribal disputes have been resurrected for three main reasons,” he said.
Firstly, the security measures are extremely lax or insufficient.
The second reason is the lack of guidance by religious leaders; most of them are preoccupied with other controversies and are detached from the real concerns and issues of the people of the governorate.
Thirdly, and perhaps the most damning of all, is that killers now receive protection (particularly in Al-Raba’ah), where the murderer resorts to his tribe or another tribe which provides protection and security for him, despite their knowledge that he is a murderer. By protecting him, the tribe violates basic, unwritten tribal laws.
“Such protection is particularly damning, as the protector goes against the law of Allah, and also, the protector aids and abets violent, homicidal crime in society,” the sheikh added.
The sheikh considers moral guidance from religious authorities vital in resolving the bloody state of affairs.
“I hope that every religious scholar calls people to peace solutions, and strives to spread the true essence of Islam, which calls for love and forgiveness.”
However, whilst edification of tribesmen seems an apt solution, in the meantime the most obvious social aspect to suffer because of tribal disputes is education.
Sheikh Ali Bin Rashed Al-Harithi, Assistant Deputy of Shabwah province, talked to the National Yemen about how tribal disputes wholly disrupt and insidiously undermine education in the governorate.
“Students were forced out of many schools due to their proximity to, and occasional involvement in, tribal disputes,” he said, expressing surprise at the idea that even educated people are embroiled in tribal feuds.
“In one of the directorates, feudal problems resulted in the killing of a number of innocent people in a specific neighbourhood, which resulted in the closure of its only school. Some of the students, with nothing to do, were encouraged to either become involved in the dispute with their tribe, or were pushed to move to other regions,” he added.
Saleh Mohammed Naser, a student in Nesab directorate, Shabwah said, “There are no schools in our region and we had to move to Al-Noqoob region where, due to feud problems, the school had to close down and more than five hundred students were deprived of learning.”
Tribal disputes in Shabwa are not simply social problems. They, of course, have very real and saddening impacts on the lives of the families of the victims.
Taqie Ahmed Al-Maqrahi, an Arabic language finalist in the Faculty of Education, Shabwah University told the National Yemen about the death of his father in a tribal killing.
“One of my school-friends shot my father dead in a tribal dispute, and our family suffered terribly. I was able to complete secondary school, with merit, but later I was forced to leave education for a long period, as I was the only breadwinner in the family.”
Naser Hussein Al-Shakliyah, a third-year Geography student in the Faculty of Education, Shabwah, said, “There was once a feud between two Laqmoosh sub-tribes in Habban directorate. As soon as the fighting began, students fled from their schools.”
“The feud between those two tribes lasted for many years. Only a few months ago, some good people in the region made a truce between the warring tribes and now the duration of the truce is about to end.” He wondered whether there would be another truce or reconciliation.
Of course students themselves can also be the victims of tribal conflict. In a moving story, Mu’ammar Mohammed Hussein, a student from Markhah directorate, Shabwah, told the National Yemen about how a teenage classmate was caught in the crossfire, just metres away from the school.
“One day, when I was in the second year of high school, there was an exchange of fire between two tribes. One of my schoolmates went out of school to go home when a stray bullet killed him … he became a victim of the dispute. All of us were so sad that we made sure we kept his chair in the classroom empty for the whole school year.”
Mr. Abdu-Rabboh Hashlah, Chairman of the Planning and Development Committee in the local council of Shabwah, refuses to hold a particular person responsible for the tribal disputes and feuds.
“It is not solely the responsibility of the judiciary or of security,” he said.
“It is the responsibility of society as a whole, and so this responsibility lies on everybody’s shoulders,” he added.
However, the absence of the government in resolving such matters has been criticized. Dr. Fahd Khamis, Vice-Dean in Shabwa University, outlined that most tribal problems were resolved by sheikhs and other community figures, and not by the government.
called for the flexibility of the legal system to respond to erupting tribal issues, in particular to create an “urgent” court, which could be mustered to resolve tribal disputes much quicker than other cases are resolved.
One of these mediating sheikhs, Sheikh Alawi Ali Ahmed Taleb Al-Khalifi, said, “from our experience and from our many interventions in solving feud problems, we have seen that there is a spread of tribal problems in all social classes; and of course the students and teachers have nothing to do with the eruption of tribal disputes.”
“Unfortunately, students are forcibly involved in tribal disputes, and so the aftermath of the problem is much more dangerous than we otherwise think,” he added.
Sheikh Al-Khalifi also pointed out the necessity for government support in intervening and mediating such conflicts.
“The security authorities must perform their duty. Honestly, today people are in dire need of solutions and this problem will not be eliminated unless the authority takes it seriously. Only then will the results be fruitful,”
The relationship between tribal violence and lack of education in Shabwa is viciously cyclical. Mr. Ahmed Rowais Awadh, Deputy Manager of Education in Shabwah, told the National Yemen that “what really hurts is that when we are forced to close down our schools, we, consequently, bring back ignorance.”
Mr. Al-Hasan Ali Al-Hodair, Secretary of the Executive Office for Reform of Shabwah, summed up the situation saying, “Education has been felled by the vice of tribal feuds just as the judiciary can be felled by bribery.”
“I believe that the society is responsible; however, if the State does not perform its duty, then it is responsible for perpetuating the situation. The state has to honour its sovereign duty and establish peace – only then can society provide assistance. The fatherland is groaning from tribal feuds,” he added.
Nevertheless, in such a painful reality, we have to, at the moment, pin our hopes on the efforts made by some independent mediators who strenuously fight to eliminate tribal violence from the governorate, whether through determined effort of community figures of the governorate in resolving tribal disputes, or through the congruent efforts of the civil society organizations in spreading awareness of the seriousness of this malicious phenomenon.