The Red Sea Mills sits on the outskirts of the Yemeni coastal city of Hudaydah and has served as one of the United Nations (UN) World Food Program’s (WFP) primary wheat storage and processing facilities during the ongoing conflict between the government of Yemen and Iran-back Houthi forces. Until September 2018, the Red Sea Mills stored and distributed approximately 25 percent of the WFP’s wheat in Yemen, playing a significant role in feeding millions of Yemenis who lack regular access to food, clean water, and essential social services. The WFP evacuated their personnel from the Red Sea Mills in September 2018 when fighting between government and Houthi forces reached the outskirts of Hudaydah. The Red Sea Mills and the surrounding area quickly became part of the Houthi defensive perimeter as the two sides fortified their positons, trapping in the facility approximately 51,000 metric tons of wheat desperately needed to feed malnourished and starving Yemenis.
Yemeni officials estimate that Houthi forces have laid over one million landmines and improvised explosive devices (IEDs) across Yemen, making the country one of the most heavily mined in the world. Iran has played a critical role assisting the Houthis in developing a robust capacity to produce landmines and IEDs at an industrial scale. Throughout the ongoing conflict, Houthis have made extensive use of landmines and IEDs. While primarily being used to deny access to areas and target Yemeni government forces, these mines have also killed civilians and prevented Yemenis from productively using land for agriculture and grazing. Like many other strategic locations on the outskirts of Hudaydah, Houthi forces heavily mined and secured the area around the Red Sea Mills as well as the facility itself.
Not long after evacuating its personnel from the Red Sea Mills, the WFP began an exhaustive effort to deploy a technical team back to the facility to inspect the wheat trapped by the conflict, restore damaged equipment, and salvage as much wheat as possible to help feed conflict-affected Yemenis. Houthi forces controlling Hudaydah prevented the WFP from returning to the Red Sea Mills for several months after the their initial evacuation, but a team of technical experts was finally permitted to enter the facility in late January to confirm the condition of the wheat. While the WFP succeeded in gaining assurances that Houthi forces would not attack the technical team, landmines and IEDs along with other security concerns made it impossible for the team to restore and operate the mills safely.
U.S.-funded demining teams managed by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and staffed by Yemeni deminers from the Yemen Executive Mine Action Center (YEMAC) deployed to the Red Sea Mills in March to begin the dangerous task of surveying the facility for explosive hazards and then clearing these hazards to facilitate safe access for the WFP. Over the next two months, 58 U.S.-funded deminers worked tirelessly to clear and destroy 1,239 explosive hazards from the Red Sea Mills including IEDs disguised as rocks and mass-produced landmines deliberately emplaced in and around the milling facilities, unexploded ordnance from recent battles, and 14 sea mines that washed ashore near the Mills.
After the deadly landmines and IEDs were removed from the Red Sea Mills, a WFP technical team gained safe access to the site in early May and began the process of restoring equipment and infrastructure at the Mills and preparing to fumigate the 51,000 metric tons of wheat. The WFP is optimistic that the Red Sea Mills may begin producing flour again by the middle of June, if access remains open. This flour will play a critical role feeding civilians across eastern Yemen who are among the approximately 14 million Yemenis who remain food insecure.
The United States Department of State is proud to be the largest donor to UNDP’s demining engagement in Yemen, providing more than $13.5 million to support demining operations since 2016. Demining plays a critical role in facilitating the delivery of humanitarian assistance in Yemen and the United States remains dedicated to supporting this life-saving work.
About the Author: Solomon Black serves as a program manager for Yemen in the Bureau of Political-Military Affairs, Office of Weapons Removal and Abatement.