Fayfa tribe steps up to defend mountain range

Friday 08/05/2015
Armed Saudi volunteers, from the Fayfa tribes, attend a tribal gathering in the Jizan province

Jabal Fayfa - As Gulf Cooperation Coun­cil (GCC) fighter pilots pounded the Houthi mi­litia south of the Saudi border, the Border Guard and Saudi Army stood on alert, vigi­lant for those attempting to illegally cross into Saudi Arabia.
Their role in the conflict, which has lasted more than three weeks, is a dual one, sometimes offensive and at times defensive.
But as the battle raged over and across the mountain range that sep­arates Saudi Arabia from its south­ern neighbour, where no border fence exists because of the rugged, and in places impassable, terrain, a group of boys, teenagers, grown men and older, stand atop the Fayfa mountain ridge ready to defend it from any aggressor.
Welcome to the Fayfa province and its mountainous terrain, which have long been sources of fascina­tion for geologists and historians, mostly because of the lack of his­torical and archaeological data about them. This, according to some experts, is due to the diffi­culty of access to the mountainous landscape, which for generations has deterred explorers from inves­tigating it in depth.
Over the years, the area has been a hotbed for weapons and drug smuggling, as well as militants try­ing to infiltrate the kingdom, which forced Saudi authorities to set up task forces with the help of local tribes to secure the area. In 2009 and 2010, Border Guards with the help of the Saudi Army captured 180,000 infiltrators, some dis­guised as women.
The Arab Weekly was granted unprecedented access to the Fayfa tribesmen guarding the kingdom’s borders and, in the process, gained insight how the tribesmen work and coordinate with the military, as well as the motivation behind their participation.
The Fayfa tribesmen, with flow­ery wreaths in their hair and col­ourful cloths wrapped around their waists, look like a truly peaceful people, in harmony with nature and the beauty that surrounds them, and they usually are.
But with the Houthi rebels less than 2 kilometres away, the Fayfa tribe is on edge and it shows.
Atop the mountain ridge, young and old scope out the mountains of Yemen with binoculars trying to spot anyone uninvited. Boys as young as 13 and men as old as 85 carry machine guns, assault rifles or handguns. All weapons are fully loaded.
“This is our mountain,” Fayez Al- Fayfa, 23, a university student told The Arab Weekly. “We grew up on it and we will defend it with our lives.”
The Fayfa mountain tribal militia is made up of hundreds of members who have lived on the mountain since birth.
“We know these mountains like no one does,” says Salem Al-Fayfa, 32, an engineer who lives atop the mountain. “We know every part of it better than anyone.”
A kilometre south of the moun­tain the Saudi Border Guard and Army have set up positions to be the first line of defence against any invaders who dare to cross the mountain range.
“Look down there, you see that line?” Salem asks pointing to a dirt road approximately 700 metres away. “That’s where the (Saudi) military is but none of them are from our tribe.
“I don’t know which part of the kingdom they’re from but they aren’t from here, so they need our help because they don’t know the terrain like we do. We know where to look. We have faith that they will give up their lives to protect the kingdom but we do not rely just on them.
“This is our mountain, it is our home. It is our responsibility to protect it and die for it and we will if we must.”
For the Fayfa mountain tribal mi­litia, this war is not about religion, although across the valley in Yem­en, it may well be for the Iranian-backed Houthi rebels.
“This isn’t about religion, it’s not a Sunni or Shia issue for us,” says Fayez. “It’s about our mountain staying ours and it’s about us stay­ing Saudis.”
As the sun begins to set, machine gun fire could be heard a couple of hundred metres down the moun­tain.
“You must go now,” they tell this reporter. “It gets dangerous on the mountain after dark. We have to change positions and where we go, no one who isn’t one of us, can go.”