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Yemen refugees crowd UN camp

Tens of thousands have fled fighting in the north between Islamic rebels and pro-US forces. They are the "lucky" ones.

HARADH, Yemen — When the war started up again in early August, the northern village of Thuaybe quickly became deserted.

Ahmad Ali, his wife and two children heard gunfire near their house around 5 a.m. The family fled, taking only one blanket.

They walked for two days with 200 other villagers, sleeping under trees and rocks, before taking refuge in another village.

Only four days later, the battle between the insurgent militia, based in the northern province of Saada and known as the Houthis, and the Yemeni government caught up with them. 

When Ahmed heard bullets flying, he and about 600 residents of both villages grabbed their children — and little else — and left on foot. A few people stayed behind to protect their farms and livestock. “There was random shooting, I don’t know what happened to the people who left after me,” Ahmed said.

Ahmed and his family now share a tent in a scorching-hot desert camp in the nearby province of Hajjah. In mid-August, when he arrived at the Mazrak camp, there were five tents. Now, about 7,000 people live in the camp, and as many as 1,400 newly displaced people arrive each week.

The Houthis, a group of radical Shiites who have been battling the government since 2004, claim to be defending themselves against violent religious oppression from a pro-Western government. The Yemeni government says the Houthis are Iranian-supported rebels, seeking to restore the rule of the imam, which was overthrown in a 1962 revolution.

And while statistics are not verifiable, due in part to the fact that the media has been banned from the area since the fighting began, according to Yemeni reporter Mohammed bin Sallam, who has been covering the war since its inception, there are about 20,000 Houthi fighters, and more than twice that many supporters.

The U.N. estimates that 150,000 people have been displaced since the war began in 2004. Less than 25 percent of these people, however, are registered to receive aid. Most are trapped in the war zone. Since renewed fighting began in early August, ending a yearlong cease-fire, as many as 30,000 people have been displaced.

About 80 percent of the displaced people are women and children, according to the U.N. They arrive traumatized, exhausted and often with nothing but the clothes on their backs.

“What worries us more are the places we can’t get to,” John Holmes, the U.N. Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief, told GlobalPost after visiting the Mazrak camp on Friday.

Holmes was in Yemen last week to draw international attention to the humanitarian crisis, which he said has been underreported. “It’s a relatively invisible conflict,” he added.

Of the $23.7 million in aid the U.N. asked for in a "flash appeal" to the international community in early September, only $3.8 million has been received, according to a recent UNHCR report. Displaced people — even those in humanitarian camps — need food, shelter, water and sanitation.