Yemen refugees crowd UN camp

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.

“However, the money is simply not coming in fast enough to meet the requirements,” Holmes was quoted in a U.N. press release as saying.

There have also been consistent reports of civilian deaths from both sides, including a round of air strikes that some say killed more than 80 displaced civilians in the middle of September.

The Yemeni government says it is investigating the killings. "I hope that it will be conducted quickly and transparently," Holmes said at a Sanaa press conference on Sunday.

For months, humanitarian agencies in Yemen have been clamoring for a safe route to get aid into the battle zones. The government and the Houthi rebel army — who are thought to number about 20,000— have publicly agreed to open a “humanitarian corridor,” but the fighting continues, and the roads remain closed.

The Houthis often operate inside villages, according to villagers displaced by the war. In response, the government drops bombs, and families flee the area. 

Last week, Saudi Arabia announced plans to open a border to allow humanitarian aid shipments to reach displaced people caught between the ongoing fighting in the town of Baqim and the edge of the country. A mid-September fact finding mission conducted by the UNHCR found hundreds of families in the area living under bridges, in schools and along the sides of roads.

After a week of delays and a full day of onsite negotiations, supplies did cross the border into Yemen, though the potential for this new aid route to help the thousands of stranded victims is yet to be seen.

And while aid workers fight to get into the war zone, camps on the outskirts of the battles are packed, short-staffed, undersupplied and growing everyday.

The Mazrak camp is at the edge of a hot and barren desert. Mountains on one side separate the displaced people from the war that rages less than seven miles away.

“They are flowing people from village to village,” said a displaced woman at the camp. Some families also said they left their homes before bombs fell, when the Houthi army attacked their villages. They said the militants take over villages to use them as bases of operations — and the civilians as human shields.

“We left our money, our food and our clothes there,” said Miriam Mohammad Abdullah, who fled her village with her six children in the middle of August. “And now we have nothing.”

Miriam and her family escaped bombing from above in the middle of the night. For the next three days they slept outside in the hot countryside of nearby Saudi Arabia, with no food. With no prospects for survival there, the family left to seek shelter and help.

“I came by my own legs,” she said, slapping her thighs as she squatted in the corner of her dusty tent, buzzing with flies and children. “We came with the whole village.”

At the camp, families cluster their tents in neighborhoods organized loosely by the villages they abandoned. Some neighborhoods have built makeshift bathrooms with sticks, blue plastic tarps and rocks.

Large families complain that they cannot get enough food to feed all of the children. Others complain there is not enough water, or tents. One man held out a list, handwritten on a dirty piece of paper. It was the names of people waiting for mattresses.

All agree, however, that the relative safety inside the camp is better than the bombs and the gunfire at home.

“We ran away from the war,” said Faisel Hussein Mogbil as he hobbled barefoot through the dirt and rocks. “It was from everywhere — from the government by planes, and the Houthis from the mountains.”

Faisel, who has severely deformed feet, spent five days walking less than five miles to the camp with his wife and eight children. 

Parents in the Mazrak camp also worry that their children are increasingly malnourished because the best available food is potatoes and rice. According to Unicef, one in five children at the Mazrak camp suffers from acute malnutrition.

“The situation is very serious. If not treated, these children are at a high risk of death,” said Unicef official Dr. Kamel Ben Abdallah in a recent report.

The children at the camp are also at risk for diseases such as malaria, diarrhea and measles, according to Unicef.

Camps like Mazrak face other huge obstacles. Military parties from both sides have reportedly confiscated humanitarian aid trucks. And camp residents say that poor people from surrounding villages join the food lines at the camp, even though they have not been displaced, extending the wait as long as two hours.

Because it is close to the fighting, the UNHCR says it is “concerned with maintaining the civilian nature of Mazrak Camp and with the security" of the displaced people.

And while international security experts lament that the growing instability in Yemen is creating an atmosphere for terrorist organizations to thrive, residents of the Mazrak camp simply wait around and wonder when they will be able to go home.

“God knows how badly we have been suffering,” said Faisel, the crippled father of eight.