ABYAN, Jan. 18 — Around 2,500 displaced people from Abyan governorate, south Yemen, have returned home to Zunjubar in a collective march of vehicles.
They had fled to Aden last May in a bid to escape fierce fighting between armed Islamists and the Yemeni army, and were forced to live in a number of the city’s schools.
However, their return took place amid a worsening humanitarian and security situation, with battles continuing in several areas of Abyan between the army and Islamists – known as Ansar Al-Sharia, or Sharia Supporters, but thought to be Al-Qaeda.
Nadeer Kandh, a journalist from Abyan who accompanied the convoy, said the armed group held a welcoming festival for people returning home to Zunjubar, the capital of Abyan, 55 km east of Aden.
Abyan’s internally displaced people (IDPs) attempted to return to the city two weeks ago, but the armed Islamists prevented them, forcing them back to Aden.
And while some citizens are happy that they were allowed to return this time, others do not trust the occupying men.
“I’m afraid that this is just a deception by the armed group to attract other displaced people home, so they can enforce their Islamic state,” said Abdulelah Mohamed, a university student of Abyan.
The armed men are currently running two main areas of Abyan; Zunjubar, the capital of the governorate, and Ja’ar city, after taking control of both in May 2011.
The brutal battles, which erupted after the men took over the two cities, left thousands of people displaced and living in dire conditions in Aden and Lahj. Violent confrontations between the Islamists and government forces also caused huge damage to public and private buildings, particularly in the capital Zunjubar.
Local citizens told the Yemen Times that Ansar Al-Sharia has been running government institutions, including the local authority and education system.
They have been also imposing their own Islamic system on citizens. In schools for example, students now chant religious songs instead of singing the national anthem.
“The atmosphere of panic is still prevailing the city of Zunjubar due to ongoing battles and this is why the rest of the displaced people – estimated at thousands – prefer to stay in IDP camps in Aden’s rather than risk return,” explained Mohamed.
“People’s homes are in a bad condition and some houses have been completely destroyed,” he added.
“Zunjubar has turned into a ghost town after people fled their homes, shops were shut down and the electricity is off.”
Abyan’s displaced people who remained in Aden expressed their misgivings about returning due to the lack of security and what they deem an unfinished war.
Um Mohamed, one of the displaced women, lives with her children in a school room in Crater district, Aden. She said it will be difficult for her to return home since their house in Zunjubar was completely destroyed in the fighting.
“Despite the bad situation we live in here in Aden, the journey home is not yet safe,” said Um Mohamed.
For his part, Khaled, also displaced in Aden, said his relatives – who returned to Zunjubar – are complaining of a lack of amenities. “Their homes have been destroyed and there is an urgent need for basic food since shops are all closed,” he said.
The city is experiencing repeated power outages, no clean drinking water and no transportation in addition to the insecurity residents face.
Returnees said the armed men share dominance of Zunjubar with some units of the Yemeni army, adding that the distance between military units and armed men in some areas is no more than a few meters so clashes can easily erupt unexpectedly.
“A number of streets and neighborhoods are blocked because of landmines that could explode at any moment,” said Kandh.
However, a member of Ansar Al-Sharia played down the current situation. “Zunjubar is calm nowadays and Ansar Al-Sharia has welcomed the returnees to their homes and showed their cooperation in facilitating all the services they need,” said Abu Tamam.
“[Ansar Al-Sharia] has also supplied returnees with water and promised to solve the power outages,” he added. “People didn’t flee Zunjubar because of mistreatment by Ansar Al-Sharia, but because their homes were destroyed by government’s forces,” he claimed.
Around 40.000 displaced people live in schools – often without water or electricity – in Aden and Lahj, and families complain of a shortage in the number of beds and blankets, according to the UN’s Development Programme (UNDP).
The displaced people also accuse the government’s Camps Executive Unit of manipulating IDP funds and relief aid, claiming that the unit receives funds and relief assistance from international and local organizations but the IDPs see only little benefit.
While he recognized that IDPs in Aden are suffering and not accessing enough food aid, Wadah Hamas, supervising officer of aid distribution in Aden, stressed that the Camps Executive Unit was not confiscating food aid.
“The response of aid organizations is slow and that is why people complain to us since we have to distribute one camp’s share to many,” he said.