Clashes in Rada’a have left thousands internally displaced

Since October, Rada’a city has been engulfed in a spiral of violence between Houthis, members of Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and allied tribesmen. The ongoing fighting has effected a number of neighboring towns and villages, leaving thousands displaced.

In early December, the Yemen Times visited Rada’a city and its surrounding areas in an attempt to get a better grasp of the situation—including the living conditions of Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) who were forced to flee their homes as a result of the fighting.

Abdullah Mohammed Al-Rada’i, a father of seven, is one of many who fled Rada’a city with his family in early October when the clashes first began. He, along with his family, live in a makeshift home in a local school in Al-Khadra neighborhood in Rada’a city of Al-Baida’s governorate, long known as an AQAP stronghold. “The situation was already tense the last few years, before these last rounds of clashes broke out,” he said. “However now, things have gotten much worse.”

Al-Rada’i and his family share a schoolhouse with dozens of other displaced families from Rada’a. They say they lack blankets, clothes, food, and medicine. “Winter’s upon us and the weather has gotten very cold. However, my family and I only have two blankets. Locals provide us with food every now and then but it’s never enough for all of us,” Al-Rada’i said. The area surrounding Rada’a city is rural and mountainous with rugged topography, where residents subsist primarily on agriculture.

Abdullah Al-Auqbi, deputy chairman of the Charitable Society for Social Welfare in Rada’a—the social wing of the Islah party—told the Yemen Times that since October over 1,000 families have been displaced from Al-Manaseh village and 250 from the near-by Khubza village, both located several kilometers north of Rada’a city. Of those who fled Al-Manaseh, he said, about half have returned to their homes. However, due to ongoing clashes in Khubza, residents remain displaced.

“We’ve distributed 300 blankets and 200 food baskets, which include wheat, cooking oil and sugar, to 257 displaced families from various cities, towns and villages who have taken refuge in Al-Salil, Bani Ziyad and Al-Ajruf villages, in Al-Quraishia district near Khubza and Al-Manasah,” he added.

Other than the Charitable Society, Al-Rada’i claims he has not received any humanitarian assistance from the government, NGOs, or international organizations operating in Yemen. “Two weeks ago Islah provided us with food and blankets,” he said. “I haven’t seen anyone else attempt to help us.”

An inter-agency assessment on the Al-Baida governorate published on Dec. 1 and compiled by Yemen’s Red Crescent, puts the total figure of IDPs in Rada’a at 2,000 families totaling 14,000 people. Of those, 500 families remain displaced it says. The report was drafted in coordination with the United Nations Office of Coordination for Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), and the United Nations Department of Safety and Security (UNDSS). The report further claims that 500 displaced families received one time emergency food assistance on Nov. 29, in addition to hygiene kits, water filters, and jerry cans.

Nasser Al-Sane, chairman of Rada’a district’s Information Office, confirmed that beginning ten days ago, the Red Crescent successfully distributed aid contributed by UNICEF, the World Food Programme (WFP) and Doctors without Borders, that included health kits, flour and biscuits to 500 families. Further aid had been provided six weeks prior he said. “They gave blankets, mattresses and utensils to a number of families.” He could not specify which villages or regions the aid had been distributed in.

According to Fahad Al-Taweel, a Rada’a based journalist, the first round of displacements began in October. “Clashes intensified in October when the Houthis began to make serious advances into Rada’a in the lead up to their takeover of the city and its surrounding areas on Oct. 20,” he said.

He added that a second wave of IDPs emerged in November, particularly from Khubza, when an existing ceasefire between the Houthis and AQAP was broken on Nov. 9. According to the ceasefire, Houthis would not enter the village if tribesmen pledged not to harbor members of AQAP. Conflicting stories exist regarding who is responsible for breaking the ceasefire. According to Al-Taweel, many of the displaced have resorted to living in caves in the surrounding mountains, in neighboring villages, or in school houses, mosques, or the homes of local residents.

Sheikh Al-Saleh Abu Suraima is a local tribal leader in Baqarat, a village located next to Khubza that still remains outside the sphere of Houthi control. He is also the head of the Coalition of Saba Region Tribesmen. Saba is one of six federal regions set to be established in accordance with the NDC outcomes, and includes the Yemeni governorates of Marib, Al-Jawf and Al-Baida.

Suraimi claims to have fought against the Houthis during their recent incursions into Rada’a, but maintains that he and his tribesmen have no alliance with AQAP and have prevented them from entering Baqarat. Having witnessed the fighting firsthand, he claims that all 300 families living within Khubza village have fled, what he estimates to be about 2,000 people

“Originally, residents fled to the caves,” he said. “Often, shelling by both AQAP and the Houthis, who station themselves in the mountains where a number of caves are located, accidentally strike IDPs.” As a result, he said that, “Many have left the caves and moved into the homes of people in surrounding villages that have not witnessed any fighting.”

Hajj Mohammad Abdu Al-Khubzi is a father of 14. He and all his family members fled Khubza in November following the Houthi takeover of the village, and have since taken refuge in the home of a relative living in the Dar Al-Najed village in Al-Quraishia district.

Al-Khubzi claims he did not want to leave his home but that he was forced to do so by the Houthis. “[The Houthis] kicked all the village’s residents out of their homes and threatened those who refused with murder … they destroyed our homes and ransacked our lands and properties,” he said. Houthis surrounding Khubza were under strict order not to let anyone enter when the Yemen Times visited the area. However, Walid Dailemi, a local Houthi commander stationed in the area, who took part in fighting in Rada’a and Khubza, denied Al-Khubzi’s allegations.

“We didn’t kick anyone out of Khubza, the residents fled,” he said. “Admittedly, they did so out of fear of the popular committees loyal to the Houthis.” While local tribesmen claim the Houthis launched an attack on Khubza on the day the ceasefire was violated, Dailemi claimed that Houthis had been fired upon on the day in question by AQAP members who had taken refuge inside the village and were allied with the local population. “We invaded the village and took it over. Locals were afraid, so they fled, but we haven’t destroyed any of their homes or farms,” he said. Dailemi claims that the Houthis allowed local residents to return to the village last week.

Al-Khubzi could not confirm Dailemi’s account of events, saying that throughout last week only a few Khubza residents have occasionally returned to the village. They are mostly men, according to Al-Khubzi, who return only during the day to tend to their family’s qat farms. “At night, they go back to the caves,” he said.

Lack of long term solutions

The Yemeni government released a statement in July saying that there were a total of 500,000 IDPs living in Yemen, and called on the international community to help provide them with assistance. That month, the European Union (EU) pledged to allocate $8 million worth of food assistance, to be administered by WFP for IDPs in Yemen

In its most recent statistics available on its website, UNHCR predicts that the total number of IDPs in Yemen would reach 365,000 by Jan. 2015, and that of those, 310,000 would be assisted by UNHCR. It is unclear whether or not IDPs fleeing fighting in the Rada’a district will be among those provided for. The Yemen Times contacted Fares Khoalid, a communications assistant with WFP, and Abdulilah Taqi, public communications officer with OCHA. Both said that as of now neither organization had plans to intervene permanently in Rada’a because of the security situation.

“There’s only one hospital in Rada’a, which is understaffed and constantly overflowing with patients,” according to Al-Taweel. “This makes it difficult for anyone —IDPs or civilians—to get proper care. The situation has been made worse and was compounded by the clashes.”

Um Muhammad, 60, lost her husband and two sons during fighting that took place in Al-Manasah village. She had two daughters living in Khubza, the youngest of which, 8 years old, was killed, while the other lost her fiancé. She now lives in a tent on the outskirts of Harria village, Wild Rabia district, with a family of seven who fled similar fighting. “Those who suffer the most in war are always civilians,” she said. “War costs us our lives, homes, farms and possessions.”