HAJJAH, 31 January 2012 (IRIN) - Ahmad Hussein Naji, 75, and his wife Taqwa, spent three days in the open after fleeing clashes in Kisher District in Yemen's northern governorate of Hajjah before eventually finding shelter in a school in the neighbouring district of Khairan al-Muharaq.
"My husband coughs and coughs until he vomits blood. We have no medicine to give him," Taqwa told IRIN. "It was the hardest trip in my life. We had neither food nor water nor even a blanket to protect ourselves from the cold."
The elderly couple are among hundreds of families displaced by last week's clashes [ http://www.irinnews.org/report.aspx?reportid=94724 ] between Houthi-led Shia fighters and Sunni Salafi members in Kisher.
Helene Kadi, an emergency coordinator with the UN Children's Fund (UNICEF), told IRIN 580 families had been displaced by the fighting. "Over 30 percent of the IDPs [internally displaced persons] have taken shelter in five schools, a worrying trend we have seen with recent displacements in the country. Others have been hosted with families or have no shelter."
According to Ali Meshaal, a social worker in Kisher, around 230 displaced families - mostly the elderly, women and children - fled to Hajjah Governorate's Ahim District, while more than 250 families had made it to Khairan al-Muharaq. "The whereabouts of dozens of other displaced families is still unknown," he told IRIN.
Hajjah Governorate is home to more than 100,000 IDPs displaced by fighting between government troops and Houthi rebels since June 2004, according to a December 2011 report by the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR).
People from the al-Khamisein area in Khairan al-Muharaq District warmly received several displaced families. "They are sharing their food and water with hundreds of displaced persons who reached their villages. They also freed up schools in the area so they could be used as shelters for the displaced," he said.
Meshaal appealed to the government and aid organizations to intervene: "The condition of the IDPs is getting much worse due to lack of food and appropriate shelter," he said.
Ali al-Dubai with local NGO al-Khair Social Charitable Society (ASCS) said more than 2,000 IDPs had been identified and registered for assistance in Hajjah Governorate.
UNICEF, according to Kadi, has distributed 316 hygiene kits and made efforts to raise awareness about hygiene issues among IDPs and the host community. The construction of 12 latrines has been completed and water trucking to IDPs is taking place in the al-Khamisein area. Seven more 1,000 litre tankers are to be deployed and eight emergency latrines will be constructed, and more hygiene kits distributed. Water, sanitation and hygiene assistance is being delivered by UNICEF's partner ASCS, Kadi told IRIN.
However, several families are stranded "either on their way to safer areas or inside their homes after many villages in Kisher District became inaccessible and roads unsafe," said Sheikh Abdullah Dhahban, a member of a recently established tribal mediation committee which is trying to persuade the warring parties to lay down their arms.
"Several dead bodies are still lying in the mountains. None of their relatives have come to collect them for burial," Dhahban told IRIN.
Local witnesses who preferred anonymity told IRIN on 28 January that Houthi fighters were attempting to tighten their control of a strategic mountain-top position called Abu Dowar, and fighting was also continuing for control of Mishabah hill, which overlooks Suq Ahim (a local market) in Kisher District.
"If Houthis take over this hill it will be easier for them to control the entire district," one of the witnesses told IRIN.
Waning central government influence due to political turmoil since early last year, has allowed the Houthis to tighten their control of Sa'dah Governorate and push into eastern parts of neighbouring Hajjah Governorate.
"The whole governorate [Sa'dah] is controlled by Houthis. We only have to deal with one party," said Beatrice Megevand-Roggo, head of operations for the Near and Middle East at the International Committee of the Red Cross.
The fresh displacements are taking place as Yemen prepares for presidential elections scheduled for 21 February.