Little hope of swift return for Abyan IDPs

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ADEN, 25 January 2012 (IRIN) - When Abdullah al-Hasani, 55, fled his home in the Khanfar District of Yemen's Abyan Governorate eight months ago, he hoped some day to return and grow watermelons.

But on a visit there in January he found nothing left of his two-storey home and his watermelon farm - the family's sole source of income - had become a wasteland.

"I never expected to see our home in this condition. It is almost completely destroyed and our furniture has been looted," al-Hasani told IRIN. "Our watermelon farm is littered with spent cartridges and unexploded devices."

Al-Hasani is one of some 2,500 [ ] internally displaced persons (IDPs) who went back to Abyan in mid-January to check on their property and belongings.

After the visit, the IDPs returned to Aden, where they have been sheltering since May 2011 following clashes between government troops and armed Islamic militants (mainly Ansar al-Sharia, an offshoot of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsular).

According to the government's Executive Unit for IDP Camp Management, more than 144,000 people have been displaced in southern Yemen since May 2011. [ ]

Local sources told IRIN armed Islamic groups allowed the IDPs to enter Zinjibar city, the main militant stronghold, and other neighbouring areas.

"We were received warmly by the militants - behaviour we have never seen before," said Abdulkhaliq Abu Omar, a secondary school teacher in his thirties. "We fear they [militants] just want to seduce us to return and then use as human shields," he told IRIN.

According to IDPs, armed militants and the army share control of Zinjibar city, and in some areas the two warring sides are only metres apart, making further clashes a distinct possibility.

Nadheer Kandah, a local journalist who accompanied the IDPs on their journey to Abyan, described Zinjibar as a ghost town, with all shops shut and no water or electricity.

"A number of streets and neighbourhoods are no-go areas because of landmines," he said.

Compensation unlikely

"Our home is a wreck. Our grocery [the family's sole source of income] has been burned down. How can we survive if we return?" asked Ali Saif, a 35-year-old IDP sheltering with his eight-member family in 22 May School in Aden.

"We will not return unless our homes are reconstructed and unless we receive compensation for our livelihood sources, which we lost, and unless security is restored. It is too early for us to think about homecoming."

Edward Leposky, external relations officer with the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), told IRIN there has been no assessment of the dangers of mines and other unexploded devices in the Abyan area. The agency, he added, was monitoring developments and continuing to campaign for improvements on the ground to permit a safe return.

According to Ghassan Faraj, secretary-general of Zinjibar local council, the destruction of citizens' homes and other property is huge. "No assessment has been conducted yet, but we can say that several hundred homes and farms have been damaged or destroyed, most notably in Zinjibar and Jaar cities," he said.

"The government hasn't compensated Sa'dah IDPs displaced since 2004 [due to fighting between government forces and Houthi rebels]. This makes us pessimistic that it can do so in Abyan to prompt the return of IDPs," Faraj told IRIN.

Yemen is due to hold presidential elections on 21 February as part of a deal brokered by Gulf states to end a year of political turmoil that has left hundreds dead.