Local residents step in as government fails to address growing plight of displaced in Shabwa

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Nasser Al-Sakkaf

Mohammed Sabri, 29, used to live in a house with 15 family members in the Mayfa'a district of Shabwa governorate. He never thought the day would come when he would be forced to flee his house and squeeze his large family in a single room. That is his current reality after he was forced by the recent fighting between the military and militants in the area to seek shelter in a four-by-seven meter room in the Al-Rawdah School in Ataq district.

Sabri is one of more than 2,000 people displaced by the fighting in the governorate that began on April 29 under a government campaign to purge Shabwa and Abyan governorates of believed Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) militants.

“Businessmen and charity associations provide food for us, but we lack stability,” Sabri said. “We don't sleep well because the place is insufficient to accommodate us.”

“We left our houses and everything behind and came here to survive. We don't know if our houses have been looted or not,” he added.

Sabri says he is yet to see a government official visit the area and take stock of the situation.

Ali Bin Obaid, another displaced person in Ataq district, lives in conditions similar to those of Sabri, sharing one room with 11 family members.

“We are not in a good situation,” he said.

There are about 170 displaced people at Al-Rawdah School and a nearby Health Institute compound. They are among the 2,057 displaced people who had arrived in the district as of May 11, according to statistics from the Social Development Charity Association in Ataq city, which is attempting to provide shelter and food for displaced persons.

There has been no official body to receive displaced people arriving in the district. The job falls on charities and NGOs and the assistance provided by local residents. The Social Development Charity Association itself was established on April 30 by a group of Ataq residents to provide assistance to those affected by the conflict.

Abdulla Saleh, head of the association, said they depend on residents of Ataq to donate food for the displaced in Al-Rawdah School and the Health Institute building.

“We tried to get another building to use it as a residence for the displaced people but were unable to do so. So, we resorted to using old houses and some hotels in the district at the expense of businessmen,” Saleh said.

He pointed out that most of the houses of the displaced people lack basic services such as water and sanitation.

“Each family, often composed of 10 to 20 members, lives in a room inside the school. We haven't been able to provide cleaning materials and medicine for the patients so far,” he added.

Mohammed Zayed, a doctor at the 48 Hospital in Sana'a, said that displaced persons are especially at risk of developing skin and respiratory diseases because of unhygeinic living conditions.

He said that the displaced usually lack sufficient water and medical supplies.

“Some schools that are used to house the displaced people have only three or four bathrooms [shared between many people],” he said.

Saleh and his fellow workers are struggling to provide basic needs for the displaced, such as shelter, mattresses and blankets.

“There are about 400 displaced people outside of Ataq and some people provide shelter and food for them because the association is unable to house them,” Saleh said.

The society tried to open a bank account to enable people to send donations, but its efforts hit a dead end of because of bureaucratic struggles with the bank.

People, particularly the children, are also struggling with psychological backlash of the conflict, Saleh said.

Nick Stanton, a public communications officer for the UN Refugee Agency, said that the agency has not yet determined how many people have been displaced in total. He said that the UN body is assessing the situation on the ground and will coordinate relief efforts with other UN bodies.

Authorities announced late last week that it had ousted militants from most of Mayfa'a district in Shabwa. It said that although the area is secure, displaced people are still afraid to return to their homes.

Responding to allegations that the government has ignored the plight of those displaced in the recent violence, Shiekh Nasser Al-Maleesh, the deputy governor of Shabwa, said, “We tried to discuss the issue of the displaced in the governorate but more attention was paid to the security situation because we are in a state of emergency.”

ِAl-Maleesh praised the efforts the community in Ataq have made to help one another in dire conditions.

Al-Maleesh said that displaced persons have suffered from violence in other governorates and not only Shabwa.

“We will establish a committee in the upcoming days to visit [other areas],” Al-Maleesh said

Mohammed Bohaib, a journalist in Shabwa, said that the military there has only managed to establish control over the main road but does not patrol the villages where anti-government gunmen are positioned.

“Clashes aren't over yet and they may renew at any moment even if the state said that it has control over the area,” he said.