No respite for IDPs from Sa'ada

News and Press Release
Originally published

DUBAI, 28 April 2011 (IRIN) - One year has passed since the Yemeni government agreed a ceasefire with Al-Houthi rebels in the northwestern region of Sa'ada, but peace has remained elusive and hundreds of thousands of displaced people are still living in hardship.

"We do not expect the situation to improve," said one man displaced from Sa'ada to Haradh, in neighbouring Hajjah governorate. "We expect it to get worse. What can we go home to? We heard there are landmines in our home areas."

The Al-Houthi took up arms against the government in 2004. In February 2010, they agreed a ceasefire, with the rebels retaining control over much of the governorate, on the Yemeni-Saudi border. According to the Landmine and Cluster Munitions Monitor [ ], the rebels used anti-personnel mines, mostly homemade, during the conflict.

Three days after signing the ceasefire, two soldiers and three Al-Houthi members of the joint ceasefire committee were reportedly killed by a landmine while supervising clearance. More incidents were reported as some people returned home, prompting the deployment of army demining teams to clear the main roads. Sa'ada is the most affected governorate in Yemen by landmine/UXOs and recorded 18 incidents in 2010.

Aid access

The conflict between the government and Al-Houthi, according to aid workers, has forced an estimated one-third of the population in Sa'ada governorate - the centre of the fighting - to flee their homes. According to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), 75 percent of Yemen's 300,000 internally displaced people (IDPs) are in Hajjah and Sa'ada governorates.

Other aid workers say the numbers could be higher, but lack of access to the northern governorates has hampered needs assessments. It has also prevented humanitarian activity, and in Sa'ada, forced some aid organizations to withdraw their personnel due to heavy armed clashes, OCHA said on 31 March. However, some IDPs are being reached despite checkpoints that delay the delivery of humanitarian assistance.

In January 2011, [ ] the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) met Yemeni authorities and representatives of Al-Houthi to discuss improved humanitarian support. According to the agency, the fragile situation in the region hindered large-scale returns of IDPs and has limited access by humanitarian workers to a 7km buffer zone around Sa'ada city.

Only 20,000 of IDPs had returned home out of 300,000 by January, the agency said. Another 23,000 were living in five UNHCR-run camps. The rest were living with friends, relatives or among host communities, but resources were running low and they were finding it extremely difficult to make ends meet.

Sources say the situation is so bad that some of the IDP settlements have no sanitation facilities, with women having to use the bush only at nightfall. Others have built temporary clay shelters or live under plastic sheets, both of which do not offer protection from the rains.

This year, when protests [ ] began against the Yemeni government, Al-Houthi added the 7km buffer zone to the area it controls. Since then, say aid workers, unverified reports of arbitrary arrests, destruction of property and confiscation of land have emerged, raising fears of human rights violations in the region.

Dire needs

"We are seeing people facing difficulty in paying their rent, selling whatever they brought with them to live," an NGO source in the capital recently told IRIN. "It is a year since many fled. They have nothing and their situation is becoming worse."

Most of those displaced by the northern conflict live in camps, in rented accommodation, with host families or in makeshift shelters. In areas like Amran, their plight is made worse by cold winters. The situation has been aggravated by rising food prices. According to the Famine Early Warning System (FEWS Net) [ ], wheat has risen by 10 percent in the past month and is now 79 percent higher than the last five-year average.

This has significantly increased the number of food-insecure people in Yemen, FEWS Net said. The Yemen humanitarian response plan launched on 18 December needs US$224.8 million to assist an estimated 1.8 million Yemenis who are food insecure; 1.5 million children suffer from malnutrition.

Meanwhile, displacement from Sa'ada continues. In the past two months, another 1,000 displaced families have arrived in Sana'a from Sa'ada. Ibrahim, 28, an IDP had earlier told IRIN: "I have a degree and tried to get a job here as a teacher. I started to work at one school but when they saw my papers were from Sa'ada they told me not to come back.

"I am in great debt as I have to support my young family and sick elderly parents. I am working as a daily labourer for 1,000YR [US$...] but I do not have guaranteed work," he said, adding that his father was ill and needed specialized medical treatment.

"My earnings are less than the monthly outgoings including rent and medical bills," he said. "What can I do? He is my father, I need to take care of him, but where can I get this money from to pay?"

Children in conflict

The long-running conflict has also led to the recruitment of child soldiers, according to Human Rights Watch (HRW). In February, HRW found armed children in Sana'a, who later said they had been recruited to fight Al-Houthi but had been moved to the capital. Some had fought in a pro-government militia that led the campaign against Al-Houthi.

A study by the UN Children's Fund (UNICEF) in August 2010 found 28 percent of children had seen someone killed or wounded in conflict. One in 10 displaced children had been injured as a direct result of the fighting and experienced "high levels of psycho-social stress" [ ].

Al-Houthi (named after the family name of its leader, the founding father of the "Believing Youth" movement) accuses the government of blocking its demand for autonomy for the Zaydi Shi'ite population in the north, stopping them from promoting religious education.

But the government rejects the demands and says the group is trying to install an Islamic Imamate government to challenge the authorities in Sana'a, and that is unacceptable.