Three years on and still displaced – people in Yemen’s North West

The air is filled with red sand that settles on the tents in this dry valley in Yemen’s North West, not far from the border with Saudi Arabia. This is Al-Mazraq camp 1, so-called because close by are two more camps which together host an estimated 13 000 people displaced by recurrent armed clashes. Some people were displaced by clashes between the former Saleh government and the Houthi tribe in 2009; others more recently by clashes in 2012 between local communities and Al Houthi.

At the peak of the crisis in early 2010, the camps hosted around 20 000 people and an additional 120 000 were living in host communities. This is when Salem Mutea arrived with his wife and three children. His wife, who is wearing a bright green dress covered by a black veil leaving just a narrow window for her two jet-black eyes, recalls how difficult it was to adjust to life in the camp on arrival ‘Saada our hometown is in the mountains. It is cool there, and here it is hot and sandy’. She shrugs ‘But now we are used to living here.’ Right next to the tent which was given to them when they arrived, they have built some homely extensions with wooden beams, metal poles, blankets and plastic sheets. Mattresses lay on the floor and a kitchen set to brew tea and cook, a small shelf with glasses, cups and plates have been placed nearby.

‘The aid we received at the beginning was much more generous’ recalls Salem Mutea of his first year in the camp. ‘We used to receive more blankets and the mattresses were of better quality. Now everything we get, blankets, soap, food is less in quantity and of worse quality. Take the oil for example – it used to be much better.’ He complains that now most of the aid goes to the local host communities, including livestock and new small mud houses. Asked if he ever considered leaving the camp to live in one of the many informal settlements set up by displaced families who needed more privacy and wanted to keep their livestock with them, his reply is immediate: ‘But then we would not receive so many services’. Besides the distribution of tents, hygiene kits, kitchen sets, mattresses, blankets and food, the services provided in the Al-Mazraq camps also includes water points across the camp, a small clinic, psychosocial and legal counselling, a school and a community centre. Much of this has been funded since the end of 2009 by ECHO.

In Saada, his hometown, Salem Mutea was a qat and coffee planter. He used to smuggle qat to Saudi Arabia, ‘but now when they catch you they put you in prison for 5 years’ he says. Now he tries to find a job as a daily labourer, but he finds little work as his right foot was injured during the war. With no proper source of income, nothing to return to as his house and farm have been destroyed and afraid for his safety, Salem Mutea is among the many displaced stuck in Al Mazraq, one of the poorest areas in already desolate Yemen.

While Salem does not seem to worry too much about his future, the aid agencies and their donors are. Less and less funding is available and nobody wants to maintain a population of over 110 000 people in limbo and dependent on aid. In this context, finding a permanent solution to a protracted IDP situation has become urgent and needs to be a key priority for the Yemeni authorities as well as for the international community.

By Heinke Veit,
Regional Information Officer in Amman