Yemen's strikes against Shiite rebels leave 30,000 refugees

UN official John Holmes visits Yemen Thursday to highlight thehumanitarian crisis as concerns grow about a potential haven for AlQaeda.

By , Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

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    An internally displaced father and his children wait outside their tent in the Al Mazraq camp in Hajjah, Yemen, on Oct. 3. Since early September, 30,000 internally displaced persons (IDPs) have been in refugee camps and 120,000 more are in need of aid, according to the United Nations.
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    Women in the Al Mazraq camp in Hajjah, Yemen, fill up their water cans.
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Since mid-August, a long-simmering conflict between the Yemeni government and Shiite rebels has flared up in the north of the country, threatening the stability of one of the Arab world's poorest states and raising fears that it may become a new haven for Al Qaeda.

But while the central government continues to expend its resources and energy on shutting down the rebels, known as the Houthis, the dire humanitarian crisis it has spawned is also in urgent need of resolution. Since early September, 30,000 internally displaced persons (IDPs) have been in refugee camps and 120,000 more are in need of aid, according to the United Nations.

Fighting first broke out between the Yemeni government and the Houthis in the northern Yemeni town of Saada in 2004. Central among its grievances with the militants, the Yemeni government accuses the Houthis of striving to restore a Shiite imamate – which was originally abolished in the 1962 – in the north of the country.

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"The UN humanitarian community in general [is] really concerned because we don't have enough factual information about the situation [in Saada], which complicates our own emergency assistance and poses additional obstacles to the operation," says Laure Chedrawi, spokesperson for the UN refugee agency in Yemen.

The UN is concerned enough that John Holmes, the under-secretary for humanitarian affairs and emergency coordination, was sent to Yemen today. He hopes to "highlight the potential impact of continued neglect by the international community to humanitarian needs in Yemen," according to a UN release.

Saddam al-Shmouri, a Yemeni journalist, was able – in spite of the government's attempted media blackout of the war zone in the north – to sneak into Harf Sufyan a major site of government offensives in this round of fighting that began about three weeks ago. In an interview, he described a scene in which thousands of civilians fleeing government air raids were stuck far from their homes without food, shelter, and water. Houthis had forcibly used the civilians' houses, Mr. Shmouri said, to launch their attacks against government forces.

Even in the IDP camp in Saada's neighboring Hajjah governorate, the first to be established, malnutrition among the youngest IDPs is on the rise as camp residents used to pastoral lives are learning to live in cramped quarters.

The camp, originally intended for 500 families, now hosts 1,000, said Naseem-ur-Rehman, UNICEF chief of communications, after returning from a recent trip to the camp.

He added that women face the most hardship as they struggle to complete household tasks in a harsh environment while men look for work that doesn't exist.

In early September, the international humanitarian community in Yemen appealed for $23.7 million to confront the Saada crisis. As of Oct. 6, only 6 percent had been received.

Carlos Geha of the UN's Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs says donors are hesitant to contribute due to stories of limited ability to get the donations to the majority of IDPs. Furthermore, the crisis in Yemen is rarely a first priority for donors, he adds.

"We are still concerned that the operation as a whole is not well funded and the needs are much bigger than our capacity at the moment, especially if the conflict continues," Chedrawi says.

Further complicating matters is that northern Yemen is a tribal area. After an IDP camp was established in Amran governorate, heads of the local tribe, also known as sheikhs, forced the UN to remove the tents, Mr. Rehman said.

Shmouri says that the sheikhs don't want IDP camps established on their land because Houthi rebels are amongst those who seek shelter. It's impossible to determine who is a civilian and who has allegiances with the Houthis because no male in northern Yemen leaves his home without a weapon, he adds.

Yemen already suffers from a southern secessionist movement threatening its weak central government and has been touted by many as a new homeland for Al Qaeda.

The war in Saada "causes more humanitarian suffering and distracts the government from other issues," Christopher Boucek of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and author of the recent report titled "Yemen: Avoiding a Downward Spiral" told the Monitor.

"The Yemeni government has limited capacity to deal with multiple concurrent crises, and Saada is totally dominating the agenda right now," he notes.

The government is "making the issues of establishing [IDP] camps a first priority," says Abdul Sallam, a spokesperson at Yemen's Ministry of Health, which is in charge of humanitarian assistance in Saada.

"We have a dialogue with the UN agencies and NGOs [nongovernmental organizations] and we work with them 24 hours a day. If they find any problem we help facilitate a solution," Mr. Sallam says.

However, outsiders have their doubts about the government's efficiency in helping civilians.

Human Rights Watch's deputy Middle East director, Joe Stork, said in an Oct. 5 statement: "The government needs to help aid agencies reach civilians, not throw up obstacles in their way."

Journalist Shmouri adds, "The government is very exhausted. Those who help the citizens of Saada are the other citizens of Saada."

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