Fresh fighting in Yemen ignites refugee crisis
Refugees in northern Yemen say that their villages were bombed in an escalating conflict with Houthi rebels. The population of the largest refugee camps doubled in the past month, prompting UNHCR to open a third one Dec. 17.
As the fighting between Yemeni forces and Houthi rebels escalates in the country’s remote northern region, the international community has focused largely on the potential for the war to further weaken the central government – leaving it vulnerable to threats from both separatists and militant Islamists.Skip to next paragraph
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But largely unseen by the outside world, the humanitarian consequences are mounting in refugee camps rarely accessed by Western journalists. Displaced families – some with their goats, sheep, donkeys, and cows in tow – are steadily filing into the UNHCR-run camps in Mazrak, forcing the agency to open a third one at the end of last week.
With the dull thud of artillery fire in the distance, Hussein Abdullah describes how his family was forced to first flee their village into nearby Saudi Arabia and was then forced to leave Saudi Arabia after the Houthis attacked a Saudi border post.
“After the Saudis started fighting the Houthis,” he says, “they told us we could not stay in Saudi Arabia. We left with nothing more than we could carry. My cattle are still in Saudi Arabia. How am I supposed to get them back?”
Hussein is one of the many Yemenis who first fled to Saudi Arabia and were then forced to return to Yemen, eventually making their way to the UNHCR-run Internal Displaced Person (IDP) camps at Mazrak.
According to the UNHCR office in the nearby town of Harad, the population of the largest of the three camps has doubled in the last month to 16,675. However, this number is only a fraction of the estimated 150,000 who have been forced to flee the on-again, off-again fighting that has plagued the north for five years.
“My house was bombed and, by God, I don’t even know who bombed it. We lost everything,” says Fatima Ghais, as she stood in a tent and pointed to a plastic bag that held some clothes and plastic cups. Ghais, like many in the camp, is completely dependent on the UNHCR and other relief services which are providing food, water, and shelter.
The day before the third camp opened on Dec. 17, another 64 families arrived, estimated Nabil Ahmad, an assistant manager with Islamic Relief. Outside the camps, dozens of civilians have reportedly been wounded and killed in the northern Saada governorate, according to an update published today by the International Committee of the Red Cross.
High praise for UNHCR
In the town of Mazrak, Yemeni soldiers crowd the town’s qat market – the mild narcotic leaf is a key staple of society here – before heading back to the front, only 19 miles away in Minzalah. Despite five years of fighting, Yemen’s army has been unable to quell the Houthi rebellion, which has escalated in recent months due to a renewed offensive by the Yemeni army.
The Yemeni government claims that the Houthis – adherents to a radical form of Zaidism, a conservative off-shoot of Shiite Islam – want to overthrow Yemen’s government and reestablish the imamate. However, the Houthis, who have never clearly articulated their political agenda, deny this and say they are fighting to defend their land, beliefs, and culture against a government that discriminates against them.