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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.

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In November, the conflict took on a regional dimension when Saudi Arabia, responding to attacks by Houthi rebels, began what Saudi officials describe as a border security operation. The Saudis are attempting to create a cordon sanitaire seven miles deep along part of their border. The fallout from this operation has been an escalation in fighting and a surge in displaced persons.

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In the already stifling mid-morning heat, people crowd around, anxious to tell their stories.

“I didn’t even know the name Mazrak and now I am here. God knows when I will leave,” says Dhaifah Jarah, who describes how her entire village was destroyed by jets dropping bombs. “I don’t know who did it. Some of the men said they were Saudi planes but only God knows who it was.”

Jarah, whose husband is dead, lives by herself in one of the tents. Her only possessions are a mattress and the clothes she is wearing.

A man from the town of Bini Sad, who gives his name only as Abdul Kareem, says he was also bombed out of his home.

“First the Houthis stole my sheep and then all this bombing started. When will it end?” he asks, as the heavy rattle of machine gun fire sounds off again in the distance. Most of the people gathered around had high praise for the efforts of the UNHCR and other relief services.

“Yes, we have food, thank God,” says Mohammed Ali, another resident of the camp. “There are some problems but we are surviving.”

Malnourished children and 14,000 head of livestock

The UNHCR and other agencies working in the camps face a daunting task. In addition to providing shelter, food, and water for thousands of people in a hot and largely arid region, the agencies must also cope with an estimated 14,000 head of livestock that people have brought with them. The French NGO Triangle provides food and vaccinations for the assortment of goats, sheep, donkeys, and cows.

“They are bringing us food for our animals,” says Jibran Ali, as he points to some goats chewing on dried maize stalks. Mr. Ali is one of the fortunate few: He was able to flee with his animals. Most of the residents of the camps had to leave their livestock behind, some with neighbors, while others were forced to abandon their animals in Saudi Arabia after they were deported. “How will the people recover from this – all these animals lost here and there? These animals are our wealth. They are all we have.”

In front of one of the camp’s water tanks, a malnourished boy named Mohammed stands in the mud with his older sister. According to UNICEF, the agency and its partner Medecins Sans Frontieres are dealing with more than 600 severely malnourished children. Adnan Abdul Fattah, director of the UNICEF program in Mazrak, said that in addition to those cases, UNICEF must also cope with widespread moderate malnourishment among children in the camps. An estimated 45 percent of children in Yemen suffer from malnutrition.

UN appeals for $177 million in aid

With no sign that the war will end soon, the UNHCR is proceeding with its long-term plan to bring water and electricity to the camps. The UN recently launched a $177 million appeal for aid to help fund its Yemen Humanitarian Response Plan.

Both the Yemeni and Saudi governments say that they are defeating the Houthi rebels. However, the Yemeni government has repeatedly claimed victories against the Houthis in the past, only to have the fighting flare up again. Sheltered in her tent from the hot afternoon sun, Jarah wonders, “Will I ever see my home again? Look at me. I am an old woman. How long will I be here?”