x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

Forced to flee Abyan by militants linked to Al Qaeda, displaced Yemenis in dire straits

150,00 have left the province since last May, with many crammed in schools, there is a shortage of medical care and children are underfed, forced to beg and have no access to education.

Displaced families from the Abyan region collect donated food from a charity at a school in the southern city of Aden in September last year. Families with infants say they are not given enough food and worry about malnutrition.
Displaced families from the Abyan region collect donated food from a charity at a school in the southern city of Aden in September last year. Families with infants say they are not given enough food and worry about malnutrition.

ADEN // Mohsen Nusairi once lived in a five-bedroom home on his large farm in southern Yemen where he made a good living from his flocks of sheep and goats. That was until militants affiliated to Al Qaeda attacked the area and declared themselves its leaders.

After three months of fighting and air raids from government forces, the father of four fled to Aden last August. That is where he remains, his family crammed into a tatty tent by the street, his children forced to beg during the day to provide an income.

"We lost everything and this is only the beginning," said Mr Nusairi, 53, as he shaded himself beneath a dried tree branch. "Our lives are changed forever. We don't deserve this but it is our fate."

He is one of 150,000 people who have fled their homes in Abyan since fighting started last May between government forces and Ansar Al Sharia, an Al Qaeda offshoot. As Yemen descended into political chaos the militants took advantage, seizing large swathes of territory and forcing more people to flee.

Mr Nusairi, has since learnt that his house in Abyan's Al Kod district was destroyed by an air raid after militants used it as a hideout. His current home is at the entrance to a school in which every room has been filled with families that fled from Abyan. By the time Mr Nusairi arrived, there was no more room inside.

Many have lost hope that they will ever return to their homes.

Government forces have in recent weeks moved to recapture the territory leading to intense clashes and scores of casualties. On Tuesday, the army reached the centre of Abyan's provincial capital of Zinjibar after a six-hour battle. More than half of Abyan is estimated to be under Ansar Al Sharia control.

Those forced to flee live in desperate conditions. Most are housed in dozens of schools in Aden and Lahj provinces.

When people started arriving in May last year, the students were on holiday and the schools were the only place where the authorities could house them. Most thought the fighting would not last longer than a month and that the militants were in small numbers.

Many walked the 130 kilometres to Aden, carrying what they could in bags tied above their shoulders.

As the weeks away from their homes increased, so did the number of militants, soon reaching thousands, according to security officials in Abyan. When the Islamist fighters announced in July that Abyan had become an Islamic emirate, many realised returning home would not be an option.

UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, said in February that 150,000 people have fled Abyan since May last year.

During a visit to three schools in Aden, The National found families once prominent in their communities a year ago now sharing a four-square metre room with two other families.

Children receive no education and there is little medical care available. Many go hungry and the schools' sewage and plumbing systems are unable to cope.

"What do we do now?" asked Ameena Sabir, a mother in one of the Aden schools. "The government and international organisations know we are in dire need for sanitary assistance and could be witnessing a serious health crisis, but they give us the blind eye."

Naveed Hussein, Yemen's UNHCR country representative, said they are working with the Yemeni government to provide the required assistance to those who fled Abyan.

But those living in the schools or shelters set up outside said they feel abandoned.

"We are being ignored by everyone. The government and international organisations release statements on their support but give little to nothing to those in need," said Sameer Abdul Nasser, who now lives in a small tent with his wife and five children. "We beg in the streets to buy food and clothes. We never expected our life to reach this situation."

One knock-on effect from the crisis is that many children in Aden have not been able to study for nearly a year since their schools were occupied and the government was unable to provide alternative facilities. Some fear the schools will fall into a state of disrepair.

Siyaj, a Sanaa-based children's rights organisation, said the children who have been displaced are underfed, forced to beg, are receiving no education and vulnerable to harassment. "We received tons of complaints and are working to help the displaced. Unfortunately, the sufferings are tremendously high and the capabilities to support children in shelters are limited," said Ahmed Al Qurshy, president of Siyaj.

Of those who do receive food from the government and aid agencies, a large portion of them are forced to sell flour or sugar to pay for medicines or clothes.

Families with infants said they are not provided with enough baby food and milk, raising fears of malnutrition.

The head of Yemen's office for internally displaced people, Ahmad Al Khulani said the government could not provide alternative shelter and providing tents would be too expensive. "Establishing a camp is the last option due to the lack of funds, Mr Al Khulani said.

Even if the government manages to remove the Ansar Al Sharia militants from Abyan, many families fear reprisals should they return home.

"Why would I go back while I am sure my life is in danger. Aden is where I will stay until it is completely safe to go back," said Khaled Abdul Rahman, 29, who has been displaced for 10 months and counting.