Fighting increases as talks collapse and while conditions deteriorate, access to the estimated 150,000 internally displaced people in the war zone is an increasing concern.
Security of Yemen's refugees a UN priority
SANA'A // Access to internally displaced people (IDPs) in Yemen's northern war zone is the biggest problem faced by the United Nations in the country, according to a top UN official who has been visiting the country. Sir John Holmes, the undersecretary-general for humanitarian affairs and emergency relief co-ordinator, said reaching civilians who have fled the fierce fighting between government troops and al Houthi rebels was the central issue of his talks with Yemeni government officials over the past four days.
"Access to all the IDPs, in all the different areas where they are, is the biggest problem we have at the moment as fighting has been going on and how can we deal with security problems," Sir John told The National. Fighting between the army and al Houthi rebels, members of the Zaidi Shiite sect, over the past five years has displaced an estimated 150,000 civilians, according to the UN. During his four-day visit, which ends today, Sir John had talks with a number of Yemeni officials, including Ali Abdullah Saleh, the president, on how to improve the security situation and access to civilians stranded by the fighting.
"Our talks have been friendly and constructive and we have talked about how central government can help us in dealing with local governments. There are security problems and tribal conflicts that we needed the government help to tackle," Sir John said. Sir John, who on Friday visited Haradh in the north-western province of Hajja to inspect the al Mazraq camp, one of five camps each sheltering about 8,000 people, said the UN needs to find a way to talk to the rebels about accessing stranded civilians.
"We have talked to the government and we will need to find a way to find some contact with the Houthis about the need for humanitarian corridors to different areas," Sir John said. Amid stiff security he toured the camp, which is close to the border with Saudi Arabia, inspecting the tents, kitchen and clinic, and listening to complaints about shortages of food, water, shelter and medicines. Daily temperatures of up to 40C and high humidity have exacerbated the plight of IDPs in the camp, where large families crowd into rows of small tents. Other IDPs that have not been assigned to a camp have taken refuge in schools or are living among host communities, while some are simply sleeping rough.
Abdullah Amer Naser, 44, who has been at al Mazraq since he fled war-ridden Sa'ada last month, has so far not been provided with a tent for his 15-member family. "We fled our house in Haidan due to the shelling of the warplanes and because the food supply ran out from the markets there owing to the blockade imposed by the army on the Houthis," he said. "The Houthis wanted us to stay, maybe to use us as human shields when the army enters the area; they have taken our names and said they would not allow us to get back to our houses and property when the war is finished."
Sir John met with representatives of the IDPs in a tent and heard their complaints. "The aid community is working hard with the local authorities to create an environment that can preserve the lives and dignity of the displaced people we can reach, for example in Hajja. Agencies have found innovative ways in which to meet the needs of IDPs both in and out of the camps, and to reduce the amount of time that they have to wait for assistance," Sir John said.
The collapse of truce offers presented by the government and al Houthi rebels during the past two months has led to increasingly fierce fighting, which human rights groups say has given rise to growing numbers of displaced civilians. According to the Yemen Red Crescent Society, a local relief organisation, about 60 families are being displaced every day by the latest bouts of fighting, which began in August, in the northern province of Sa'ada and the district of Harf Sufian in neighbouring Amran province.
The International Committee of the Red Cross said on Thursday the fighting "is increasingly putting civilian lives at risk, leaving tens of thousands without vital aid and forcing many more to flee conflict areas". "Unless more is done to protect civilians and ensure that they can receive life-saving aid, the situation will worsen further." Ali Saif Hasan, president of Political Development Forum, a think-tank in Sana'a, said Sir John's visit will make the question of the displaced people more prominent for the international community.
Still, he said: "The continued confrontations on the ground cripple the relief agencies' support and reach to the civilians as these agencies become more cautious. The two warring parties must stop their hostilities," Mr Hasan said. The army said on Friday it had repelled an attack by al Houthi rebels on Sa'ada city, killing more than 100 rebels and wounding more than 280. The rebels did not comment on this battle but have ridiculed previous military reports on death tolls.
The rebels said in a statement yesterday they welcome any initiative for dialogue, referring to the National Salvation Vision, announced by the Joint Meeting Parties, an opposition coalition of six parties, in September. The document calls for a national dialogue process to bring an end to conflicts in the country, most crucially al Houthi's insurgency in the north and a separatist movement in the south.