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Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 October 2018

Yemeni civilians who fled Hodeidah tell of violence and sleepless nights 

Residents say Houthi fighters are using civilians as human shields in the port city

Yemeni government forces watch as smoke billows during battles with Houthi rebels in the port city of Hodeidah, Yemen, on September 12, 2018. EPA Photo
Yemeni government forces watch as smoke billows during battles with Houthi rebels in the port city of Hodeidah, Yemen, on September 12, 2018. EPA Photo

South of Hodeidah, in the Red Sea fishing port of Al Khoukha, the sight of dusty pick-up trucks laden with desperate families is becoming common.

The vehicles roam the town, searching for civilians and transporting them east to the safety of an internally displaced persons camp.

Al Khoukha port is under the control of the UAE military, which drove out the Houthis last December, then building a military base used in this summer's battle for Hodeidah. The Arab-led coalition recently relaunched an offensive to recapture the vital port city. People have since fled.

Mohammed Futaini, a father of four in his mid forties, barely made it out of Hodeidah's Al Ghoulaiyel neighbourhood, after several dangerous attempts to leave.

"We were living in a city haunted by death," Mr Futaini said, standing outside a petrol station. "Days and nights we didn't sleep, neither me nor my children, we were waiting to die at any time."

Mr Futaini told The National that Houthi fighters were using civilians as human shields by parking their vehicles in residential areas and avoid being targeted by air strikes.

YEMEN-KHOUKHA
YEMEN-KHOUKHA

"They fight in small groups and most of their artillery is deployed near people's homes," Mr Futaini said. "They usually carry out their attacks at night, causing fear, especially for the children."

"My children kept hiding indoors for weeks," added Mr Futaini's wife, asking not to be named.

"They don't dare to go to the streets even to bring us some water to cook, they are not used to seeing all the gunmen hiding among our residences."

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The Houthi rebels "kept digging trenches in the streets and that caused the water supply to cut," she said.

"This was heartbreaking, water was the only thing available for us," she added. After the water supply was cut, the mother and children saw themselves forced to walk to the local mosque to collect water.

According to UNICEF an average of five children have been killed or injured every day since Yemen's war began in 2015.

"An entire generation of children in Yemen is growing up knowing nothing but violence. Children in Yemen are suffering the devastating consequences of a war that is not of their making," UNICEF representative Meritxell Relano warned in January. "Malnutrition and disease are rampant as basic services collapse. Those who survive are likely to carry the physical and psychological scars of conflict for the rest of their lives."

"I don't want to go to school anymore," said Mr Futaini's eldest son, Amin.

The 11-year-old said his school was being used as a makeshift arms depot by the Houthis and that students often saw fighters carrying supplies in and out of the building.

"They come in shouting, quarreling and sometimes they shoot at each other, this is really scary," said Amin.

As pro-government forces tighten their grip around Hodeidah city, rebel fighters have retaliated by increasing their aggressive treatment of civilians, Mr Futaini explained.

"They became more hostile as Al Amalikah brigades advanced south of the city, they carried out several roundups of innocent civilians because they refused to fight with them," he said.

"They also killed some young men because they suspected that they were working for the resistance. If they don't shoot them they keep watching them and assassinate them by car accidents, our neighbor's son was hit by a military car and the Houthis claimed that the accident was unintentional," said Mr Futaini.

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Similarly, Abdo Al Kanes and his family of seven fled Hodeidah's Al Rabsa neighbourhood on Sunday, and headed south to Al Khoukha.

"We fled our house individually so the Houthis wouldn't realise that we were leaving, my wife and the five kids desperately walked on foot to avoid the Houthi checkpoints until they arrived to the pro-government forces controlled areas," he said.

A member of the Al Amalikah brigades then moved the mother and children to safety near Al Duraihimi.

Mr Al Kanes recalled the difficult times he and his family experienced in recent weeks, as the Al Amalikah brigades began closing in on the city.

"We lived for more than four days eating one meal, most of the shops were closed and the food stuffs disappeared. No flour, no oil, we kept eating one meal a day – rice and hot water," he said.

Mr Al Kanes said that the Houthis ordered the bakeries to allocate all the bread to the fighters when pro-government forces cut Kilo 16, a key Houthi supply route.

He said coalition forces and Al Amalikah brigades secured the escape route for his family to Al Khoukha, before handing out blankets, kitchen utensils and food.

"Then I sneaked out of the city claiming that I was looking for wood to cook," he recalled. "When I got to the government controlled areas, I told them that I wanted to catch my family so they took me to the shelter which was set up by Al Amalikah brigades ... where my family was waiting for me."