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Life under siege in Yemen

April 28, 2015. A guard walks past what remains of Ibn Sina School, in Sana’a, the capital. The school was heavily damaged during an air strike that hit the building next to the school. The impact of the blast crumbled the outer wall of the schoolyard a Mohammed Mahmoud / UNICEF

For most, selling the family silver is a metaphor for bad planning. In Yemen, it is the desperate reality.

45-year-old painter Mohammed Mosed’s has eight family members to protect as he tries to survive in the midst of one of the world’s fiercest and most underreported conflicts.

Living in the Al-Hawta district of Lahj in southern Yemen, he has been under siege for several months.

In late March, Yemen’s President Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi fled the capital Sana’a, eventually reaching Saudi Arabia. A Saudi-led coalition then began a bombing campaign in Yemen in a bid to reinstate him and displace Houthi rebels who have claimed large parts of the country in alliance with former president Ali Abdullah Saleh.

The Houthis have maintained control of key parts of the country and advanced further south. There are fierce clashes in many parts of Aden, while al-Dhale, Taiz and Lahj are under Houthi siege, cut off from Sana’a and other major cities.

For families like Mosed’s, the results are devastating. Most supermarkets and shops are closed, he said, and those still open have little on their shelves. Before the war, a month’s supplies cost YR40,000 ($186), but now the same shopping goes for YR100,000 ($465).

"I have no work so in recent years I could not save any money to eke out a life in this war,” he told IRIN.

And so it was that his wife was forced to sell her jewellery to keep the family alive. Many families, he added, had already run out of funds to buy food.

Basem Al-Zawraiqi, a spokesperson for Lahj province, told IRIN a bag of wheat now costs up to YR18,000 ($84) and the population is desperate. “They will eat anything. They are eating less than their needs, maybe one loaf of bread for a whole family."

Ongoing talks have raised hopes of a fresh two-week humanitarian pause in hostilities, following a week-long break in May. Hadi’s negotiating teams are calling for the lifting of the sieges, while the Houthis are demanding an end to the bombing that has killed over a hundred people in recent days.

The Houthis justify the sieges as necessary to control Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, which has long had its base in southern Yemen.

Mohammed Al-Boukhaiti, a member of the Houthi’s political office, told IRIN the group was “fighting Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State militias in different provinces such as Aden, Taiz, Al-Dhale, and Lahj."

Rights groups say the sieges amount to collective punishment of civilians; the Houthis counter that Saudi-led blockades on fuel and other crucial goods are just as harmful.

Refugees also affected

In the city of Al-Dhale, 100 kilometres to the north of Lahj, the Houthis were pushed out in late May by a mixture of pro-Hadi forces and other militias, in one of the group’s first major setbacks.

Since then, said Waleed Al-Khateeb, media officer at the Al-Dhale Coordination Council, Houthis have blocked humanitarian aid, even during the ceasefire in May. Several humanitarian organisations tried to deliver aid to the city, he said, but it was confiscated. Houthi spokesman Al-Boukhaiti declined to comment on the allegations.

After negotiations last week, Al-Khateeb said, the Houthis allowed 2,000 food parcels to enter the city. But he claimed this was only “half of the parcels they seized.”

The city has not been as severely cut off as others, so the price of goods has not risen as high, Al-Khateeb said. Partly this is because businessmen from the city working in Saudi Arabia and elsewhere have been able to use local charities to buy goods and distribute them to residents.

But Majed Ali, a poor resident of the city, said the rich were increasing shortages by buying up goods in shops.

"I am jobless right now so I don’t have money to buy lots of food to save it. Though the rich men know that we are under siege and we depend on the local market, they are trying to kill us by saving large quantities of food." he added to IRIN.

He said that while prices had not risen as much as elsewhere, there were long queues in shops.

Also affected by the sieges are thousands of refugees, mostly from Somalia, living in the south. Many have fled large cities to the Kharaz camp in Lahj.

This hosts over 20,000 refugees, of whom at least 2,000 arrived in recent weeks, according to Mogib Hassan Abdullah, spokesperson for the UN’s refugee agency UNHCR.

Abdullah said there were severe limitations on the agency’s access to the camp, even if last month it was able to deliver medical and health supplies from Aden by boat.

"However, transporting medicines, food and fuel has been extremely challenging and in some cases fraught with security risks. Last week, after several attempts, a consignment of food was delivered to the camp," Abdullah added.

In Aden, where fierce fighting is ongoing, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) last week began distributing food across the front lines. The consignment of more than 160 tonnes will cover the emergency needs of 17,500 people, the ICRC said.

"We cannot say that this step will solve the whole problem in Aden, rather it is a first step for the international organisations to break the siege," said Essam Al-Shaeri, the head of the Aden-Based Sah Foundation for Defending Rights and Freedom.

Many people have been prevented from leaving the city by the Houthis, Al-Shaeri added.


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