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Tough challenges for aid workers in Saada

Displaced children in al-Mazrak area of Hajja Governorate, northern Yemen Rocco Nuri/UNHCR
Aid organizations are finding it increasingly difficult to help civilians in the northern Yemeni governorate of Saada after renewed clashes there between the army and the al-Houthi Shia rebels.

“Saada is an active, armed confrontation with a very volatile security situation, so the World Food Programme [WFP] has to carefully balance staff security on one side and its mandate to assist affected people [on the other],” Gian Carlo Cirri, WFP’s Yemen representative, told IRIN.

Fighting in Saada flared up again on 12 August. Aerial bombardments of Houthi strongholds in Saada have forced many to flee into neighbouring governorates.

According to UN agencies, there are some 150,000 internally displaced persons (IDPs) in Saada and the governorates of al-Jawf, Hajjah and Amran as a result of the conflict.

The Yemeni Red Crescent (YRC) and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) are the only two organizations running IDP camps in Saada Governorate, according to Abbas Zabarah, secretary-general of the YRC.

Other international NGOs are also working in the region, but with great difficulty because of the insecure roads in and out of Saada.

UNHCR registers IDPs in Al Yarmuk School in Hajja Governorate, northern Yemen 200908241055410559
Photo: Rocco Nuri/UNHCR
UNHCR registers IDPs in al-Yarmuk School in Hajja
“The difficulties of travelling the main roads hinder access to the population, and especially the injured, [and] to health structures,” said a recent statement by Médecins Sans Frontières.

IDPs who have fled to Hajjah Governorate have been getting aid, but aid within Saada has been “put on hold by the authorities due to insecurity,” said Rocco Nuri, external relations officer for the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) in Yemen.

Nuri said the UN resident coordinator for Yemen sent a letter to Yemen’s deputy prime minister on 17 August asking for local ceasefires to allow aid workers to distribute aid.

Aid workers under threat

UN agencies have pulled out all foreign staff and almost all local workers from Saada (three abducted foreign aid workers were found dead in Saada in June), and are concentrating their efforts on distributing essential items to IDPs in safer areas outside Saada Governorate.

A joint UN mission has registered some 13,000 new IDPs in Hajjah Governorate since 15 August and is beginning to meet their essential needs. It is planning similar action in other governorates in the near future.

“Partnership is always the best option to coordinate effective humanitarian intervention and avoid duplication of assistance,” Nuri said.

“In a case of a complex emergency, as is the case of the conflict in northern Yemen - with massive displacement of people, loss of life and difficult access to the affected population - a coordinated response [among UN agencies] that goes beyond the mandate or capacity of any single agency is required to address the needs of the affected population.”

Spontaneous IDP settlements in the al-Mazrak area of Hajja Governorate, northern Yemen 200908241045500387
Photo: Rocco Nuri/UNHCR
Spontaneous IDP settlements in the al-Mazrak area of Hajja Governorate
Few IDP camps

UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) spokesperson in Yemen Naseem Rehman explained that a particular challenge of the crisis in Saada is that IDPs are not centralized in camps, but instead are staying with extended families in nearby governorates. Determining who is an IDP and who needs the most help is, therefore, a difficult task.

“All of them are mobile, but they need assistance nonetheless, and the advent of the month of Ramadan, with rising food prices, has put an extra burden on relief agencies,” he said.

On 13 August, 15 YRC workers were kidnapped by Houthi rebels and released a few days later. Zabarah of the YRC said they were kidnapped while doing their jobs; cooperation with the local authority is what insured the workers’ safe release.

Other aid organizations are extremely vigilant, and cooperating with local authorities.

"For the time being, [our workers] are moving extremely cautiously. They are mainly operating from their homes and they are in contact with us and with the authorities in Saada to organize relief operations based on the neutrality principles to which we want to adhere,” WFP’s Cirri said.

Clashes between government forces and Houthi rebels began in 2004, after the killing of rebel leader Hussein al-Houthi. The exact number of civilian casualties since then is difficult to gauge because of government restrictions on the media in the region.


This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information:

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