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Former five-star IDP camp in Yemen now neglected

Cooks at the camp's central restaurant preparing lunch rations for IDPs Suad Ali/IRIN
A giant sun-bleached banner plastered to an abandoned warehouse in Yemen’s northwestern Hajjah Governorate welcomes visitors to “al-Mazraq Camp 2” - a sprawling Emirati-funded project built in late 2009 to accommodate thousands of internally displaced persons (IDPs) fleeing conflict.

When IRIN last visited three years ago, the camp provided residents with permanent electricity, three meals a day and a resident-to-medical staff ratio of less than 400:1.

Since then, the so-called “five-star camp” has fallen into a state of decay, epitomized by the tatty logo of its former humanitarian overseers, the Emirati Red Crescent Society and Yemeni al-Saleh Social Development Foundation (SDF).

“I remember when there was water and electricity in every tent,” said Ibrahim Salem Ali Mustabani, a 46-year-old leader in the community who settled there with his family about four years ago.

“Now we have nothing,” he said, pointing to a tattered row of Saudi-purchased tents with UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) branding faded by the harsh desert weather.

Nearby, al-Mazraq Camps I and III continue to operate, sheltering some 12,000 IDPs, but Camp II no longer officially exists. It is now classed as a “settlement” rather than a “camp”, housing more than 500 families on an unmanaged site, largely abandoned following the handing over of the site to local partners in 2011.

“It is very sad to hear about the situation in the camp. We were foreigners coming in to provide help,” said Saleh M. Al Taaei, the adviser to the UAE Red Crescent Society’s Secretary-General at the charity’s headquarters in Abu Dhabi, who says they normally just provide emergency aid for a few years to relieve acute humanitarian crises.

“We do not come in to provide permanent aid - we cannot stay all the time. What happens after we leave is other people’s responsibility.”

The UAE Red Crescent continues to work in Yemen, and last week the charity distributed 13,000 food baskets to refugees and those living with special needs in various governorates.

Special treatment

UAE President Khalifa Bin Zayed Al Nahyan opened the camp in November 2009, the same month Saudi Arabian forces joined the Yemeni government’s sixth declared war in as many years against Zaidi Shiite Houthi rebels in neighbouring Sa’dah Governorate.

The Red Crescent set out to provide “distinctive services” in Camp II, including 18 doctors and nurses, a psychological support team, a children’s health clinic, 24-hour access to electricity and water, daily rations of meat and tea, and electric fans in every tent. On one occasion, a boy who was suffering from heart pains was transferred to the UAE for treatment.

The operation even managed to accommodate IDPs’ livestock in separate living quarters, as part of disease and sanitation awareness programmes.

This was not the first time the UAE Red Crescent has set-up a “5 star camp”. During the Kosovo conflict in the Balkans, the charity built a camp at the Albanian border town of Kukes complete with its own airport.

In May 2013 the charity officially opened a camp for Syrians in Jordan, where refugees live in caravans rather than tents and are supplied with home-delivered hot meals three times a day, according to the UAE Red Crescent.

But such services come at considerable cost; the annual Mazraq camp running costs were almost $15 million dollars. Other agencies were unable to continue the services, even though, despite a truce in the north of Yemen, the majority of those displaced by the fighting in Sa’dah have yet to return home.

Today, amid pervasive food insecurity, sheep, goats and other livestock live in crowded pens attached to each tent, too valuable to leave out of eyesight. In the absence of a power supply, IDPs have thrown out the electric fans.

No doctors

At the southern edge of the camp, a padlocked shed behind chain-link fencing sits stocked with prescription drugs. Yet according to Mustabani, even if someone broke down the door or pried back the steel bars from its window, the pharmacy would be useless to the community.

“No one knows how to use the medicine. All the doctors are gone,” he said, rummaging through a weathered steel container nearby loaded with expired saline solution and surgical instruments.

In an adjacent building, everything has been gutted except the Emirati Red Crescent Society plaque bolted to its front door.

“The closest military base looted all of the expensive equipment,” Mustabani said, kicking aside refuse in the skeletal structure, formerly al-Mazqraq II’s “Minor Surgical Center,” according to the plaque.

The closure of these and other medical facilities established for Camp II IDPs has placed health care beyond the reach of most in the community.

When 43-year-old Amr Husayn al-Husni suffered severe burns on his hands and face last year, “the health clinics in Camps I [UNHCR] and III [Adventist Development and Relief Agency] couldn’t help,” he said, raising his white UNAIDS cap to reveal blotchy pink scars covering his forehead.

“They referred me to the hospital in Hajjah City,” about 150km and dozens of military checkpoints south of al-Mazraq.

“There was no equipment there, so they directed me to Hudeidah City,” another 150km further south along the Red Sea. “But that was too expensive. I had to wait months to collect enough money for treatment. Everyone in the community here contributed what they could; they paid for my hospital bills,” he said.

Others in the settlement have been less fortunate, according to al-Husni. “The number of infant deaths during birth has increased - out of the three camps, it is highest here,” he said.

“There’s a graveyard down the hill,” he added, nodding to a small clearing visible from the pharmacy. “That’s where we bury the children.”

No plans to move

When al-Mazraq II was originally set-up, government and aid officials worried that its IDPs would grow accustomed to the five-star treatment and refuse to return home should conditions permit.

Indeed, four years on most of Camp II’s original population have not moved or returned. But neither have 95 percent of the 300,000 northern IDPs who live in the community, outside the two formal camps.

Despite their deteriorating situation, the al-Mazraq II community appears to have settled on the conclusion that things could be worse elsewhere, and have refused offers to relocate to the official camps nearby.

“It’s cleaner here. And there are too many of us to move,” Mustabani said.


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: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions

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