Despite calls by government officials for people displaced by fighting in Yemen’s northern Saada Governorate to return to their homes, humanitarian workers believe full-scale return is unlikely to begin soon.
With a ceasefire in February bringing a formal end to six months of fighting between the government and Houthi-led Shia rebels, Ahmed Kohlani, head of the government department responsible for internally displaced persons (IDPs), said it was time for the displaced to leave the camps they have been sheltering in.
Yemen has 10 IDP camps in all, six of them in Saada Governorate.
“The road is clear and there is nothing that might stop them from going to their houses and farms,” he told IRIN. Kohlani added that in the next few weeks, IDPs from Haradh (district in Hajjah Governorate where three IDP camps are located) would begin returning to their homes, reiterating a call by Saada Governor Taha Hajar for people to rebuild their lives.
But aid workers have painted a more cautious picture. Country Director of the World Food Programme (WFP) in Yemen Giancarlo Cirri said he was “moderately optimistic” that the rate of IDP returns would increase soon.
“The first thing displaced persons want is to go back home,” he said. However, “they need some guarantees that living conditions are acceptable, especially from a security point of view.”
Referring to the results of a recent IDP survey by the Norwegian Refugee Council and the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), Cirri said: “Even within the group of IDPs that intend to return, they do not intend to do so in the short term, because their view is that the conditions are not yet there for this to happen.”
Over 300,000 Yemenis have been displaced by six rounds of fighting since 2004 between the government and Houthi forces, demanding autonomy for their community. Qatari-mediated talks have been ongoing since the February ceasefire, but the truce remains shaky.
IDPs interviewed by IRIN in the capital, Sanaa, expressed a strong desire to return home, but cited security and economic obstacles that prevent them from doing so.
Mohammed, a 40-year-old from Razeh District in Saada Governorate, left his home for Sanaa to seek medical treatment after he was injured in an air strike. Fearing for the safety of his family of 10, he had them follow him to Sanaa. They are surviving almost entirely thanks to humanitarian agencies.
“When I am better we will return, although I am worried, because there is no stability at the moment,” Mohammed said. His younger brother Majed added: “We heard [the Saada governor’s statement] in the news, but we are waiting for my brother’s treatment, because good medical services aren’t available there.”
Another displaced man from Saada, Mohammed Yahya, said IDPs “would go back if the situation was stable, but they cannot go there now. There is only aid from the mosque; no one else can help them.”
Zifqa Taleb, an elderly woman who fled Saada with her husband, daughter, and grandchildren, said: “We ran away from the air strikes to save our family. If I could go back I would, but how can I? I am sick, and my husband can’t work. And we don’t even have the transportation fees to go back to Saada… We are afraid we will die here.”
The couple sold their daughter’s gold to pay nearly US$400 for their trip to Sanaa, and they have nothing left to fund their return. “We have very few resources. We just sell dried fruit to get money for our family. We go around houses and sell them for five or 10 rials each [3-5 US cents].”
In spite of periodic clashes, the possibility of a seventh round of fighting seems less likely than it did a few months ago, some analysts suggest. Estimates of the number of IDPs who have already returned to their homes vary, from 15 to 30 percent.
Cirri said that many more IDPs would return if they knew there was humanitarian assistance waiting for them, but the lack of access due to continuing security concerns is preventing humanitarian agencies from moving into these areas. However, an assessment is currently under way in Saada which will help determine how the UN and humanitarian partners can best move forward.
Cirri said that if the security situation improves, it is hoped that early recovery operations in conflict-affected areas will begin.
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