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Aid? What aid? Besieged Yemenis ask

A Yemeni man sits outside the ruins of his home which was destroyed in an airstrike by the Saudi Arabian-led coalition
A Yemeni man sits outside the ruins of his home destroyed by an airstrike shortly after the ceasefire was due to begin (Almigdad Mojalli/IRIN)

On Thursday night, representatives of Yemen’s warring parties announced a deal to immediately allow aid into the besieged city of Taiz. But residents say this week’s truce still hasn’t brought them the relief they so desperately need.

Taiz has seen some of the fiercest fighting since the conflict intensified in March. Many people here started plotting their escape months ago, when rumours of a truce first began circulating.

Fawaz Ameen, 37, told IRIN he had been waiting anxiously, ready to take his family out at the first sign of a lull.

“When I heard about a truce… I was very glad… as [it] would open the roads that lead to my [home] village,” he said. “But the war hasn’t stopped, and we haven’t seen a truce yet.”

A coalition of 200 aid organisations inside Taiz released a statement on Friday morning expressing their frustration that despite the apparent progress at the Switzerland peace talks, they were seeing no practical changes on the ground.

“We want international organisations that send humanitarian aid to Taiz [and we want the international community] to send observers,” the statement said.

Give it time

It is too soon to really tell what impact Thursday night’s agreement will have, but some recent progress has been noted.

Julien Harneis, Yemen country director for UNICEF, said his organisation had managed to bring water, fuel, and mobile medical clinics into Taiz in the last week. He hoped the new deal would make this aid easier to access.

“We have been able to operate inside Taiz and throughout,” Harneis said. “However, this new access will allow this to be done in a safer way… and will allow families to access the assistance we provide.

“We can do water trucking. We can bring in mobile medical clinics. But if parents don’t feel it is safe to move, then that assistance is not going to be used.”

No way out

In late November, UN humanitarian chief Stephen O’Brien said 200,000 civilians in Taiz were living under a “virtual state of siege,” with only limited humanitarian assistance making it into the city, once Yemen’s third largest.

For the most part, Houthi rebels control access in and out. Fighters loyal to the deposed but internationally recognised president, Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi, are holed up in certain quarters. A Saudi Arabian-led coalition backs attempts to oust the Houthis from power and has lent the Hadi loyalists air support.

Despite the latest truce, which supposedly began on Tuesday morning, clashes were ongoing. Both sides accuse the other of breaching the ceasefire, although Thursday night’s agreement was seen as a major breakthrough for the peace talks and was accompanied by a reported exchange of prisoners.

Streets are deserted in Taiz, apart from military vehicles. The Old City, once a popular destination for dining out, has been taken over by Hadi loyalists and is routinely targeted by Houthi shelling.

Ameen wants to leave so he can find work and enroll his children in school. Almost all of the 58 schools in Yemen that the UN says have been occupied by armed groups are here, in this one city.

"I don't think there will be a truce in Taiz as the two warring sides insist on fighting,” he told IRIN. "We are just waiting for death in Taiz, as we have neither work nor a way to flee."

No way in either

When war first came to Taiz in March, many people were displaced. They are now sheltering in the much larger expanse of Taiz Province, where the UN estimates 79 percent of people are in need of humanitarian assistance.

Adnan al-Soraimi, who fled Taiz city in June, now wants back in.

“I left my furniture at my house… as the battles were fierce,” he told IRIN. “When I heard about the truce, I decided to enter [to recover my belongings].”

But the main road from his neighbourhood into Taiz is said to be mined, leaving him only unpaved mountain paths that only well-equipped vehicles can make it through.

See: Yemeni rebels ‘mining civilian areas’

Not getting through

After O’Brien’s statement, efforts to get more aid into the city were redoubled. The World Food Programme announced last week that it had trucked in enough provisions to last 145,000 people a month.

But some intended recipients said it wasn’t enough, and that despite plans by aid organisations to scale up operations during the “truce”, they had seen no change in what people were actually getting.

Ibhrahim al-Faqeeh, a supervisor at Al-Hikmah, a local charity that helps distribute for international aid organisations, told IRIN that the aid he anticipated was still stuck.

"We have 5,000 bags of wheat, flour and rice in [southern] Ibb Province, and we were waiting for the truce to bring them to the city. But the war did not stop and the Houthis are still besieging the city, so they did not allow us to bring aid to Taiz.”

Thursday’s deal has not brought results, he said. “The conditions in Taiz are still the same… the only thing that has changed is that the warring sides in Switzerland agreed to allow humanitarian aid to arrive in the city. But, in fact, nothing has arrived.”

No jobs, no food… no oxygen

The war has left many Taiz residents jobless and dependent on food aid.

Abdul-Jabbar Al-Roaini lost his job as a tutor when war broke out and relies on aid for his basic needs. He said he was shocked at the lack of change the truce had brought to his home city.

"Basic goods are available in the market as traders can bring them to the city on unpaved back roads. But the price is more than double and we do not have the money,” he told IRIN.

Medical aid is in short supply too. A doctor at Al-Thawra Hospital, which is under the control of fighters loyal to Hadi, told IRIN on condition of anonymity that patients were dying due to a shortfall in oxygen supplies.

"Many people died in hospital because of the shortage of oxygen,” he said. “We have been bringing it through the mountains, but it is difficult and we can’t bring much as it isn’t safe.”

OCHA, the UN’s emergency aid coordination body, was not immediately available for comment. Other aid groups told IRIN it was simply to soon to tell what the new deal would mean, both for their access and for the people of Taiz.


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