Thousands of civilians displaced by more than four months of fighting between government forces and rebels in Yemen's north-western Saada province face an uncertain future and are becoming fully reliant on aid to survive, relief workers say.
"As a result of the fighting, there is an estimated 35,000 to 42,000 IDPs [internally displaced people] who have left their homes and are now living in precarious conditions,” Eman Mo'ankar, International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) spokeswoman in Yemen, said.
“Many of them are staying with host families. Some of them have settled in areas in the north, close to the Saudi border, and others in the south, near Saada city. There are also those who decided to stay in their villages in areas affected by the armed confrontations to safeguard their homes and properties and for fear of their lives," she added.
Fighting between government forces and followers of rebel leader Abdul-Malik al-Houthi first broke out in 2004. Fierce clashes at intervals over the past three years have claimed the lives of more than 700 government forces and wounded about 5,300.
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The current fighting was sparked by al-Houthi supporters in late January threatening to kill members of a small Jewish community in Saada if they did not leave the country within 10 days. The fighting became fiercer in February after parliament authorised the government to use all its force to suppress the rebellion. Since then, more troops have been sent to the area.
As a consequence, thousands of local residents have left their homes and livelihoods behind. Agriculture and commerce, the main economic activities in Saada province, have been greatly disrupted by the clashes, leaving local residents limited means to cope with their current situation. Access to health care and education are also limited.
Those that could not stay with family or friends are living in two makeshift camps. United Nations agencies - including the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the World Health Organization (WHO), the World Food Programme (WFP) and the UN Population Fund (UNFPA) - and the Yemeni Red Crescent Society (YRCS) are all involved in the relief effort.
They are providing relief items such as medical kits and blankets while WFP deals with the logistics, according to Mohamed al-Kouhene, WFP’s country director in Yemen.
“Many of the displaced fled their homes with only what they could carry and they are now living with families and friends in remote locations outside Saada. We are anxious to reach all of them with assistance as soon as possible,” said al-Kouhene. He added that WFP began distributing food assistance to about 20,000 displaced Yemenis on Wednesday as part of a two-month operation.
Priority will be given to the 2,000 people living in camps. Those living with host families are being given ration cards in preparation for further distributions later in the week.
The YRCS has delivered more than 1,000 tents, 24,000 mattresses and 25,000 blankets to displaced people, in addition to a number of other essentials, according to ICRC spokeswoman Mo'ankar. In addition, its two medics are treating 20-30 cases a week. For emergencies, the ICRC is referring sick IDPs to a hospital in Saada city where it is taking care of any costs.
Insecurity hampering aid efforts
However, insecurity has limited their ability to reach all areas. On 2 May, an ICRC/YRCS convoy came under heavy gunfire in al-Saifi, 18km north of Saada city. It consisted of 15 trucks carrying emergency supplies to 560 displaced families in the Baqim district.
"This attack jeopardised vital humanitarian work for displaced persons, especially in remote areas," said Mo'ankar.
"The ICRC urges fighting parties to respect the life and dignity of civilians and to take all necessary measures to ensure their safety. It is an obligation under international humanitarian law to protect and spare the civilian population, as well as all those who are no longer taking a direct part in hostilities. It is prohibited to target persons who are not directly participating in the fighting," Mo'ankar added.
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