Thousands of people displaced by recent heavy fighting between Houthi rebels and government forces in the city of Amran in northern Yemen are looking to return to their homes following a recent Houthi withdrawal, but they face significant challenges.
The conflict began over three months ago after clashes between the Shiite Houthis and tribal armed groups. Yet in the past few weeks it intensified, with the Houthis claiming a series of towns including Amran amid fears that Sana’a itself could be targeted. The Yemeni military has fought back, with reports of aerial attacks on Amran increasing the threats to civilians. At least 200 people have been killed, while at least 35,000 have become internally displaced persons (IDPs), according to the UN. Many were facing displacement for a second time as those from other violent regions have sought refuge in Amran in recent years.
Yet in recent days, hopes have been raised that the IDPs may return home as the crisis appears to be on the wane. Yemen’s President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi visited Amran on 23 July, while the Houthis have withdrawn their fighters and allowed the government to take back critical buildings such as the security headquarters and key banks. A government spokesperson who visited these facilities assured IRIN there had been no significant looting or damage.
Yahya Shouai and his family are among thousands of dispossessed from Amran currently in the capital Sana’a awaiting the opportunity to return home. “There is no food, no shelter, no tents and no latrines either,” Shouai said. “Even the park toilets were closed and we were not given access to use them.”
When, at the beginning of July, Houthi rebels charged their home town, the Shouai family packed up and left. In the commotion, Yahya’s pregnant wife’s waters broke; she gave birth on a bus rattling away from the sound of machine guns.
Getting back home
The next challenge is to get the families back home, and it is one that is beginning in earnest. Johannes van der Klaauw, the UN humanitarian coordinator for Yemen, visited Amran on 25 July and reported that the city was largely calm. Yet he said there were “signs of damage to buildings in Amran City and Bait Badi as a result of shelling and rocket and mortar attacks,” as well as “disturbing evidence of the misuse of civilian infrastructure”, including a school still occupied by militants.
This is presenting challenges to return for many families. John Ratcliffe, humanitarian affairs officer at the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), told IRIN that while access to the city was largely open for returning residents, two groups of people would face significant challenges: “those perceived as opposed to the Houthis and those whose houses have been severely damaged”.
Some, like Qaid Mohammed, have already returned. He and his family made the trip back for the Eid holiday on 28 July after weeks in a tented settlement in the capital. He arrived to find that thankfully little damage had been done to his home, though his neighbourhood was eerily quiet. “The city is still like a ghost town, but we have no other choice. It is much better than staying in tents during this rainy season,” he said, referencing the weather in mountainous Sana’a.
Ahmed Salah, a father of three, is not so lucky. He has learned from friends who remained in Amran that his home was partially destroyed in the fighting. Infuriated, he has resigned himself to remaining in the capital for the foreseeable future. “Where am I supposed to go?’ he asks. “If there is no house waiting for me, then staying here in Sana’a is the same as staying at a relative’s house in Amran.”
The militarized atmosphere in Amran is not the only cause for concern for humanitarians. Yemen is facing a crippling long-term fuel shortage, while a decision to remove fuel subsidies has led to mass protests in Sana’a in recent days in which at least one person has been killed.
Many aid workers have been forced to cancel or suspend fieldwork, resulting in delays to support for vulnerable groups, while the health sector in Amran is suffering from a lack of medicines, fuel and human resources.
Ratcliffe acknowledged that both the security situation and fuel crises have “complicated [relief] efforts by causing delays. Fuel shortages have prevented some mills from producing flour, meaning that food aid at times has been delayed or has had to deliver wheat grain in place of flour to some beneficiaries, including people affected by conflict in Amran,” he said. “Security concerns have also resulted in missions to Amran being re-scheduled, which slows the overall speed of the response.”
Saddam Al-Kamal, spokesperson for the Yemeni government’s Executive Unit for IDPs, said they were trying their best to cope with the scale of the crisis and would both help IDPs return and offer support for those that chose to stay in Sana’a. “Both the returnee and the staying IDPs have received food and non-food assistance from the Executive Unit for IDPs’ camps and its partners like OCHA, Islamic Relief and Médecins Sans Frontières,” Al-Kamal said.
Yet some IDPs dispute this statement, accusing the Yemeni authorities of preferential treatment. In Sana’a IRIN met around 400 families sleeping without cover in a park opposite the mayor’s office. They come from Yemen’s black Muhamasheen (marginalized) community, often derogatorily referred to as “servants” and discriminated against on account of their dark skin. The families say that since their displacement they have no support from the state.
“We have black skin, hence [the Yemeni authorities] think we don’t deserve to be treated like the other light skinned IDPs,” complained Ahmed Ali Al-Ansi, who fled Amran a few weeks ago. They had been demonstrating outside the presidential palace and the Yemeni government’s Executive Unit for IDPs, but say they were chased away by residents brandishing weapons. Kamal denied there had been any discrimination in the government’s policies.