Traumatized women and children try to cope with displacement in Yemen

Elham roams aimlessly, claps her hands, mutters incomprehensibly and, from time to time, screams hysterically. The six-year-old is a traumatized victim of fighting in northern Yemen.

Women and children caught up in the northern Yemen conflict are particularly vulnerable to trauma.  © UNHCR Yemen

HARADH, Yemen, September 24 (UNHCR) - Elham roams aimlessly around the settlement of tents that is now her home. She claps her hands, mutters incomprehensibly and, from time to time, screams hysterically to nobody in particular.

The six-year-old suffers from deep trauma, one of the many young victims of the fighting in northern Yemen between government troops and Al Houthi forces that has forced thousands of people to leave their homes in and around the city of Sa'ada since the beginning of August. Vulnerable women have also been traumatized and, like the children, need help.

Elham is one of about 5,500 people who have fled to Al Mazraq Camp in the district of Haradh, which is located south-west of Sa'ada governorate. The UN refugee agency has been setting up tents and distributing non-food aid items, but people like Elham need specialist counselling that is difficult to provide in the deep field.

But, as field officer Mai Barazi explained here, "UNHCR, in coordination with the [Al Islah] Charitable Community for Social Welfare, is identifying people with special needs, including those in need of psycho-social support, for referral to health and children's programmes available through WHO [World Health Organization] and UNICEF [the UN Children's Fund]."

Meanwhile, UNHCR staff on the ground have been trying to help Elham, but it is hard. "She cannot hear you," her father told the concerned aid workers. "She lost her hearing during the bombing in Sa'ada. She lost her memory and her ability to talk." But she can still feel pain, and her tortured shrieks affect everyone.

However, her outlook is good. "Children have strong resilience capacities. They are faster than adults in recovering from trauma. Elham has high chances for recovery because in her case we do know the cause of trauma and we can intervene appropriately," said Kamel Ben Abdallah, a doctor working for UNICEF in Yemen.

Elham and her family lived in Sa'ada, where sporadic fighting since 2004 has left an estimated 150,000 people displaced. During the latest wave of violence, which began in August, Elham was playing outside when her family heard a huge explosion, followed by screaming. They rushed outside and found the little girl lying on the ground unconscious.

When she came to after three hours, Elham could not recognize anyone. She also seemed to be both mute and deaf. But a few days later, she blurted out, "Mummy, mummy," and then started clapping - the last thing she had been doing before being knocked out by the blast.

The family fled Sa'ada about three weeks ago, travelling for a large part of the journey by foot before getting a lift in a vehicle. "I cannot afford a doctor for her," said her middle-aged father, Hussein, trying to hold back his tears. "She is my only daughter, with five sons. She is the dearest to me. I hope she can be a child again, and can play and laugh again."

Her mother, who is also suffering from shock, said she had to tether Elham with a piece of rope, "so that we don't lose her, especially at night. We might get up one day and not find her. I could not stand losing her."

Many of the other children arriving in Al Mazraq suffer from trauma. Adults, especially women, are also suffering from conflict-linked mental problems. Breastfeeding her 10-month-old baby inside a UNHCR tent, Fatima gazes vacantly into the distance, refusing to speak to UNHCR visitors.

"The day we fled [from Malaheet in Sa'ada], armed men broke into the house while we were preparing food; they took over the roof. We thought that they will use it as a military base. So we left right away," her sister explained. The trauma of leaving home and travelling for days with a baby was all too much for Fatima.

Meanwhile, donors have started responding to a UNHCR appeal for US$5 milllion to fund its operation in northern Yemen. The refugee agency, through local partners, has been distributing aid to displaced people in Sa'ada and surrounding governorates. It has also called on the rival sides to open up aid corridors so that UNHCR and other humanitarian organizations can help the needy.

The magnitude of displacement in Yemen is beyond the local resources of host communities as most of the displaced remain with their relatives, friends or neighbours, straining their meagre reserves and poor infrastructure. Urgent support from the international community is needed to alleviate the desperate situation.

By Laure Chedrawi in Haradh, Yemen