UNHCR visits sites for forcibly displaced civilians in Yemen's Sa'ada City

UNHCR takes part in a joint assessment mission to look at the needs of thousands of people displaced by months of fighting in Yemen's Sa'ada City.

A displaced family at Al Mazrak camp in northern Yemen.  © UNHCR/H.Macleod

SA'ADA CITY, Yemen, March 26 (UNHCR) - The UN country team in Yemen, including the UNHCR representative, has this week visited the capital of the troubled northern province of Sa'ada for the first time since renewed conflict erupted between government troops and fighters of the Al Houti movement in August last year. Following a ceasefire - which came into effect last month - the six-year-old war was officially declared over last Friday.

This first joint mission to Sa'ada, comprising UN, NGO and government representatives, met local authorities to discuss the needs of the population in Sa'ada governorate ahead of a more detailed assessment. It was also an opportunity to get a first-hand impression of the situation of displaced Yemeni civilians in the city and to assess the conditions for the return of hundreds of thousands of displaced civilians.

More than 250,000 internally displaced people (IDPs) have been registered so far, but with expanding access to many parts of Sa'ada province, the Yemeni government now believes that as many as 350,000 people have been displaced by the war. Some 22,000 of these IDPs are still in Sa'ada City.

The mission travelled to Sa'ada City on Wednesday and visited six IDP camps ran by the Yemeni Red Crescent. These are presently home to some 4,500 people. A majority of Sa'ada city's displaced are being hosted by the local community, families, friends and neighbours. All of the camps, though hosting relatively small numbers of people, are overcrowded.

During the mission to Sa'ada, the government called on sheiks and local leaders to play an active role in the stabilization process and to uphold the rule of law to encourage returns. Local authorities welcomed the presence of the UN agencies and NGOs and called for international assistance in reconstruction and provision of basic aid. UNHCR, together with other UN agencies, is reviewing options to reopen its office in Sa'ada.

The team reported that the city appears to be recovering and returning to life, with the streets bustling with people and traffic and shops open. Prices of basic necessities, which were inflated during the conflict, are gradually falling. The supply of water and electricity is improving. Some schools are reopening.

Large-scale voluntary and safe return to Sa'ada province will require stability and security as well as considerable reconstruction and a swift aid effort. Many homes have been damaged or destroyed in Sa'ada governorate and both the returning IDPs and those who never left the province need immediate assistance with food and essential shelter materials. UNHCR has prepared plans and is ready - funds permitting - to assist in the return process together with other UN agencies, NGO partners and the government.

Since the ceasefire, some 200 families from the three IDP camps at Al Mazrak have reportedly returned to Sa'ada governorate. Some heads of families went to their villages to check on their properties and get their belongings and then returned to the camps. According to these IDPs, there is no looting in Sa'ada province but the level of destruction is significant.

Other IDPs temporarily returned to Sa'ada to collect personal documents to secure their access to registration and assistance while in displacement. Meanwhile, on Monday a cross-border UNHCR mission from Saudi Arabia visited the Mandaba area a couple of kilometres inside Yemen. The mission found that most of the 10,000 IDPs who had sheltered there have gone back to their villages, with only around 4,000 people remaining in makeshift camps.

According to a rapid assessment conducted at Al Mazrak camps, most IDPs are reluctant to return mainly for security reasons. In general, people are cautious and want to be reassured that peace will last. They also fear mines and unexploded ordnance, which have killed or maimed people in several Sa'ada districts. These incidents add urgency to UNHCR's calls for a rapid and extensive mine-clearing effort in northern Yemen.