UN back in Sa'ada City after eight-month hiatus
On Wednesday (24 March), the UN country team in Yemen, including the UNHCR representative, visited the capital of the troubled northern Sa'ada province for the first time since the so-called 'sixth war' between the government and Al Houti rebellion erupted in August last year. Following the ceasefire - which came into effect on 11 February this year - the war was officially declared over last Friday (19 March).
This first joint mission to Sa'ada, comprising UN, NGO and government representatives, met local authorities to discuss the overall needs of the population in Sa'ada governorate ahead of a more detailed assessment. It was also the opportunity to get a first hand impression of the situation of displaced Yemeni civilians in the city and the conditions for the voluntary and safe return of hundreds of thousands who were forced to flee seven months of intense fighting. The UN country team reiterated its readiness to bring assistance to all people in need in this war affected governorate.
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 visited six IDP camps ran by the Yemeni Red Crescent in Sa'ada city. These are presently home to some 4,500 people. A majority of Sa'ada city's displaced are actually being hosted by the local community, families, friends and neighbors. All of the camps, though hosting relatively small numbers of people, are desperately 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 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 as the streets of Sa'ada were bustling with people and traffic and all the shops were open. Prices of basic necessities, which were inflated during the conflict, are gradually decreasing. 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 (22 March) a cross-border UNHCR mission from Saudi Arabia visited the Mandaba area a couple of kilometers 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 still littering parts of Sa'ada which were affected by the fighting. Their concerns are reinforced by reports of fatal incidents from mines and unexploded ordnance in several Sa'ada districts.
Despite continuing mine awareness campaigns, tragic incidents are frequent. On Monday (22 March), a group of boys wandered of from Al Mazrak 3 camp to collect firewood near the village of Malaleth. One of them, age 16, found an attractive object and picked it up. The land mine killed him on the spot. A day later, a mine went off at Mazrak market killing three children and two adults. One child and six adults were injured and hospitalized. The demining team found a further unexploded device in the vicinity and disarmed it. These unfortunate and avoidable incidents add urgency to UNHCR's calls for a rapid and extensive mine clearing effort in northern Yemen.