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UNHCR struggles to help the internally displaced in northern Yemen


UNHCR struggles to help the internally displaced in northern Yemen

Amid the dire humanitarian situation in northern Yemen, people like Ghalia and her young children desperately need protection and assistance.
18 September 2009
A young girl from Harf Sufyan waits as tents are put up near Khaiwan.

KHAIWAN, Yemen, September 18 (UNHCR) - Amid the dire humanitarian situation in and around northern Yemen's Sa'ada governorate, people like Ghalia and her children desperately need protection and assistance.

"The humanitarian situation of the civilian population caught in the conflict in northern Yemen is alarming," UNHCR spokesperson, Melissa Fleming, told journalists in Geneva on Friday. "Five weeks into the conflict [between] Al Houthi rebels and the Yemeni forces, Sa'ada city remains virtually isolated from the rest of the world and inaccessible for the UN humanitarian community. Most of the displaced are stranded and dangerously exposed to the fighting as they are unable to reach safer areas."

The refugee agency had earlier issued a statement saying it was "alarmed" by reports that dozens of people had been killed and wounded on Wednesday in an air raid on Al Adi in neighbouring Amran governerate. There has been a lull in fighting in the past two days, which allowed UNHCR's local partners to distribute some aid in Sa'ada.

The latest media reports add urgency to the UN's repeated appeals for opening of humanitarian corridors in northern Yemen that would allow civilians to leave the conflict zone and enable humanitarian workers to deliver much aid in this remote part of the country. This remains a top priority for UNHCR.

The conflict in the north has forced some 150,000 people to flee their homes since first flaring up in 2004, including Ghalia and the two young daughters she was pulling along behind her when they caught up with UNHCR in the town of Khaiwan, located in Amran governorate.

"Are you here to give us assistance? I am from Sa'ada," the pale and frightened widow said, after rushing up to UNHCR workers who were looking for a site on which to build a new camp for internally displaced people (IDP) near Khaiwan.

Ghalia and her children were stuck in Sa'ada for three weeks before escaping from the beleaguered city. They made their way to Khaiwan and found shelter in a public school alongside other families. When UNHCR arrived she unburdened herself by recounting the nightmare they had been through.

"We could hear the bombing and the fighting every day. My children were frightened," she recalled as her daughters looked on warily. "We had only bread and water for three whole weeks. We had no milk or rice or meat. So I decided to leave. We drove for 11 hours. I had to pay a large sum of money to flee," Ghalia added.

While total displacement figures for the current wave of fighting are not known, some 30,000 IDPs are believed to have fled to Amran, including people from Sa'ada and the district of Harf Sufyan. Aisha, aged 31, was among those who fled from Harf Sufyan. "On our way here, we heard an airstrike and 10 of our goats were killed. We could have been killed too. We were exhausted. Our legs still hurt after two weeks."

UNHCR will run the camp at Khaiwan when it has been completed and distribute urgently needed aid (tents, blankets, mattresses, food and water) in cooperation with partners and the government. It is already doing this at Al Mazraq camp, which is located in the Hajjah governorate south-west of Sa'ada, Almost 500 families, or around 3,500 people, have gathered in the camp.

But most of the IDPs are living with relatives or host families. "We are coordinating with local authorities to reach out and deliver aid to the displaced in the different locations where they are scattered in Harad and the neighboring villages," said UNHCR Protection Officer Khaled Halim.

UNHCR also managed this week to reach some of the internally displaced in Sa'ada through a local NGO partner. A distribution of UNHCR aid to more than 700 displaced people in Sa'ada was planned for today.

While non-food items are being distributed where possible, UNHCR is stockpiling aid on the Saudi Arabian side of the border with Yemen and awaiting the green light from the two sides to launch a cross-border operation to help IDPs north of Sa'ada, particularly in the Baqim area, where thousands need shelter, food and water.

UNHCR is also calling on Saudi authorities to offer safe shelter and assistance to displaced Yemenis who may seek refuge across the border as they flee the fierce fighting. UNHCR is poised to assist in these efforts.

Meanwhile, urgent support from the international community is needed to alleviate the desperate situation of the displaced Yemenis. To date, UNHCR has received no contributions against the US$5 million flash appeal for the Yemen emergency and continues to fund a response from its operational reserves.

By Laure Chedrawi in Khaiwan, Yemen