Solidarity easing war displacement in Yemen
Sana’a - Ali Hussein and his family of four share a rundown shop in an overcrowded, low-income central neighbourhood in the Yemeni capital Sana’a. They ended up there after fleeing air strikes by a Saudi-led coalition supporting government forces fighting Iran-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen.
Hussein is among an estimated 2.5 million Yemenis who have been displaced since the start of the conflict in March 2015. He fled his home and pomegranate farm in his native Razah in the northern Saada province eight months ago.
The humanitarian assistance he has been receiving from aid organisations is hardly sufficient to feed his family, but Hussein says the solidarity and compassion demonstrated by fellow Yemenis have helped them survive and alleviated their suffering.
“One day as I was wandering in the street with my youngest child, the owner of a restaurant, who was moved by the sight of my starving son, offered us lunch. Since then he has been giving my family one meal daily,” Hussein recalled.
The 38-year-old farmer could not carry any of his valuables when he fled his home. “Our only concern was to save ourselves,” he said. “I had to borrow money to pay the driver who drove us to Sana’a. It was a miracle that none of us was killed. The house collapsed (in an air strike) just minutes after we escaped.”
While the situation in Yemen, one of the poorest countries in the Middle East, has substantially worsened since the start of the conflict, Yemenis continue sharing their little fortunes with the less fortunate, human rights and social activist Saddam Kudsi said.
“People here, especially in Sana’a, are very generous and they like to share their food with others, notably the destitute. It makes them happy and it is part of their inherent traditions,” Kudsi said.
The rise in food prices as a result of acute fuel shortages, restrictions on imports and the semi-blockade imposed on Yemeni ports by coalition forces “did not affect the principle of hospitality and sharing of food among Sana’a residents”, Kudsi said.
Most of the displaced, who come from various parts of Yemen, have lost their livelihoods and sought shelter with relatives and friends, in schools, public and abandoned buildings, makeshift shelters or in the open with little to no protection. They lack basic services including food, water, hygiene and medical care. The conflict, damage to civilian infrastructure and strain on already depleted resources have exacerbated an already precarious humanitarian situation in the country, plagued by years of political instability and volatile security.
While displacement has decreased in the southern governorates, where there have been large scale returns in recent months, it has increased significantly in the northern governorates, consistent with the patterns of the shifting conflict.
According to the United Nations, the governorates most affected by the conflict — Taiz, Amran, Hajjah, Sana’a and Abyan — account for more than 1.2 million of the 2.5 million displaced population.
An estimated 350,000 people are harboured in Sana’a, according to Abdel Wahhab Sharafeddin, director of the executive unit in charge of managing camps for the displaced in the city.
Sharafeddin pointed out that tented settlements were set up in the sports city and the headquarters of the Olympic committee in eastern Sana’a but could not be used after the perimeter was targeted by air strikes.
“We had to find alternatives, placing the refugees in schools and charity centres, while renting small apartments for some of them,” Sharafeddin said.
He said the numbers and needs of the displaced are overwhelming, largely exceeding the capacities of the authorities. “We had to rely on the cooperation of tradesmen and the rich to help us find shelters and secure some of the basic needs,” he said.
Almost a year after the outbreak of the conflict, more than 21 million Yemenis — 80% of the population — have become almost entirely dependent on the international community for food, fuel, shelter and medicine.
The Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO), the UN food agency, recently warned that more than half of Yemenis are food insecure, as fighting and import restrictions reduced the availability of essential foods and sent prices soaring.
“Food insecurity and malnutrition are becoming highly critical,” FAO representative in Yemen Salah Elhajj Hassan said.
“If such estimates existed in another country than Yemen, the situation would have been much worse… The existence of a strong solidarity among Yemenis makes a difference,” commented humanitarian affairs expert Wajd al-Hamiri.
The United Nations estimates the war has claimed more than 7,000 lives, including 2,700 civilians, and another 27,000 people have been wounded.