From: Berhane Habtemariam (Berhane.Habtemariam@gmx.de)
Date: Wed Sep 23 2009 - 18:42:20 EDT
FOCUS: EXCLUSIVE N Yemen 'humanitarian disaster'
By May Ying Welsh in North Yemen
Wednesday, September 23, 2009
16:32 Mecca time, 13:32 GMT
In the searing heat of the desert near the Saudi border, the sound of heavy
artillery echoes across the mountains every few minutes, hammering the ears
of Askar Ragass and her terrified family.
Mortar attacks and aerial bombardment are now familiar sounds to the simple
farmers and herders fleeing the war between the Yemeni army and Houthi Shia
rebels that broke out last month in the country's mountainous north.
"We're so scared," Askar, a farmer, tells Al Jazeera from her tent in
al-Mazraq camp where she and 500 other displaced families have been living
after fleeing their villages.
"Whenever we hear a sound we run into our tents. We remember what happened
back home. The sound of bombing never leaves your mind. When you hear a
plane you just freeze and can't move - you think it's about to fire on you."
Families here could be forgiven for feeling unsafe. On September 16, over 80
people were killed during an air raid on a settlement for displaced
civilians in Amran province a few hundred kilometres away.
Scorched earth policy
The army launched the "Operation Scorched Earth" offensive against Shia
rebels fighting for greater autonomy in Yemen's northernmost Saada province.
But it has proven to be a conflict impoverished Yemen can ill afford, and it
has hit the people of this agricultural region hard.
Nearly 10 per cent of the children arriving at the al-Mazraq camp are
severely malnourished and have to be sent to a local hospital for immediate
therapeutic feeding to prevent permanent damage to their small bodies and
Nevertheless, these refugees count themselves among the lucky.
Of the estimated 150,000 displaced civilians in northern Yemen, they are the
only ones with immediate access to clean drinking water, food, medical
attention and most importantly, security.
Tens of thousands more who fled their homes are now trapped by the fighting,
living under bridges and trees with little or no access to aid.
The Yemeni aid group al-Amal is one of the only organisations with workers
on the ground inside the war zone.
"We are on the verge of a major human catastrophe" says Tayyib Izzedeen, the
deputy director of al-Amal.
"Inside Saada City there is nothing to eat, there is no electricity, no
water, no medicine and if you can find anything, its price has tripled."
No food or water
Izzedeen says the situation is even more critical in Baqim, 20km from the
Saudi border, where up to 30,000 civilians, the vast majority of them women
and children, are stranded in the open without food or water and caught in
"They are surrounded by fighting between tribes and the Houthis, and by
bombing from government fighter jets," says Izzedeen.
"They have nothing to eat, no medicine, no security, no shelter - anything
one needs to survive, they don't have."
UN agencies blocked on the Yemeni-Saudi border have been unable to provide
assistance and have watched the suffering of innocent civilians just a few
"There are no humanitarian corridors whatsoever," says Laure Chedrawi of the
UN High Commission on Refugees (UNHCR).
"In fact humanitarian access is tightening by the day. We continue to call
on the Yemeni and Saudi governments to allow us to aid the people of Baqim
The Yemeni army blocks aid access to civilians inside the war zone with
checkpoints, saying conditions are too unsafe for civilians to move out or
aid workers to move in.
And the Saudi government prevents any cross border movement of aid workers
or families, fearing Houthi rebels could masquerade as refugees to enter the
Meanwhile, the lack of organised, clearly demarcated civilian camps inside
the war zone is adding to the confusion and haze of war - with tragic
"The large number of people recently killed in Amran province sends a very
disturbing message to the displaced civilians," says Naseem Ur-Rehman of
"The government says there were no internally displaced people [IDPs] there,
but the reality is the IDPs are spread over vast stretches of land. Now they
are confused about where they should go."
Hassan Ahmed Naba'ee and his family were among the few able to find a way
out of the war zone and to reach al-Mazraq camp.
"A mortar and artillery attack started on us at night," Naba'ee tells al
Jazeera, beads of sweat running down his face in the suffocating heat of the
"There was an attack on state targets - then the government struck back.
They bombed randomly on our villages and homes. We couldn't possibly stay -
we just left our houses and fled."
Naba'ee's newborn twins Abdullah and Noura wail inconsolably as family
members take turns fanning them with bits of cardboard.
No one knows how long they will be in this camp.
The war, which has raged intermittently since 2004, seems unending and is
Now far beyond the borders of northern Saada province, it has enveloped
parts of neighbouring Amran, Jowf and Hajja provinces, threatening to
destabilise the country and cause famine in the north.
And if the situation at al-Mazraq camp indicates conditions for northern
civilians at their best, then there is much to worry about.
"Al-Mazraq is secure," warns Izzedeen of al-Amal. "That is why you see aid
organisations working there providing assistance.
"But in all other areas of northern Yemen we face an impending humanitarian
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