Yemen’s refugee crisis attracting global concern
MAZRAK CAMP,Yemen | Salha Asman Mousa and her five sons were eating dinner when their village was bombed mid-September.
“The planes came to attack the Houthis,” she said, squinting under a straw hat in the sweltering desert sun. “Everyone wanted to protect themselves. We just ran away.”
Mrs. Mousa, her family and about 220 other villagers walked for three days, sleeping under trees — when they could find them — before the family found shelter in a scorching desert refugee camp. They brought nothing but their children.
Mrs. Mousa is among 150,000 people displaced since a war that broke out in northern Yemen in 2004, according to the U.N. children’s agency, UNICEF. As many as 30,000 people have fled their homes since the latest and fiercest round of fighting began in early August.
The conflict in the north pits the Houthis, a fiercely anti-Western group of Shi’ites who claim they are defending themselves against violent oppression, against the Yemeni government. The government in the predominantly Sunni country claims to be defending itself against armed extremist insurgency.
By the time Mrs. Mousa arrived at the Mazrak camp, thousands of others were already living in rows of dusty tents. She and her sons set up camp on a rocky edge of the makeshift settlement. Now, about 14,000 people live in and around Mazrak, according to government statistics. It is less than 8 miles from battles in the nearby mountains.
It’s hot, desolate, short-staffed, undersupplied and as many as 1,400 newly displaced people arrive each week.
And while the war and the rapidly growing humanitarian crisis are currently confined within the arid Arabian country, experts say the conflict is deteriorating security in Yemen, the region and beyond.
“Many worry Yemen is the next Afghanistan: a global problem wrapped in a failed state,” wrote Foreign Policy magazine while releasing its 2009 Failed State Index.
Strategically located, and only minimally controlled by a central government in the best of times, scholars and leaders say Yemen is becoming a stronghold for the already growing al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.
The group recently moved operations from Saudi Arabia to Yemen, from which it sent a suicide bomber in August to kill a senior Saudi prince. Prince Muhammad bin Nayef, a deputy Interior minister with responsibility for the kingdom’s anti-terror campaign, was lightly wounded in the attack.
Yemen faces a host of other problems, including a violent secessionist movement, piracy, a water and oil crisis, and a popu- lation set to double in the next two decades.
Some scholars predict that without significant action from outside, Yemen’s central authority could dissolve.
“The inability of the Yemeni central government to fully control its territory will create space for violent extremists to regroup and launch attacks against domestic and international targets,” wrote Christopher Boucek of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in a recent report.
The government says the Houthis are Iranian-supported rebels, seeking to restore the rule of the imam of Northern Yemen, which ended in a 1962 revolution. The Houthis accuse the Yemeni government of being a puppet for Saudi Arabia and the U.S.
Like most tribesmen in the nation’s northern highlands, Houthis belong to the Zaydi sect of Shi’ite Islam, which ruled Northern Yemen for more than 1,000 years.
Mazrak camp residents say the war, virtually hidden from the media since it began in 2004, is being fought in villages. The Houthis come from the mountains with guns, they say, attracting government aerial bombardments.
“The Houthis hide near the houses,” said Ahmed Ali, whose village was abandoned in the middle of the night after air strikes in early August. “They get the government to attack all of us together, the families and the Houthis.”
Eighty percent of the displaced people are women and children, according to the U.N. refugee agency, UNHCR. They walk for up to five days to reach camps and arrive traumatized, exhausted and with almost nothing.
But the people at Mazrak say they are grateful for the relative safety of the camp. According to U.N. statistics, about 75 percent of the people displaced by the war have not been reached by aid organizations and are trapped in the war zone.
For months, aid agencies have been clamoring for a “humanitarian corridor,” and a brief cease-fire to allow supplies and aid workers into the war zones. Both the government and the Houthis have publicly agreed, but the fighting continues, and the roads remain closed.
“It’s a very difficult and dangerous place,” said John Holmes, the U.N. undersecretary-general for humanitarian affairs and emergency relief, who visited Yemen recently in an attempt to garner international support for the humanitarian crises.
In early September, the United Nations asked for $23.7 million in a “flash appeal” to donor nations. As of Oct. 19, the appeal has received $4.5 million. Displaced people, including those sheltered in camps, need food, water, sanitation and health care. One-third of children in the camp are acutely malnourished, according to UNICEF, and many could die without more help.
At a San’a press conference on Oct. 20, the UNICEF’s goodwill ambassador, Egyptian actor Mahmoud Kabil, said what he saw at the Mazrak camp was more tragic than the humanitarian crises in Darfur and Gaza.
“It’s degrading humanity,” Mr. Kabil said. “Children and babies dying because of lack of water and food.”
And while aid organizations fight to get into the battlefields, and civilians fight to get out, the families of the Hassama village wait out the war in the desert camp, with nothing to do, and nowhere to go.
“We wanted to go back when it was safe,” said Miriam Mohammad Abdullah, who spent three days sleeping in the desert before she and her six children found the camp.
Crouching in the crowded family tent, she looked bitter, and did not appear to notice the flies or children buzzing around her.
“But now, we can’t go back,” she said.
A displaced woman carries water jugs at the Mazrak refugee camp in Yemen. Many observers fear that Yemen’s internal violence and refugee crisis will cause the Arabian country to become a failed state and a global problem.
A group of displaced Yemeni children fill up a row of water jugs next to a tank at the Mazrak refugee camp in northern Yemen, which shelters around 7,000 displaced people who have fled fighting between Yemeni government forces and the Shi’ite Houthi rebels.