Ye­men’s refugee cri­sis at­tract­ing global con­cern

The Washington Times Weekly - - International Perspective - BY HEATHER MUR­DOCK

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.

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