Yemen: Back home – but nowhere to stay

Posted by Amal Alariqi Communication and Information Officer, Yemen

17th Jul 2012

For the past year, large parts of the southern province of Abyan have been virtual no-go zones, controlled by militant groups.  More than 200,000 people fled their homes, seeking refuge in temporary schools in the southern port of Aden, and remote villages near Abyan. Then in mid-June, the Government of Yemen announced it had retaken control of the capital of Abyan, Zinjibar and other key towns. Families who were displaced during the conflict are now slowly returning to their villages but for many, there is nowhere to stay. Amel Alariqi, Oxfam's communication officer in Yemen, relays the story of Raja, who has recently returned home.

Mixed feelings overwhelmed 30 year-old Raja and her family as they made their way back to their house in Zinjibar. "As soon as we heard that the militants were out of the city, we decided to go home, without delay," said Raja.

However, the safety of the area remains uncertain. Although the Government has retaken control of the area, and declared the roads open to civilian and humanitarian access, landmines have stalled many people's return. Since mid June, officials report that more than 73 civilians have been killed by mines.

"We were really happy, and excited that finally we would be home after one year," exclaimed Raja. "[But when we arrived] it was a real shock."

"The city was like a gloomy jungle. Wild grass and plants had sprouted up everywhere; and quietness dominated the whole city... Buildings were flattened ... electricity wires were cut."

"We couldn't find a drop of clean water for drinking ... We couldn't prevent our tears when we arrived at our house."

"The roof and whole right side of the building had collapsed after a shell landed on it. All our property and furniture had been looted. Clothes were scattered outside the house, thrown carelessly in the dirty rain puddles.

"My mother was the most shocked. She cried all the way back to Aden. There was no way to stay in the city," recalled Raja.

Hundreds of thousands desperate to return home

Raja's family is just one amongst hundreds of thousands of families who were forced to find temporary shelter, mainly in school buildings, for the past year and are desperate to go back home.

But now, there is little left for them to return to. Many displaced families have found their houses destroyed or uninhabitable, their belongings looted and livestock dead. There is no electricity or water. Some families showed me pictures they had taken on their mobile phones of dead bodies on the roads or in neighbourhoods. And, of course, there are the unexploded mines.

Fears of unexploded mines 

"Mines are planted everywhere. When I was close to my house I heard a huge blast. I was told that three men nextdoor were killed when they tried to enter their house," said Saeed Omer, a father of four, adding that he was too scared to enter his house, for fear that it too had been booby-trapped. 

"It is not just the main basic services, like water and power, that we lost, but we no longer feel secure. I found dead bodies in my neighbourhood, and that will definitely lead to an outbreak of epidemics," said another man, father of five, Bila Ahmed.

The children and Government of Aden are just as desperate for these people to return home, so they can open their schools for classes in September. 

"Many displaced people are keen to return home," said Sara Sulieman, Oxfam's humanitarian manager in Aden. "Approximately 100,000 individuals are reported displaced or remained trapped in Abyan as result of recent fighting.

"This will require a massive and long-term emergency and recovery response. And I'm afraid that this will be a challenge for most aid agencies, including Oxfam, because of the lack of funding as well as the unstable security situation."

Right now displaced families do not have any safe option: the specialized team from the Military Engineering Unit who is in charge of removing  mines  estimates  that 80% of the homes in southern Abyan are booby-trapped; even the schools are not a safe option as they are full. According to a recent UNHCR report, there are now almost 20 people to a room in some schools. Some IDPs have only been able to find space in school grounds or in hallways."

Oxfam has been helping displaced families in Aden across 21 locations by rehabilitating water systems and providing hygiene kits. We're preparing to respond to water and sanitation needs in Abyan when safe access and security of the community and our staff can be guaranteed.

Worsening humanitarian situation

Yemen's worsening humanitarian situation extends beyond conflict zones like Abyan. Across the country, more than 10 million people - almost half the population - do not have enough food to eat; and almost a quarter of them are in need of urgent humanitarian aid. Humanitarian agencies are struggling to respond but desperately need more funds to scale up their work. The UN emergency appeal for Yemen is less than half-funded. And as the country enters the hunger season after a year of food, fuel and political crises, the needs of Yemen's men, women and children are set to become greater than ever.

Oxfam's response to the Yemen crisis

Blog post written by Amal Alariqi

Communication and Information Officer, Yemen

More by Amal Alariqi