Nowhere to go: Families who fled Yemen’s war in the north now fear death in the south

UN warns southern separatists have started rounding up and deporting displaced families from north as battle for independence rages

Bel Trew
Mahra, Yemen
Friday 13 September 2019 17:33
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Nowhere to go - Displaced in Yemen fear new war on the horizon

The Yemeni family live 45 people to just three rooms since their building shattered like glass when airstrikes pounded Hodeidah in late 2017.

With a handful of belongings, they fled the western port city through a maze of front lines to the safest place they knew: Mahra, in Yemen’s most eastern province.

But two years on, they worry a brewing war for southern independence will reach Mahra, on the border with Oman, where internal tensions are already boiling.

They fear being displaced once again or worse – as “northerners” they will be forced to go home.

“Honestly we don’t know where we would go if the fighting comes here,” says Nagwa Hassan, 19, sitting cross-legged on a mud floor, wedged between six of her siblings.

Four families comprise the extended family of 45 people, and they each sleep in shifts, crushed within the dirty rooms of the breeze-block house they rent. A front yard crammed with washing lines is demarcated by filthy strips of fabric.

“We used to hope the war ends soon because it gets tougher every month, the conditions are already terrible. But now we pray to God a new one isn’t starting, that no conflict comes here.”

Across the dusty moonscape of this suburb in Ghaydah, Mahra’s regional capital, another family that fled Hodeidah is also anxiously watching the news.

On 10 August Southern separatists seized control of the country’s de facto capital, Aden, from troops loyal to the recognised Yemen government, who were once their allies.

Forces of the Southern Transitional Council (STC), who want to reinstate South Yemen, which ceased to exist when the country was unified in 1990, have been steadily capturing military positions further east towards Mahra.

Saudi Arabia, which is leading a Gulf military coalition in the country, last week deployed more troops in southern Yemen to try to contain clashes between its nominal allies. But the fighting rages on.

“This is considered the last peaceful place for people in the north, but now the war, a new war is affecting the whole of Yemen,” says Qalab Sulieman, 45, as his six children play in a plume of dust behind him.

“What really worries me that the conflict will move here, that they may say go back to the north, that it is time for you to go,” he adds quietly.

His fears are not unfounded.

Michelle Bachelet, the UN’s high commissioner for human rights this week warned that STC forces had launched a “mass arrest and deportation campaign against northerners” in Aden governorate, as well as in some parts of Lahij and Abyan, which border it.

“Over a thousand of civilians with northern origins, including children, have been seized, with reports that they are to be forcibly deported to the north of Yemen,” she added.

The STC has repeatedly denied it is being unnecessarily violent. But that has done little to assuage fears in Mahra.

“People have a regional way of thinking,” Qalab adds, his voice trailing off.

Yemen has been ravaged by a complex five-year proxy war since the Iran-backed Houthi rebels swept control of the country in 2014, ousting the recognised president Abedrabbo Mansour Hadi.

Fearing the encroachment of Iran’s influence on their borders, Riyadh and its Gulf allies, including the United Arab Emirates, launched a bombing campaign to reinstate Mr Hadi.

The Gulf later trained up tens of thousands of local tribesmen, including southern separatists, in a bid to oust the Houthis and snuff out jihadi groups like Al-Qaeda and Isis.

But the plan appeared to backfire when UAE-trained forces loyal to the STC seized Aden in early August, ripping the anti-Houthi alliance apart. Since then dozens have been killed, including 25 civilians.

The STC wants a return to a separate South Yemen, a country comprised of six governorates, including Mahra, which existed from 1967 until the country was first unified in 1990.

A war within a war is brewing with potentially devastating consequences for civilians.

Five years of fighting has already sparked the world’s worst humanitarian crisis with 24 million people, or two-thirds of the population, relying on aid to survive, according to the UN. A staggering 13 million are on the brink of famine. More than 70,000 people have died.

But a further 3.5 million people have also been displaced within the country, with more than 55,000 families forced to flee their homes since the start of the year alone.

It is not known how many of them made it to Mahra but according to figures quoted by the Sana’a Centre for Strategic Studies, the population of the governorate may have nearly doubled since the start of the war, likely due to people fleeing to the region.

There are concerns that the number may rise as the battle for independence sweeps across the south of the country.

The STC is not welcome in Mahra, and so experts have warned of conflict on the horizon.

Nagwa, 19, in the home she shares with more than 40 members of her family in Mahra

“My comprehensive survey of over 2,000 Mahris in early 2013 revealed that only 13 per cent of Mahris wish to be part of a separate South Yemen. There is little reason to believe that this has changed,” says Elisabeth Kendall, a Yemen expert at Pembroke College, Oxford, who has travelled extensively across the country.

In fact, she says that two-thirds of people she interviewed in Mahra favoured their own independent state, even if it may not be practical.

And this points to an entirely separate internal conflict within Mahra, which could further complicate matters for displaced and vulnerable northerners.

Many powerful tribesmen within Mahra, which prides itself on a unique culture and language, are locked in a potentially deadly standoff with Saudi Arabia.

Since late 2017, Riyadh began shuttling hundreds of troops to the area and trained up local forces to tackle rampant weapons smuggling through the porous border with Oman.

Despite initially promising not to, Riyadh took over and shut down Mahra’s civilian airport, turning it into a military headquarters. It unfurled a further five main bases, sparking alarm and outrage among the Mahri who accuse the Saudis of a land grab and an “occupation”.

Displaced families in Mahra say they fear being sent home to the north of the country

Protests have been fairly constant, and sporadic clashes have erupted between tribesmen and Saudi-affiliated forces.

Qalab, a school teacher, says the displaced have noticed tensions rising within Mahra.

He currently lives in rented accommodation after fleeing Hodeidah in December 2017, when his children were seconds from being wiped out by a rocket, which had landed on their house.

His family sold all the gold they had to make the perilous two-day journey through Yemen to Mahra, thinking they would only be gone “for a few months”.

Like thousands of government employees across Yemen, he has not been paid since 2018. It is even more complicated as he is on the payroll as a teacher for Hodeidah, on the other side of the country. The family rely on help from aid organisations and locals.

“My daughter does henna for girls to earn some money, I teach for free in a local school and try to do private tuition, but it’s very hard.”

He dreads going back to Hodeidah where 20 of his relatives have been killed and fighting is still rumbling on.

Rahma, 13, fled Taiz and is malnourished and recovering from a blood infection in Mahra

“I’m sure all the displaced are worried about that, we are praying it doesn’t get to that,” he adds.

A few kilometres away in Mahra’s main hospital, which is run down and woefully low on supplies, more who fled the north wait with anxiety.

Sabah Said, 47, lies on a hospital bed with her sick 13-year-old, Rahma, in the newly constructed “cholera ward”, which, according to the hospital’s doctors, mostly treats the internally displaced.

The “ward” is a breeze-block half-built extension, with the acronym “DTC”, (Diarrhoea Treatment Centre) scrawled in permanent marker on a portable-building door.

Sabah says she fled Taiz, a western governorate, last year, when a missile took out their neighbour’s house.

“We just grabbed the children and ran, we couldn’t take a single item with us,” she adds.

Rahma is malnourished from cholera and a blood infection, and looks younger than her teenage years.

It was the only peaceful and stable corner of Yemen we could find, hopefully the fighting will not come to us

Sabah Said, 47, mother-of-six who fled Taiz

“It was the only peaceful and stable corner of Yemen we could find, inshallah the fighting will not come to us. We already feel there is no hope,” the mother-of-six adds.

Palestinian doctor Qassem Abed, 26, is one of the senior medics running the hospital, and says the centre was already struggling to cope with the influx of displaced people and the shortage of supplies. It is the main hospital in the province, which is Yemen’s second largest.

“We need equipment like CT, MRI scans, we need a lab. We have one incubator, we don’t have morphine. We are low on antibiotics, the list goes on,” the GP says, walking through the half-built centre.

“We are worried that there will be more people coming since the fighting started in Aden, we already received more patients this year than last.”

He adds: “And if the fighting comes here it will be a disaster, we have no way to prepare for it.”

One of the three squalid rooms 45 members of the Hassan family rent in Mahra

Back in the dusty outskirts of Ghaydah, Nagwa says the family is trying to press on as normal.

“We prefer not to watch the news so as not to scare the kids,” she says, walking through the tiny rooms, the younger children in tow like a cloud behind her.

“We pray that everyone takes peaceful decisions, that everyone gets to live. Hopefully, the fighting ends soon. But, as with everything, God decides.”

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