Refugees

Houthis' offensive in Marib brings added suffering to Yemen's displaced

By Nabil Abdullah al-Tamimi

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Yemenis fill their jerrycans with water at a make-shift camp for the internally displaced on April 17. [Khaled Ziad / AFP]

ADEN -- Many Yemenis displaced by the conflict have been forced to flee yet again by fighting -- this time from camps in Marib province where the Iran-backed Houthis (Ansarallah) have been conducting an offensive.

The Houthis have been pressing an assault on the strategic city of Marib in a bid to seize control of the area, part of an offensive that threatens chances of achieving peace and ending the six-year war.

They have continued their assault despite international pressure from all sides.

On Tuesday (April 27), Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, whose country heads the Arab coalition supporting the Yemeni government, called on the Houthis to stop fighting and enter peace negotiations.

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Al-Khair camp in Yemen's Marib province was hit with direct artillery shelling in the Houthis' latest offensive on the city. [Executive Unit for IDPs]

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A displaced family packs its bags to leave a camp in Marib after shelling tore its tent apart. [Executive Unit for IDPs]

A day later, during a meeting with the Houthis in Oman, Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif urged a return to talks to end the conflict, AFP reported.

Meanwhile, the Yemeni people are suffering as the Houthis' offensive grinds on.

Fatima Youssef, a mother of four who was displaced to a camp in Sarwah with her children, said she thought they were safe when they arrived at the camp.

But after the Houthis targeted the camp, she has had to pack up her few belongings and leave with her children once again.

"Our hopes were dashed when the Houthis shelled the camp," Youssef said, adding that she and her children are now sharing shelter, food and water with another displaced family.

The escalation of fighting in Marib is endangering the lives of civilians, the United Nations (UN) Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) said April 20.

During the first half of April, it said, 14 civilian casualties were recorded, and thousands of civilians were displaced.

OCHA said four displacement camps in Sarwah district came under fire between March 22 and 29, with more than 10 people suffering injuries. All four camps were closed, and about 555 families were evacuated to nearby al-Suwayda.

The UN secretary-general's spokesman on April 21 predicted more than 105,000 would be displaced by September, if the fighting in Marib continues.

Marib hosts most IDPs

Following the Houthis' coup of 2014, many families flocked to Marib, said Najeeb al-Saadi, who heads the Executive Unit for Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs).

"To date, Marib has received 2.2 million IDPs, distributed among 138 camps, rental homes and host communities," he said.

The city hosts about 60% of Yemen's displaced population, including some 96,000 children and 429,000 women.

"The Houthi escalation has a direct impact on the IDPs' lives and situation due to the direct shelling of camps with rockets and gunfire," al-Saadi said.

This has forced camp residents to head for other areas.

"We also had to close seven camps and move their occupants to other locations because of the Houthi offensive, not to mention the adverse impact this has had on humanitarian work," he added.

The unit has been tracking the movements of the displaced population, transferring IDPs out of the camps that are being targeted, alerting aid organisations to their needs, and following up with them, he said.

The Houthis' Marib offensive "will undermine the peace process" by dissipating all hopes for a resolution and the threads of trust that the peace sponsors are trying to build between the Houthis on one side, and the legitimate government and Arab coalition on the other, al-Saadi said.

Displaced yet again

Some IDPs have been displaced as many as five or six times, moving from camp to camp to escape the shelling, said lawyer and human rights activist Abdul Rahman Berman.

"The recurrent displacements have caused the IDPs to lose their relief aid and live under the most difficult conditions, with children staying in the sun and under trees, and with all means of living cut off," he said.

Berman pointed to the psychological impact of the crisis on women and children in particular, who he said "are waiting for death to come at any moment".

International efforts are under way to revive peace talks and stop the war, he said, noting that with this in mind, the Houthis are seeking to take control of Marib in order to increase their leverage and impose their conditions.

"The IDPs in al-Mil camp were forced to relocate to alternative camps after theirs was targeted, and IDPs in al-Zour camp were forced to move again," said Wesam Basendawa, director of the March 8 Bloc for Yemeni Women.

"This is a real tragedy," she said, pointing out that the displaced population has become "a direct target for the Houthi militias".

She called for "redoubled" international efforts to protect the IDPs and stop the Houthis from targeting the camps, and for local and international organisations to step up their humanitarian interventions in the province.

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