Assistance is increasing to Yemen’s southern governorate of Abyan, as it emerges from war and tens of thousands of people return home. But the aid scale-up comes in the context of a complex and still fragile environment, which has left aid workers wary of being too optimistic.
More than one year of conflict between militants and government forces in Abyan, beginning around May 2011, forced some 200,000 people from their homes. In June 2012, government forces claimed to have ousted the al-Qaeda-linked militants who had controlled much of the area in the previous year, and around half of the displaced have since gone home, according to the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR).
But Abyan - one of 21 governorates in Yemen and home to some 542,640 people, according to Social Fund for Development figures in 2012 - is plagued by massive destruction of infrastructure and loss of livelihoods, non-functioning basic services and persistent insecurity. Children are learning in schools without roofs; there is an absence of law and order; there are no police on the streets. Militants may have trimmed their beards and changed their clothes, aid workers say, but are still very much present. Legacies of the conflict could lead to renewed tensions.
“Abyan needs an immediate reaction,” the humanitarian coordinator in Yemen, Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed, told IRIN.
The aid community in Yemen sees in this period of relative calm a window of opportunity to start rebuilding Abyan’s society, and has begun ramping up assistance in an area that was off limits to many aid workers since 2011.
In November and December, through their partners, the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) distributed 150,000 school kits to returnees; UNHCR provided shelter and kits with household items to more than 20,000 families; the World Food Programme (WFP) started its first cycle of food distributions in Abyan, targeting 20,000 families; and Ould Cheikh Ahmed made his first visit to the area.
Several international NGOs now have programmes in the area, complementing the work of local NGOs who were among the only ones present in the area when it was overrun by al-Qaeda affiliate Ansar al-Sharia. Aid workers have set up operational hubs in two of the most affected districts of Abyan - Zinjibar and Khanfar - and have established a working group focused on re-integrating the returnees, who receive a package of food and other items for hygiene and shelter upon their return.
“Currently Abyan is a top priority for us,” Naveed Hussain, UNHCR representative in Yemen, said after a recent visit to Zinjibar, the governorate’s capital. “People have shown a lot of courage to return, and it is our responsibility not to fail them.”
But there are several challenges facing the returnees and those trying to help them
Was it premature?
Beginning in August, aid workers say, the government began pressuring aid agencies to stop giving assistance in Aden, the south’s more stable port city where most of the displaced had sought refuge.
“There was a big push by the government to rapidly shift assistance from Aden to Abyan with a view to support returns,” said Joy Singhal, the deputy country director and humanitarian programme manager in Yemen for the international NGO Oxfam. “To my mind, we should be enabling people to have more choices by ensuring basic needs, including safety, are met.”
Aid workers say they were surprised at the speed of the returns - only 3,000-5,000 families are estimated to remain in Aden now - though they suspect not all of those picking up assistance in Abyan have permanently returned.
“We are concerned with the speed and timing of people going back to Abyan, as we know there is very little availability and access to basic services, lack of infrastructure, and very limited rule of law,” Singhal added. “At this juncture the humanitarian community needs to provide services to returnees at full-force in order for the returnees to live in safety and security.”
Who is in control?
Since June 2012, the Yemeni government has cleared more than 25sqkm of land in urban areas of landmines, which were a daily cause of casualties immediately following the conflict. But an area the size of Lebanon remains contaminated, the UN Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) said in its most recent bulletin, and aid workers say the process has been slow.
“There is still a lot of support for Ansar al-Sharia and this is creating more and more difficulty for their operations,” Marco Valentini, who managed operations in southern Yemen for the Danish Refugee Council (DRC) last autumn, said during the early days of mine clearance. “They clean one area; then they find other booby traps the day after.”
While fighting has subsided, and security has vastly improved over the last few months, suicide bombings still take place, often a result of revenge attacks by elements of Ansar al Sharia against members of the so-called popular committees that fought against them in the absence of government forces. (Observers point to a string of attacks last year as proof that Ansar al-Sharia still has logistical and organizational capacity).
While the army is stationed at the entrances to towns and cities, the manning of checkpoints and management of traffic inside neighbourhoods is often left to popular committees - armed men or boys as young as 13, who are often unable to maintain law and order and have no understanding of humanitarian principles.
“One of the major challenges is that it is very hard to determine the affiliations of these popular committees,” said one aid worker who visits Abyan frequently.
Many popular committee members are former Ansar al-Sharia supporters who switched sides when the government re-gained control, further clouding an already blurry picture for aid workers.
“There are also tribal issues,” added Gerald Maier, director of the Adventist Development and Relief Agency (ADRA) in Yemen. “You really don’t know who you’re dealing with and that makes things challenging."
“We can see that Ansar al-Sharia is not defeated. They simply dispersed,” said another aid worker who requested anonymity. “The army has no capacity to implement control over the territory. This is creating humanitarian problems, in terms of access.”
So far, popular committees have not posed obstacles to the delivery of humanitarian aid, according to Singhal, but the lack of clear security has been a deterrent to larger aid operations. During his visit, Ould Cheikh Ahmed called for a stronger police presence in Abyan.
The aid operation is still mainly dependent on national staff, with international staff limited to day trips into Abyan when security conditions allow. Many agencies still do not have offices inside the most affected parts of Abyan, commuting back and forth from Aden or safer parts of Abyan - though some agencies are looking to change that in the near future.
The government now has more of an army presence in the area, but has not invested sufficiently in creating law-and-order structures, like prisons, courts, and police, observers say.
As such, while aid workers have so far not been a direct target, the lack of law and order has had an impact on their work. Maier said he has witnessed acts of intimidation, in which people with guns try to get what they want forcibly at distribution points.
“We can speak of a failed state, with a government that is not able to provide basic services to the civilian population on the ground, not only in very remote rural areas, but also in urban and semi-urban areas,” the second aid worker said.
“It is critical at this stage for people to see some improvement in services. This is a priority now - to get that level of normality back” - Ali Eltayeb, Mercy Corps
But aid workers do describe the government - weak as it may be - as a partner: it has set up an Executive Unit to deal with internally displaced persons (IDPs), has put aside funds to rebuild Abyan, and is in constant coordination with the humanitarian community.
Services and livelihoods
Basic services have improved significantly in the last couple months, with water and electricity returning to some areas and some markets reopening. Several aid agencies are working to rehabilitate infrastructure. But aid workers say services remain nowhere near full capacity, with some schools and hospitals still lying in rubble or covered in bullet holes, some areas without telephone coverage, and people dying as a result of inaccessible health care.
“It is critical at this stage for people to see some improvement in services,” said Ali Eltayeb, head of the NGO Mercy Corps’s office in Aden. “This is a priority now - to get that level of normality back.”
Without that, aid workers warn, the current two-way traffic between Aden and Abyan may increase.
“The people of Abyan have chosen to return home,” said Mona Duale, a humanitarian affairs officer with OCHA, stationed in Aden. “If we do not seize this moment, this opportunity to assist them in rebuilding their lives and strengthening the availability of basic services, then there is the likelihood that people will start leaving Abyan once again in search of better livelihood and services.”
Even where basic services exist, livelihoods do not.
Many of those who left Abyan were subsistence farmers or pastoralists.
“It’s difficult for them to really pick up their lives from where they left off,” said Miriam Watt, the director of ADRA’s programmes in Yemen.
Many of them returned too late for the planting season - and in any case - much of their farmland, livestock, equipment and wells had been killed, destroyed, looted or contaminated by mines. The lack of water and electricity also makes farming difficult. Others are dependent on working for richer landowners who have not yet returned to Abyan.
Those few who were able to plant, cannot harvest until the spring. In the meantime, many of them spent their savings while displaced and are coming back to what the DRC calls a “hunger gap and possible humanitarian crisis”.
In addition, many families may not have registered as IDPs and thus “could fall through the cracks” of the assistance being offered, Watt said.
“There are people coming to us every time we go out saying: ‘We know of others,” Maier said. “The need is greater than most of the donors really anticipated.”
With limited government presence to pay salaries, there are few other sources of income for the returnees.
“There will be nothing - no money, no work,” said Valentini, formerly with DRC. “This can create a situation of conflict.”
There are other potential flashpoints.
During its control of the area, Ansar al-Sharia redistributed land and water resources in what it claimed to be a more equitable manner and to those who supported the militants, Valentini said.
In other cases, people whose homes were damaged simply occupied abandoned buildings that did not belong to them. During an assessment last autumn, DRC identified at least 20 homes not occupied by their legitimate owners.
“We are afraid that with the return of the owners, there will be conflicts over land and house properties,” he said.
Aid workers say these conditions are all reasons for increased assistance in the area, and while access has improved, there is one other major constraint: “The humanitarian community in Yemen is [now] able to do more, but for that we need additional funding,” Ould Cheikh Ahmed, the humanitarian coordinator, said.
In 2012, an appeal for US$92 million to provide food, health, sanitation and shelter to those returning to Abyan was one-quarter funded by year-end.
As part of its national funding appeal for 2013, the humanitarian community has requested nearly $70 million for programmes in southern Yemen. (OCHA and its partners are now revising the 2012 Abyan Response Plan). Donors have not yet made any contributions to the appeal.
“Donors in general see this situation as improving,” said Maier, whose food voucher programme is funded by the US Agency for International Development (USAID). “What we’re seeing on the ground will require a sustained commitment by the donor community and a move from emergency assistance to development activities. A lot of the community members have lost farms, plantations, and water sources. It takes them a while to build back up.”
Part of the challenge for donors is that the Abyan crisis is just one of several in Yemen, which is also facing Houthi rebels in the north, secessionists in the south, and is in the midst of a political transition after Arab Spring-inspired protests pushed 32-year President Ali Abdullah Saleh out of power.
In one of the most forgotten crises in the world, one million children are malnourished; nearly half the population does not know where their next meal is coming from; and 13 million people do not have access to safe drinking water. More than 320,000 are displaced in the north because of the conflict there; and Yemen is home to hundreds of thousands of vulnerable refugees and migrants.
Still, aid workers say investment in the south will contribute to the country’s fragile stability.
“We do not know how things will turn [out] if significant investment is not made in Abyan in the next four to six months,” Singhal said. “People are being quite patient at the moment, but the patience may not last for a very long time.”