More than three years after a tentative truce between the Houthi-led Shia movement in the north of Yemen and the government, humanitarian access is starting to open up in the areas still under the control of the Houthi militant forces.
Despite repeated skirmishes, the Qatar-supported ceasefire has largely held since February 2010, not least because of a shift in the military’s focus to the south, where Islamist forces seized parts of Abyan Province in 2011, and the end of President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s 33-year rule in 2012.
While delivering aid in areas under the control of the Houthis, or Ansar Allah as they now call themselves, has never been straightforward, there are signs that the current peace is tentatively leading to better humanitarian access.
“The openness has happened in a gradual manner as trust has gradually been rebuilt,” said Hélène Kadi, head of field operations and emergency operations at the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) in Yemen.
“Thanks to structured discussions, we have been able to increase our work in Sa’dah, even if there can still be issues with security, coordination delays and the unpredictability of the situation.”
In June, UNICEF started training 50 female volunteer teachers from rural areas in Sa’dah Governorate to work in girls’ schools. They have also trained 60 community leaders on nutrition, health, and water and sanitation (WASH), gave training to 22 communities’ midwives, and helped set up 25 new temporary classrooms in 10 districts in the governorate.
The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) has had a sub-office in Sa’dah since 2007 and last year extended work to remoter areas of the governorate, said their spokesman in Yemen, Marie-Claire Feghali.
“We have started a better conversation with the Houthis in the north who, in the past, were very difficult in terms of accepting international assistance and particularly assessment,” said Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed, the humanitarian coordinator for Yemen.
“But now there is much more opening and better discussion, and trust is building up in the north.”
Landmines and fear
The Houthi movement has “de facto control” on the ground in Sa’dah Governorate, with their influence also spilling over into parts of Hajjah, Amran and Al-Jawf governorates.
Since the 2010 truce, Sa’dah has seen ups and downs in humanitarian access, with occasional outbreaks of violence between the Houthis (Shia) and Salafist (radical Sunni) groups.
Aid agencies have had difficulty carrying out assessments, faced restrictions on movement, and have had access limited by insecurity. Medical NGOs Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF)-Spain and MSF-France stopped operations in Sa’dah in late 2011.
The UN Humanitarian Air Service is sometimes unable to land in Sa’dah because of insecurity. On the ground, things are frequently tense, particularly in Kitaf District and Dammaj village on the outskirts of Sa'dah town.
“There is no open fighting. But there are risks from landmines, and there is still the fear of what might happen next,” one aid worker, who asked not to be named, told IRIN.
There are almost weekly reports of blasts from landmines and unexploded ordnance (UXO). Initial survey work on these explosive remnants of war has just started, according to this year’s Humanitarian Response Plan.
“We continue to see improvements in terms of access, and the authorities are cooperating. I wouldn’t say it’s improving day by day, but at least now we can sit down to plan an issue and address the situation,” the aid worker said.
At least 10 UN agencies and NGOs work in Sa’dah, with 67 projects planned for this year, mainly focusing on WASH, health, shelter and protection in 2013.
Too soon to return
The six rounds of fighting from 2004 to 2010 affected more than a million people. Some 227,000 continue to need humanitarian assistance in Sa’dah this year.
The conflict officially displaced 103,014 people (IDPs) within the governorate, and around 190,000 IDPs to surrounding regions.
Unlike in Abyan, where more than 90 percent of the 200,000 people displaced by the violence in 2011-12 have returned home, the IDP situation in the north is proving more protracted. Despite the truce, so far only 69,772 IDPs have returned.
Many of those reluctant to return cite security concerns, including revenge attacks and fears of a seventh round of fighting. Landmines also need to be cleared, homes rebuilt and livelihoods re-established.
“The displaced are hoping and willing to go back. But they don’t have livelihoods at the moment. They are really suffering. In the north, infrastructure, houses and farms have been destroyed - everything needs to be rehabilitated. The displaced cannot go back to nothing,” Mohamed Saad Harmal, assistant to the head of government’s Executive Unit for IDPs/camps, told IRIN in Sana’a.
Many in Sa’dah depended on seasonal work or smuggling over the nearby border with Saudi Arabia, but employment restrictions and the tightening of controls are making such work scarce.
If the provision of humanitarian aid in Sa’dah improves, and stability returns, large-scale returns could begin. But the lack of basic services is given by many IDPs as a key reason why they have not yet returned home.
Health facilities in Sa’dah struggle to attract qualified doctors and nurses, and there is little equipment to work with.
Around 8,000 families have returned to Sa’dah from Haradh, in neighbouring Hajjah Governorate, but they return to the Haradh area each month to pick up monthly food rations.
“One of the key issues back there is that there are no schools,” Mudhish Yahya, an IDP from Sa’dah now living in al-Mazraq Camp 1 near Haradh, told IRIN. “Some were destroyed. In some areas, there just weren’t any schools anyway.”
Save the Children is planning to include 15 schools in Sa’dah in their Child-Friendly School programme, which launches in September. They have also rehabilitated several health clinics, and they expanded health and nutrition programmes by 40 percent in 2012.
“The needs are huge here and are largely a consequence of destruction resulting from the six Sa’dah wars,” Save the Children’s country director, Jerry Farrell, told IRIN.
UNHCR recently opened a support centre for returnees in Sa’dah, which provides “social, legal and psychological services”, along with a hotline for IDPs and the host community. A number of health centres, schools and water points have been rehabilitated in the last 12 months.
The government’s adoption of a national IDP policy on 25 June should help provide a more coherent official framework for resolving displacement and defining responsibilities, but concrete investment is still needed to rebuild homes and public buildings.
Food, water, shelter and some health care are often provided by humanitarian agencies in the IDP camps and communities where the displaced live.
Yahya summed up the mood of many IDPs in the Mazraq camp. “We’re not happy here but at least we have tents. Some of us were targeted by the Houthis. If the national dialogue fails, everything fails.”
Regime change in the Yemeni capital has allowed the Houthis to assert their control in the north, but they have also shown cooperation with the transitional government, including taking part in the ongoing National Dialogue Conference (NDC), where they have 35 of the 565 seats.
The results of this NDC process, expected in October, will help determine whether the conflict is just on hold, or is on track to a resolution.
“I think we do have some optimism in the north in the sense that Al-Houthi have been part of the national dialogue. They have played very well in terms of being part of the preparatory process and the national dialogue,” said Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed.
“There is clearly a lot of optimism, but one has to be realistic. It does not mean that things are sorted out.”
One of the NDC’s nine sub-groups focuses on the Sa’dah crisis, and “despite deep divisions in the Sa’dah group, its members had managed to achieve consensus on a common vision of the conflict’s roots,” UN special adviser on Yemen Jamal Benomar told the UN Security Council in June.
“The Houthis have given a good signal by their participation in the National Dialogue; everybody is now just waiting for the National Dialogue to finish - we hope it will solve everything,” said Saad Harmal from the IDP Executive Unit.
On 5 June, in a sign of easing tensions, the late founder of the Houthi movement, Houssine Bader Al-Den Al-Houthi, was officially buried in Sa’dah. He had been killed in 2004 at the start of the Houthi uprising and had been buried at the central prison in Sana’a.
But despite some positive signs, much depends on the outcome of the political process, and especially the NDC, say analysts.