A large-scale aid effort focused on rebuilding conflict-hit Abyan Governorate in southern Yemen is yielding positive results, but more than a year after al-Qaeda-linked militants were driven out, the police - and an accompanying sense of security - have yet to return.
Most residents have moved back though; markets have sprung to life, rebuilding work has begun and an international aid effort has helped people restart their lives.
With landmines largely cleared, and schools and hospitals being rebuilt, the attention for aid workers is now switching from emergency provision, to early recovery and livelihoods, even if many of the underlying challenges of security and development remain.
“This was the fastest return I’ve ever seen - I never thought this would happen,” Asif Hayat, head of Aden’s Mercy Corps office, told IRIN. “They [displaced people] started going back very soon and we even had to redesign our programme mid-implementation to do our distribution through the communities that had returned.”
Unlike the more protracted displacement crisis in the north of Yemen, internally displaced persons (IDPs) who had fled Abyan en masse to the neighbouring governorates of Aden and al-Lahj started returning in large numbers not long after government forces drove back Ansar al-Sharia (Partisans of Islamic Law) militants in late June 2012.
The latest IDP figures from the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) show 162,253 IDPs have returned to Abyan since the crisis, while just 6,133 IDPs remained outside the governorate as of the end of April.
Insecurity hampers aid delivery
But the security situation is a major concern, and something that continues to hamper the delivery of aid in Abyan, especially following a perceived deterioration in security in the last six months.
In May, staff with the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) were kidnapped on two separate occasions within a few days. They have since cut back on surgical support at the main hospital in Jaar, even if they continue to provide medical support, and will hand over two rehabilitated hospital wings in mid-October.
“We continue to work and expand our programme where the security situation allows and with difficulties of access for international staff,” said Daniel Cavoli, head of the ICRC’s Aden sub-delegation, “but we’ve been able to implement our programme and are working hard to serve Abyan.”
The restrictions mean the monitoring of aid programmes is more difficult, and international agencies often depend on local partners to help implement projects.
“When you implement with locals you find it easier to penetrate,” said Manenji Mangundu, programme manager for Oxfam in the southern city of Aden. He said beneficiary villages are often best placed to provide security updates.
But he said the capacity of local partners can be limited, something other aid workers also said was an issue.
“The security fabric has not changed, which means travel for programme staff to the field is extremely restricted,” said Hayat from Mercy Corps.
“We are trying with remotely managed programmes with local implementing partners - local staff better able to move around. But this brings with it a lot of monitoring challenges and quality issues; our engineering projects require specialist monitoring and guidance.”
One strategy has been to introduce lots of benchmark payment mechanisms to keep a steady evaluation going of a programme’s implementation. But in areas like microfinance, lenders have been difficult to attract because they fear they will have few means of chasing up repayments.
Unpopular “Popular Committees”
On the road from Aden to Abyan’s capital, Zinjibar, after an initial police checkpoint, almost all the subsequent roadblocks are manned by members of the armed “Popular Committees”.
These were the groups co-opted by the government to help drive out Ansar al-Sharia militants, and they continue to be responsible for day-to-day law and order.
“They are the people in control of everything - they are police, judge, everything,” said Abdullah Masq Saleh, an IDP from Abyan still living in Aden. “No-one can say that security is returning to Abyan. There are no official security forces. We want a police station. There are only checkpoints of Popular Committees.”
The “Popular Committees” are varied in terms of their composition; some were local self-defence groups created by communities for their own protection against Ansar al-Sharia, others were motivated by a religious belief that al-Qaeda-allied militants were un-Islamic; while others were armed groups formerly allied to Ansar al-Sharia who agreed a truce with the government and switched sides.
The Committees’ situation remains ambiguous, not least because of their lack of uniforms and the limited funds they receive from the state. Aid workers complain that it is often difficult to differentiate the Committees’ forces (some of whom seem to be children), from tribal gangs, criminals, or even Ansar al-Sharia.
“The Popular Committees are patrolling and they are the decision-makers, but they have no background in justice, in law - they are just taking their arms and acting as judges and police,” said Abdullah Mohammed Al-Jifry, an analyst who works with the Abyan Social Cohesion Organization, which tries to reduce community conflicts.
“The danger with the Committees is that even the communities are now complaining about them. The Committees themselves are sometimes in conflict with each other - and with the tribes as well.”
Al-Jifry said the Committees could only serve as a temporary stopgap until the government is able to provide a more professional service and also tackle the underlying issues that encourage insecurity, like the lack of development and the neglect of the governorate by the state.
Ansar al-Sharia was able to take control of Abyan and seek to establish what they called an Islamic caliphate in 2011 because of the weakness of the central government, which at the time was struggling to control Arab Spring-inspired protests. Some locals credit Ansar al-Sharia with establishing a degree of stability in Abyan because of its ability to impose order on warring tribes.
Al-Qaeda-affiliated militants remain active in the governorates to the east of Abyan and assassinations and attacks by various groups have spiked in recent weeks in major cities and towns across the country.
Some community leaders fear Ansar al-Sharia could return to Abyan, pointing particularly to the recent rise in the building of mosques that are not under the control of the state, and that could harbour extremists.
“We are still dependent on the Popular Committees for security, but the government has a very serious intention to bring back the police, hopefully this year,” Mahdi Hamed, head of the services committee on Abyan local council, told IRIN. “The committees don’t really have the capacity to rule everything.”
The head of the government’s Executive Unit for IDPs in the south, Col Abdullah Mohammed Al-Duhaimi, said things were improving: “The biggest problem was the security. Alhamdulillah [praise be to God], nowadays we can say that it is more than 90 percent better than it was before. Still we need very strong government intervention - it’s been very low so far.”
The local government recognizes that security has improved even if “it is not yet what it was,” says Hamed. But he does not see Ansar al-Sharia returning. “We just hope that these things never happen again. There’s no chance for war to come back - we don’t wish it and we don’t expect it. We’ve suffered more than enough. Abyan suffered and paid a lot.”
On the security front, major progress has at least been made on dealing with the issue of mines and unexploded weaponry. “Things are safer; life is going back to normal,” said Iskander Youssouf, who until recently was coordinating work in the south of Yemen for the Mines Action Centre (YEMAC). Since May 2012 they say they have cleared 10 zones of mines, removing around 80,000 mines and unexploded ordnance.
“Life is coming back”
The devastation caused by the fighting between the government and Ansar al-Sharia militants left few buildings untouched in the areas where fighting took place.
The humanitarian coordinator for Yemen, Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed, told IRIN it was vital to help people rebuild their homes and communities, and to give them the skills to earn a livelihood.
“What we are worried about is that these people will go back [to Ansar al-Sharia] again because we know from facts that al-Qaeda used to provide support to the families,” he said.
“So if these people don’t see any effort from the international community or from the government, and the government has very limited capacity now, they will go back as again more dangerous than before, and that could be an element that could make the whole [transition] process collapse.”
The immediate work focused on restoring water and electricity services in the towns and cities, and rebuilding the physical infrastructure. Many residents have now received partial grants from the specially-established Abyan Reconstruction Fund, although several people from Abyan complained to IRIN that the varying amounts people receive were unfair, and said corruption was rife.
A recent assessment by Mercy Corps suggested returnees’ appetite for non-food items (distributed in large numbers) was diminishing and the majority of those assessed stressed the importance of providing long-term livelihood support.
Humanitarian agencies like the ICRC, the International Organization for Migration, and Mercy Corps have been running cash-for-work projects and livelihoods training, including cleaning irrigation channels, providing fishing equipment and distributing seeds.
“There’s almost now an issue of overcrowding - it’s hard to find a beneficiary who hasn’t received some support,” said Mercy Corps’ Hayat. “As long as we can support a same family in different ways then I’m in support, but we don’t want us to train one person in mechanics, in farming and in commerce.”
But coordination has helped, he says. “The clusters here are very effective - I’d say they are the most coordinated I’ve come across.”
And Hamed from the local council in Abyan is also upbeat about the work done so far by UN agencies and others: “The infrastructure - everything in Abyan - has come back. The war destroyed almost everything. But now life is coming back.”