A fresh outbreak of sectarian fighting in northern Yemen between militants of the Houthi-led Shia movement and (Sunni) Salafists has entered a second week with at least 50 people killed, according to a senior government health official, and aid workers getting little access to the besieged village of Dammaj, a Salafist stronghold.
Humanitarians are concerned that thousands of vulnerable civilians, some of them injured and sick, are unable to flee as Houthi forces continue to bombard the village from surrounding hills. In a statement last week the Houthis said a Salafi religious centre in Dammaj, Sa’dah Governorate, was being used to recruit Sunni fighters.
Attempts at a ceasefire on 5 November failed, and a further six people were reported killed overnight, with further fighting today, according to the government hospital in Dammaj.
“The humanitarian situation is catastrophic. There is no food, no medicine, no fuel, artillery shelling is non-stop and they are using all kinds of arms,” said Ahmad al-Wade’i, director of the hospital. “Diseases are spreading in a catastrophic way. Every day that passes the suffering of the people increases.”
The fresh fighting puts at risk a fragile truce that ended the civil war in the north in 2010. An escalation of the conflict around Dammaj could spill over to the neighbouring governorates of Hajjah, Amran and Al Jawf.
Several hundred families have fled their homes for underground food storage silos that are serving as shelters. “The shelters are unhealthy, fresh air doesn’t get in, they are underground, there are no bathrooms; they are overcrowded,” al-Wade’i said.
A brief ceasefire on 4 November allowed a humanitarian convoy of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) into the area to evacuate 23 seriously wounded people and drop off several boxes of medical supplies, but clashes resumed after a couple of hours.
“[T]here are still more wounded people in need of treatment, and we hope to be able to come back for them,” said Cedric Schweizer, head of the ICRC delegation in Sana'a in a statement.
Aid workers want sustained humanitarian access to help the estimated thousands in need of urgent assistance, and are urging all parties to the conflict to fulfil their obligations to protect civilians. Before the ICRC convoy, several attempted visits by the provincial governor, ICRC and a special presidential committee set up to mediate the dispute were turned back by the Houthis.
Around 29,000 people live in and around the village, many now surviving on dry bread and dates. Some aid stocks are in the capital of the governorate, Sa’dah, 8km away but so far insecurity and lack of access have made delivery impossible.
The UN special adviser to the secretary-general on Yemen, Jamal Benomar, is warning that the clash “threatens the security of Yemen”. On Monday, Benomar called on all sides to respect ceasefire plans and allow “unfettered humanitarian access into the area.”
The Houthis control almost all of Sa’dah Governorate after six conflicts with the government in 2004-2010. The group have been able to consolidate their control of the area during the 2011 Arab Spring transition as the government’s reach weakened throughout the country. The Houthis are taking part in the National Dialogue Committee (NDC) in the Yemeni capital Sana’a.
NDC was due to finish work in September, and its conclusions are expected to propose a normalization of the situation in the north, including disarmament. Although major fighting in the north ended in February 2010, the truce has looked fragile with both Houthis and Salafis continuing to own heavy weaponry, and accusations that regional powers are inflaming sectarian divides.
In a broadcast aired on state TV on 5 November, President Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi condemned “sectarian fighting that does not serve the security or stability of the nation”.
Reports in Iran-based media carried accusations that Sunni preachers in Saudi Arabia, which directly borders Sa’dah Governorate, were inciting attacks on Shias. At least 300,000 Yemeni migrants have returned from Saudi Arabia since April when the country began expelling illegal workers.
Despite some openings, humanitarian access in Houthi-controlled areas of the north has continued to be difficult because of insecurity. A recent food security monitoring survey by the World Food Programme (WFP) in Yemen was not able to gather data in Sa’dah and neighbouring al-Jawf governorates.
Years of tension
Although the recent shelling dates back to 30 October, the past few months have seen repeated outbreaks of violence and high tension.
In October, the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) carried reports of new checkpoints around Dammaj set up on 26 September, as well as reports of shelling, with an estimated 40 conflict-related deaths in the area since July.
In mid-August a truce negotiated by President Hadi’s specially appointed committee for the Dammaj conflict allowed 17 injured people to get to hospital, but clashes restarted a short while later.
Clashes between the two sides in December 2011 led to “widespread food shortages”, according to OCHA, and in August this year Houthis clashed with Sunni tribesmen in nearby Amran Governorate, leaving 13 dead.