At least seven months of stop-start clashes in northern Yemen are hampering aid delivery and raising fears that conflict here could derail the country’s political transition process, according to aid workers and analysts.
The intermittent clashes are mainly between Zaydi Shia al-Houthi tribesmen, Sunni Salafis and Hashid tribesmen.
“The conflict has upset the balance of power in northern Yemen, which may present new challenges to President Hadi as he negotiates the implementation of the National Dialogue Conference outcome,” Fernando Carvajal, a Yemen specialist at the University of Exeter, told IRIN.
From 2004 northern Sa’dah Province saw six wars between Houthi oppositionists and the army of former President Ali Abdullah Saleh, ending with a February 2010 ceasefire that failed to halt local skirmishes.
The most recent violence has been in Amran Province, between northern Sa’dah Province and Yemen’s capital, Sana’a, about 150km to the south. Fighting erupted in late January (breaching a ceasefire negotiated earlier that month) when Houthis besieged Hashid strongholds in northern, central and southern parts of Amran.
Hashid merchant Mansour al-Amrani, from Amran’s northern al-Ashah District, has been displaced twice in the past six months as a result of what he says is a “Houthi agenda to conquer northern Hashid tribal areas, wrest control of Sana’a from [President] Hadi and restore the [Zaydi] Imamate”, he told IRIN.
After witnessing Houthi militias lay siege to his village last August, and five months later attack neighbouring al-Houth District where he had sought refuge with relatives, Amrani said the Houthis will continue expanding their power base beyond Sa’dah.
“The government has no authority here, and the Houthis have no reason to hold back after they’ve come this far. They’re locked into war with Hashid now,” he said. A state-brokered ceasefire agreement ended fighting in Amran on 4 February.
Some 60,000 to 70,000 internally displaced persons (IDPs) in Amran Province, including more than 40,000 displaced before 2011, are thought to be scattered throughout the province, many beyond the reach of humanitarian personnel and aid supplies in Amran city. The fluid nature of the conflict and associated displacement, however, are hampering verification of these figures.
Marie-Claire Feghali, spokeswoman of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) in Yemen, told IRIN: “To date, we do not have our own assessment of the number of people affected by the fighting [in Amran], because we have not been able to reach the populations... due to the security threats [ICRC’s Amran office] has received in that area since mid-December.
“One of the main risks that we face [in Yemen] is having our colleagues held and used as bargaining chips, when our staff - either Yemeni or expatriates - are, for instance, held by people who want to make their cases heard, as was the case at least three times in 2013,” said Feghali.
Widespread access problems
A doctor with Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) posted near Sa’dah’s western frontier with Hajjah Province told IRIN how he and more than two dozen colleagues were nearly struck by an artillery shell fired from Houthi-controlled territory in early January while driving near al-Mazraq town in Haradh District.
The doctor said he welcomed the 7 January ceasefire signed by Houthi and Salafi leaders in Haradh. But, in the context of a conflagration now spanning four provinces around Sa’dah (Hajjah, Amran, al-Jawf and Sana’a), he said the truce was rather inconsequential. These five provinces host more than 95 percent of the national IDP population of around 307,000.
“Haradh’s agreement needs to be replicated in each of the numerous conflicts across the north in order to set the stage for substantive recovery,” he argued. “Even if the ceasefire does hold, it will still take months for NGOs to restart operations due to institutional lag.”
IDPs, local communities and NGOs have suffered from recent rounds of fighting in a variety of ways. From November, Salafi partisans blocked the main thoroughfare connecting Haradh to Sa’dah city, a hub for humanitarian operations in northern Amran Province, cutting access to battle zones around the Sa’dahn towns of Dammaj and Kitaf. In addition to severing shipments of food, fuel and medicine to Sa’dah, the blockade hampered delivery of aid supplies to around 14,500 IDPs living in formal camps in Mazraq.
Shortages drove up food prices, and diminishing fuel supplies affected the availability of water, as most communities rely on fuel-powered pumps to extract well water.
For Ali al-Qadami, a local farmer near Mazraq, the Houthi-Salafi standoff brought the daily work of his family to a standstill. When Salafis staked claim to a mountain range extending to a fertile wadi nearby, the women were no longer able to gather firewood on the mountainside - and they were prevented from herding livestock to watering holes and grazing grounds along the wadi.
Haradh has some 80,000 IDPs, most of them staying with host communities, and problems are compounded by the monthly influx from Saudi Arabia of some 40,000 undocumented Yemeni labourers. The protracted blockade of Haradh’s main supply artery has made it difficult for the roughly two dozen aid agencies operating here to provide basic support to vulnerable families in the area.
The conflict that sparked fighting in Haradh, Amran and elsewhere in the north, centred on a Salafi religious seminary, Dar al-Hadith, in Dammaj.
Some relief workers with pre-positioned aid stockpiles in Sa’dah city, only 8km from Dammaj, were repeatedly denied access to the area, according to the latest humanitarian bulletin from the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.
Ali al-Bokhaiti, a representative of Ansar Allah, the Houthi political arm, told IRIN: “Houthis controlled the roads to nearby hospitals in Sa’dah city” and they were willing to bring injured Salafis to those medical facilities. “But the Salafis didn’t trust Houthis to transport them there. They were afraid the Houthis would put them in a car and torture them instead,” he said.
ICRC medical teams were granted six in-and-out rescue missions to reach the wounded, and they “were the only humanitarian organization to do so while the clashes were still ongoing”, Feghali said.
UN Secretary-General Special Adviser to Yemen Jamal Benomar, who helped mediate a November ceasefire in Dammaj (one of a dozen that have unravelled since August), told IRIN he had emphasized to the conflicting parties that on multiple occasions the Security Council had called on all sides “not to pursue their aims through violent means and not to pursue violence as a way to achieve political objectives”.