Humanitarians say they are still struggling to get uninterrupted access to Al Dhale Governorate in southern Yemen, which has seen fighting between militant separatists and the government since December 2013, leading to the deaths of an estimated 40 civilians.
Sana’a says attacks by armed groups allied to Hirak al-Janoubi (“Southern Movement”, a leaderless coalition of pro-independence groups known as Hirak) on army supply routes and facilities are leading to clashes.
But representatives of Hirak deny they have resorted to violence. They claim that the 33rd Armoured Brigade, the military unit stationed in the area, is engaged in a campaign to crush dissent, and is indiscriminately shelling heavily inhabited areas and shooting at unarmed civilians.
At least 20 villages, home to an estimated 45,000 residents, have been “frequently shelled or violently attacked”, according to figures published by the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA).
A UN mission to assess humanitarian need has not yet been given permission to enter Al Dhale.
Aid workers say they are concerned about the impact the conflict is having on the local population, particularly food supplies and health facilities, with around 440,000 reported to be living in conflict affected areas in Al Dhale. At least four hospitals have been shelled, according to the UN high commissioner for human rights.
An estimated 8,000 people have been displaced by the conflict, according to the OCHA. In January, 1,000 people were forced to flee a single village, Al Wabh, after a sustained bombardment.
Abdulfattah Mohammed al-Jadi, who along with his family recently fled Al Dhale for Aden, described a chaotic situation which has forced residents out of the area. “There are attacks daily,” he said. “Shootings, bombings… You are just waiting to die.” At times, he said, the city is being bombarded from sunrise until the early hours of the next morning.
“One of my friends was travelling with his son on a motorbike,” he said. “They shot them and they both died. His son was six years old.” Al-Jadi named his friend as Fadhl Ali Abdullah, the son as Nasser.
Al-Jadi’s daughter, Hayya, still cringes when she hears the sound of fireworks. “There is a war,” said the 10-year-old. “They are destroying our houses, our schools. I am scared. I don’t want to go back.”
Six children are among the dead so far.
“What we are seeing in [Al] Dhale is that the proportion of women and children who are being maimed or killed as a proportion of the total casualties is far higher than in other conflicts in the rest of the country,” said Julien Morcom-Harneis, Yemen resident representative at the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF). Both the military and Hirak, he said, “should ensure that women and children are not harmed by this fighting.”
Yemen is currently home to multiple conflicts, which threaten the political transition. In Amran Province in the north, clashes have displaced 20,000-30,000 since October, while there have been repeated sectarian clashes further north, and the government is battling al-Qaeda in the south.
“Indiscriminate and disproportionate attacks”
Some local rights groups have suggested that the military has committed human rights abuses, and both Navi Pillay, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, and the UN Security Council have expressed concern over the way the military has acted. “Claims by Yemen’s armed forces that they were fired upon by armed groups or that their bases were attacked can never justify the use of indiscriminate and disproportionate attacks,” Pillay said in a 26 February statement.
On 27 December 2013, soldiers from 33rd Armoured Brigade opened fire on a funeral at a school in Al Dhale which was being held for a known member of Hirak. Fifteen civilians, including two children were killed. The military said the armoured vehicles that opened fire on the gathering had been attacked by armed militants - a claim those attending the funeral have denied.
Human Rights Watch (HRW) has called for President Abdurabu Mansour Hadi to release the results of an investigation he ordered into the attack. “Unless there is an investigation that proves otherwise, there is cause to worry because it looks a lot like a violation,” said Belkis Wille, a Sana’a-based HRW researcher.
Claims like those made by al-Jadi that the military has opened fire on unarmed civilians travelling in the area are hard to corroborate, “but we have heard that this is happening,” Wille said. “If this were the case, it would represent a serious violation of the rules of war and a potentially serious human rights violation by the Yemeni government.”
Meanwhile, humanitarian organizations working in Yemen are trying to negotiate access to the area to assess the impact of the fighting on the local population. But it has proven hard to enter Al Dhale even with government approval (IRIN tried to travel to Al Dhale several times in February but was repeatedly told it was too dangerous). “We are told by government security services that the area is unsafe, which explains why it is difficult to access,” Morcom-Harneis said.
Part of the problem, according to organizations working in Al Dhale, is that Sana’a cannot guarantee safety in the area because of the lack of control it has over the commander of the 33rd Armoured Brigade Brig-Gen Abdullah Dabaan.
The UN hopes to enter Al Dhale in the near future despite an abortive attempt in early March. “We are in a conversation with the government as to how we can do that and we should have access in the next week or so,” Morcom-Harneis said. “As humanitarians, we recognize the risks of working in such a complicated environment, and we are prepared to do so, but it has to be negotiated.”