For more than four months, Houthi rebels have vied for control of Yemen’s strategic southern port city of Aden. In the past week, they have been all but pushed out.
A World Food Programme (WFP) ship docked on Tuesday at the southern port, carrying enough resources to feed 180,000 people for a month. The UN agency hailed the arrival of the first large-scale aid shipment in the city since March as a “major breakthrough.”
It inevitably raised hopes that aid workers may find it easier to reach the more than 20 million people the UN says are in need of assistance. But the notion that a flotilla of aid ships will now be allowed to dock to alleviate the worsening humanitarian crisis appears premature.
Across the country, accessing desperate people remains incredibly difficult and it is not yet clear if the withdrawal of the Houthis will make a significant difference to the aid delivery situation in Aden.
Philip Tinsley, Maritime Security Manager for BIMCO, the world’s largest shipping association, said he had not seen any significant change in policy from the Saudi Arabia-led coalition, which has been restricting naval access to the port.
“Looking at what happened to the World Food Programme vessel, it appears the inspection regime is still in place,” he told IRIN. “Although it had arrived off Aden on 26 June, it was forced to wait over three weeks for a safe window to berth.”
Tinsley said there were still “plenty of vessels waiting to get in to Yemen, especially aid vessels,” but that commercial ships were still largely unwilling to take the risk of entering the port.
Yemen has been engulfed by civil war since pro-Iranian Houthi rebels seized the capital Sana’a last September and eventually forced President Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi into exile in Saudi Arabia. Over 3,000 people have been killed, over half of them civilians, according to the UN.
Saudi-led forces established a naval blockade around Yemen in April, after Hadi’s government-in-exile requested it, ostensibly to prevent weapons and support from reaching the rebels.
Every ship has to be fully inspected – leading to delays for many ships of up to several weeks. Consequently, the country has run desperately low on petrol – with fuel ships unable to unload. Yemen also imports more than 90 percent of many key foods, including grain, most of which is delivered by sea.
The Saudi-led coalition has been bombing the Houthis and their allies since March, making much of the country largely inaccessible for aid workers.
The Houthis initially advanced from their northern base all the way to the southern city of Aden, where fierce battles broke out with pro-Hadi fighters and southern separatists. They finally withdrew from Aden last week, allowing at least some desperately needed aid to enter.
In addition to the WFP ship, Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) was able to receive delivery of a consignment of medical goods at the port on Thursday, as it has done on other occasions during the conflict.
MSF runs a hospital in the city, but Hassan Boucenine, the organisation’s head of mission in Yemen, said people had often been too scared of being caught in the crossfire to risk the journey.
“For two months it was a complete battlefield. You couldn’t move – our team wasn’t able to get out much at all,” he said. “Now it is better – the fighting is a lot more localised.”
Same policies, new frontline
As the Houthis have pulled back, the battle has moved to Lahj – 30 kilometres north of Aden. The fighting has become so severe there that the city has been largely cut off.
“The new frontline is now in Lahj,” Arnaud Phipps, country director with Action Against Hunger (known by its French acronym ACF), told IRIN. “It was already difficult to move from Aden to Lahj, but it was somehow possible. Now it is impossible.”
Boucenine said he was very worried about the situation for civilians there. “Lahj was accessible when under [full] Houthi control. It was difficult to negotiate [and get in], but not impossible. Now it is impossible.”
The security situation is still dangerous in Aden and Phipps said just because there is less fighting, it doesn’t mean aid operations will automatically resume throughout the city.
ACF’s compound was looted during the conflict and two cars were stolen. Phipps is unsure if the NGO’s stockpiles of humanitarian goods are still safe, but said he was hopeful. He intends to carry out a fact-finding mission over the next two weeks before deciding what ACF can do to help.
“To launch a response without clear data is not very easy. To go like this without knowing what the needs are wouldn’t be clever.”
Phipps added that the fuel crisis was a “bit less severe” than a few months ago – when they were unable to deliver aid at all to some places – but he stressed that supplies were still scarce.