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2.2.2011 The Plight of Northern Yemen: A Life of Conflict, Dust and Ruins

By Alexander Smoltczyk

The remote region of northern Yemen has been devastated by six wars and is cut off from regular aid supplies. A delegation of the UN relief agency and the EU recently visited the area for the first time -- and found child warriors, desperate refugees and cities of dust.

The wars came like the seasons, and people became accustomed to them, counting them like years of their lives: the first war, the second, the third…

The sixth war in northern Yemen was the worst. It ravaged a country that was already on its knees. Each new round of hostilities was more complex and ruthless than the last, and fought with more expensive weapons. The conflict grew like a cancerous tumor, fed by suffering and increasingly multi-layered interests.
"What do you need," Kristalina Georgieva, the European commissioner for international cooperation, asks a haggard, toothless man on a recent trip to the war-torn country. "Help," he replies.

Humanitarian missions here are simple. Everything is scarce, water, flour, medicine, schools and clothing. Fuel, transport, beds, shade and justice. Everything is welcome. It's that simple.

And there's enough money to provide help. The EU will provide €19.5 million ($27 million) this year, and the refugee agency of the UN, the UNHCR, will provide almost $10 million.

All that needs to be done is to get the supplies to where they are most urgently needed. But that's the problem. "We need access, access, access," says Georgieva. "We know best where the need is greatest," the governor of Saada replies. The aid, he says, should be handed over to him.

A Fragile Non-War

Georgieva was in the country with Antonio Guterres, the head of the United Nations refugee agency UNHCR. It was an unusual mission -- such joint trips aren't customary on the international aid circuit. But the situation in northern Yemen is so serious that customs don't matter, they say.

The delegation walks through the ruins of the center of Saada. The sight of the devastation is made marginally more bearable because all the buildings are made of clay, and because children are clambering over the ruins everywhere. For some reason, clay ruins are less disturbing than mangled concrete.

The electricity comes from generators and the water has to be transported into the city in canisters. But many are happy to be able to live here. Outside the city, the situation is even worse. "Malnutrition among children under five is worse than in Darfur at the start of the conflict there," says a leading aid official. Some areas have been cut off from any healthcare for the last five years.

There has been a ceasefire in the northern provinces of Yemen since August 2010, but it is a fragile state of non-war that could end at any time. The six waves of war flushed too many weapons into the country, and too many people have their own interests in the conflict. "We must show now that peace yields development, otherwise it will start again," says Georgieva.

The government is trying to play down the conflict. "The Houthis are basically just a family" says one Yemeni diplomat accompanying the delegation. No government likes to admit that it doesn't have any power in large parts of its country. Checkpoints mark a circle of around seven kilometers around the city. Beyond that line is a barely accessible region that could end up determining the future of Yemen.

A 'War on Terror'?

The Houthi are a tribe of Hashemites, which makes them descendants of the Prophet Muhammad. Their religion, Zaidism, is a branch of Shia Islam, but their rituals are very similar to those of Sunni Muslims. Houthis and Sunnis pray in the same mosques.

But their issue isn't a religious one. "The Houthis feel neglected by the central government. They mainly want development," says Georgieva.

The conflict has been fanned by Yemen's mighty neighbor Saudi Arabia, which suspects the Houthis of being close to Iran and which has tried to spread its own strict interpretation of Islam, Wahhabism, in the region.

And the government in the Yemeni capital of Sana'a has portrayed the rebellious Houthis as supporters of al-Qaida in order to justify its campaign against them as a "war on terror." The justification has also led to the use of US weapons, supplied for the fight against al-Qaida, in the war against the Houthis.
The war in northern Yemen "has violated two fundamental pillars of Yemen's stability: a political formula premised on power-sharing and the gradual convergence of the two principal sectarian identities," the International Crisis Group, an NGO, wrote in a recent analysis.

Guterres, the former prime minister of Portugal, and Georgieva, an ex-World Bank official, get along well. Colleagues say they are a stroke of luck for international disaster relief because they simply focus on getting the job done. They sit on the floor in huts and ask what supplies are lacking and how they can help to improve things.

Part 2: Child Soldiers

A meeting with Houthi representatives is only allowed after lengthy negotiations -- at their own risk, as the governor makes clear. Beyond the checkpoints, he can no longer guarantee their safety.

Guterres and Georgieva are met by a man called Sheikh Abu Aliu. The warriors in the room are chewing khat and have put their Kalashnikovs in their laps. The fighters, though, "were very young. One of them was still a child, perhaps 12 or 13," says Georgieva. Until now, it wasn't known that there are child soldiers in Yemen.

"The Houthis assured us that aid workers and convoys would be safe. They said they would not influence the distribution of aid supplies," says Georgieva. Both she and Guterres hope that the government in Sana'a will now open their checkpoints to aid convoys and aid workers.

"Our main problem is the militia," says Raul Rosende, the head of the UN office in Sana'a for the coordination of humanitarian aid. Convoys are frequently hijacked and Western staff kidnapped as a convenient means of extortion and pressure. "We're one thing above all: a resource," says Swedish engineer Lennart Hansson of the UNHCR. The intelligence agencies had told him his ranking on al-Qaida's list of kidnapping targets: "pretty high up."

Yemen Can't Afford Its Hospitality

Yemen is the only Arab country to have signed the 1951 UN convention on refugees. "The poorest are the most hospitable," Georgieva says. Yemen, the poorest of all Arab countries, grants asylum to all civil war refugees. There are many of them in this part of the world.

Every week, Somali refugees land on the coast of the Gulf of Aden. Ethiopians are smuggled into the country, with women and children often being sold to Saudi Arabia by human traffickers. The UNHCR estimates that there are 350,000 Somalis in Yemen.

The country can't afford its hospitality. It doesn't have enough water, hospitals, schools and work for its own population. And the Yemeni arm of al-Qaida recruits new members among the poorest of the poor. Yemen's revenues from oil and gas production will have dried up in a few years. Its attractiveness as a holiday destination has waned since the al-Qaida attacks.

The refugee camp in al-Kharaz is at the other end of the country, at the southernmost tip of Yemen, just aross the Gulf of Aden from the Horn of Africa. It is a city of dust and plastic bags, of faded UNHCR tents, cardboard walls and armed security guards. It is surrounded by a stony desert that stretches to the sea.

Recently, electricity was brought to this tent city. Before that, the refugees had to squat in front of their tents in complete darkness at night. The number of rapes rose sharply in that period, the UNHCR said.

The delegation inspects a communal room where they are told how how refugees walk 90 kilometers to Aden to earn a bit of money. And that many of them sell items donated by aid organizations in order to earn some cash.

A boy pulls along his toy car on a string -- a milk carton with bottletops attached for wheels.

A group of people has gathered at the edge of the camp and is holding up hand-painted banners. They are members of the Oromo ethnic group from Ethiopia, and they are demanding more rights, more aid and a stronger legal status.

They complain about bribery and discrimination. A child died, they say. They have drafted a letter. "To all human rights agencies." They are self-confident and well organized. They know how to get people to listen to them.

That's the good news.