THE LEVANT – For several days, Um Ibrahim’s walls shook as she tried to keep her two children calm. Her 18-year-old son and 21-year-old daughter are both physically and mentally handicapped, unable to walk on their own, so she had little choice but to stay put in her one-bedroom shelter in the Hasaba neighbourhood as areas of the Yemeni capital Sana’a were rocked by clashes.
“We hid in the kitchen. Neighbours offered to help us leave, but how was I to move [my children]?” asked the woman, who was one of the few to remain in her area as the sound of shelling unfolded around her.
A week after a ceasefire agreement that ended days of fighting in the city, Um Ibrahim is among thousands of civilians hoping for support as they look to return to their normal lives.
Clashes broke out on 16 September in Al-Qabel village just outside Sana’a and quickly moved deep into the capital as armed Houthi rebels (a Zaidi Shiite group concentrated in the country’s north) gained territory in a battle with a mix of government troops and militias affiliated to Islah – Yemen’s most powerful Sunni Islamist grouping.
After days of fighting in neighbourhoods in northwestern Sana’a, shelling finally ceased on 21 September as the Houthis captured a major military complex which had been under the command of Gen Ali Mohsen Al-Ahmar, an unofficial leader in the Islah Party and a military adviser to the president.
Following their victory, the Houthis quickly took control of other government facilities. At the same time, political parties endorsed a UN brokered deal that officially brought an end to the fighting. The agreement, signed by the Houthis and major political parties with President Abdu Rabu Mansour Hadi’s endorsement, called for the creation of a new government, a reduction in fuel prices and granted the Houthis a larger say in governmental decisions.
Over 270 dead
According to Ali Sariya, the emergency manager at the Ministry of Public Health, over 270 people died and more than 500 were injured in the clashes. At least 60 civilians are among the dead, but Sariya explained that there could be dozens more because families probably buried casualties without reporting them.
While the ceasefire may have stopped the bullets, civilians, many of whom are slowly returning to their homes after being displaced, say they paid the heaviest price for what many see as a political power struggle that turned violent.
“I don’t know who to be mad at,” said Ali Al-Kamaly, a 28-year-old engineer living near 30 Meter Street in northwestern Sana’a, where much of the street fighting took place. “All these people died for nothing – or was it for politics?”
Al-Kamaly and his family weathered the shelling and, like Um Ibrahim, decided to remain in their homes. While Um Ibrahim had limited means to leave, Al-Kamaly chose to stay for fear of abandoning his property. As clashes ensued, he saw militias from both sides occupying homes, setting up camps and storing weapons in private property.
Al-Kamaly spoke to IRIN after the peace deal had been signed but said he still did not feel safe. During the fighting his car was caught in the crossfire. As his brother ran out for supplies, his friend was shot in the arm. Al-Kamaly and his family felt compelled to bury the bodies of four soldiers that were left in the street. An aid organization later came to retrieve the bodies.
“One soldier [we found dead] had 70 riyals [33 US cents] in his pocket. Not even enough to buy water,” Al-Kamaly said.
Planning a response
Aid organizations are still determining how to assist civilians as they return home. In several neighbourhoods electricity was out for a week, but restored services have encouraged many to return. There has been no final tally of families displaced, but the Yemen Red Crescent Society’s (YRCS) initial estimates put the internally displaced persons (IDP) figure at 3,000 households.
“When we talk about IDPs [in Sana’a], it’s difficult [to estimate numbers],” said UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) representative in Yemen Julien Harneis. IDPs’ acute needs, he said, are not easily defined, given the varying ways people dispersed. Some fled to relatives, those that could afford it went to hotels, and others fled the city to seek refuge in their villages in rural Yemen. Some of the most vulnerable who could not afford to flee or were trapped by the fighting received water trucking and other immediate assistance, Harneis said.
According to Mohammed Fakeeh, a programme coordinator at the YRCS, 750 homes were damaged in the fighting, with around 10 percent requiring significant restoration work. Fakeeh estimates that over 50 percent of people have returned home.
Some households have only sent one family member home to check on property and many who fled to their home villages outside the capital will probably stay through Eid Al Adha, which begins on 4 October and runs through the following week.
Many Yemenis that IRIN spoke to were not making long-term plans as they fear the ceasefire may be short-lived. “They will [continue to] observe the situation,” Fakeeh said.
Beyond the immediate
Harneis says UNICEF’s chief concerns now will be tackling the longer-term impacts of fighting, especially for children. UNICEF has disseminated 4,000 posters and flyers that offer advice to parents on how to help children cope with the aftershock of conflict and avoid unexploded ordnance.
UNICEF is also running public service announcements with similar advice on radio and TV stations with the goal of reaching communities throughout Sana’a, as well as other recent areas of conflict including Al-Jawf and Amran.
The Education Ministry announced the closure of public schools on 20 September, citing concerns for the safety of students and teachers as fighting intensified. UNICEF reports that 51 schools were affected to varying degrees in the clashes. Several were occupied by combatants, but a majority of schools are expected to reopen on 29 September.
UNICEF is working with the Ministry of Education and local partners to clean up any remaining debris at facilities and asking Houthi fighters to leave the final five public buildings they occupy, which they expect them to do, a UNICEF spokesperson said.
Rights groups maintain egregious violations took place during the fighting on both sides. At the public Al-Kuwait hospital on a day when the fighting raged, an ambulance driver who had been transporting injured and dead to the health facility spoke to IRIN on condition of anonymity. Heavy shelling boomed several miles away and smoke billowed in the sky as the driver told IRIN that his marked vehicle had come under fire. He also reported that fighters had prevented his colleagues from picking up victims and entering certain areas.
The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) would not comment on specific cases, but in a written statement, Marie Claire Feghali, an ICRC spokesperson, said: “Should there have been violations, the ICRC would have addressed the issue bilaterally [working with the Ministry of Public Health and YRCS] with all parties concerned in the fighting, and we did when the situation required so.”
The Houthis, who are now effectively in control of the capital, are coming under increasing criticism from rights groups as they storm and occupy houses of well-known Islah leaders.
Ali Al-Imad, spokesperson for the Houthis’ political office, conceded that violations were and continue to be committed by his group. “We have apologized [for many things],” he said. “We are working to solve these issues quickly.” He added that a committee has been formed to address such issues and is working directly with members of the Islah Party.
But Yemen’s Human Rights Minister Hooria Mashhour said rights violations being committed are too numerous to list. The minister is relying on local partner organizations to document abuses committed by both sides during the fighting and after.
“In the current situation where there is no state – no system in place, anything can happen,” she told IRIN.
A Yemeni diplomat, who declined to be named as he was not allowed to formally speak to the press, said the government’s focus right now is on forming a new Cabinet, in line with the peace agreement, and finding a new prime minister after the former one resigned during the fighting.
Asked if the government would help civilians rebuild destroyed property or offer compensation to those killed, the diplomat said: “Hopefully that would be the case,” but efforts are not in place yet.
In the meantime, Sana’a’s residents are left to rebuild in a changed political landscape.
“People are coming back,” said 30-year-old Nada Alsharif at her home in Hasaba, where electricity was cut for several days after the fighting stopped. Her family allowed neighbours to use their generator to charge phones and other appliances. “Somebody has to provide community services,” she said.