When Yemen's Huthi rebels seized power in Sanaa six years ago, Ahmed Alwobale refused to join them and fled to Mareb, a province that seemed to escape the conflict. Since then, nearly a third of the 3.6 million Yemenis displaced by the war have found refuge in the hydrocarbon-rich northwestern region, multiplying its population by three. But this year, the Huthi offensive, the covid-19 and the reduction in foreign aid have put the last stronghold of the internationally recognized government on the ropes. The recent escalation in fighting is aggravating the situation.
"We live overcrowded, without drinking water, without electricity and now worried about the coronavirus, since there are no health services or medicines," Alwobale summarizes by phone from the Al Zabara camp for internally displaced persons, where he shares a tent with his wife and his seven children. This 59-year-old man fled Sana'a in 2015 when, following the Saudi Arabian military intervention, the Huthi called him up. "I did not want to fight against the legal forces," he explains. He joined these in Mareb and, thanks to the soldier, a few months later he was able to pay a smuggler to cross his family across the front.
That region from which the Queen of Sheba ruled her empire 3,000 years ago is the land of Bedouins, and when the Huthi took power in 2014, its population (barely half a million people) aligned itself with the government they evicted. There are also concentrated Yemen's meager oil and gas reserves. The associated industry, its initial remoteness from the main battle fronts, and local management made Mareb a relative success that attracted many of those fleeing the war. The situation has changed.
Despite his rank of captain in the Army, to survive Alwobale spends his afternoons selling qat (the stimulating and slightly narcotic herb that forms the center of Yemeni social life) in the small market of the camp. Saudi Arabia has reduced its funding to the government recognized by the international community. "We only get a salary every three months and with the rise in prices, it is barely enough to eat," he complains. The conditions of the settlement, in a desert area 55 kilometers northeast of the city of Mareb, have also worsened. Today 800 families displaced by the war are crowded there.
Although the Huthi offensive to take over the province began at the beginning of the year, the fighting has intensified since UN special envoy Martin Griffiths pressed both sides last month to agree to a ceasefire. The International Organization for Migration (IOM) and its local partners have registered 4,000 new displaced families between August and September. Since January, they number about 100,000 people, half of whom have fled their homes across the country.
“80% of those who come to Mareb have nowhere to go except overcrowded camps. There are no shelters, water, latrines or food, ”admits Christa Rottensteiner, head of mission for IOM, the UN agency with the largest presence in the area. "If the fighting continues to approach the city, we fear a massive exodus of displaced people and local residents," he warns.
The UN considers Yemen the worst humanitarian crisis in the world, but this year it has had to cut a third of its programs in the country due to lack of funds. According to the organization, 24 million of the 30 million Yemenis need some kind of help, 20 million suffer from hunger and child malnutrition is among the highest in the world. No one knows exactly how many deaths the war has caused. In addition, the epidemics of cholera and diphtheria that it dragged are now superimposed by covid-19, on which there are no reliable data on infections and neither of the two sides in conflict has the means to combat it.
Mareb is home to the largest displaced camp in the country, Al Jufaina, with 40,000 people. But most of the 140 settlements that the UN has located in the province are much smaller, often just family groups living in abandoned buildings, without any services. Less than 5% of the newly displaced have regular access to a latrine.
“Although we receive help from the UN World Program, the IOM and the Rey Salmán Humanitarian Center (Saudi), it is insufficient. We still lack drinking water, health care and even shops, ”says Aly Haran, one of the people in charge of the Al Razka camp, which is home to 160 families, a dozen of whom have arrived in the last two months. Haran also complains that they do not have a school or educational material despite the fact that 50% of the shelters are minors, something common in all the camps because Yemeni families have seven children on average.
Under these conditions, it is impossible to maintain hygiene and physical distance, which are key to fighting the coronavirus. Hence, Ibrahim Gubran, a 40-year-old teacher from Reymah province, decided a few months ago to take his five children and his pregnant wife out of Al Zabara, and settle in a block shack.
"We hoped that the conflict would end soon and be able to return to our homes, but we are being victims of corrupt governments," he sums up disheartened. At least he has avoided enlistment, almost the only job available in the area, and he teaches at a tent school that serves the displaced and the Bedouin population. Gubran, a member of the Islamist Islah party (the Huthi's ideological and political rival), is highly critical of the government and the countries that support it. “The soldiers are selling weapons and ammunition to feed their families. How can a demoralized army win the war with its leaders living abroad? ”He asks.
A Huthi victory at Mareb would give the Huthi complete control of the northern half of Yemen, with effects on the conflict throughout the country. For now, the advance seems to have slowed down, but for the rebels the battle for that province is a bargaining chip. Hence, in his last report to the Security Council last September, Griffiths warned that "if Mareb falls, the prospects of convening an inclusive political process will be reduced."