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As War in Yemen Ends, Humanitarian Crisis Grows

  • Heather Murdock

Last week, Yemen's government announced the end to six years of war with the Houthi rebel militia. But with a quarter of a million displaced people, and rapidly disappearing funds, aid agencies say they do not know how they will feed the civilian victims of the war.

When the war in northern Yemen broke out again last summer, families that could escape streamed out of the battle zones, often with nothing but the clothes they were wearing. With no where to go, many families slept in the open, before they found shelter with aid agencies at Mazrak, a desolate camp on the edge of a sweltering desert.

Eight months after opening, Mazrak is a sprawling sea of dirt-covered tents, and home to tens of thousands of people. There are tent schools, tent community centers, tent clinics, and rows of tent bathrooms. There are standing buildings, and massive newly-opened water tanks. And although the war appears to be over, displaced families say they are not leaving, because there is nowhere else to go.

Wafa Abdulla says she left her home after her mother, sister and daughter were killed by air strikes, and her home was destroyed. She camped out in a valley for four months before she moved to Mazrak in February.

Rumor has it that in her village, Houthi rebels and government soldiers now share meals and prayers. But she says peace will not draw her home. Her house is destroyed and she has no income or way to rebuild.

Families like Wafa's want compensation for their lost property and help going home. According to Yemeni officials, there are government funds set aside for reconstruction.

Sweating in one of Mazrak's few buildings, Yemen Minister of State Ahmed Mohamed al-Kuhlani says the funds will help build public buildings, like schools or hospitals, before they will help families re-build their homes. One of the most immediate concerns, he says, is how to feed the still-growing number of displaced families.

And humanitarian agencies say they are strapped for cash. The World Food Program has cut rations for displaced families by 25 percent.

UNHCR spokesperson Andrew Knight says the agency needs $39 million to keep its operations running. Already the needs of the people in the camp are great, but the agency has received only $7 million.

"We do have nutrition issues in the camp, health issues, education issues. Unless we get some funding we will not be able to run the camp, support our partners in the camp or provide any of the services," he said.

Knight says, with enough money, the agency is ready provide services for displaced families for the indefinite future. More people are registering everyday, and very few appear to be leaving.

Many people also wonder if the war is really over. The ceasefire ended the sixth round of battles in as many years. Mazrak residents long for their villages, but with no homes, and no guarantee of peace, they are not going anywhere. Many have already fled their homes two or three times, and do not want to be displaced again.

Even if combat has ended, the north is still littered with land mines. At least five people have been killed and 20 have been injured by land mines, since the ceasefire began in early February.