It is difficult to imagine that the residents of Al-Jawf governorate in Yemen were living normally, with no real threats to their lives or livelihoods, just a month ago. Markets and restaurants operated day and night, students attended their classes, and medical staff visited special sessions to prepare for the arrival of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19). What the residents did not expect was that they would be forced out of their homes overnight in an effort to find safety from the Iran-backed Houthis, who stormed various cities in Al-Jawf after the local forces failed to stop their incursions.
As the world grapples with the devastating effects of a global health pandemic, the Houthis have increased their military operations with impunity. This is despite international warnings of Yemen’s inability to cope with COVID-19 should it spread. The Houthis’ incursions into the northern provinces of Nihm and Al-Jawf pushed citizens out of their homes, compounding an already delicate humanitarian crisis. The majority of the newly displaced families are now scattered in camps, hotels or temporary lodgings with relatives in the city of Marib. The Houthis’ choice to enter these areas, which were informally considered as safe zones for their opponents, undoubtedly increases the chances of exposure to COVID-19 and risks the lives of thousands, if not millions, in the process.
The displacement crisis began when families from Al-Gail and Hazm in Al-Jawf started moving out of their homes after seeing the Houthis exercise brute force toward their political opponents. Residents reported that the Houthis executed youths from the local population, including teachers, and arrested or abducted a dozen others. The Houthis also confiscated and looted private homes, including those of doctors who work in Al-Jawf General Hospital as a coercive measure to secure their cooperation.
Given the chaos and uncertainty caused by the Houthis’ incursion, children, women and men fled their homes, leaving all their belongings behind. They walked through the desert for days without water, food or access to medical care. According to the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and the Yemen Red Crescent Society, 10,000 families, totaling 70,000 people, have been displaced by the fighting (Yemen’s government estimates triple this amount). These numbers add a significant burden to the local population of Marib and decrease hospitals’ capacity to deal with the virus pandemic.
Given the sudden Houthi incursion into these areas, which had been unaffected by the conflict for the past four years, local authorities and international organizations were not ready to face the influx of displaced people. Moreover, the amount of assistance they received was scarce, and there is an acute shortage of food, shelter and assistance.
In an interview with Belqees TV, Jameel Qassem, the director of the administrative unit for internally displaced affairs, indicated that, although organizations claim to give aid to families, they don’t accurately calculate the number of family members. So, for example, if there is a family of seven in need of urgent care, they would receive only two or three blankets and mattresses, which obviously do not cover everyone’s needs. Moreover, many displaced people seek to stay with friends and family to avoid living in the camps, which overburdens host communities and deprives the displaced of aid because they fall off the assistance grid.
Qassem added that the Houthis are controlling access to Al-Jawf and are attempting to confiscate the assistance designated for the displaced families and redirect it to the capital city of Sanaa. This politicization and manipulation of aid is a regular punitive tactic that the Houthis exercise in areas that oppose them, irrespective of the humanitarian need.
The fighting has complicated efforts to help those in need of medical help, including patients who need testing for the coronavirus. Medical workers were unable to gain access to Al-Jawf, as the Houthis prevented their entry. A Yemen Red Crescent Society ambulance that was necessary for a medical evacuation was unable to enter the area due to the lack of safe access. The ICRC reported that it failed to supply the Al-Jawf hospital with surgical and medical supplies. All this puts significant strain on a society that is bracing for the pandemic.
The Houthis are controlling access to Al-Jawf and are attempting to confiscate the assistance designated for displaced families.
UN Envoy to Yemen Martin Griffiths has attempted to engage the parties in a nationwide cease-fire to lessen the suffering and end the displacement. He made a statement last week urging a return to the political process that is aimed at comprehensively ending the war, adding: “This process further aims to foster joint efforts to counter the threat of COVID-19.”
Unfortunately, a cease-fire is not good enough at this stage. It will be impossible to mitigate the effects of COVID-19 if people cannot stay at home. Returning these 10,000 families to their homes immediately and providing them with protection needs to be the highest priority of Yemen’s government and the international community. Any other scenario that fails to prioritize returning the displaced to their homes under the protection of their local governments would be nothing short of a catastrophe.