YEMEN: Living in a cave, cut off from aid

Chid IDPs at the gate of one of the caves used as a shelter by some displaced families

SANA'A, 2 November 2011 (IRIN) - Several dozen families in the Arhab region of Yemen have fled violence in their home areas and sought shelter in nearby caves, but the move has left them desperately needing aid, especially food.

Ali Hezam Salah, 37, who has taken refuge with his wife and four children in a cave overlooking Shaab village, said the last time they had a donation of food was in the final week of Ramadan - two months ago. The donation, comprising 50kg of wheat, 10kg of sugar, 30kg of beans and 10 litres of cooking oil, came from a local NGO, the Charitable Society for Social Welfare.

"We are running out of these quantities," he told IRIN from the cave where his family has lived since May, some 30km north of the Yemeni capital of Sana'a. "We are in urgent need [of] food aid."

Part of the cave, which is roughly 18 sqm, is used as shelter for the family; the other part is reserved for the livestock, including a cow, three goats and four sheep.

"We don't have relatives to live with, nor do we have enough money to rent our own apartment in Amran [city] like other IDPs [internally displaced persons]," Fawzya, Salah's wife, said.

The families living in the caves were displaced by recurrent clashes between the government-aligned Republican Guards and the armed opposition that has supported an uprising against President Ali Abdullah Saleh since May.

Up to 9,500 people had fled Arhab by August, according to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA).

"As a safety precaution, some IDPs are residing in caves to avoid injury or death due to heavy shelling," said the OCHA report. "Hygiene and living conditions in the caves are very poor and increase the potential for disease outbreak."

Access problems

Like many other displaced Yemenis, the families living in caves have been cut off from help by escalating insecurity.

According to Rabab al-Rifai, communication coordinator with the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), the agency donated medical material at the beginning of October, but should the situation allow, would be ready to look into possibilities of further assistance or other humanitarian services based on needs.

All the roads to Sana'a have become extremely dangerous due to intensified shelling by the government of opposition-aligned militias, a local journalist said.

The government, however, claims that armed groups have terrorized the district, battling its forces in an attempt to take over the capital with support from traditional opposition parties.

Children at risk

Sheikh Mohammed al-Eraishani, spokesman for the Arhab tribal communities, said children sheltering in caves were traumatized and needed urgent psychological support and rehabilitation by qualified staff.

"Otherwise, they may develop incurable mental disorders," Al-Eraishani warned.

Across Yemen, the violence has particularly hit children. On 30 October, several international and local media outlets, including al-sahwa.net reported that three children were killed and another four injured when Republican Guard forces, based on a hill overlooking Arhab, hit a market in Yahis village.

According to al-sahwa.net, the offensive brought to eight the number of children killed and to 14 the number injured in Arhab since June.

Fatihya Sawwal, a 33-year-old mother of five, said her 10-year-old boy Amro, who was buying sweets when the market was hit in the afternoon, returned home unable to utter a word after seeing his younger brother Mohammed, 8, bleeding from a wound in his arm.

"Amro's hearing ability is affected because of the strong sound of the blast in the market," she said. "He suddenly gets up from his sleep shouting and screaming," she said.

In retaliation for the 29 October offensive, opposition gunmen, believed to be from Arhab district, fired mortar shells at the government's air force base, near the Sana'a International Airport, some 10km south of Arhab. Flights were stopped but no casualties reported.