Scars of Yemen war still raw despite truce

SANAA Tue Feb 23, 2010 9:11am EST

An army officer stands guard during a tribal conference in Sanaa, January 26, 2010. REUTERS/Khaled Abdullah

An army officer stands guard during a tribal conference in Sanaa, January 26, 2010.

Credit: Reuters/Khaled Abdullah

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SANAA (Reuters) - A ceasefire in northern Yemen has calmed a conflict that drove nearly quarter of a million people from their homes, but bloody images still haunt Ali Nasser.

"I saw a soldier full of pain after being shot with a bullet in the stomach. I was so scared," the 10-year-old boy said. "The soldier was crying and bleeding. Blood was everywhere."

Nasser was re-living his memories in the safety of an apartment his parents have rented in the capital Sanaa.

His family, like thousands of others who have fled fighting between government troops and Zaidi Shi'ite rebels, have no immediate prospects of returning home.

"We can't go back. Our house was destroyed," said Nasser Ali Sadd, who abandoned his temporary refuge in the northern city of Saada when battles exploded onto the streets in December.

"There was shooting everywhere. Houses and farms were destroyed. Parts of Saada, the old city, were destroyed," he said, as he helped children with their homework.

This month the government and the rebels, known as Houthis after their leader's clan, agreed a ceasefire in a conflict that has raged sporadically in rugged northern mountains since 2004.

The Houthis, who deny government charges that Iran supports them, complain of religious, economic and social deprivation.

Sadd and his family had ended up in Saada after repeatedly moving to escape the front line. The fighting intensified in August and drew in Saudi Arabia against the rebels in November.

More than 241,000 displaced persons, or 31,000 families, have been registered in Yemen, mostly living in or outside camps in the north, according to the U.N. refugee agency UNHCR.

Just across the border in Saudi Arabia, the government has said it is building 10,000 housing units to accommodate Saudi civilians evacuated from the remote war zone since November.

DIRE STRAITS

In Sanaa, thousands of homeless civilians depend on U.N. aid, savings or help from relatives, said Saad Matar, who fled from Saada almost a year ago and now helps people in a similar plight deal with the Yemeni government and U.N. agencies.

"The situation of the displaced persons is very bad. Many try to work as day laborers or rely on relatives," he said. "They have to pay rent to live in private apartments."

Impoverished Yemen cannot care for dislocated civilians in the same way as its rich neighbor Saudi Arabia, which provides its evacuees with air-conditioned tents or hotel vouchers.

Sanaa says it wants to rebuild Saada and other provinces devastated in the conflict but diplomats question how fast this might happen -- and whether the ceasefire will hold.

Apart from the Houthis, the government faces separatist unrest in the south and a resurgent al Qaeda network which the West fears will exploit instability in Yemen to prepare more attacks like the failed December 25 bombing of a U.S. airliner.

U.N. agencies are asking the government to grant them access to distressed civilians in the former war zone, but landmines still block some roads, said UNHCR spokeswoman Marie Marullaz.

Aid agencies have had only limited access to the region, from which the government also bars journalists and diplomats.

UNHCR, already helping 171,000 mostly Somali refugees in Yemen, is running out of money for its operations.

"Unless there is a prompt response from the donor community, this severe lack of funding will soon have a direct impact on the estimated 250,000 IDPs (internally displaced persons) and 170,000 refugees in Yemen," Marullaz said.

The ebb and flow of the long-running conflict disrupted education in the north. Few children attended school regularly. Some of those who fled to Sanaa are now trying to catch up.

"The children get extra lessons from private teachers in the afternoon to improve their learning. The parents don't get any government help for this," said Matar, the aid coordinator.

For children, fear of air raids is still vivid, even in the safety of the capital, some 250 km (156 miles) south of Saada.

"My children dived to the ground when they heard a civilian plane when we arrived in Sanaa," Sadd said.

A boy named Said Ahmed summed up what terrifies him.

"I'm afraid of Houthis and planes."

(Editing by Alistair Lyon)

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