By Richard Meares
LONDON, Sept 9 (Reuters) - Whole villages are on the move in north Yemen, fleeing a widening conflict that is creating a shameful and worsening emergency, aid workers say.
People in the area’s main town, Saada, may be worse off still, trapped by shelling and street fighting in homes with barely any water, power or communications and facing food prices spiralling out of reach — if they can make it to market.
"The situation is getting worse and worse and worse. We’re not confronted with a humanitarian crisis, it’s becoming a humanitarian tragedy," Gian Carlo Cirri, country director for the U.N. World Food Programme, said by phone on Tuesday from the capital Sanaa.
A month ago a new wave of fighting — the "sixth war" in an intermittent five-year-old conflict — erupted in the mountainous north between rebel Shi’ite Muslims and government forces trying to impose central authority.
U.N. agencies estimate this has added another 50,000 people to 100,000 or so left homeless earlier by fighting in the poorest Arab nation. Most are women and children.
The United Nations is asking for $23.5 million extra to help Yemen but donor response so far "has been limited", Cirri said. In July, just before the latest fighting, the WFP had to halve rations for some 50,000 people because money was running out.
The agencies are setting up new camps for the lucky ones — those who can reach help.
In a country with strong community ties, many people have found at least temporary shelter with host families or in mosques or schools, but tens of thousands of others are out of reach of aid in an area whose access roads are blocked.
"Our main concern is access," said Cirri. The WFP is reaching only 10 percent of displaced people in the region.
Some 15,000 people have headed to Baqim, a northern district by the Saudi border. U.N. officials said they were lobbying Saudi authorities to let them open up a supply route through its territory as soon as possible, skirting the conflict zone.
UNSAFE TO GO OUT
Many aid staff have been pulled out of Saada town, to which an estimated 35,000 new displaced people have flocked. Staff who remain are pinned down in their homes by fighting.
Telephone landlines were cut on Tuesday, leaving most people in the area unable to communicate with the outside world. Mobile networks have been out of action since the fighting began.
A truce on Friday to let aid groups deliver food and other vital supplies broke down within hours, scuppering efforts to reach the growing numbers of needy. Each side blamed the other.
Displaced people — and the conflict — have been spilling out into neighbouring regions that lead south towards the capital. Some people have had to move up to four times over the last two years as the fighting moves around.
"We asked for a ceasefire but the clashes continued, and we will reach a really shameful humanitarian situation," Laura Chedrawi, a spokeswoman for the U.N. refugee agency UNHCR, said by phone from a flat, rocky expanse in Amran region near Saada, that from Wednesday will be the area’s newest camp.
"Our staff inside (Saada) say the situation on a humanitarian level is a disaster."
Many people were still on the move seeking safety. Reaching them has been thwarted by fighting, curfew, landmines and other unexploded ordnance on the roads and numerous checkpoints.
NO HOME LEFT
WFP officer Maria Santamarina said some of the farmers, mechanics and other people she met on a visit this week to another new camp, Al Mazraq, were still full of fear.
Fighting forced most of them out of mountain village homes with no warning and no time to bring anything with them, to the tent camp in a sparse area with few bushes, no trees, frequent sandstorms and searing heat that was making some of them ill.
They come from an area known for its farming and fruit, especially pomegranates — but also for high malnutrition rates.
The few who had managed to bring their goats with them were now watching them die from the heat.
"Despite the harsh conditions many plan on staying and say they don’t want to return because they no longer feel safe," Santamarina said. "They are afraid, they’ve abandoned homes and farms and some say they fear returning to find nothing left."
Troubled Yemen has also been battling a wave of al Qaeda attacks and rising secessionist sentiment in the south.
No casualty figures are available in the northern conflict, and there are few independent accounts of the fighting. (For more news on humanitarian issues please visit www.alertnet.org; email Alertnetnewsdesk@reuters.com)