Photographs: Pepe Rubio Larrauri
Text: Peter Salisbury
Fighting between government forces and the local branch Al Qaeda has displaced more than 150,000 people in south Yemen people since May 2011. Pepe Rubio Larrauri traveled to the southern city of Aden to document the lives of some of of the 20,000 people who have set up home in province’s public schools
Yemen’s schools were on a break when people first started arriving in the southern port city of Aden in May 2011. Displaced by fighting between government forces and Ansar al-Sharia, a local Al Qaeda affiliate, in the neighboring province of Abyan, many came on foot with their few remaining possessions in plastic bags. It made sense at the time to billet families in schools; no-one thought that the fighting would last much longer.
By March 2012 more than 150,000 people had fled the fighting in Abyan, according to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). Most internally displaced persons (IDPs), as the UN calls them, were able to find shelter in the homes of relatives. But some 20,000 are still living schools – about half of the 150 public schools in Aden and neighboring Lahj are in use as temporary accommodation for IDPs. Classrooms house up to five families at a time, with little dispensation for privacy beyond makeshift blanket partitions. The sewage systems of many schools, designed for light use by schoolchildren rather than a constant flow of large families, have seized up.
It will be hard for many of the families displaced by the fighting to return home in the foreseeable future. Even if, as seems unlikely at the moment, Ansar al-Sharia is beaten back from towns like Zinjibar, Khanfar and Al-Kud, many families fear reprisals should they return home. Other say that their houses were bombed by the air force during the fighting, meaning that their prospects at home are not much better than in Aden.
UNHCR already had a tough task on its hands in Yemen. Its main job there is to deal with a massive influx of refugees and economic migrants from Somalia and Ethiopia on the other side of the Bab-el-Mendeb strait. It registered more than 100,000 new arrivals from Africa in 2011. At the same time, fighting broke out across the country leading many aid agencies, including the UNHCR, to send all but the most essential staff out of the country. With barely enough funding to cope with the growing number of refugees and the 360,000 people displaced by a stop-start civil war in the northern province of Saada, aid agencies in the country are now stretched to breaking point.
The government is doing its best to cope with the crisis and has been handing out sugar and flour rations to the IDPs (many families sell their rations to pay for milk and medicine for their children). But only those families which managed to salvage state ID cards or birth certificates receive government support. The locals have been doing their best to help, donating food and water to the IDPs, but with many already supporting displaced relatives and the Yemeni economy in freefall, they are increasingly struggling to keep food on their own tables.
Fighting is intensifying in Abyan once again and more people are arriving in Aden on a daily basis. The UNHCR is now planning a mass exodus of IDPs to allow schoolchildren to return in the new academic year. They may be moved to planned camps like those in the north, where families have now been living for years. It looks likely that things will get a lot worse for south Yemen’s IDPs before they get better.