In another part of Yemen, two weeks later, Ali Ibrahim was also fleeing for his life. Eight airstrikes fell on his home village in Hajjah governorate one morning.
“My cousin tried to flee the farm with his family,” he told us, “but an airstrike hit them… Three of them were killed, including a baby who was only a few months old. Four others were badly injured.”
Ali and his seven children are now crowded into the tent of another displaced family, in Hajjah’s Abs district – impossible conditions for preventing the spread of Covid-19, which the World Health Organization estimates may infect as many as 55 per cent of Yemeni people.
Ceasefire call ignored
It was not supposed to be like this. Two months ago, on 23 March, the Secretary-General of the United Nations called for a global ceasefire. This call came as Covid-19 cases were surging and was designed to ensure the world could focus on a concerted attempt to combat the rapidly spreading pandemic.
It was a moment of hope. Unfortunately, it has not been heeded.
In Yemen alone, at least 24,000 people like Ali and Muhsen have had to flee fighting since the Secretary-General’s call. Not even a unilateral ceasefire by the Saudi-led coalition on 9 April has stopped the war and its terrible human cost.
Forced into the desert
Muhsen’s home village of Al-Bizah used to be a peaceful one. On the farm inherited from his father, he kept goats and sheep, and planted corn, barley and wheat. He held on to this quiet life through five years of escalating violence. Even when a landmine took both of his legs in 2016, Muhsen steadfastly continued farming, thanks to the help of his children. The farm was his life, and his only source of income. How would his family eat, if they were forced to leave?
But just one day after the unilateral ceasefire was announced, he heard gunfire in the distance. When the gunfire grew closer, he and his family rounded up their animals and struck out for the desert. They ended up in an informal settlement near Marib city, where hundreds of families have gathered over the last four months.
The settlement is known as Al-Swaidah camp, though there is nothing to mark it as such: no running water, no toilets, no electricity. No-one here has been taking any measures against Covid-19, Muhsen says.
Muhsen’s family have assembled a tent for themselves from iron pipes and plastic sheets. Food is a constant worry, but Muhsen is just glad to be safe. Families are still arriving from surrounding areas, fleeing the continued fighting. And the news from Muhsen’s hometown is not good. “The battles are still ongoing, so we can’t return.”
Early on 6 May, three weeks after Muhsen’s family fled, airstrikes hit Ali Ibrahim’s extended family on the farm where they lived and worked.
Ali spent most of his life as a farm labourer in his home village of Al-Jar in Hajjah governorate, planting vegetables like tomatoes and onions. On the night of 5 May, he heard warplanes. The bombs fell the next morning. From less than 100 metres away, Ali saw his cousin’s family hit. Three of them were killed.
Other strikes followed. In the ensuing chaos, Ali tried to help. “We saw the deaths in front of us,” he recalls. “I took my children and the injured people to a clinic.” The survivors fled to nearby Al-Shaqaf, with only the clothes they were wearing.
Ali’s family now live in the tent of a family who fled their home last year. Despite being in dire circumstances themselves, this family shares everything they have with Ali, who has no money to buy even a plastic sheet to set up a new tent.
Ali hasn’t heard about the unilateral ceasefire, nor about Covid-19. “I’m an illiterate man and all I know is that warplanes targeted us and forced us to leave our houses,” he told us.
“The best thing was when we would wake up early in the morning and water the vegetables. And after an hour all the farmers would sit together to have their group breakfast on the farm. Those days won’t come again. There is nothing worse than seeing relatives become burnt bodies and hearing the screaming of children. So, try to imagine yourselves in our situation and stop the war on us.”
A double disaster
Our staff working in areas close to the conflict frontlines are witnessing people still being forced to flee, at a time when the global health advice is to stay at home. "On a daily basis, displacement is happening,” says Zayed Mohamed Ali, NRC’s Programme Manager in Hodeidah. “And those affected are the civilians."
Over 3.5 million people in Yemen are already displaced because of the country’s brutal five-year war. They are living in a variety of temporary and mostly unsuitable shelters: in camps, damaged houses, or crowded into public buildings. As new cases of Covid-19 spread rapidly across the country, there is a major threat to public health.
The country’s best hope is to stop the fighting and jump-start the stalled peace-talks. So far, the warring parties have failed to grasp this window of opportunity. Since the ceasefire call, attacks on education and healthcare infrastructure – which includes health centres, hospitals, and schools – have doubled. The number of airstrikes in Yemen has increased, and the level of shelling remains high, leading to civilian casualties and damage.
The fighting must stop, and immediately. Otherwise, it is the most vulnerable families, like Ali’s and Muhsen’s, who will be hit the hardest.
Yemen is not the only country affected by ongoing conflict. Despite the call for a global ceasefire, a new NRC report has found that conflict and violence displaced an estimated 661,000 people in 19 countries between 23 March and 15 May. Read the main findings here.