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Fresh fighting in Yemen ignites refugee crisis

Refugees in northern Yemen say that their villages were bombed in an escalating conflict with Houthi rebels. The population of the largest refugee camps doubled in the past month, prompting UNHCR to open a third one Dec. 17.

Dhaifah Jarah, whose only possessions are a mattress and the clothes she is wearing, says her village was bombed by jets. She wonders when she will be able to return home.

Michael Horton

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As the fighting between Yemeni forces and Houthi rebels escalates in the country’s remote northern region, the international community has focused largely on the potential for the war to further weaken the central government – leaving it vulnerable to threats from both separatists and militant Islamists.

But largely unseen by the outside world, the humanitarian consequences are mounting in refugee camps rarely accessed by Western journalists. Displaced families – some with their goats, sheep, donkeys, and cows in tow – are steadily filing into the UNHCR-run camps in Mazrak, forcing the agency to open a third one at the end of last week.

With the dull thud of artillery fire in the distance, Hussein Abdullah describes how his family was forced to first flee their village into nearby Saudi Arabia and was then forced to leave Saudi Arabia after the Houthis attacked a Saudi border post.

“After the Saudis started fighting the Houthis,” he says, “they told us we could not stay in Saudi Arabia. We left with nothing more than we could carry. My cattle are still in Saudi Arabia. How am I supposed to get them back?”

Hussein is one of the many Yemenis who first fled to Saudi Arabia and were then forced to return to Yemen, eventually making their way to the UNHCR-run Internal Displaced Person (IDP) camps at Mazrak.

According to the UNHCR office in the nearby town of Harad, the population of the largest of the three camps has doubled in the last month to 16,675. However, this number is only a fraction of the estimated 150,000 who have been forced to flee the on-again, off-again fighting that has plagued the north for five years.

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