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WFP aid suspension sends Hodeidah's displaced back home

With starvation threats looming, Yemenis are trickling back from Sanaa to find a battle-ravaged city
Displaced Yemenis from Hodeidah fill jerrycans with water at a makeshift camp in the northern district of Abs in the country's Hajjah province (AFP)
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Hodeidah, Yemen

Although battles are still raging in Hodeidah, people displaced from the port city have already begun returning to their homes from Sanaa, as they struggle to feed their families in the Yemeni capital.

Since pro-Yemeni government forces began their assault on the highly strategic Red Sea city a year ago, the United Nations' World Food Programme (WFP) in Sanaa has played the leading role in providing Hodeidah's displaced with monthly food packages.

However, the WFP suspended aid distribution in Sanaa last month after disputes with the Houthis over the agency's biometric system introduced to prevent the rebel movement from diverting aid.

The decision affects 850,000 people in the capital Sanaa, including Hodeidah displaced.

Staring at the prospect of starvation in the capital, some Yemenis have returned to their war-torn homes where they are more likely to secure their monthly rations.

Mohammed al-Boraie, 43, fled his house in Hodeidah's al-Rabasah neighbourhood in June 2018 after hearing there were organisations in Sanaa that could help the displaced there. He left everything behind, prioritising the safety of his seven family members.

“A friend rented a house for me in Sanaa and that was the first step towards stability,” Boraie told Middle East Eye.

“Then the sheikh of the neighbourhood registered my name as a beneficiary for WFP aid and I have been receiving food aid from the WFP since August 2018.”

Boraie used to work as a bus driver, but when he arrived in Sanaa he could not find any work and his family struggled with basic services and proper healthcare.

“During the last year, we were depending on WFP food aid and the food was enough for the whole month," he said.

"If not for the WFP aid, my children would starve to death.”

Returning home

Boraie never thought that the WFP would stop providing his family with the much-needed food - and was shocked when they did.

“When the sheikh told me that the WFP would not provide us with food, I changed all our plans as we cannot stay in Sanaa without it,” he said.

“We knew from the sheikh that the WFP would continue to distribute food aid in Hodeidah and they only suspended it in Sanaa, so there was no choice but to return to our house in Hodeidah.”

Boraie borrowed money for transportation from a friend and took his family back to Hodeidah on 23 June.

When he arrived, he found the city in a better state than it had been last year - regular life has returned to some extent, despite ongoing battles in the outskirts.

Yemenis receive sacks of food aid packages from the World Food Programme (WFP) in the Yemeni port city of Hodeidah (AFP)
Yemenis receive sacks of food aid packages from the World Food Programme (WFP) in the Yemeni port city of Hodeidah (AFP)

In fact, Boraie said, anxiety he faced about the fighting last year has been replaced by fears his family will die of starvation instead.

There are 3.3 million people internally displaced in Yemen, while the humanitarian crisis there remains the worst in the world.

Nearly four years of conflict and severe economic decline have driven the country to the brink of famine and exacerbated needs in all sectors, according to the UN.

An estimated 80 percent of the population – 24 million people – require some form of humanitarian or protection assistance. Some 14.3 million of those are in acute need.

Meanwhile, the number of people in acute need has grown 27 percent over the past year. Two-thirds of all provinces in the country are in a pre-famine state.

A reviving city

Last year the streets of Hodeidah were almost emptied of people, and many shops and companies were shuttered as residents fled the fighting.

Hodeidah's port is the conduit through which the majority of Yemen's imports arrive to the country, and fighting there threatened to significantly worsen the humanitarian situation and catapult millions in famine.

UN-led efforts have helped alleviate the fighting, and in turn residents have gradually been trickling back to the city.

Around Hodeidah the sounds of clashes can be heard, and occassional shelling hits residential areas. Yet Yemenis are managing to regain a sense of normalcy all the same.

“Residents of Hodeidah do not care about the battles as they believe clashes aren't going to stop any time soon. Besides, they are working hard to find food," said Mubarak al-Otomi, a 35-year-old resident of the city.

“I was displaced but I returned to Hodeidah after suffering in Sanaa because of a lack of basic services and food.”

If the displaced had proper services in displacement, they would not return to the city amid fighting

- Mubarak al-Otomi, Hodeidah resident

Otomi said opportunities for employment in Hodeidah were much greater than before, and relief organisations were doing their best to help people.

“I believe that life in our home is better than displacement - no one thinks about fleeing the city again even if battles arrive at our houses,” he added.

“If the displaced had proper services in displacement, they would not return to the city amid fighting."

Fighting usually intensifies at night, and for a long time people rarely ventured out after dark.

As things have improved, however, men, women and children are increasingly seen out in the evenings, and have adapted to the ferocious sounds of war in the distance.

Dependency

Abdulkhaleq al-Sawa, 53, is from Hodeidah but now living in Sanaa.

He told MEE that many displaced people like him haven't returned home yet, but the suspension meant they could soon head back to Hodeidah

“No one can deny the role of the WFP in helping displaced people in Sanaa and I am one of them - I became dependent on organisations,” Sawa said.

Sawa has been living in his brother’s house in Sanaa since July 2018 but he believes it's time to go home and resume his regular life.

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“In Hodeidah I can find work again as an accountant with a local corporation, as I used to do before the war,” he said.

He added that his return to Hodeidah had been delayed due to the sweltering temperatures in the city. Without electricity to return to, cooling his Hodeidah home would be impossible, so it's better to wait a couple of months until the climate chills somewhat.

“The battles are not a threat as we have already adapted to them, but it is difficult for children to enjoy their lives in the hot weather,” he said.

Back in Hodeidah, Boraie said he had been pleased to find his hometown so full of people when he returned.

“War changed our life for the worse," he said. "I hope warring parties stop this war, so we can resume our work and children can resume their studies in a safe environment.”