Hodeidah, Yemen – Minutes. That’s all Muhammed Yassin had to save his family.
When two low-flying aircraft roared over his neighbourhood in the western city of Hodeidah last month, the 35-year-old knew time was ticking.
Like many Yemenis that day he rushed home, picked up his family, and hastily began packing essentials in order to leave.
More than 120,000 Yemenis had already fled the war-ravaged city since the start of June, most of them heading to the relative safety of the capital, Sanaa, about 170km away.
As laser-guided bombs were being prepared for release, Yassin and his family-of-four boarded a rickety old bus in which they spent the next few hours, peering out of the windows monitoring the skies.
It wasn’t long before the deafening sounds of warplanes fell silent, and the thick trails of white smoke from the multi-million dollar jets became small specks in the horizon.
“As we headed to Sanaa, I was looking forward to putting my family in the safe trust of the United Nations,” he told Al Jazeera.
But when they reached the capital, they were greeted by the sight of charred buildings, crumpled cars, and sewage in the streets – a city reeling from more than three years of air attacks by a Saudi-UAE military alliance.
I tell my children that things will be ok, but it's hard to convince them when I struggle to even convince myself.
‘Go hungry or go home’
Hundreds of Yemenis, most of them women and children, had been forced to take refuge in schools, he said.
The institutions had long-abandoned teaching and instead became makeshift shelters for the displaced, according to Yassin.
Children were found sleeping on the dusty floors of the Abu Bakr al-Siddiq school where his family, and dozens of others, had been housed.
According to several Yemenis who had also made the journey, costs had skyrocketed. The price of escorting a family to Sanaa had surged to 60,000 riyals ($240).
Once the internally displaced made it to the capital, rent and food cost a staggering 200,000 riyals ($800) a month.
With fruits, vegetables, and cooking gas in short supply, Yassin said the cost of living was just “too high”.
After all his savings dried up, he said he was presented with two options; either stay in the capital and go hungry, or return to Hodeidah and provide for his family.
“I had no option but to return home,” he told Al Jazeera.
“I am worried about facing death [in Hodeidah], but I am also worried about staying in a city without any source of income”.
Once home to around 600,000 people, Hodeidah was a lifeline for millions of Yemenis before the war, and handled about 90 percent of the country imports.
Since it was captured by the Houthis during their 2014 lightening offensive, the Red Sea port city has seen its fortunes shift from Yemen’s agro-industrial capital, to a fierce battleground between the country’s warring factions.
According to aid groups, about 400,000 people still reside in the city, where Houthi fighters have started erecting barricades, digging trenches, and fortifying positions in preparation for guerrilla warfare.
“We have immediate concerns about the safety of people in the path of fighting,” said Suze van Meegen, a spokeswoman for the Norwegian Refugee Council in Hodeidah.
“We are concerned for children, the elderly and people with disabilities. We are concerned that the city could be closed off for a long period with nothing able to get in or out, and in that case, the biggest concern of all is the possible severing of supply lines into the rest of Yemen.
“That will push millions of people over the cliff of hunger into a full-blown famine.”
‘Can’t afford to leave’
With the Saudi-UAE alliance intensifying their bombing campaign on Houthis-held areas, several residents told Al Jazeera they had grown tired of trying to flee, only to find their next refuge becoming a target as well.
In June, the last month where statistics of air raids were available, the Saudi-UAE alliance carried out at least 258 air raids, nearly a third of which hit non-military sites.
The Yemen Data Project said at least 96 of those were carried out on Hodeidah.
“I can no longer afford to leave,” said Samar Abdullah, a 38-year-old mother of four.
“I tell my children that things will be ok, but it’s hard to convince them when I struggle to even convince myself.”
While some males such as Yassin had left with their wives and children, many said they returned home either to look after their property, find work to fight alongside the Houthis.
“I needed an income to support my family,” said Mahdi Ahmed, a 44-year-old supermarket worker who recently returned to the city.
Too poor to leave again, he says he expects the next few weeks to be “very difficult” unless the air attacks stop.
“I want to leave, but I’m prepared to live under bombardment,” he said.
As long as the Houthis control Hodeidah city, they have an advantage that can bolster their position in any future political process.
The military offensive to take back Hodeidah is the most intense battle so far in a war that has killed more than 10,000 people.
Dubbed Operation Golden Victory, it is carried out by a disparate collective of 20,000 men.
The forces include the National Resistance, a group of fighters loyal to Yemen’s former President Ali Abdullah Saleh, the Tihama Resistance, a group of fighters loyal to Yemen’s exiled President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi, and the Giant Brigades, an elite unit backed by the UAE.
Despite each force pushing a different agenda, the National Resistance, led by the former president’s nephew Tariq Mohammed Saleh, has appeared to be the most effective of the fighting units.
Saleh, who analysts say is motivated by the killing of his uncle by the Houthis in December, has led his forces to within 2km of the rebel-held airport.
The offensive marks the first time since the start of the conflict that the alliance has tried to capture such a heavily defended city.
Analysts say the alliance is readying an attack on Hodeidah airport and a major highway linked to Sanaa.
“The Houthis have no plans to retreat,” said Khalil Dewan, a MENA analyst at IHS Markit.
“Their military wing [looks] set to fight the Saudi-UAE alliance to the end.
“As long as the Houthis control Hodeidah city, they have an advantage that can bolster their position in any future political process.”
‘Nowhere safe left to hide’
Should the alliance advance beyond the airport into the poor neighbourhoods of al-Rabsa and Ghalil, Houthi snipers and landmines will lie in wait, he added.
“The alliance absolutely wants to avoid street battles,” said Adam Baron, an analyst at the European Council on Foreign Relations.
“But it’s hard to see the Houthis – absent a diplomatic breakthrough – simply packing up their bags and moving on.”
Warning the human cost of retaking the city could be catastrophic, aid agencies have been trying to broker a deal saying the assault puts thousands of civilians “at grave risk” and could turn the city into a “graveyard“.
As the Saudis continue to bomb the city and drop leaflets calling for an insurrection, Yassin said the future looked bleak for the thousands of trapped civilians.
“There’s nowhere safe left to hide”.
Follow Al Jazeera’s Faisal Edroos on Twitter: @FaisalEdroos