Yemenis flee war-torn Aden to al-Qaeda-controlled city

After escaping intense fighting in Aden, residents face new challenges in Mukalla, which has been deserted by the army.

Yemen Mukalla
Local volunteers prepare lunch for displaced residents in the port city of Mukalla [Saeed Al Batati/Al Jazeera]

Al-Mukalla – Abdulghani Abdulsallam mistakenly thought that by escaping from his home in the war-wracked southern Yemeni port city of Aden, he would find a safe haven in Mukalla, the capital of Hadramout province.

The strategic city of Aden was embroiled in conflict in early February, when Houthi fighters, who are in full control of the capital and many other Yemeni provinces, sent troops to capture President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi, who later fled to Saudi Arabia.

The Houthi incursion into Aden set off bloody confrontations with fighters and army soldiers loyal to Hadi and triggered Saudi-led coalition air strikes, plunging the city into a humanitarian crisis. The fighting has driven hundreds of families out of their homes and left many others stranded in the city.

Abdulsallam’s relatives in Mukalla advised him to lock the door to his house in Aden’s Basateen district and head to Mukalla. “The shelling was heavy near my house,” Abdulsallam told Al Jazeera. However, leaving Aden was not an easy task.

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Due to a shortage of fuel, few cars were able to make their way out of Aden, while Abdulsallam found buses too full. It was not until earlier this month that a bus driver heading to Mukalla agreed to share his seat with Abdulsallam in exchange for some money.

Approaching Mukalla, however, Abdulsallam found that he had not fully escaped the war.

“When I arrived in the city of Mukalla, I heard big bangs and learned later that al-Qaeda had taken control of the city,” Abdulsallam said.

Al-Qaeda’s branch in the poverty-stricken country cashed in on the divisions within the army and the weakened central government, and stormed Mukalla on April 2. The raid was largely unresisted as army soldiers fled the city.

In the beginning, we lived with relatives in Mukalla, but we could not stay with them any longer since their houses were too small. We slept in the corridors and bathrooms.

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For many internally displaced people who have settled in Mukalla, however, al-Qaeda’s takeover was a blessing in disguise. Hundreds were able to find accommodation in army bases or security buildings deserted by the fleeing soldiers.

On the western outskirts of Mukalla, Abdulsallam and roughly 30 families who escaped violence in Aden were sheltered in a military intelligence building, the provincial branch of the country’s intelligence apparatus. They slept in small rooms, prison cells, and offices.

In the same complex, a young man complained that life was difficult even after he sold all of his valuable possessions to tend to his pregnant wife.

“I brought my family to Mukalla days after explosions occurred inside the Jabal Haded arms silo on March 28. In the beginning, we lived with relatives in Mukalla, but we could not stay with them any longer since their houses were too small. We slept in the corridors and bathrooms,” the man, who spoke on condition of anonymity, told Al Jazeera.

In the same complex, Fatehia, who used to live in Aden’s Khour Maksar district, said she longed for her house in Aden but could not go back due to the ongoing fighting. Since the beginning of the conflict in Aden, Khour Maksar has been the scene of fierce fighting as rival forces battled to gain control of the airport and an army base.

“Life in Mukalla is difficult. There are long power outages and water shortages. We want water to pray and wash our clothes,” she said.

Marwa, another displaced resident, told Al Jazeera that she decided to flee Aden after seeing rockets and mortars falling from the sky following the Jabal Haded silo explosions. “We fell sick after inhaling toxic fumes, so we travelled to Mukalla to stay with relatives,” she said. Marwa said she left behind terrified relatives who wished they would have left the city during the early days of violence. “My relatives in Aden live in miserable conditions. They are crying and regret that they did not come with us.”

Displaced people in the military buildings receive three meals a day, along with basic essential items such as milk for children, hygienic products and medicine for diabetics. The assistance is offered by a group of volunteers in Mukalla who collect aid from local donors.

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Saeed Ahmed al-Amari, a volunteer aid worker, told Al Jazeera that there were as many as 130 people in the three buildings, and more were expected. “These buildings have a capacity of 400 displaced people, but we still need more aid to deliver food baskets to some displaced families who live with relatives in Mukalla.”

Not too far from these buildings, as many as 450 Somalis have been sleeping in cramped conditions in a primary school. These residents, who lived in the Basateen slum on the outskirts of Aden, headed to Mukalla with the hopes of returning to Somalia if the security situation failed to improve. Aid workers in Mukalla told Al Jazeera that 200 Somali refugees have already docked at Somali seaports by way of Mukalla’s coast.

Um Bilal, who arrived in Mukalla with her eight siblings, said she would wait for some time before attempting to sail to Somalia. “My mother and sisters insist that we should stay in Yemen. But we cannot stay here if clashes spread to Mukalla,” she said.

Local aid charities have been working with the Somali refugees, helping to cover the costs of voyages for anyone wishing to sail to Somalia.

Source: Al Jazeera