In Yemen’s Hudaida, ‘the sound of warplanes never ceases’
Fears of mass displacement grow as air raids by Saudi and Emirati-led coalition jets around Houthi-held city intensify.
As a Saudi and Emirati-led coalition continues launching air raids in the Yemeni port city of Hudaida, nearly 4,500 families have fled their homes in the front line districts amid rising fears of a humanitarian catastrophe.
Five days into the offensive, residents inside Houthi-held Hudaida pondered an uncertain future as thousands of other civilians were forced to abandon their towns and villages on the city’s southern outskirts due to the escalating bombardment.
“The sound of the warplanes above never ceases, night and day,” Manal Qaed, an independent journalist who works with a community centre for the displaced in Hudaida, told Al Jazeera over the phone on Sunday.
“The planes are low in the sky; we hear every explosion on the edges of the city,” added the 34-year-old.
“Everyone is worried. We just don’t know what is going to happen.”
‘Empty of residents’
After three years of war on Yemen, the coalition-backed government forces took their latest battle arena to Hudaida on June 13, in an attempt to force the Iran-aligned Houthi militia to relinquish its hold over the city’s vital Red Sea port.
Described by the United Nations as a lifeline for Yemeni citizens, the port was responsible for more than 70 percent of the country’s imports pre-2015. But the coalition says it has been used by the rebels to smuggle in weapons from Iran.
The Saudi and United Arab Emirates forces want control of the port to be handed over to a UN-supervised committee or to exiled leader Abdrabbu Mansour Hadi’s government.
Two-thirds of Yemen’s population of 27 million rely on aid from Hudaida port and 8.4 million are already at the risk of starvation, leading the UN to describe Yemen as the world’s worst humanitarian crisis.
Ahead of the offensive, the UN warned that 250,000 Yemenis could die if fighting cut off crucial supplies coming through the port of Hudaida.
Amid the growing concerns, UN special envoy to Yemen Martin Griffiths arrived on Saturday in the rebel-held capital, Sanaa, in an effort to broker a ceasefire. So far, there has been no agreement.
Scores of combatants have reportedly been killed since the launch of the military push, while the air strikes have mostly focused on Hudaida’s airport to support forces attempting to seize it by Houthi fighters.
The Houthis, who took control of the strategic city in late 2014, dismissed claims by the UAE on Saturday that the airport was now under their control.
Yet the intensive fighting taking place near the site has affected thousands of people, with the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) saying on Sunday that 4,458 households have been internally displaced from southern districts such as Bait al-Faqih, al-Dureihimi and al-Tuhayat since June 1.
“The displacement is taking place from outside the city towards it,” Qaed said. “Their situation is very difficult as they have no means of transportation other than by foot.”
An estimated 400 displaced families from the village of al-Mandhar made their way to Hudaida on Saturday.
“That’s 90 percent of what used to be the village’s 5,000-strong population,” Qaed said. “Another village, Taif, has been completely emptied of its residents.”
She added that the humanitarian situation in the southern district of al-Dureihimi “is also dire”, noting that 80 percent of the residents there were unable to leave.
“The Red Cross still hasn’t managed to get access to the area because so far it has only succeeded in obtaining a permit from the Houthis but not from the coalition.”
‘Another day they go hungry’
Speaking to Al Jazeera over the phone, Abdo Mohammed Haidar, a Hudaida resident, described the situation inside the city as “stable” but said that “people fear the shelling will reach them”, as well.
“The main road connecting Hudaida to Sanaa has been blocked off,” Haidar said.
Still, that has not stopped a small number of families from relocating to the city of Ibb, some 300km south, or to al-Mahwit, 150km to the north, Haidar said.
“We hear the sounds of gunfire and shelling clearly,” he said. “There is little aid to give to the displaced people. Some organisations like UNICEF provided them with basic medical relief but it’s not enough.”
Haidar said the offensive might not have yet paralysed movement in the city, but has worsened the residents’ day-to-day lives.
“Most of the people are poor and work hand-to-mouth,” he said. “Every day that passes without them working means another day where they go hungry.”
Yet it is not all doom and gloom. According to Ibtisam al-Mutawakkil, an activist and poet, the city’s spirit has not been broken.
“Hudaida is known for its tranquility and friendly people,” Mutawakkil told Al Jazeera over the phone. “Despite the events of these past few days, there has been a strong form of resilience among the city’s residents.”
Mutawakkil said that on the first day of the Eid al-Fitr holiday, people were out celebrating in Shaab Garden and other public parks, to the background noise of air attacks.
“They watched the World Cup games in the parks to escape from the heat of their homes, even as the shelling went on,” she said.
“There were fears at the beginning no doubt from the furor that was created by the media, but the residents have come together and cooperated fully with the army and popular committees (armed groups assisting Yemeni army),” she added.
Displacement so far has been restricted to the areas on the outskirts of the city that have been under constant bombardment since the offensive began, she said.
Yet for Qaed, the morale of Hudaida’s residents after more than three years of devastating war which has displaced millions and killed more than 10,000 is “very low.”
“What civilians fear most is the possibility that the port would be closed or come under siege,” she said.
“There is talk that if that happens, then the humanitarian aid – food and fuel – will not be able to make their way in. This will be the reason for mass displacement.”
Follow Linah Alsaafin on Twitter at @LinahAlsaafin