In Yemen, schools become hostages of rising crisis

Wed Oct 19, 2011 10:06am EDT
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By Erika Solomon

ADEN, Yemen (Reuters) - The playground of Aden's al-Haqqani school should be filled with squealing children at this time of year -- instead, goats pick through the brittle grass as young men doze atop crumbling school desks strewn across the yard.

The two-storey, faded white concrete building is one of some 76 schools in this port city -- half of the total -- overflowing with refugees from the volatile south as Yemen's humanitarian crisis worsens by the day.

In the south alone, nearly 100,000 people have fled homes shelled and razed in Aden's neighboring Abyan province, where the army has been trying to retake cities seized by al Qaeda-linked militants since March.

"Everyone fled. The ones who stayed are dead. We were so afraid when we ran, we thought that's it, we'll die," said Umm Sughair, a 45-year-old woman swathed in black, her furrowed, bronze face etched by months of fear.

"Now authorities say we have to leave these schools. We can't leave -- where could we go?"

Hundreds of displaced families ended up stranded in this southern coastal city without shelter before residents ushered them into local schools that were converted into refugee camps.

But the measure was meant to be temporary, and as the crisis drags on aid groups are pushing the government to move refugees into permanent camps so the children can start classes.

Aid organizations and many Yemenis believe the fighting with al Qaeda in the south is at least partially meant to distract citizens and international donors from a crackdown by government forces on protesters demanding an end to the 33-year rule of President Ali Abdullah Saleh, violence that has paralyzed the impoverished Arabian Peninsula state.   Continued...

<p>A school door is painted with the colours of Yemen's national flag, as a soldier stands guard, on the first day of the General Secondary Examinations in Sanaa June 26, 2011. REUTERS/Suhaib Salem</p>