Thousands of Yemen's Al Akhdam minority are trapped between frontlines

Dozens of children and women have died from lack of medical care and starvation

A village in Dhalea province in Yemen. Ali Mahmood for The National
Powered by automated translation

Thousands of Yemen’s oppressed Al Akhdam minority have been caught in the crossfire between Houthi rebels and pro-government forces fighting in the southern province of Al Dhalea.

The Akhdam, which means servant, are the bottom of Yemen’s supposedly abolished social caste system. They are scattered all over the country but many live in Al Sadrein, an impoverished village in Al Dhalea.

Dozens of children and pregnant women belonging to the group have recently died from starvation, malnutrition and lack of medical care as aid organisations have been blocked by the Houthis from entering the village, residents told The National. 

“People in our village are dying in silence, our voices are no longer heard," resident Abdulaziz Qaid said.

"War has surrounded our poor village from all directions. The sounds of the artillery and the tanks are much louder than our exhausted voices.

“We can’t describe the catastrophic situation we have been living in since the confrontations intensified around us. Our village has been subject to the Houthi shelling."

Members of the group have faced racism and marginalisation for years, and live in slums around urban centres where they were confined to menial jobs even before the war erupted.

The Akhdam, who prefer to be known as the Muhamasheen or the oppressed people, have lived in the southern corner of the Arabian Peninsula for centuries, although their ethnic origin is unclear.

They usual work as street sweepers and are rarely granted contracts or government work. Their living conditions are appalling, even by the standards of Yemen, one of the poorest countries in the Arab region.

"Before the war we used to go to the public market in the morning and get what God grants us," said Jamal Hasan, the representative of the Akhdam in Al Sadrein.

"We would take up any jobs, cleaning, shoe shining or work in the farms so we can feed our families."

Since the outbreak of the war in Yemen in 2014, the Akhdam found themselves trapped inside Al Sadrein and unable to find jobs, Mr Hasan said.

"Fierce clashes erupted in Qatabah in the south and in the frontlines in Mureis near the public market, so we found ourselves trapped without any other options," he said.

Salwa, 9, told The National that people inside the village usually ate leftovers from the fighters.

“We need food," she said. "We can’t go to the public market to make a living because the market is near the frontlines.

Urgent calls for international assistance has been made, said Mohammed Al Waqidi, the manager of a local human rights organisation in Al Dhalea.

“I’m appealing to UN agencies, the World Food Programme and the other relief organisations to reach this forgotten village," Mr Al Waqidi said.

"People are dying there. They need urgent food, clean water and medicine."

He said humanitarian workers could reach the village through safe routes, or could co-ordinate with military forces to use armoured cars to access the area.

Without immediate help, thousands of lives are at risk, Mr Al Waqidi said.