Pawns of Gulf war live forgotten in Yemen camps

Pawns of Gulf war live forgotten in Yemen camps

Tens of thousands of guest workers expelled by Saudi Arabia subsist in a Red Sea shanty town, reports Brian Whitaker 

Originally published in The Guardian, 7 January 1993

SADDAM Street, Martyrs District and the Mother of Battles District. The citizens of Hodeida have with bitter irony attached these names to some 1,400 acres of what was waste land two years ago, and is now home to more than 100,000 indirect victims of the Gulf war.

In the wake of the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, the Saudis began a mass expulsion of foreigners, mainly to punish neighbouring Yemen for refusing to join the alliance against Iraq.

Yemenis, who had for years been allowed to work in Saudi Arabia without a special permit, were given the almost impossible task of finding an immediate Saudi sponsor - or leaving.

The Saudis also took the opportunity to expel anyone else who had no passport and seemed to be a burden on the state: the blind, the infirm, beggars, plus a few thieves and drug addicts. All were bundled over the border into Yemen, an already poor country. Not everyone survived the journey.

As they arrived, the Yemeni authorities counted 731,800 of their own citizens but gave up counting the rest. Most estimates put the total at 1 million or more.

The road south from Saudi Arabia led to the hot and humid Tihama Plain, and the Red Sea port of Hodeida. There, within a few weeks, the population more than doubled.

Today, the new place-names are only one sign that the camps around Hodeida, hastily set up to cope with the emergency, are becoming permanent. Amid the shelters built of sacking and rubbish, a handful of huts serve as shops and there is the odd two-storey plywood house, with an outside staircase and an upper floor that sags as you walk across it. A man who scraped together the cash to buy an old vehicle now runs a bus service. In some compounds, a few animals grub about in the sand for blades of grass.

The people here are the least fortunate of the returnees. Those with savings, skills or close family ties moved on. Those who remain have virtually nothing. They tell of belongings left behind, televisions and video cassette recorders sold to Saudis for a tenth of their value, refrigerators abandoned along the road.

Many of the men say they were labourers or porters in Saudi Arabia, and reflect sadly that nobody in Yemen pays to have bags carried. There are a few casual jobs in Hodeida. One man said he averaged a day's work once a fortnight. Others live by collecting leftovers from the back doors of restaurants.

Officially, the Yemeni government provides everyone with bread, though its distribution has largely been taken over by Yemen's Islamic opposition party, Islah (which ironically has close links with Saudi Arabia).

There are some who believe Islah's work is not entirely charitable, and that the party has identified the camps as breeding grounds for disaffection.

They also breed disease. Last summer, there was an outbreak of cholera because toilets and wells had been dug only a few feet apart. Today, fresh water is available from tanks, and there are 3,000 toilets, though no electricity as yet.

Many people are camped on private land and fear eviction. Hastily erected breeze-block boundary walls serve as a warning to the returnees to keep out.

In the office of Hindi Musa Magam, director of the returnees' department in Hodeida, a succession of elderly men make their way up the stairs to ask for help. Some are blind and led by small boys while others shuffle along hesitantly, leaning on sticks.

"These people have no chance of work,' Mr Magam says. 'It's a big problem. A world problem.' So far, help has been limited. Yemeni government employees each contributed three days' pay. The United Nations has given some assistance, as have Italy, Holland and Germany. Oxfam is building a medical centre in partnership with the local authorities.

But Ramsey Jamil of Oxfam's Middle East desk says: 'It's a long-term infrastructural crisis, especially in terms of health and education. The people are now there to stay. The camps are clearly going to be a major suburb of Hodeida.' The need, then, is not just for temporary relief but for huge investment in basic facilities - money which the Yemenis themselves cannot provide. Yet, with the problem virtually overshadowed by the thousands of Somali refugees fleeing to Yemen by boat, it is money the returnees are unlikely to get.

Back in the camp, Ibrahim Issa, an elderly labourer with failing eyesight, lowers himself slowly on to the stone where he sits. He has, he says, no idea of how old he is, only that he was born 'when Yahya was king'. But he knows for sure that he will not return to Saudi. 'I'd rather eat sand,' he says.