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.
In the capital Sanaa and the industrial city of Taiz, carved into warring units by pro- and anti-Saleh forces, children in neighborhoods rocked by gunfire and shelling are trapped at home. At least 50 Sanaa schools are closed due to the general unrest — more than half of those were seized by armed gunmen.
Lahej, like nearby Aden, says already some 34 schools have been closed to house refugees from Abyan.
“Should the current situation continue, every single province will be impacted, and many of Yemen’s 4 million school-going kids could be affected,” said Geert Cappelaere, the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) representative in Yemen.
“If Yemen is to ever get out of its current, dire crisis, the single most important investment it can make right now is in the education of its people,” Cappelaere said.
Yemen was grappling with poor education before the unrest. Some 40 percent of Yemenis suffer from illiteracy and soaring unemployment has especially hit the youth bulge of the country’s 24 million people.
Cappelaere warned of a self-perpetuating cycle of violence should unrest halt schooling as poverty and desperation spread in a country where militant groups like al Qaeda are seeking recruits.
‘Schools held hostage’
At Aden’s Haqqani school, tattered mattresses are laid around classrooms as cramped, makeshift quarters that house as many as 19 people per room. The only room that seems bare is a store room it holds a few bags of flour and pieces of donated clothes hang from a chalkboard sagging on the back wall.
Umm Sughair cooks rice for her children on a wood fire outside, the smoke peeling the paint away from colorful school murals.
“I can’t sleep at night, I think about home. We have no money, our homes are destroyed, our jobs gone. Tell me what I should do?”
U.N. officials argue that local governments may have created this problem for itself and ask why several empty housing units and a soccer stadium were not used to house refugees.
“To put it bluntly, kids and their education are being held hostage for political purposes,” UNICEF’s Cappelaere said. “They worry about damage to those private properties or the stadiums. They’re not worried about damage to their schools?”
He said the government may be stalling both to focus international attention on the militancy crisis and to keep local coffers filled with foreign aid donations they fear might dry up without the publicity of the occupied schools.
Local official Ahmed al-Kahlani, head of a government commission for housing Abyan’s refugees, said Aden was finalizing a plan to rent some buildings as new shelters or provide rental subsidies to refugees.
Until then, Aden’s school administrators are struggling to cope. One district plans to use six empty schools for all of its 24,000 children by teaching on a three-period rotation.
Other districts have yet to offer parents solutions. Hussam Assam, a 33-year-old father of two, said he goes to school administrators daily to demand help.
“I’ve been following up every day with the education ministry. I’ve met the district officials. They’re trying to convince the (refugees) to move out so we can have some schools free for our kids,” he said. “It’s exhausting.”
Displaced families say they have heard nothing from the government, and fear being pushed out without alternatives.
Aid workers and refugees who speak to relatives still in Abyan warn the clashes with militants may worsen. Resentment is rising not only among locals, but the refugees themselves.
From the tiny classroom she shares with two other families, a frail 54-year-old woman who identified herself only as Mariam peers out the window at young men dozing in the playground.
“This war in Abyan, all of these problems seem to be part of some game. But they’re playing with people’s lives.”