A view of Old Town in Sana'a, Yemen. Aid workers are in constant risk of violence and kidnappings in the country. Photo by: Richard Messenger / CC BY-NC

Drones were hovering over the Yemeni capital of Sana’a on Wednesday as Muslims break their fast following the end of Ramadan, while Western embassies remain shuttered and are scrambling to get their staff out of the country amid the threat of a terrorist attack.

The ruckus was triggered by an alleged intercepted message between al-Qaeda officials in recent days hinting on a possible attack inside Yemen. From the outside, Yemen suddenly turned into a very dangerous place to be in, prompting Western governments to withdraw embassy personnel and issue travel bans to the Middle Eastern country.

Devex spoke to several aid groups which indicated how such threats are making life even more difficult for them than it already was. Insecurity is already a norm for many of them in Yemen, and such high security alerts are just reinforcing that feeling and forcing some of them to suspend work.

“The matter is psychological in that the threat and high security precautions are a constant impediment to our work … The unsafe environment is a daily reality in Yemen we are confronted with. At Sana’a level there are no ‘acceptance’ strategy measures to put in place as our programs are in the field, [though] we strongly emphasize acceptance along with a set of internal security measures to minimize risk,” said ACTED Country Director Toma Dursina.

ACTED helps address malnutrition and food security, promote livelihoods and provide water and sanitation in communities like Hodeidah, Rayman, Ibb and Ad-Dhalee, all of which located southwest of the capital.

Under constant threat

Insecurity is an unfortunate reality in Yemen. 

Aid workers, particularly international ones, are in constant risk of violence and kidnappings in the country. In June 2012, a staff member of the International Committee of the Red Cross reportedly died in an airstrike in Abyan provinc, and just this May, three ICRC employees were abducted for three days in the same province.

But no one’s pulling out, at least for now.

With the end of Ramadan just starting, most offices remain closed, although Dursina said ACTED’s field work is on “virtual standstill” and everyone is keeping behind closed doors.

“From our analysis we are not potential targets, as the embassies are perceived to be, but rather a potential collateral damage, toward which we protect by being in lockdown,” she said.

Another aid official working for an iNGO in Yemen shared the same view: “We do not think that INGOs will be the target of attacks, [but] of course we will avoid any unnecessary risks.”

The organization, in fact, has already taken precautions, relocatingsome of its most vulnerable international staff members and advising the rest to go into “hibernation” for the moment.

The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the iNGO is following the situation closely and will assess in coming weeks whether to take more drastic measures or resort back to normal settings - “meaning very limited movement for international staff.”

Humanitarians on their own

A security forum set up by both iNGOs and U.N. agencies provides advice to groups on security situation on a daily basis in Yemen.

This is also where the government courses relevant security information. But apart from that channel, aid workers are left to fend for themselves and take cautionary measures on their own.

“In general we follow [the security forum’s] advise. But each iNGO takes its own measures,” explained the official.

The currently tense and unpredictable environment in Yemen may take some time to pass, but then again, it has always been that way, aid groups noted.

The official argued: “You know this is not that different than a normal situation in Yemen for all aid organizations, now the issue is on the news because of the closing of embassies and the alleged threats of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.”

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About the author

  • Jenny Lei Ravelo

    Jenny Lei Ravelo is a Devex Senior Reporter based in Manila. She covers global health, with a particular focus on the World Health Organization, and other development and humanitarian aid trends in Asia Pacific. Prior to Devex, she wrote for ABS-CBN, one of the largest broadcasting networks in the Philippines, and was a copy editor for various international scientific journals. She received her journalism degree from the University of Santo Tomas.