* Refugees fleeing Yemen mostly foreigners
* Yemenis culturally reluctant to become refugees
* Immense hardship, grinding poverty grips nation
* No end in sight to fighting
* Desperation could turn trickle of refugees into flood
By Alistair Lyon
March 9 (Reuters) - Amid Yemen's misery, two young women living in the war-damaged cities of Aden and Sanaa know they are among the relatively fortunate. They are not starving, their homes have not been destroyed and they have survived bombs and bullets unscathed.
But both long to escape the conflict plunging their country ever deeper into catastrophe. Neither can see a way out.
"I don't want to lose my life over a dream," says Nisma al-Ozebi, a 21-year-old civil engineering student in the southern port city of Aden. She hankers for a scholarship that would be her passport to a sanctuary in Europe, but adds: "I don't want to leave Yemen and live like a refugee."
Yemen's civil war intensified sharply almost a year ago when a Saudi-led Arab coalition intervened with air strikes, a naval blockade and ground troops to counter Houthi rebels intent on seizing the whole country.
The Houthis, Zaidi Shi'ite tribesmen now allied with an old enemy, former President Ali Abdullah Saleh, are seen by Riyadh as tools of regional arch-foe Iran, a charge they and Tehran deny.
"You feel like death is waiting in every place," says Kholood al-Absi, 27, who lost her job with an oil services company in Sanaa late last year. "From the air it's Saudi planes. From the ground it's Houthis, car bombs, explosions, clashes. You feel the lives of Yemenis are very cheap."
Reached by telephone at her home in the capital, she says: "I have a valid passport ... I'm just ready to go."
But she admits it's a fantasy for now. Her family would never let her travel as a single woman, even if she had enough money to study abroad and seek a new life.
Besides, she can't imagine crowding into a refugee boat for Djibouti. "It's very dangerous, so I think it's better for me to die in my home than to die far away," she laughs.
About 170,000 people have fled Yemen so far, mostly to Djibouti, Ethiopia, Somalia and Sudan. Most of them are not Yemenis, but returning refugees and other foreigners. The United Nations expects another 167,000 departures this year.
Given the immense hardships in Yemen, a greater refugee exodus might have been expected. People fleeing war and poverty in the Middle East and beyond have flooded into the EU since early 2015 causing a crisis.
However, penned in by ocean and desert, with only Saudi Arabia and Oman as direct neighbours, Yemenis have no easy outlets - although Riyadh now allows those already in the kingdom to stay. Flights out are irregular at best. Former havens such as Jordan now demand visas and set tough conditions.
Mogib Abdullah, a Yemeni spokesman for the U.N. refugee agency UNHCR, says his countrymen have in the past tended not to migrate for work much further than Saudi Arabia, are culturally reluctant to become refugees, and view getting to Europe as a very difficult option.
"People do not really have the courage or means and resources to do it," he says. "I think they will just have to live with the realities they have. They are trapped and they will continue to be trapped, until the warring parties acknowledge that Yemenis deserve a better life at peace in their own country."
The war has inflicted a devastating toll on 26 million Yemenis struggling to survive in an already impoverished country beset by acute water scarcity, poor governance and corruption.
The United Nations estimates conservatively 6,000 people have been killed, about half of them civilians. It says four-fifths of Yemenis need outside aid. More than half have poor food supply and at least 320,000 children under five are severely malnourished. Upwards of 2.4 million have been forcibly displaced.
Low living standards and education levels in Yemen mean Nisma and Kholood, with their hopes of visas to study in Europe, are the exception, not the rule. But if the war lasts longer, desperation might yet turn a trickle of refugees into a flood.
"I was ambitious, I liked to dream, I had many plans in my head," says Kholood of her pre-war life. "But the war has stolen everything from me. I'm just thinking maybe I will die today or tomorrow. I feel like I'm dying but still breathing."
The country she once knew has unravelled.
"Now there is a big gap between Yemenis. Before, all of us, Sunni and Shi'ite, went to the same mosques, gathered in the same places. This war makes us ask which religion, which party, someone belongs to," she said.
Evidence of worsening poverty is stark. "A lot of people are just begging for money and food. Some are well-educated people who lost their jobs and couldn't feed their children. This war has stolen their dignity," Kholood says. "I feel it's unbearable for me, but my situation is better than a lot of people."
Kholood said she feels lonely because friends had left Yemen, sad because of relatives who had been killed and lacking purpose without the job she loved.
Now, apart from domestic chores, she spends time on Facebook and watching the news, especially a channel that quickly reports the location of air strikes. "When we hear bombs, we go to this channel to see where they are falling," she says.
Kholood has no love for the Houthis, but her initial support for the Saudi intervention has soured with the passage of time. "We feel it destroyed Yemen. Saudi Arabia and the other countries supporting it ... are just killing people without feeling any guilt. A lot of innocent people have been killed, civilians, children."
No end to the fighting is in sight. The Saudi-led coalition, mostly comprising Sunni Muslim Arab states, has failed to win a clear victory despite its air power and resources.
The Houthis were pushed out of Aden in July by local Sunni militias backed by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. The main fighting has moved to fiercely contested Taiz and closer to the Houthi-held capital Sanaa in the north.
Yet the battle-hardened Houthis are defiant. Holed up in Aden, Saudi-backed President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi enjoys international recognition, but little popular support, even among his fellow-southerners.
The war has fuelled Sunni-Shi'ite animosities, long muted in Yemen, and deepened rifts between the north and the once-independent south, where separatist sentiment runs high.
Among the main beneficiaries of the mayhem are militants of al Qaeda and the newly implanted Islamic State. This unintended, if predictable, consequence of the war worries Saudi Arabia's main arms suppliers, the United States, Britain and France.
Yet whatever their misgivings, Western powers provide munitions, intelligence, mid-air refuelling and other support for the Saudi-led coalition, despite what a U.N. panel describes as its "widespread and systematic attacks on civilian targets".
Critics in Yemen and elsewhere accuse the United States and its allies of willingness to sacrifice Yemeni civilian lives to safeguard arms deals with Gulf states worth billions of dollars and to placate Saudi anger over a fragile Western detente with Iran, a suggestion Western officials dismiss.
Caught up in the turmoil are millions of Yemenis, among them Kholood and Nisma, who live in daily fear.
With her father and step-mother away in Jordan for medical reasons, Nisma was left in sole charge of her three younger siblings, including her five-year-old brother Mustafa, when fighting erupted near their home in March 2015.
The Houthis and their allies were assaulting the airport in Aden, which Hadi had declared his temporary capital after being driven from Sanaa. Street battles raged for the next four months. Few supplies reached the blockaded city.
Nisma and her siblings moved twice in search of safety. First, crammed into a neighbour's car with a family of five, to an aunt's house after a missile exploded next door. And then a few days later, when rockets and shells pounded their aunt's district, to their grandmother's home.
The family, by now reunited, returned home to Aden's Khormaksar district when fighting abated in July and to their surprise found it undamaged, unlike many others.
Nisma says a degree of normality has returned, with power and water restored. But she has lost any sense of personal security. "I go out of my house every day expecting I will be killed anywhere, at any time, by any guy," she says.
Frequent assassinations and attacks by Islamist fighters, other factions and criminal gangs in the last six months illustrate new risks in a once-cosmopolitan Arabian Sea port.
"They say they follow Islamic State, but who knows," Nisma reflects. "If they are bold enough to stop us and tell us to dress as they want, maybe one day they will lock us in our houses. The Afghanistan model is coming here soon."
This fear drives her determination to escape a country where any hope for a better future has evaporated.
"Everyone is thinking of leaving, but how and where?"
(Reporting by Alistair Lyon, editing by Peter Millership and William Maclean)
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