The international community remains silent over Yemen's slaughter

The international community remains silent over Yemen's slaughter
6 min read
24 Jul, 2015
Comment: Air, sea and land blockades are stopping supplies reaching the country, causing the already extremely worrying situation to worsen further, writes Ole Solvant.
Aid has yet to reach most of Yemen's worst-hit areas [Getty]

When I met Ahmed al-Sherif, a watch repairer aged 38, he was lying on a bed in al-Jumhuri hospital in Saada, a town in north Yemen.

His torso was wrapped in bandages. He told me that an airstrike had hit his house five days earlier.

Shrapnel from the bomb injured him, as well as two of his children: Mohamed, a seven-year-old, in the left shoulder, and Abed, 12, on his arm and leg.

Ahmed and his family got away lightly - or at least they thought so at the time - as the attack killed four of their neighbours; a woman and her three children.

When I met him, his main concern was where he and his family were going to live, now that their house had been destroyed.

Under normal circumstances, Saada houses about 50,000 people. The town is the main base and bastion of Ansar Allah, whose members are better known as the Houthis. A group of Zaidis from northern Yemen, the Houthis took control of vast swathes of the country last year, forcing the president, Abd Rabbo Mansour Hadi, to flee to Saudi Arabia.

In retaliation to the Houthis' advance, a coalition of nine Arab states - led by Saudi Arabia - launched an airstrike campaign on 26 March that continues today.

I met up with a colleague in Yemen to investigate the airstrikes that have taken many civilian victims, and to understand whether the laws of war had been violated. We knew that Saada had been the target of most of the attacks, and so that was where we hoped to go.

Violating the laws of war

Few independent observers had come to Saada when we arrived in mid-May. It is not easy to get into Yemen. The coalition keeps the country's air and land access tightly closed and airstrikes are commonplace. Entering the country is a perilous exercise. Making the most of a five-day ceasefire, we went to see the situation up close, and speak to the victims and witnesses of recent events.

     The 13 attacks that we investigated caused the deaths of at least 59 people, of whom 35 were children.

What we found was a town peppered with bomb craters and ravaged buildings.

Coalition planes seemed to have hit all the government buildings, including the security installations - which were the natural target of the strikes - but also the offices of the administration that had not been valid military targets, such as the law courts, the prosecutor's office and the fire station.

They had also clearly affected many civil structures that are protected under wartime law.

We saw that at least six houses had been touched including that of Ahmed al-Sherif. Elsewhere, at least two bombs had destroyed the house of the al-Ibbi family, killing 27, including 17 children.

Riyadh's planes also struck at least five public market places and a school.

The 13 attacks that we investigated caused the deaths of at least 59 people, of whom 35 were children.

These strikes were illegal in that nothing proves they were targeting legitimate military targets.

Deliberate illegal attacks, or those that do not take into account their consequences can be compared with war crimes.

In addition to the airstrikes - a clear violation of the laws of war - we felt that the coalition had attacked Saada with bombs so powerful that they should not have been used in populated areas.

"Salman fishing in the Yemen" - read Bill Law's comment and analysis here

Satellite images reveal at least 210 impacts in the town of Saada, many of which resulted in the craters that are many metres deep.

Some of the armaments used by the coalition are capable of mutilating and killing people within a radius of tens or even hundreds of metres around the site of impact. Even when such an impact is intended to affect a specific military target, the effect on the civil population nearby can be devastating.

In other places in Yemen, civilians appear to have also fallen victim to illegal attacks.

In March, an air raid hit a camp for displaced people near to the border with Saudi Arabia, killing at least 31 civilians. On 31 March, an airstrike on a dairy factory near the port of Hudeida on the Red Sea also killed 31 civilians.

On 13 July, the media reported an airstrike had killed at least 25 civilians in Sanaa. But the Saudi-led coalition is not the only force making life difficult for civilians.

In the southern town of Aden, rocket attacks by pro-Houthi forces reached residential areas in Saudi Arabia, with civilian victims. Such inaccurate rockets should not be used in populated areas. This kind of attack is always indiscriminate, is illegal and is similar to war crimes.

An air, land and sea blockade

Elsewhere in Yemen, the war has caused an already unstable humanitarian situation to deteriorate. In Saada, the bombings have destroyed essential infrastructure such as electric power stations or hydraulic facilities - which may have a military purpose, but which are also crucial to the lives of civilians.

     The number of people now in need of humanitarian assistance is more than 20 million

Many civilians had already left the town following the warnings of the coalition - but for those who remained, life has become extremely hard. There is no electricity. Petrol has become too costly a resource for most people and it is difficult to buy food. We stayed in a bedroom in the hospital, one of the few places still with a functioning generator.

The humanitarian situation is worsened by factors other than the bombings and battles.

The Saudi-led coalition has imposed an air and sea blockade that withholds petrol from electricity generators in hospitals and water pumps belonging to civilians.

According to humanitarian organisations, health, water and other basic public service sectors have collapsed. The blockade is having a devastating impact on the population.

The United Nations has indicated that the conflict has now killed more than 1,500 civilians and has caused more than a million to abandon their homes.

They put the number of people now in need of humanitarian assistance at more than 20 million.

As we were writing up our report, an official from Saada contacted us to say that Ahmed al-Sherif had died from his injuries.

The bombings carried out by Saudi Arabia and other military operations began again after the five-day ceasefire in May. As long as the coalition and other combatants refuse to respect their obligations regarding international law - which only authorises attacks on military targets while minimising harm to civilians - and as long as they do not guarantee access to food, medication and fuel, many other civilians will suffer the same fate as Ahmed al-Sherif.

Ole Solvang is the senior emergencies researcher at Human Rights Watch. You can follow him on Twitter: @OleSolvang

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of al-Araby al-Jadeed, its editorial board or staff.

This is an edited translation of an article originally published by our partners at Orient XXI.