SAADA, YEMEN – Every few miles on a drive north of Yemen’s capital, a charred hulk or massive bomb crater blocks the highway – the result of airstrikes by the Saudi Arabia-led coalition against the Houthi rebels who have taken over much of the country. While most of the destroyed vehicles appear to be tankers and cargo trucks, some are clearly local traffic, like a charred flatbed surrounded by dozens of dead goats. As we speed along the nearly deserted highway, we can hear the occasional roar of jets in the sky. Most of the Houthi checkpoints we pass are abandoned. It makes for nerve-wracking driving.
Since March, Houthis have launched attacks on southern Saudi Arabia from the mountainous province of Saada. In May, the Saudis declared the entire province a military target. Leaflets were dropped, telling the area’s civilian population of nearly 1 million to flee. An all-out aerial assault ensued. Two reports published last week, by Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, have accused Saudi Arabia of “attacks that appeared to violate international humanitarian law” and “possible disproportionate or indiscriminate attacks.”
A month later, Saada City is utterly devastated, its main roads lined with shattered buildings. A local activist led us through its deserted old market, where a 30-foot crater sits outside the gate of a damaged 1,200-year-old mosque. The airstrikes targeted homes, shopping malls, cold-storage facilities, car dealerships, restaurants and gas stations. At one pump we were told 17 people were killed and 49 injured while waiting in line to fuel up – a column of blackened cars still stood in a row. According to a UN satellite analysis conducted on May 17, a total of 1,171 structures in Saada have been damaged or destroyed by airstrikes.
The situation may be even worse in rural areas near the border. At a hospital in Saada City supported by Doctors Without Borders (also known by its French initials, MSF), a stream of cluster bomb victims arrived from the village of Radha.”We’re just farmers,” said Saleh Khairan, who had brought in his wounded uncle.
In a separate incident, members of the MSF team told me they had recently received ten dead bodies from nearby Sabr, and that five of them had been children. When we traveled to the village, witnesses showed us the names and ages of 51 people they claim were killed in airstrikes on June 3rd — 36 of them were children. “We don’t know why they targeted us,” said Salem Ali, a resident of Sabr. He surveyed his destroyed village and a Saudi-coalition jet passed overhead.
Many of Saudi Arabia’s weapons and aircraft were purchased from the U.S. We have encountered remnants of both conventional and cluster bombs likely made in the U.S.A., including BU-97 cluster bomb submunitions, which were transferred to Saudi Arabia by the U.S. in the Nineties. The U.S. has also provided both in-flight refueling and targeting intelligence to bombing missions. As a result, there is a widespread perception among the Yemenis that the American government is equally responsible for the air war.
Matthieu Aikins and Sebastiano Tomada recently ran the blockade into Yemen, traveling from Djibouti by boat across the Gulf of Aden.