Yemen: Mounting evidence of high civilian toll of Saudi-led airstrikes
Photo: Neighbours survey the damage after 17 civilians were killed in an airstrike in a residential area in the Bab al-Sha’b neighbourhood of Sa’wan, in the east of Sana'a. © Amnesty International
New eyewitness testimony gathered by Amnesty International in the aftermath of recent airstrikes in Sana’a points to a repeated failure by the Saudi Arabian-led military coalition to take adequate precautions to prevent civilian deaths in Yemen.
In the early hours of 1 May an airstrike hit a residential area in the Bab al-Sha’b neighbourhood of Sa’wan, in the east of the capital, killing 17 civilians and injuring 17 others. Amnesty International carried out interviews with local residents and eyewitnesses the following day and heard the horrific experiences of a number of survivors of the airstrike.
“These harrowing testimonies are a damning indictment of the failure of the Saudi Arabian military and its allies to take adequate steps to ensure civilians are not needlessly slaughtered in their campaign of airstrikes,” said Said Boumedouha, Deputy Middle East and North Africa Programme Director at Amnesty International.
These harrowing testimonies are a damning indictment of the failure of the Saudi Arabian military and its allies to take adequate steps to ensure civilians are not needlessly slaughtered in their campaign of airstrikes.
“Under international humanitarian law, all parties to the armed conflict have a duty to take certain precautions in planning and carrying out attacks in order to minimize civilian suffering.
“The Saudi-led coalition must publicly disclose detailed information on all airstrikes carried out in Sana’a on 1 May, including targets and measures taken to avoid incidental harm to civilians. Even if it was believed that fighters were present in the vicinity, before attacking they still had an obligation to determine whether civilians were present and take measures necessary to avoid or at least minimize civilian casualties.”
According to eyewitnesses and local residents, the airstrike occurred between 1AM and 1.30AM on 1 May in Bab al-Sha’b, a neighbourhood encompassing a cluster of about 30 houses. Nine houses were destroyed in the airstrike and the 17 dead included seven women and six children. There were also 17 civilians injured, including six women and one four-year old boy.
Mansour Mohamed Saleh Shareeh, 22, told Amnesty International how he lost six members of his family in the airstrike and how five, including himself, were injured: “At around 1AM I woke up to the house shaking due to an airstrike in the distance and then, one or two minutes later, I found myself buried in the debris of my house. I was screaming due to the pain that I felt all over my body and I could hear my father screaming for help under the rubble. The rest were buried in their sleep.”
“There were no prior warnings before the airstrike. Twelve of us live in this house as family members had arrived seeking shelter from other targeted neighbourhoods. I lost six from my family in the airstrike: My sisters Ashwak, 20, Nawal, 18, Dalal, 16, Hanan, 15, my nephew Hamad 5, and my niece Reemas, 4, were all killed. Meanwhile, my father and my mother, both 70, were injured along with another relative, my sister and me. My mother is currently in the intensive care unit in al-Thawra Hospital. I am still in shock and I cannot digest what happened.”
Abdullah Rajih, a local resident, told Amnesty International that he had woken up as the electricity had come back on momentarily at approximately 1AM: “I decided to take the opportunity with the electricity returning to pump some water. That’s when I heard the first explosion a couple of kilometres away. Two minutes later, a rocket lands in the house a few doors away from mine, causing my whole house to shake and windows to break and shrapnel flew everywhere. The whole neighbourhood helped in the rescue efforts, we buried everybody in a funeral on Sunday.”
“Amina Mohamed al-Wisla, 28, is a mother of six children and her husband is very ill. She died in the airstrike. The children are now living in a school nearby with their uncle.”
Khadija Ahmed Abdelqader al-Kubsi lost three of her daughters Rajaa, Yusra and Najwa, 13, 15 and 20-years-old, her husband and her mother-in-law in the airstrike. She told Amnesty International: “Our house got destroyed, my family was killed, only my disabled 19-year-old son survived.”
According to the residents and local council representative of the neighbourhood, Hafizallah Ali, there was no fighting or exchange of fire prior to the airstrike, no fighters or military objectives in the neighbourhood, and the closest air force military base is approximately two kilometres away in al-Khurafi. However, according to the al-Kubsi family, whose house was hit by the airstrike that affected the neighbourhood, Saudi news outlets mentioned that the father of the family Abdullah al-Kubsi, who was killed in the airstrike, was targeted for being a Huthi leader. But they vehemently denied these aforementioned allegations.
Under international humanitarian law, all sides in an armed conflict must distinguish between military targets and civilians and civilian structures, and direct attacks only at the former. Deliberate attacks on civilians who are not directly participating in hostilities or civilian objects – such as homes, medical facilities, schools, governmental buildings that are not being used for military purposes – are prohibited and are war crimes. Indiscriminate and disproportionate attacks (where the likely number of civilian casualties or damage to civilian property outweighs the anticipated military advantage to be gained) are also prohibited.
In the case of the airstrike on the residential area in the Bab al-Sha’b neighbourhood of Sa’wan, if the intended target was in fact a Huthi leader who could lawfully be targeted, this would not in itself justify this attack. It should have been evident to those planning the airstrike that using a powerful explosive weapon to attack an individual in a civilian home at a time when he is surrounded by civilian family members and other civilians was going to result in high civilian casualties and that such an attack would likely be disproportionate or otherwise indiscriminate.
Parties are required under international humanitarian law to take certain precautions in planning and carrying out attacks. These include: giving effective advance warning of attacks which may endanger the civilian population, unless circumstances do not permit; cancelling or suspending an attack if it becomes clear that it is likely to cause excessive civilian casualties or damage; and choosing means and methods of attack that minimize the risk to civilians and civilian objects.
Amnesty International has documented eight strikes in five densely populated areas (Sa'dah, Sana'a, Hodeidah, Hajjah and Ibb) prior to the airstrike on Sa’wan. Several of these strikes raise concerns about compliance with the rules of international humanitarian law.
According to Amnesty International’s research, at least 139 people, including at least 97 civilians (33 of whom were children) were killed during these strikes, and 460 individuals were injured (at least 157 of whom are civilians).
Airstrikes and shelling have also destroyed or damaged hospitals, schools, universities, airports, mosques, food transport vehicles, factories, petrol stations, telephone networks, electricity power stations and stadiums. This has left thousands of people without power and suffering from food and petrol shortages.