Saudi Arabia has taken to the pulpit in local mosques, airwaves, Facebook and Twitter, and local media to inflame sectarian tensions that previously did not exist in Yemen’s border region.
HAJJAH, YEMEN — At least 28 civilians, mostly displaced women and children, were killed and 17 were injured after the Saudi-led Coalition launched a barrage of airstrikes in the early hours of Sunday morning in Yemen’s northwestern Hajjah Province. The airstrikes, at least 30 in number, struck 13 residential homes in the Talan village of Hajjah’s Koshar district.
“Airstrikes targeted our neighborhood so we fled to another house and then again to Mohammed Ibrahim Zulil`s house. Here [at Zulil`s house], a double-airstrike hit,” recounted al-Hadi, one of the few survivors of the attack. He pointed to the rubble of the Zulil home where dead bodies were still buried under the ruins.
Al-Hadi was out buying milk for his children when airstrikes hit the Zulil home. “When I arrived, just two of my daughters were alive and screaming, the rest of my family was killed,” Al-Hadi recounted in a breaking voice. Eight of his family members were killed in the attack and four of his children survived.
Rescue efforts were complicated by a lack of medical equipment and fear of additional airstrikes, as Saudi warplanes continued to circle the area after the initial strikes. “There were survivors under the rubble who died because of the delay in the rescue operation,” one of the rescuers told MintPress.
Ambulances from Yemen’s health ministry rushed to the scene of the attack only to be targeted by additional Saudi airstrikes. At least one ambulance was destroyed while en route to the scene of the attack.
Dr. Taha al Mutwakel, Yemen’s Minister of Health said:
The houses were bombed on Sunday morning. So far (8:00 p.m.) our rescue crews have not been able to reach them. An ambulance was destroyed by a double-tap strike when it tried to enter the district.”
Saudi Arabia has been known to use double-tap airstrikes in Yemen, carrying out an initial airstrike and then circling back to target rescuers and ambulances.
Three of the homes targeted in the attack belonged to the Zalil, al Ahdab, and al Hadi families. The families had recently taken in a number of displaced peoples who were fleeing from clashes in nearby areas. Like many families that reside in the strategic Kushar directorate, the three families that were targeted in the attack had refused to cooperate with Saudi Arabia to facilitate the entry of Saudi troops through their neighborhoods.
Saudi-owned Al-Arabiya news distributed footage the attack taken by drones, claiming the Coalition had targeted 20 Houthis as they fled to a home in Kushar, but the footage shows women and unarmed civilians as they were attempting to flee al Zulil’s home.
Yemen’s Ministry of Public Health and Population told MintPress News that the Saudi airstrikes killed at least 28 civilians, including 14 children, and nine women. The death toll is expected to rise, as at least 17 people have been reported injured from the attack. The 48th Hospital, where most of the victims of the airstrike are being treated, is already overcrowded with victims from previous airstrikes. Most of the wounded are in critical condition with wounds to the back or head. At least one victim of the attack, a 17-year-old girl, has succumbed to her injuries, according to hospital administrators.
In the aftermath of the attack, Yemen’s Health Ministry launched an urgent appeal for aid and called for victims of the attack to be allowed to be transported by air for treatment abroad, saying, “our capacities prevent us from treating any more of wounded.”
The Health Ministry also said that the closure of the Sana’a airport would lead to the deaths of dozens of wounded who are not allowed to travel abroad for treatment not available in Yemen. The Saudi-led Coalition forced the closure of the airport in August 2016, depriving Yemen of a vital supply of life-saving medicine.
There are no safe corridors in Hajjah, including in the Kushar district, to allow ambulance crews to transport the wounded to hospitals outside of Hajjah. Most of the province’s thoroughfares lie in ruin following Saudi Coalition airstrikes that target the roads.
An area thought to be safe
The deadly attack against Talan village came as a shock to local residents, as remote areas outside of Hajjah were thought to be mostly safe from Saudi attacks, leading displaced families fleeing violence in nearby areas to seek refuge there. Yet an uptick of Saudi Coalition airstrikes in the area has quickly proven otherwise. Indeed, three people fleeing fighting in other areas were killed and six were injured when Saudi airstrikes targeted their car in the nearby Sudeen district of Kushar on Saturday.
In recent weeks, the Coalition, led by Saudi Arabia and backed by the United States, has stepped up attacks on border cities in Hajjah and Sada’a. In February, warplanes launched 300 airstrikes, and there were 1,220 rockets and 1,256 artillery shells fired, according to Yemen’s Legal Center for Rights and Development. As a result, thousands of families have been forced to seek refuge elsewhere in the country. But those fleeing the violence often become targets of Coalition aircraft themselves.
The United Nations refugee agency, UNHCR, said in a report issued last Thursday that around 5,000 civilians were either killed or wounded in 2018, meaning that nearly 100 civilians were killed or wounded in Yemen on average every week. Nearly half of the victims were killed or wounded in the country’s west, including the in the governorates of Hodeida and Hajjah, according to the UNHCR.
The UNHCR’s Volker Turk said on Thursday:
Exposed to daily violence, many live under constant fear and suffer in deteriorating conditions, turning in desperation to harmful coping mechanisms in order to survive.”
The UN report, which illustrates the profound human cost of the war, also said that a staggering 30 percent of the civilians were either killed and wounded inside their homes, with non-combatants also targeted while traveling on roads, working on farms and at other civilian sites
Grassroots in name only
The deadly attack in Kushar, an area Saudi Arabia has been attempting to capture since last week, came after Yemen’s local and tribal fighters — supported by the Houthis, the primary force resisting the Saud-led occupation of Yemen — successfully secured the strategic region following a series of fierce battles.
On February 26, Saudi ground forces — comprised of an array of local mercenaries and allied Salafi extremist groups, including al Qaeda — fought a fierce ground campaign to take Kushar, which overlooks Hajjah’s strategic city of Haradh, situated on the Saudi border with Yemen.
Before it launched its recent campaign in Hajjah, Saudi Arabia courted prominent local tribal leaders in Kushar, inviting them into Saudi Arabia under the pretext of visiting Mecca and Medina, Islam’s most holy cities. Local militias were then formed in Kushar combining local tribal fighters and Salafi extremist groups in a bid to secure Saudi control over the strategic area and assure the Houthis would not be able to gain a foothold in the region. Kushar and other rural towns on the outskirts of Hajjah were previously not involved in the conflict and were home to neither the Houthis nor the Saudi-led Coalition.
A Saudi military campaign began soon thereafter — with militias, supported by Saudi money and the latest U.S.-supplied weapons, fighting under the pretext of an uprising of local tribes against the Houthis under the leadership of Salafi extremist Abu Muslim al-Zakari.
As Saudi Arabia has done since it began its war in Yemen four years ago, the Kingdom launched a media campaign to portray what was happening in Kushar as a grassroots uprising to defend the local Sunni population from the Houthis. The Saudis took to the pulpit in local mosques, the airwaves, Facebook and Twitter, and local media to inflame sectarian tensions that previously did not exist in the area.
Saudi forces — equipped with M1 Abrams tanks, Apache armored personnel carriers, and fierce jihadi fighters — initially captured Kushar completely, but local fighters– supported by the Houthis and equipped with nothing more than light and medium arms — pushed the Saudi insurgency back and reclaimed Kushar, capturing hundreds of Saudi personnel in the process, including al-Zakari.
The Saudi tactic of sowing sectarian discord along the border with Saudi Arabia and inside of Yemen has thus far been an abject failure, as the Kingdom’s war to defeat the Houthis entered its fourth year this month.
Yemenis more vulnerable than ever
The ongoing Saudi-led Coalition attacks come as Yemen is experiencing the biggest food-security crisis in the world, with over 20 million at risk, more than two-thirds of the population. That is an increase of 13 percent from 2018, according to a new report from the National Team for Foreign Outreach.
Moreover, nearly 10 million people suffer from extreme hunger, while approximately 240,000 face catastrophic food consumption gaps. Additionally, an estimated 7.4 million people need treatment to prevent malnutrition and 3.2 million people need treatment for acute malnutrition, including 2 million children under the age of 5 and over 1 million pregnant and lactating women.
The cost of food in Yemen has jumped by an average of 68 percent since the war began in 2015, according to the UN, while the price of commodities such as petrol, diesel and cooking gas has increased by at least 100 percent in the past year.
In 2019, Yemen’s people are more vulnerable than ever, as 230 of the country’s 333 districts have populations that are at risk of starvation. Those districts are home to 18.5 million people — including 6.6 million who lack access to clean water, sanitation, and health care — according to the National Team for Foreign Outreach.
According to the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (ACLED), a nonprofit conflict-research organization, more than 60,000 people have been killed since 2015, not including deaths caused by disease, epidemics, and malnutrition.
Top Photo | The aftermath of Saudi airstrikes against the Talan village in the Kushar district of northwestern Yemen’s province of Hajjah on March 10, 2019. Photo | Karar al Moayad
Ahmed AbdulKareem is a Yemeni journalist. He covers the war in Yemen for MintPress News as well as local Yemeni media.