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The Story of a Saudi Coalition Massacre in Yemen

The New York Times Magazine has published an important report on a series of Saudi coalition airstrikes on a poor rural village in Yemen that took place in September 2016. The first strike hit a group of men involved in the discovery of a new well, and then more attacks followed as villagers gathered to help and to look for friends and relatives:

That morning, villagers all around Arhab were making their way to the bomb site. Some came to try to help; some came searching for missing loved ones. Many of them, especially the children, came out of curiosity, running out of the house before parents could grab them, trying to find out what that rumble was that woke them in the middle of the night. A little after daybreak, more than a hundred people had gathered.

There is some disagreement about what happened next. Some say they heard multiple planes. Some heard others scream. Some swear that there was no warning, that they didn’t hear or see anything beforehand. What’s not in dispute is that the second wave of bombing began about six hours after the first explosion, once a sizable crowd had formed.

There was a sudden, massive upwelling of air and debris, and everybody started to run. People went in all different directions as the planes roared overhead and things started to explode. Cars and motorcycles went hurtling through the air. Boys were cut down as they tried to escape; grown men dove into nearby cornfields. The attack lasted for hours. It felt as if another bomb fell every few minutes — each of them seeming to strike people trying to escape, as if following them. The people said it did not feel like an attack. The word they used translates to “extermination.”

Human Rights Watch reported that at least 31 civilians were killed, three of them children, and that 42 more were injured. It’s hard to know the numbers for sure, because all that was left of many victims were very small parts, very far from one another. People dragged sheets around the bomb site, trying to collect parts they thought might belong to loved ones.

The Arhab attack was part of a pattern of unlawful coalition attacks on civilian targets that has continued until now. These strikes were some of the coalition’s approximately 18,000 airstrikes, a third of which have hit civilian sites. It happened over two years ago, but the Saudi coalition still shows the same blatant disregard for civilian life now as it did then. It was just one of the many massacres that the coalition has perpetrated against innocent Yemenis who were doing nothing more than going about their daily lives. Like many other attacks on civilian targets, this was not a case of hitting the wrong target by mistake. These were deliberate, repeated attacks on a crowd of civilians in a remote village that had nothing to do with the war. Like thousands of other war crimes carried out by coalition forces, this was done with U.S.-made weapons and enabled by U.S. support for the bombing campaign.

Human Rights Watch sent someone to investigate the attack two months later. That investigation produced this report. The article tells us that the researcher for that investigation noted the large number of bombs used in the attack:

Motaparthy was immediately struck by just how many weapons had been used. There were craters everywhere; she counted at least 12, though villagers believe that as many as 20 bombs fell that day [bold mine-DL]. Motaparthy found an extraordinary number of bomb remnants.

The people murdered there by the Saudi coalition more than two years ago received very little attention at the time, and there was almost no media coverage of the attack. The coalition’s use of the despicable “double-tap” tactic to target people responding to the initial attack was not new, but news reports from that time show that there was no understanding outside Yemen that there had been at least a dozen and possibly as many as twenty bombs dropped on a crowd of civilians.

The effect of attacking well sites like the one at Arhab was to make Yemenis stop digging the wells they needed for clean drinking water:

It’s hard to say what the aggregate effect of living in constant terror of airstrikes has been. A local human rights worker pointed out one thing, though: She noticed that Yemenis had stopped digging wells. And maybe this is part of the reason the number of people in critical need of clean water rose. With sanitation facilities and wells like the one in Arhab coming under attack, cholera was, perhaps, inevitable. The first cases were reported three weeks after the strike in Arhab (and a few dozen miles away). Seven months later, the country had more than 100,000 suspected cases. Arhab had one of the highest attack rates in the country, and after a year, there were nearly one million suspected cases of cholera in the country, making it not only the worst outbreak in the world but also one of the worst in recorded history.

The attack on this well site is just one example of how the coalition has used airstrikes to put more people at risk of contracting cholera. The coalition has repeatedly targetingwater and sewage treatment systems, and it has blown up a cholera treatment center in Abs and then lied about it. Attacks on sources of clean drinking water have continued up through this year. UNICEF warned about this in August. The coalition’s bombing campaign and the country’s terrible cholera epidemic are linked together, and the coalition has used the former to create conditions for the latter. When politicians and analysts defend U.S. support for the war, this is what they are defending.

The sham “investigation” into the Arhab attack by the coalition’s Joint Incident Assessment Team (JIAT) produced an absurd justification for the attack:

About a year after the strike, the Joint Incident Assessment Team, a body composed of coalition members that analyzes the legality of its own airstrikes, released a statement saying that the pilots had bombed the well site in Arhab because they thought it was a ballistic-missile launcher. It’s an excuse that strains credulity; ballistic-missile launchers do not look very much like drilling rigs.

The preposterous excuse for massacring almost three dozen unarmed people is entirely typical of the “investigations” that the coalition has conducted into its own war crimes. The purpose of JIAT has been from the start to create the impression that the Saudis and their allies take civilian casualties seriously while doing absolutely nothing to prevent them and making sure that the perpetrators of war crimes face no accountability.

Jeffrey Stern, the author of the article, describes meeting the survivors of the attack:

Fahd moved his head closer, and then my hand was against his face, and I could feel hard bits of metal rolling around beneath the cartilage of his jaw. He guided my hand up to his temple, where some misshapen thing slid around beneath the skin, as if trying to escape my fingers. He pulled his eyelid down to show where the steel still was. And it struck me that this was a surreal way to encounter American ordnance, at the end of journey that began in the American Southwest and brought it all the way here, in this remote part of a desperately poor country, to the face of a man who, for just a moment two years and one month ago, thought he had something to celebrate.

The Arhab massacre described in this article is the U.S.-backed war on Yemen in miniature: repeated bombings of civilians in brazen violation of international law that went almost completely unnoticed in the rest of the world, the use of U.S.-made weapons to kill the civilians, a pathetic attempt by the Saudi coalition to excuse their crimes, an attack on vital civilian infrastructure that contributed to the country’s cholera epidemic, and survivors traumatized and scarred for life.

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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