Photo by Mohammed Huwais
The wedding convoy was traveling through the mountainous landscape of al-Baydha when one of the vehicles broke down. It was mid-afternoon, about 300km from Yemen’s capital of Sana', and the convoy — traditionally called a zafa — was heading to the groom’s village of Jism. There were about 70 people packed in the 11 vehicles, most of them relatives.
Once stopped, several men noticed the drone flying high overhead. The distinctive buzz had become a familiar sound during the past year, so they assumed the drone was simply conducting surveillance.
The flash of a missile launch proved otherwise.
Within seconds, two missiles smashed into a pick-up truck, destroying the vehicle and sending pieces of shrapnel flying into other vehicles and their occupants. Two more missiles thudded into the ground next to the convoy. Those who could, fled on foot.
A total of 12 men reportedly died in the December 12 attack. The youngest was 20. The oldest 65.
“RIPPED INTO PIECES”
There is no running water or electricity in Jism. Schools, health clinics, and paved roads are nowhere to be seen. Al-Abu Surayma, the tribe that populates the village, is semi-nomadic; members move to find better pastures for their goats. The simple, haphazardly built stone building where VICE News talked to Ahmed al-Shafi’i and his son Zabanallah can be quickly dismantled and quickly rebuilt.
Ahmed’s other son, Aref, was 30 years old and married with seven children when he was killed by the missile strike.
“We found him with another body in a car,” 70-year-old Ahmed tells us, his voice steadily rising. “The others were just thrown, one here, one there. Just how the drone left them, ripped into pieces.”
The villagers brought Aref’s body back to Jishm, where they laid him alongside the other bodies in the mosque. “Women started screaming when they saw what had happened,” Ahmed says. “They were wailing from one side of the valley to the other. If you had heard it, it would have tormented you.”
According to initial Yemeni government reports, up to five of the men killed in the strike had been militants. However, as word began spreading that several innocent civilians had also been killed, the government reached out through mediators to the victims’ families. In keeping with tribal custom, money and rifles were offered as compensation for the deaths.
Although the Yemeni government has not released any official statements, the governor of al-Bayda province apologized for the attack in a meeting with tribesmen, and Human Rights Minister Hooria Mashhour condemned the attack. This was followed by a unanimous vote in parliament that called for the banning of drones.
But were there al Qaeda members among the dead? The group’s Yemeni franchise, Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), is undoubtedly active in the area. In Rada’, a town 70km away from Jism via a rough dirt road, AQAP’s black-flag insignia is daubed on many walls. Locals there told us that the group had entered the town after the drone attack to capitalize on anger and attract recruits.
In the week following the strike, the road to Sana’ was blocked at night, and residents of Rada’ began to grow accustomed to the sound of AQAP clashing with the army. Last week, 12 soldiers were allegedly killed during an al Qaeda attack in al-Baydha.
While the residents of Rada’ and Jism who spoke to VICE News denied that the people killed were members of AQAP, there were indications that at least one of the men present in the wedding convoy was a militant. US and Yemeni officials revealed that the target of the strike was Shawqi Ali Ahmad al-Badani, an AQAP operative said to have masterminded a plot that resulted in the closing of 19 US embassies around over the world last summer. However, the name that some locals mention instead is that of Nasr al-Hutaim, a low-level AQAP member who reportedly had been arrested by the Yemeni government in early 2013 and had subsequently returned to the region. Locals said it was his truck that two of the missiles struck, but it is believed al-Hutaim was not inside the vehicle when the missiles hit.
Zabanallah al-Shafi’i, Aref’s gruff older brother, was quick to deny that Aref or any other victims of the drone strike were associated with AQAP.
“Terrorists? The people here are Bedouins,” he said. “The drones are after a bunch of goat herders. There are no training camps here. We don’t know al-Qaeda.”
“NOTHING HAS CHANGED”
The anger in the region over the drone strikes is stoked by a deep resentment of the Yemeni government. In 2011, the country saw an unprecedented number of people take to the streets in an Arab Spring demonstration against President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s 33-year rule. Camps were set up in all of Yemen’s major cities. After months of largely peaceful protests, Saleh stepped down in favor of his deputy, Abd-Rabbuh Mansour Hadi.
“We were expecting a country with a bright future,” says Sheikh al-Salmani, a local tribal leader. “But nothing has changed in Yemen. We live in terrible conditions. But go to the officials’ villas, and you’ll find millions of dollars of the people’s money.”
Even when that money is offered, however, not everyone in Jishm wants it. Abdullah al-Taysi survived the strike; his son Ali died. While talking to us, al-Taysi opened his shirt and revealed shrapnel wounds.
“We don’t want it,” he said of the government’s offer of money to compensate for the death of his son. “What will it do for me? If they gave me America and everything in it, I wouldn’t get to see my son come back.”
What he does want is accountability for the killings, a change to the country’s drone policy, and a government that is more responsive to the needs of its people. If that doesn’t happen?
“All of the tribes will join al Qaeda.”