SANA’A, Yemen — Eight-year-old Sara is sitting on the floor next to her mother when she spreads her arms out and reenacts the moment a Saudi-coalition airstrike, using an American-made bomb, left her pinned under the rubble of her family’s home here in the Yemen capital.
On August 25, the Muthanya family of six awoke in the dead of night to the familiar sound of fighter jets roaring over rebel-held Sana’a. When one bomb landed a few hundred meters away, Ahmed Muthanya and his wife, Mesara, jumped out of bed and gathered their four children to take shelter in the windowless hallway of their apartment on the ground floor of a four story building — the safest place to avoid flying shards of glass from the shock waves.
“Everything collapsed. I called out for my mother and brother but all I could hear was the sound of people screaming.”
Three airstrikes hit nearby in Sana’s Faj Attan district, the most heavily bombed area in the city where the target, a weapons storage facility used by the state for decades, is hidden deep inside the mountain. Then the fourth bomb struck: its blast throwing family members in different directions, and knocking them all unconscious except for Sara. Two siblings, the baby boy of the family, 2-year-old Naif, and older sister, 14-year-old Sharoug were killed instantly.
Only Sara remembers what happened next.
“Everything collapsed. I called out for my mother and brother, but all I could hear was the sound of people screaming,” she explains in the quiet voice of a shy child. “I had pain in my chest and I couldn’t move. Then I heard people trying to dig through the rubble. I shouted to them, ‘Get me out! Get my brother and sisters out!’”
Sara says she was buried for about 30 minutes before a rescuer reached one of her outstretched hands.
“It was dark and I was struggling to breathe from the fumes of the bomb,” she says.
The first responder gripped her hand. “We will get you out, we will get you soon,” the bodiless voice responded to her cries. Sara was buried up to her neck. A falling table, wedged above her head, protected her from being crushed to death by slabs of cracked concrete. As she waited, the screams of other victims began to wane.
Fourteen of Sara’s neighbors died in the strike, including five more children in addition to Sara’s brother and sister. Those other five were the siblings of Sara’a next door neighbor, 5-year-old Buthania, whose image went viral in the days after the strike. Buthania was the only member of her family to survive the bombing that flattened her home.
The Saudi coalition would eventually acknowledge the strikes had caused civilian casualties, blaming it on a “technical error.” But markings on missile remnants from the strike were later found by Amnesty International’s arms expert to have come from an American made MAU-169L/B computer control group (a part used in laser-guided air-dropped bombs), renewing concerns about the U.S.’s constant if confused role in Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen.
Along with a coalition of regional nations, Saudi Arabia has been bombing Yemen since March 2015 in an effort to push back Houthi rebels, whose political alignment to Iran has been cited as the pretext for the campaign. And from the get-go, the U.S. has helped.
In the first year of the bombing campaign, the U.S. government authorized the sale of 2,800 guided bombs to Saudi Arabia that were equipped with the MAU-169L/B computer control group, according to the Defence Security Cooperation Agency. That transaction was a mere fraction of more than $100 billion in arms sold to the Kingdom under then-President Barack Obama. Those sales were suspended in December, 2016, due to growing concerns over civilian casualties, but that stand didn’t last long under President Donald Trump, who signed a deal during his visit to Riyadh in May, pledging nearly $110 billion in future weapons sales to Saudi Arabia.
Yet it’s not just weapons sales that tie the U.S. to Yemen’s war: The U.S. continues to provide political and logistical support to Saudi Arabia’s campaign, most notably the refueling of Saudi coalition fighter jets used in daily bombing runs.
“I dream of being under the rubble and hearing the planes.”
For Yemenis, the results have been disastrous: Coalition airstrikes have punished Yemen’s civilians, and its children specifically, destroying hospitals, schools and vital infrastructure. In total, Saudi-led airstrikes are responsible for over 60 percent of civilian deaths in Yemen’s war, according to the United Nations, leading many human rights organizations to accuse the U.S. of taking part in potential war crimes.
There are signs U.S. officials are starting to grow uncomfortable with this arrangement, however. Following a debate in the House of Representatives, lawmakers led by Rep. Ro Khanna, a California Democrat, voted 366-30 that they had not authorized U.S. action in support for the Saudi-led war. But the vote was ultimately toothless after the resolution was stripped of the privileged status that would have invoked the War Powers Act to end U.S. involvement.
As Congress finally begins to grapple with the U.S.’s role in Yemen, the war shows no signs of letting up, leaving Yemen’s civilians to toil in the world’s worst humanitarian crisis and a cholera outbreak of unprecedented proportions.
Sara’s father lost his only son, 2-year-old Naif, in the August strike that destroyed six civilian homes. “He was my life,” says Ahmed, who has 48 shrapnel wounds from the blast. “I wished for so long to have a boy, and now he’s gone.”
His wife, Mesara, lies prostrate under a blanket, barely able to walk more than a few steps due to crushing spinal injuries sustained in the airstrike. The couple cannot afford the medical fees needed for surgical treatment and has had to borrow money in order to pay for their baby boy’s burial. Their other daughter, 12-year-old Haditha, has only one recollection of the strike, of seeing a ball of fire before being losing consciousness and waking up in hospital. A week later her aunt told her that two of her siblings were dead.
Nearly three months on, Sara struggles to sleep at night, often waking with recurring nightmares.
“I dream of being under the rubble and hearing the planes,” she says. “I get scared, very scared.”
Iona Craig is a British-Irish independent journalist focusing on Yemen and the Arabian Peninsula.