Looking Back at a Year of Bloodshed in Yemen

One year after the beginning of the Saudi military campaign in the country, our correspondents recall the destruction and horror they witnessed firsthand.

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Mar 27 2016, 4:00pm

Houthi fighters, Sadah City. Photo by Spencer Chumbley

We've traveled to Yemen twice in the last two years. Once in 2014, prior to the Houthi takeover, and again in September and October of 2015 after Saudi airstrikes had decimated much of the country. Yesterday marked the one year anniversary of the beginning of the Saudi military campaign in the country. The UN special envoy has said that the warring parties have agreed to a ceasefire starting April 10th, and a new round of peace talks beginning in Kuwait on April 18. The below is an account of our time reporting from Yemen in 2015—the people we met and the destruction we witnessed firsthand.

We were walking down a street in the center of Sanaa, Yemen's capital, feeling relaxed for the first time since we had arrived two weeks earlier. Most of the city was dark, except for a few windows, gently lit by candles, or the headlights of cars driven fast by nervous men with a reason to risk being out at night.

We'd celebrated making it to the end of a tense and often terrifying shoot by visiting the old city for kebabs. The young men cooking the skewers of minced meat on glowing charcoals smiled at us, waving their hands dismissively as anti-aircraft tracer s lit up the sky and the now-familiar thud and boom of airstrikes followed. The missile strikes in Sanaa weren't as frightening as the ones we had seen in the north, mostly because they came in predictable batches and hit generally the same areas, which people in the capital knew to avoid. There would be about half a dozen late at night , then another half a dozen or so just before dawn.

As we walked back to our hotel, our bellies full, a fighter jet flew in low and seemed to suck the air from around us. A terrific whooshing sound instantly filled the street, like a scream as loud as thunder. Suddenly, the earth seemed to tilt sideways . Something exploded just ahead of us. The other silhouettes on the street vanished and we staggered into a nearby shop as broken glass fell to the floor. I was carrying a friend's four year-old nephew on my shoulders and struggl ing to stay on my feet.

We ran back to the hotel and everyone took cover in the stairwell. The staff and a few families looked terrified as each blast shook the walls around us. They had been experiencing this for eight months, but hadn't been able to get used to it.

A plane wreckage at Sanaa's airport. Photo by Peter Salisbury

You see the results of this bombing campaign as soon as you arrive in Sanaa. At the city's main airport, several destroyed planes still sit on the tarmac next to the main runway. Nearby, military bases, officer academies , and weapons depots have all been obliterated.

Civilian homes have also been hit, sometimes seemingly at random. Basic infrastructure has been targeted as if the pilots of the fighter jets or their paymasters are becoming frustrated by the fact they are still far from any kind of victory. Sometimes targets that have already been hit many times are hit again; a house belonging to former President Ali Abdullah Saleh's son was hit several times over the course of a few weeks even though it had already been flattened. It seems wrong to call a bombing campaign that has so far involved over 40,000 air strikes petulant, but that it is how it often seems. The morning after we'd been caught out in the open we found out what the target had been: a cemetery.

According to the UN, at least 6,000 people have been killed so far in Yemen's civil war, roughly half of them civilians. That number only includes those who died in a medical facility so the actual number is certainly much higher. The majority of deaths have been caused by airstrikes launched by the Saudi-led military coalition.

Yemen's war is a complicated and grave affair. It started when the Houthis, a Zaydi Shia group from the north of the country, took over Sanaa and placed the country's elected president under house arrest. Hadi escaped to the southern port city of Aden; the Houthis, backed by military units loyal to former president Ali Abdullah Saleh, sent men to capture him and pilots from Yemen's creaky air force to drop a bomb next to the presidential palace.

In Yemen's northern highlands, people had largely accepted the Houthi-Saleh takeover after several days of fighting on the outskirts of Sanaa. But in Aden, and in the city of Taiz in the west, civilians took up arms to fight them off. President Hadi called for the leaders of the neighboring Gulf states to intervene in the war.

Ben Anderson examining US-made cluster bombs. Photo by Spencer Chumbley

Saudi Arabia has long viewed the Houthis as a Hezbollah-like proxy for Iran, their great regional rival who they believe is intent on gaining the regional balance of power by consolidating its control over Iraq, Lebanon, Syria, and Yemen. Fearing encirclement, the Saudis helped Hadi escape the Houthi-Saleh advance and announced that it would lead a military coalition of Sunni-majority states to oust the Houthis and reinstate Hadi. The U.S. was wary of the prospect of another regional proxy war, still it agreed to support the coalition as part of a general attempt to smooth its relationship with the Gulf states , including Saudi Arabia, in the wake of the Iran nuclear deal.

In the early days of the war the Saudis confidently predicted a quick victory as the Houthi-Saleh alliance struggled to take on the mass of fighters who would rally to Hadi's side. But their optimism was misplaced. The conflict has dragged on, coalescing into a series of battles involving the Houthis, Saleh, and an array of local groups that the Saudis and Hadi have struggled to bring under a single banner. And while anti-Houthi fighters have taken back significant swathes of territory over the past six months , most analysts think the war has now reached a stalemate.

The Houthis have indiscriminately shelled civilian populations in Aden and Taiz, preventing food, water, fuel, and medicine from entering the cities, calcifying regional and sectarian rivalries into hatred that may take decades to undo. But in the northwest, where we visited, there has been little fighting on the ground and the main experience people have had of the war is from the sky, in the shape of bombs dropped by the Saudi-led coalition and supplied by the US. Local ire is largely directed at Riyadh, and at Washington and the UN, for allowing bombs to fall with impunity, collectively punishing the civilian population for the actions of a militia and a corrupt former president whom they had no interest in supporting but could do little to resist.

In late September of last year we walked around the old city, on cobbled streets that snake around the tall thin houses, ornately decorated with bands of geometric shapes. Along with over a hundred mosques and Turkish baths, many homes there date back to before the 11th century , some of the first multi-story buildings ever built. The Old City is a UNESCO World Heritage site, supposedly protected because of its outstanding value to humanity. We saw five houses that had been blown to pieces.

The old market, Sadah City. Photo by Peter Salisbury

An elderly man called Mujahid al-Aini was sitting on a small dusty rug next to the rubble from one of the houses, keeping watch. The house belonged to his brother and he said he'd been there every day since it had been struck, shooing kids away because the remaining walls or surrounding houses could collapse at any moment.

"My brother was relaxing and having dinner with his children and a jet dropped a missile and it killed ten people," he told me. "Everybody was killed. 4 toddlers, 4 girls, and also the mother and my brother."

He said he had come to the house as soon as he heard the news. Along with his neighbors he had dug through the rubble, looking for any survivors. They started digging at 10 PM, and didn't stop until 7 AM the next morning, when they pulled out the last body. I asked him what his brother did for a living. "He had no connection to the Houthis," he said. "My poor brother used to sell veggies and tomatoes. He didn't belong to any party!"

Locals confirmed that Mujahid's brother sold vegetables next to the nearby Al-Fulaihi mosque out of the back of a van. The houses near the Al-Aini home were badly damaged, and looked abandoned. Most of the family's neighbors, Mujahid told me , were too afraid to stay in their damaged homes. "The entire neighborhood is gone," he said.

A coffee and spice trader in his destroyed shop, Sadah City. Photo by Spencer Chumbley

The destruction in Sanaa was nothing compared to what was happening in the north, we were told. In Sadah, the Houthis' northern heartland, entire towns and village were apparently reduced to rubble. In the early days of the war, the Saudis had dropped leaflets telling residents to leave because the entire province had been declared a military target.

The Saudi-led coalition was enforcing a land, sea, and air blockade on Yemen, leading to drastic shortages of fuel and other basic goods. The cost of living, including the cost of transport, had soared as the economy collapsed. Many people couldn't flee if they wanted to. Some residents we met couldn't afford the fare for an hour-long bus ride to the nearest town with a clinic. Although the blockade has eased somewhat since the fall, many aid agencies in the area warn that much of Yemen is now on the brink of famine.

We had plans to head north when we heard news that a wedding party had been targeted near Mokha on Yemen's Red Sea Coast. We drove south to the village the next morning. When we arrived , residents were still panicked. A stick-thin old man with a long red goatee introduced himself as Saeed Ali. He led us around frantically, trying to explain everything at once as he showed us where three missiles had struck. Almost as soon as he had started, a jet roared above us. People ran from the nearest cluster of buildings, their heads and shoulders hunched forward, their faces terrified.

A gas station that was hit during an airstrike, killing 21 people, Sadah City. Photo by Spencer Chumbley

After the jet passed, Saeed continued his tour, speaking manically and gesturing wildly with his arms: "There is flesh everywhere. This is a skull. This is all human flesh." He was pointing to black lumps all around us on the ground. He walked to some trees and bushes. "These trees are filled with flesh. Still there are legs, arms..." We could see lumps of burnt skin hanging from branches. I found a jawbone with the bottom row of teeth still attached. Another jet, or perhaps the same one, flew over head.

A tiny old woman wrapped from head to toe in a green shawl approached us with what looked like part of someone's brain in her hands. It was burned black. "The planes left this and went," she said, throwing it to the ground. The men quickly covered it with sand and urged her to go back indoors. She began to walk away but kept stopping and wailing back at us, pointing to the sky. "They killed everyone. My children, my sister, and all my family."

One of the targets was a shack where men had gathered before the wedding. It was barely ten feet wide but the missile had landed right in its center. The cushions that had been laid out for the guests were caked in blood and covered with flies feasting on human remains. I was told that the first strike was quickly followed by a second close by and that the women had run inside another hut.

The huts were little more than circular walls of tree branches stuck into the sandy ground with thatched roofs attached. A third strike hit the hut that the women were in, Saeed told me. It struck "like an arrow" one of the men said a s he showed me the crater that the blast had created. Again, it was in the center of where the tiny wooden structure had been.

A man holds shrapnel following an airstrike, Sadah City. Photo by Peter Salisbury

"We just found bits and pieces," said one of the villagers, picking up yet anther piece of charred flesh. He showed me where they had found the lower half of one woman's body, then the torso of another. He picked up what he said was someone's sternum.

The villagers told us they had gathered the human remains, put them in cloth sacks, and buried them nearby. They showed us the graves. One for the body parts and a separate one for the closest thing to a complete body they had found. They said that , even as they were filling the graves, the jets circled over their heads.

Another man asked us to come to his house. One small concrete building had another wooden shack next to it built from branches, with no doors. Inside was a mangled bed. Dark , wet patches of blood soaked into the mud floor. The man said his 70 year-old mother had been almost cut in two when a large piece of shrapnel flew through the branches and into the wall of the main building. He said two children had been on the floor, and they , along with his mother , had also been killed. His brother and sister had died inside where the missiles had landed. Large pieces of flesh and body parts were still stuck to the wooden frame of the tent. We heard another jet above us.

Children standing in the trench they slept in for 2 months, holding the tail fin of a US made cluster bomb, Sadah City. Photo by Spencer Chumbley

"They've been flying over us for 20 days now, 24 hours a day, constantly," the man said, crying. "Day and night. The children are going crazy. We, the adults, are going crazy . Because of the jets. We don't sleep at night."

Soon after speaking with us, he got onto the back of a motorcycle . He was going to see some smugglers to ask if they would take him and what was left of his family across the Red Sea to Djibouti.

Brigadier-General Ahmed al-Asiri, a spokesman for the Saudi-led coalition, denied responsibility for the attack in Mokha, telling Reuters: "There have been no air operations by the coalition in that area for three days. This is totally false news."

The next day we drove north towards Sadah city. Every bridge along the main road had been destroyed a long with countless gas stations, fuel trucks, and roadside buildings. At a camp for internally displaced persons (IDPs) who had fled the heavy bombing campaign, many told us that their villages in the surrounding countryside had been flattened. The camp, on a dusty patch of barren land, was home to 600 people living in makeshift tents with just two temporary toilets between them. They were forced to burn plastic bottles and polystyrene to bake bread because fuel had become too expensive.

IDP (internally displaced person) camp, Amran province. Photo by Peter Salisbury

I asked Abdo Ali Salem al-Obali , the self-declared "sheikh" of the camp, what they had fled from. "Wherever these bombs hit, everything is gone," he said. "People died. No one was left. No stores were left. Nothing was left. We ran away with nothing in our hands. They burned our village and now we are here."

In an MSF-run hospital, where the staff looked shattered by the massive influx of injured or malnourished patients, a family gathered around a wailing baby girl whose right leg was just a short, bandaged stump. Her whole body was covered with burns and cuts. Her mother, who was also covered with small shrapnel wounds, described what had happened.

"My child has died and the other one had her leg amputated," she sobbed. "They didn't attack any military camps. They killed women, children, the elderly, and young. They haven't left anything undamaged. They've forced people to flee their homes."

The general justification for the level of destruction visited upon Yemen by the Saudis and their allies has been that they are working to restore Yemen's legitimate government to power and nullify the threat of future Houthi attacks across its southern border. But last week the Saudis announced that "major combat operations" would soon be coming to an end even though the Houthis still control most of the territory they had at the beginning of the war, and have even pushed into Saudi Arabia, taking several small towns and military bases there. Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States have hardly succeeded in showing the world, or its regional rivals, that they are a potent fighting force.

Men syphoning fuel, Sadah City. Photo by Spencer Chumbley

What they have shown is that they are able to inflict widespread destruction on a neighboring state while building resentments that will last for generations. As we've documented elsewhere, the US and UK are complicit, both supplying the Saudis with weapons and helping them run the aerial campaign in Yemen. Neither country seems particularly interested in getting to the bottom of allegations that the richest country in the Middle East is bombing some of its poorest people with apparent disregard for human life.

When we finally got to Saada city, the provincial capital, we saw what everyone had been talking about. We'd last visited the city 18 months earlier and it was now unrecognizable. On some streets, every building had been hit by an air strike, badly damaged if not completely destroyed. Apart from the roads themselves, which had been swept clear, entire streets of once bustling shops, restaurants, and homes were now just piles of broken bricks, concrete, and mangled steel.

Even the ubiquitous Houthi "sarkha" banners were almost all gone. In 2014, the city had been plastered with them, some higher than buildings: crisp white rectangles with bright red and green Arabic letters saying, "God is great. Death to America. Death to Israel. Curse the Jews. Victory for Islam." Now the remaining banners were ripped, hanging in shreds, or faded and dirty.

Children and Houthi supporters used to sing out the sarkha whenever they saw us. We didn't hear it once on this return trip. Houthi checkpoints within the city had largely been abandoned. Those that did still exist were manned by the old, the wounded, or very often by fighters who looked like they had yet to reach puberty. Anyone able -bodied and willing (and in some cases, we were quietly told, unwilling) was off fighting on the frontlines.

Houthi fighters at a checkpoint, Sadah City. Photo by Spencer Chumbley

The tiny juice bar we had visited two years earlier was shuttered, the family who had proudly served us fresh smoothies was long gone. The coffee shop once run by a mature and unflappable ten-year-old boy was no more.

One flattened gas station still had two lines of mangled mini-buses, "dabbabs," as the Yemenis call them, leading up to it in an orderly line. It was easy to imagine what it must have looked like in the moments before the missile hit. Eleven minibus drivers had been lining up to get fuel. Two of them were at the pumps, filling their vehicles. One mini-bus seemed to be trying to jump the line , and you could almost hear the other drivers b eeping their horns and shouting. Several cars had also been lining up from the other entrance. Then a missile had landed right on the small roof covering the pumps. Every vehicle had been burnt into black and rust colored skeletons. Only the bodies of the drivers and passengers had been removed. We were shown video of their blackened, skinless corpses being carried away: 21 people had been killed in the air strike. The only reason they were there at all, desperately trying to access some scarce fuel, was because of the blockade enforced by the same people who had then blown them up .

The Imam Al-Hadi mosque is one of the oldest in the world. It had been open more or less continuously for 1,300 years . It was now closed, we were told, for the first time in its history.

Many of the surrounding buildings, including the once thriving market, were destroyed. The walls around the mosque were damaged, but the building itself had not been hit. Not far away, every local government building—the Post Office, the Agricultural bank, a lecture theater—had been destroyed, but there too, the mosque was untouched, except for some broken windows. The coalition could clearly strike, or spare, whatever they chose.

Anderson stands next to the ruins of a barber's house in Sadah City. Twenty-seven members of the barber's family were killed. Photo by Spencer Chumbley

I sat on the edge of a huge crater next to the mosque and looked into the houses that had been skinned by bombs. I saw a retro TV, a dresser , and the tiled walls of bathrooms and kitchens. In one house, I saw a cheap suitcase, crammed full with clothes, but not yet closed , like someone had tried to squeeze in as much as possible and had struggled to get the suitcase shut. Maybe the bomb had landed at that very moment. Maybe the anti-aircraft fire had given them enough time to flee, but they didn't have time to take their belongings. There were so many possible stories of loss and misery.

We drove to a warehouse that had been struck. It had been leased to Oxfam, the international NGO. As with most of the strikes we had seen, the missile had landed right in the building's center. The roof and everything inside had been destroyed, but the walls were still standing , held up by emergency steel poles.

Via email, Sajjad Mohammad Sajid, Oxfam Country Director in Yemen, told me:

"The contents of the warehouse had no military value. It only contained humanitarian supplies associated with our previous work in Saada, bringing clean water to thousands of households. Thankfully none of our staff were present at the time but thousands of Yemeni civilians have not been so lucky."

A child holds the remnants of a US-made cluster bomb, Sadah City. Photo by Peter Salisbury

As I was peering through cracks in the building, an old woman, hunched over a walking stick and wearing a dusty black shawl that covered everything except her eyes and hands, approached me.

"Oh my son," she said, "they bombed our tents. They were full of mattresses, lots of food and our clothes. We have nothing now."

Carrying a white cloth sack with a saucepan in it, she led me to what was now home for her and her family. It looked as though someone had just piled all the debris from the warehouse into one corner, but it was actually two makeshift tents, with sheets of white corrugated iron laid against the outer walls and weigh ed down with rocks to stop the wind from blowing everything away.

The woman showed me inside, where she had a small gas stove, about twenty tiny and filthy tomatoes, and a pile of old clothes that she slept on. A gaunt ginger and white cat sniffed around looking for food. "We don't have a withered leaf of khat. No mattresses and no blankets. Not even one riyal. We are refugees, my son. They burned us and we have nothing." She insisted on making us tea, and kept asking that God prevent us from being harmed.

Anderson examines the remnants of a missile fired on a wedding party in Mocha, on the Red Sea Coast of Yemen. Photo by Spencer Chumbley

The family had fled the north of Saada during a period of intense air strikes around the village where they lived, she said. They had lived in two makeshift tents on the empty lot opposite the Oxfam warehouse. The whole family was home when the missile struck, she said, and everything they owned, including the tent they lived in, caught fire. They had rebuilt their home with scrap metal from the wreckage of the warehouse. No one was injured. For this, she said she was grateful.

Her son and four grandsons sat down next to us. One of the boys draped himself across my back, then onto my leg, hugging me with his arms. He would look ecstatically happy one moment, cackl ing and stroking my beard, and terrified the next.

"He can't concentrate like before. He sits like he is not here. He saw the explosion, he was alone, and he lost his sanity. From that day, he never went back to normal," said his father.

"He is an insane man," said one of his brothers.

The Saudis have some of the most advanced weapons in the world and can clearly target their missiles with pinpoint accuracy. Their targets have included schools (159 so far, according to the UN) , hospitals, gas stations, ports, civilian homes, shops, and food storage facilities. On March 15 an air strike hit a market in north west Yemen, not far from where we were in the fall, killing an estimated 120 people. It was one of the deadliest single attacks since the war began, and the second time in two weeks that a market had been hit. MSF, who we visited during our trip, have had their facilities hit four times. In October, shortly after we left Yemen, an MSF-supported hospital in Haidan, Saada, was destroyed by a series of air strikes. MSF told us the hospital was the only health facility in an area inhabited by more than 200,000 people. MSF have reopened a clinic in the staff room of the hospital—the only part of the building to escape the attack unscathed—but are struggling to convince their staff that it is safe to return.

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