Abdulrahman al-Dhurafi had just finished his morning prayers in Yemen’s northwestern city of Saada on August 4, when a blast from an almighty explosion shook his house. Minutes later, a friend called to tell him his nephew’s home had just been destroyed in an airstrike from the Saudi-led coalition that has been bombarding the country since 2015.
Al-Dhurafi, general director of the Education Ministry’s office in Saada, rushed to the scene to find a neighbor running from the rubble of the flattened house, the body of a young girl in his arms. It was two-year-old Batool al-Dhurafi, his nephew’s youngest daughter. The blast had killed her and her five siblings – the eldest just 12 – as well as her mother, grandmother, and 17-year-old cousin. In total, nine civilians were killed.
The bloody assault on the al-Dhurafis’ home is one of five recent Saudi-led strikes in Yemen since June that amount to war crimes, Human Rights Watch alleged in a statement Tuesday.
The memo, from which the account of the al-Dhurafi deaths is taken, documents 39 civilian deaths – 26 of them children – in five recent airstrikes which the human rights group says caused such indiscriminate loss of life that they are in violation of the rules of war.
“We had repeatedly heard that the (Saudi-led) coalition would tighten its rules of engagement, so we looked at these strikes since the promise was made,” Kristine Beckerle, Human Rights Watch’s Yemen researcher, told VICE News.
“All appeared to violate the laws of war. All had high civilian death tolls. Four hit family homes wiping out almost entire families.” In a separate attack on the village of Al-Ua’shira village in Taizz on July 18, at least 14 members of one family – including nine children – were killed, according to the memo.
In a statement carried on the Saudi Press Agency, a spokesman for the Saudi-led coalition denied targeting the al-Dhurafi home and said it was investigating the “unfortunate incident,” noting “the methodology of the Houthi militia in storing weapons and explosives inside houses and civilian objects.” Witnesses spoken to by Human Rights Watch said there were no military targets in the vicinity of the al-Dhurafi home.
Yemen’s devastating civil war, in which the internationally-recognized government, backed by a Saudi-led coalition, is battling Iranian-backed Houthi army units loyal to former President Ali Abdullah Saleh, has killed thousands and destroyed much of the country’s infrastructure. A U.N. report released last week found at least 5,144 civilians had been killed – 63 percent of them by the Saudi-led coalition, which is supported with weapons from the U.S. and the U.K.
In response to international condemnation over its indiscriminate bombing campaign, Saudi Arabia gave an undertaking to the United States ahead of President Donald Trump’s visit to the kingdom in May to tighten its targeting procedures to reduce civilian casualties.
But Beckerle said the report showed that there had been no tangible change on the ground.
“When you look at Yemen, it is very clear that laws of war violations continue, the civilian death toll continues to mount,” she said.
Human Rights Watch has called for the U.N. to launch an international investigation into the abuses, and return the Saudi-led coalition to its annual “list of shame’ for violations against children. Beckerle said the international needed to impress on the Saudi-led coalition that “words are no longer enough, there will be repercussions when they once again bomb a Yemeni home.”