Civilians caught in Operation Decisive Storm
Monday’s airstrike on Mazraq IDP camp in Hajjah governorate, which left at least 40 people dead and hundreds more injured, brought international attention to the plight of civilians caught up in the conflict. Less covered was the bombing of a busy market in Kitaf district of Sa’ada governorate last Friday, said to have killed 15 civilians, or the multiple other attacks on civilian areas in governorates around the country.
Four days after Saudi-led airstrikes began, its organizers claimed success as air power and every military airbase available to Houthi forces was said to be destroyed. Yet, Abdu Rabu Mansour Hadi and his Saudi supporters called for a continuation of airstrikes until the Houthis and their allies surrender, while accusations that civilians are being killed in the campaign have met with silence and denial.
According to UNICEF, as of Wednesday at least 62 children have been killed and 30 injured throughout Yemen since the war started six days earlier around midnight on March 25. Fighting continues to engulf Aden and other governorates in the south, as air raids continue throughout the country.
The addition of a Saudi-led coalition of international actors to a localized conflict involving an array of groups has left citizens confused about who the enemy is and where the dangers are coming from.
Mohammad Al-Wesabi, 45, lives with his family in the Hezyaz area of Sanhan district, just north of the capital Sana’a. Shortly after midnight on Sunday, houses in his neighborhood were rocked by a strong explosion, different than the airstrikes and anti-aircraft artillery residents throughout the capital have become accustomed to in recent days.
Al-Wesabi emerged in the morning to find a crowd gathered in a local brickyard, less than two hundred meters from his house. Standing around a large crater in the ground, he and his neighbors discovered the source of the explosion was a mere stone’s throw from their homes.
Sadeq Al-Ezzi*, 25, an accountant working for NATCO electronics in Hezyaz, said merchandize in his company warehouse, several hundred meters from the blast, was found destroyed the next day. Shattered windows and pockmarked houses nearest the explosion, evacuated days earlier, testify to the blast’s destructive power. No civilians were injured in the strike.
The Reserve Forces base next to Al-Wesabi’s neighborhood was the likely target of the airstrike, and the sizeable crater would appear to be caused by an air to surface missile. However, with the rapid pace of developments in Yemen over recent weeks and months, with rumors and rampant misinformation, citizens have a hard time discerning enemy from foe and working out where threats are coming from.
In the absence of identifiable shrapnel, Al-Ezzi says he and other residents remain divided on what may have caused the explosion. Those at the scene did not rule out the possibility that Reserve Forces stationed next door—many of whom once belonged to Ali Abdullah Saleh’s elite Republican Guard—purposely fired a missile into the brickyard, part of efforts to stir resentment towards the Saudi-led coalition.
With little confirmation coming from either side regarding strikes and artillery fire, residents are left with speculation in the absence of facts.
“If the Houthis and Saleh’s forces prove incapable of preventing the airstrikes with the weapons they have, they might find ways to ensure civilians direct their anger at the foreign intervention instead of themselves. So it’s possible they target civilian areas,” said Al-Ezzi.
Many in Sana’a have questioned the effectiveness of anti-aircraft guns against planes flying so high they remain unseen by the naked eye. Despite unverified reports to the contrary, no coalition jet is known to have been shot down in the capital or anywhere else in the country.
Yahya Ashraf, deputy director of the Police Academy Research Department, which offers military and security analysis, believes the anti-aircraft weaponry now available to Houthi forces is incapable of hitting coalition warplanes.
While effective weaponry may still be available, something Ashraf could not speculate further on, he believes the continued use of low-range Soviet, American and German guns currently heard throughout the capital is “pointless.”
Jamal Al-Qeiz, head of the Security Department in the Ministry of Defense, confirmed that available air defenses are unable to hit planes at a high altitude, but said they were being used to prevent fighter jets from moving in closer during attacks.
The use of ineffective weaponry may have more to do with the Houthis’ public image than actual defense, as Ashraf suggests, but they constitute a real danger to people living in their vicinity. Although coalition strikes appear to have been targeting large military installations thus far, concerns have risen since the guns began appearing more frequently in civilian areas.
Mohammad Abdullah*, 44, lives in the Safia neighborhood of Sana’a. According to Abdullah, anti-aircraft weaponry have been positioned amongst houses in his area since last Thursday, a day after airstrikes first began in the capital.
“Whenever a wave of airstrikes begin, we hear gunfire from our area and it’s terrifying, especially for women and children,” he said, adding that complaints from residents are met with accusations of being unpatriotic and betraying the national cause.
Speaking at a press conference in Riyadh on Sunday, Ahmed Aseri of the Saudi Defense Ministry warned civilians to avoid soldiers and military installations, while accusing Houthi forces of using residential areas as shields. “Houthi militias set up anti-aircraft guns on the rooftops of residential buildings in an attempt to draw coalition forces into bombing them,” he said.
Nasser Al-Homaid*, 36, a local from the Bait Baws area in Sana’a, says Houthis have been firing artillery from rooftops in his neighborhood. Al-Homaid says anti-aircraft artillery are positioned above houses using cranes, a process he witnessed on Saturday.
“Nobody can object to such actions. Nobody dares, they could be harmed,” he said.
Bassam Mohsen*, 22, a resident of Al-Khair neighborhood in the capital’s Al-Sabaeen area, says Houthis mobilize their artillery at night, which makes it difficult to know when guns are positioned nearby.
Monitoring or resisting the use of heavy artillery in residential areas is also made difficult due to local collaberation, says Mohsen. “In our neighborhood there are lots of political and tribal figures with close ties to the former president, who are willing to assist the Houthis because of their alliance with military units loyal to Ali Abdullah Saleh.”
As Saudi-led airstrikes claim growing numbers of civilians, and Houthi and military forces draw the battle closer to their homes, many of those with the means to do so have decided to leave the capital.
If the airstrikes continue for much longer, Al-Homaid is planning to take his family to his ancestral village in Amran governorate, bordering Sana’a to the north. But leaving is not an option for everyone. In spite of the dangers, Al-Wesabi says he won’t be relocating his family to a safer area. He doesn’t have anywhere else to go, he says, and can’t afford to rent a new property.
As it goes in war, a lack of accountability means personal losses go uncompensated. The home of Yasser Zaid, 55, was severely damaged by Sunday’s explosion in Hezyaz. Zaid said he is grateful for the safety of his family, who had moved to another part of the city just a day earlier, but wonders how long it will take before he can repair his home.
Others, like Hassan Al-Sharafi, 32, have fewer options. His home near Al-Dailmi Airbase in Sana’a has been destroyed following repeated attacks. He and his family of seven narrowly survived, but are now homeless and have been taken in by neighbors.
*Names of local residents have been changed for their safety.