‘No safe place’: Saudi airstrikes kill 20 civilians in Yemen

On the same day as the strike, Saudi also grounded an aid flight because three journalists were on board.

Taiz has been hit Houthi mortars and rockets as well as Saudi missiles throughout Yemen’s civil war. CREDIT: AP Photo/Abdulnasser Alseddik
Taiz has been hit Houthi mortars and rockets as well as Saudi missiles throughout Yemen’s civil war. CREDIT: AP Photo/Abdulnasser Alseddik

At least 20 civilians — most of them believed to be members of the same family — died in Yemen when a Saudi-led coalition strike hit the village of al-Atera in Yemen’s Taiz province officials confirmed on Wednesday.

The strike is the latest in a civil war that has left Yemen in a humanitarian crisis. With U.S. support and weapons, Saudi Arabia has been leading the coalition backing the Yemeni government against Houthi rebels since 2015.

Tuesday’s deadly strike came the day after the U.S. Senate heard from experts about how Saudi Arabia’s actions are worsening conditions in Yemen. Still, President Donald Trump has not wavered in his support for Saudi’s role in Yemen. His administration is considering giving the Saudis more military assistance, and it views the war in Yemen as a proxy war with Iran, which has been supporting the Houthis.

The UN’s refugee agency (UNHCR) noted that those hit by the strike were internally-displaced people (IDPs) who had been fleeing violence in the nearby Al Mokha district. No further details are available on the attack at this time.

Shabia Mantoo, UNCHR’s spokesperson in Sanaa, Yemen, told ThinkProgress that there is “no safe place” for civilians to escape to in the country.

Nothing has been spared in the widespread fighting — schools, hospitals, markets and even funerals have been struck.

Over 10,000 people have been killed in Yemen’s civil war, and a cholera outbreak, which has so far killed 1,817 people, has pushed the already impoverished country to the brink of famine. All of this is unfolding while a conflict with no clear frontlines fans the country.

“That is the devastating nature of this conflict,” Mantoo said, explaining that while there are nearly three million Yemenis displaced, there are “no camps in the formal sense” — meaning families running from fighting either stay in residential districts with relatives or create informal settlements wherever they can.

The approximately 20 civilians killed in Tuesday’s attack were staying in a residential area, Mantoo said. She noted that there were women and children among the dead. “They were in search of safety.”

She is trying to confirm reports that a few injured survivors from the attack might have been transferred to a nearby hospital.

“It’s an active conflict zone,” said Mantoo, noting that while the UNHCR has been able to get aid to civilians in need, that access can be tricky and requires coordination with all parties.

Indeed, confirming information within Yemen has been a difficult task, not just for aid agencies, but for journalists as well.

A flight headed to Sanaa carrying UN aid as well as three BBC journalists was grounded in Djibouti on Tuesday. Aviation sources as well as a spokesman for the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs told Reuters that the flight was prevented from taking off because of the presence of the three BBC journalists on board.

Reporting on the conflict and the cascading humanitarian crisis has proven to be a challenge, said Sherif Mansour, Middle East and North Africa program coordinator for the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ).

“Journalists in Yemen face threats from all sides of the conflict, from the Houthis, the Saudi coalition, from extremist and terrorist groups like al-Qaeda,” said Mansour. This translates into being jailed, kidnapped, intimidated, forced into exile, or killed.

Mansour said at least 14 journalists have been killed since the beginning of Yemen’s civil war, but he added that those were only the ones CPJ could confirm.

Of grave concern is what Mansour calls “the polarization of the media landscape” in Yemen. “Both sides have filtered critical and independent voices out in the areas that they control,” he said. The issue is compounded by the issue of authorities preventing journalists from even entering the country.

“This has an immediate effect because the demise of state institutions and rule of law have made it impossible for anyone to operate without having military protection or being strongly allied with one of the groups,” said Mansour. He added that this does not allow for independent, critical information for the citizens of Yemen as well as the international community.

But, said Mansour, he’s much more worried about the long-term impact of this kind of media crackdown.

“In the absence of real information, vetted and scrutinized, the only thing remaining is propaganda by and for the fighting groups. Any discussion about accountability, transitional justice, any sort of political settlement of this conflict will rely on the public knowing who was responsible for it and choosing what to do in order to heal and move forward,” he said.

“And that’s a discussion you can only have when there’s a free flow of information and an independent media.”

Efforts to hold Saudi Arabia accountable for its actions in Yemen so far have fallen short. Last week, the UK High Court ruled that arms sales to Saudi Arabia are allowed to continue, much to the dismay of human rights activists. In June, the U.S. Senate allowed a shipment of over $500 million in precision-guided munitions to Saudi Arabia, as a resolution of disapproval of the sales narrowly failed.