Photo Feature: Yemeni civilians in the crossfire

By Almigdad Mojalli

As the aerial bombardment of Yemen stretches towards a third week and the country's civil war continues its downward spiral, more and more civilians are becoming trapped in the crossfire.

Long among the Middle East's poorest people, it is ordinary Yemenis who are increasingly bearing the brunt of Saudi-led air strikes and Houthi rebel reprisals.

Ibb
“I saw one of my neighbours Saleh al-Jehafi, who passed away today due to burns, throwing his 12-year-old daughter through the window to rescue her from fire”
— Mohammed Rezq

Twelve days ago, a Saudi-led coalition of 10 nations began bombing Yemen to displace Houthi rebels who seized the capital Sana'a last September. The attacks, which have been questioned under international law, have already killed many civilians.

In the central province of Ibb, a dozen fuel tankers and two petrol stations were hit by air strikes, setting off a series of massive fireballs. The Saudis said they were targeting people carrying guns for the Houthis, but when IRIN visited the scenes the civilian toll was all too clear.

  Abdullah Saleh al-Jehafi, 16, suffered horrific burns

Abdullah Saleh al-Jehafi, 16, suffered horrific burns

In one town, local resident Mohammed Rezq said a petrol tanker was hit by an air strike at a security checkpoint at 2.30am.

“We were sleeping, and suddenly we heard a very loud explosion which lifted us from our mattresses.

"We heard men and women calling for help. We ran to rescue them,” Rezq said, adding that all 13 people killed by the strike were civilians.

“I saw one of my neighbours Saleh al-Jehafi, who passed away today due to burns, throwing his 12-year-old daughter through the window to rescue her from fire.” 

It emerged that the neighbour's son, Abdullah Saleh al-Jehafi, the 16-year-old student pictured opposite, had been sleeping next to his brothers when their home was engulfed by flames.

“Our house was the closest to the security checkpoint, and it was covered in fire," Abdullah's uncle told IRIN.

"My brother was trying to rescue his family, but all of them except Abdullah and his little daughter passed away."

An air strike on another vehicle in a residential neighbourhood killed 18 civilians in addition to the three soldiers it was targeting, according to rescue teams. Flames from the explosion spread for hundreds of metres, burning down several homes, shops and cars.

 An air strike turned this petrol tanker into a burnt-out shell

An air strike turned this petrol tanker into a burnt-out shell

Abdu Ahmed, 58, the owner of hardware shops destroyed by the blast, said he had lost USD$25,000 worth of goods. “Look! These are the guns and the nuclear weapons that Saudi Arabia targeted - some paints, plastic and metal pipes! I lost $25,000, and who will compensate me?"

Despite the need for compromise, both sides have upped their political rhetoric in recent days. On Thursday, the anti-Houthi Islah party officially thanked Saudi Arabia for its actions. "We have hope that this intervention will return [the country] to the right track," it said in a statement.

 A pro-Houthi demonstration in the Yemeni capital Sana'a

A pro-Houthi demonstration in the Yemeni capital Sana'a

On Friday, a major pro-Houthi protest was held in the centre of Sana'a. Prominent preacher Sharaf al-Qalesi called on Yemenis to take the fight across the border into Saudi Arabia, promising more violence and urging pro-Houthi tribes to fight for "victory" and "blood." 

The mood in the crowd was angry and vengeful.

“I wonder why Saudi Arabia and its allies did not form a united armed force and direct them to Israel which is occupying an Arab and Muslim country like Palestine?" asked 48-year-old Mohamed Naser Salah.

For ordinary Yemeni families, the situation has become dire. In the capital Sana'a, men queue around the block for bread and wheat, while most petrol stations have long ago run dry. In a country where over 90 percent of grain is imported, fears of food shortages are growing.

"This eruption of violence comes on top of an already existing humanitarian catastrophe and decades of poverty," said Save the Children's Acting Country Director Priya Jacob, pointing out that over 60 percent of the Yemeni population is in need of aid.

"850,000 children suffer from acute malnutrition, with a shocking 41 percent of Yemen's children suffering from stunting in the poorest Arab country," Jacob added.

Aid agencies continue to seek access but are at the mercy of the precarious security situation.

The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) told IRIN they were hopeful a plane carrying 48 tons of medical supplies would arrive on Tuesday morning.

"We hope the medical supplies are delivered tomorrow. We are still sorting out logistical matters with the cargo plane and we hope everything will be ready as soon as possible, tomorrow, or the day after, but I cannot give you an exact date," Marie-Claire Feghali, ICRC Yemen spokesperson, said.

Two brothers volunteering with the Yemen Red Crescent Society were killed late last week in the port city of Aden by unknown gunmen, only a few days after a similar incident elsewhere in the country.

"These two brothers were shot dead while evacuating the wounded. It is an example of how difficult it is to operate in a conflict area where the battles are quite intense," Feghali said.

 Yemenis flee the capital Sana'a with their families and few possessions

Yemenis flee the capital Sana'a with their families and few possessions

Those who can afford to are fleeing the large cities for residential areas. With scant hope of an imminent end to the crisis, Yemenis can expect little but more suffering.