Ahmad Algohbary and Faisal Edroos / Al Jazeera & Nima Elbagir, Salma Abdelaziz, Ryan Browne, Barbara Arvanitidis and Laura Smith-Spark / CNN – 2018-08-29 00:38:36
The Yemen Bus Massacre:
How a Joyful Excursion Ended in Sheer Horror
Ahmad Algohbary and Faisal Edroos / Al Jazeera
DAHYAN, Yemen (August 18, 2018) — The bandage wrapped around Mokhtar al-Jaradi’s head is still soaked in blood. There are cuts and grazes to his arms and face. But it’s the anguish etched in his dark brown eyes that really speaks of the massacre that unfolded in north Yemen last week.
The eight-year-old was laughing and playing with a group of friends at the front of his school bus while on a day-long field trip organised by a pro-Houthi Islamic seminary.
Some of the older boys who arrived late were made to stand in the aisle. The younger ones jostled for the few seats available. Mokhtar says all of the 50 children on board the bus that morning appeared to be in high spirits.
A video taken by one of the boys on the bus, Osama al-Hamran, showed the children excited for the day ahead. In one clip, the children recited verses from the Quran. In another, they were smiling and giggling.
When the bus sped off, passers-by heard joyful screams as it veered through the dusty, pot-hole ridden roads of Saada province.
After stops at a graveyard for local fighters and a nearby shrine, the bus was supposed to take its young passengers to Saada city for a visit to the ninth-century al-Hadi mosque, a historical site which is venerated by Yemen’s Houthi rebels.
But the children never made it.
What Mokhtar remembers next is a loud explosion, bright red-and-orange colours, then the grisly sight of charred young bodies.
“I saw the explosion, then my ears started ringing,” he told Al Jazeera. His eyes welled up with tears. “I saw blood, then smoke. And once I saw my friends dying, I began crying.”
Mokhtar lost several friends in the August 9 air raid, which killed 40 children as they stopped for food in Dahyan. Eleven bystanders were also killed in the attack, which sent shockwaves across the country.
Large protests erupted in the capital, Sanaa, and elsewhere. Local newspapers called the attack one of the worst days in Yemen’s three-year war.
‘The Screams Kept Getting Louder and Louder’
Ahmed Jaran, owner of a small clothes shop near the site of the blast, said he was greeted by “scenes of sheer horror” as he rushed to help the wounded.
“As I ran through the smoke, the screams just kept getting louder and louder,” he said, standing just metres away from the bombed-out carcass of the school bus. “Human remains were thrown everywhere, mixed with debris from the explosion. I took as many children as I could to the hospital — but it was 14km away.”
Along with several bloodied children, Jaran picked up Ali, one of his coworkers who was badly injured by the attack.
“When we reached the hospital, several of the children were pronounced dead. So, too, was Ali. I still can’t believe what happened. It feels like a bad dream. I’m still struggling to absorb the events.”
Among the boys who died was Osama, who had been using his smartphone to record a video diary throughout the religious trip. The videos were found on his phone, which survived the blast, according to the Houthis who sent the footage to Al Jazeera.
“I am filming!” Osama can be heard yelling in one of the videos, surrounded by children wearing coats over their thobes, a traditional dress for Arab males. Light-blue UNICEF rucksacks carried by the children could also be seen.
‘Never Seen Anything Like This’
But videos shot in the aftermath of the raid showed a smouldering heap of twisted metal and the lifeless bodies of two boys on the ground.
“I was shocked when I saw the victims,” said Mohammed Ahsan, a 35-year-old doctor at al-Talh hospital in Saada where most of the survivors are being treated. “I had never seen anything like this before. They were really badly wounded.”
Three days after the attack, victims’ families continued to throng to the scene of the attack, hoping to find the remains of their loved ones.
“I didn’t find any of him,” said Abdelhakim Amir as he searched the wreckage for his son, Ahmed. “Not his finger, not his bone, not his skull, nothing.”
Saudi Arabia, which, along with the United Arab Emirates, has been bombing Yemen since March 2015, said it would carry out an investigation. But out of the 16,000-plus raids they have launched since the start of the conflict, only a handful have been investigated, despite nearly a third of all bombs hitting civilian targets.
“America: Ask Why You Are Hated”
The UN blacklisted the Saudi-UAE alliance last year, for the majority of child deaths and injuries reported in Yemen. But on the day of the bus attack, Colonel Turki al-Malki, a spokesperson for the alliance, defended the raid, saying his forces hit a “legitimate military target”, which included “operators and planners.”
The Houthis have used the area to launch attacks on the Saudi border and fire missiles into the kingdom and the UAE.
However, on August 10, the alliance said the bombing had been referred for an internal probe after the US — which provides substantial support to the alliance, including intelligence sharing — denounced the killings and called for a “thorough and transparent investigation”.
‘I Hate Buses’
A few days later, Al Jazeera received an image suggesting a US-made MK-82 bomb was used in the raid. A metal fin, bearing the serial numbers of Lockheed Martin, was found nearby.
The photo has not been independently verified, but fragments of the MK-82 bomb have surfaced repeatedly amid the ongoing war.
The 500-pound bomb was used in a 2016 attack on a community hall hosting a funeral in Sanaa. At least 140 people were killed in that attack.
The Trump administration says it has little control over the targets the alliance chooses to attack, but human rights groups have told Al Jazeera that Washington should stop selling aerial bombs to the kingdom in the absence of serious investigations into alleged war crimes.
In the wake of the attack, individual members of Congress called on the US military to clarify its role in the war and investigate whether support for the air raids could render American military personnel “liable under the war crimes act”. But any investigation will do little to pacify the victims’ families, residents told Al Jazeera.
“I will take revenge on Salman, Mohammed Bin Zayed and Trump,” said Fares al-Razhi, referring to the leaders of Saudi Arabia, the UAE and the US, after his 14-year-old son was killed.
The parents of some of the survivors were also inconsolable.
“I’m waiting on my son to get better, and once he does I will take my revenge on the Saudis,” said Mokhtar’s father. “We will never leave Saada.”
Close to him, his son crouches near the bomb site, still haunted by memories of the attack.
“My father says he will buy me toys and get me a new school bag. But I don’t want a new school bag. I hate school bags,” said eight-year-old Mokhtar before adding that his education ended the day his friends died.
“I don’t want to go anywhere near a bus. I hate buses, I hate school and I can’t sleep. I see my friends in my dreams begging me to rescue them.
“So, from now on, I’m going to stay at home.”
Bomb that Killed 40 Children in Yemen Was Supplied by the US
Nima Elbagir, Salma Abdelaziz, Ryan Browne, Barbara Arvanitidis and Laura Smith-Spark / CNN
Munitions experts said the numbers on this piece of shrapnel confirmed that Lockheed Martin was the maker of the bomb.
(August 17, 2018) — The bomb used by the Saudi-led coalition in a devastating attack on a school bus in Yemen was sold as part of a US State Department-sanctioned arms deal with Saudi Arabia, munitions experts told CNN.
Working with local Yemeni journalists and munitions experts, CNN has established that the weapon that left dozens of children dead on August 9 was a 500-pound (227 kilogram) laser-guided MK 82 bomb made by Lockheed Martin, one of the top US defense contractors.
The bomb is very similar to the one that wreaked devastation in an attack on a funeral hall in Yemen in October 2016 in which 155 people were killed and hundreds more wounded. The Saudi coalition blamed “incorrect information” for that strike, admitted it was a mistake and took responsibility.
In March of that year, a strike on a Yemeni market– this time reportedly by a US-supplied precision-guided MK 84 bomb — killed 97 people.
In the aftermath of the funeral hall attack, former US President Barack Obama banned the sale of precision-guided military technology to Saudi Arabia over “human rights concerns.”
The ban was overturned by the Trump administration’s then-Secretary of State Rex Tillerson in March 2017.
As the US-backed Saudi-led coalition scrambles to investigate the strike on the school bus, questions are growing from observers and rights groups about whether the US bears any moral culpability.
The US says it does not make targeting decisions for the coalition, which is fighting a Houthi rebel insurgency in Yemen. But it does support its operations through billions of dollars in arms sales, the refueling of Saudi combat aircraft and some sharing of intelligence.
“I will tell you that we do help them plan what we call, kind of targeting,” said US Secretary of Defense James Mattis. “We do not do dynamic targeting for them.”
The latest strike has left the community in Yemen’s northern Saada governorate reeling.
Zeid Al Homran visits the graveyard where his two little boys are buried every day. On this occasion, he brought their five-year-old brother along. He is all Al Homran has left.
“I was screaming in anger and all around me women were throwing themselves on the ground,” he told CNN. “People were screaming out the names of their children. I tried to tell the women it couldn’t be true but then a man ran through the crowd shouting that a plane had struck the children’s bus.”
‘Bodies Scattered Everywhere’
The bomb’s impact as it landed on the bus full of excited schoolchildren on a day trip was devastating.
Of the 51 people who died in the airstrike, 40 were children, Houthi Health Minister Taha al-Mutawakil said last week. He added that of the 79 people wounded, 56 were children.
Eyewitnesses told CNN it was a direct hit in the middle of a busy market. “I saw the bomb hit the bus,” one witness said. “It blew it into those shops and threw the bodies clear to the other side of those buildings. We found bodies scattered everywhere, there was a severed head inside the bomb crater. When we found that, that was when I started running. I was so afraid.”
Some of the bodies were so mutilated that identification became impossible. Left behind were scraps of schoolbooks, warped metal and a single backpack.
Images of shrapnel filmed in the immediate aftermath of the attack were sent to CNN by a contact in Saada. Subsequently, a cameraman working for CNN filmed footage of the shrapnel after the cleanup operation had begun.
Munitions experts confirmed that the numbers on it identified Lockheed Martin as its maker and that this particular MK 82 was a Paveway, a laser-guided bomb.
Asked to comment on CNN’s evidence, coalition spokesman Col. Turki al-Maliki said: “The democratically elected government of Yemen has been displaced by an Iranian-backed insurgency by minority Houthi militias.”
“The coalition is in Yemen with the support of the UN Security Council to restore the legitimate government. The coalition is operating in accordance with international humanitarian law, taking all practical measures to minimize civilian casualties. Every civilian casualty is a tragedy.” He added that it would not “be appropriate for the coalition to comment further while the investigation is underway.”
Saudi Arabia denies targeting civilians and defended the incident as a “legitimate military operation” and a retaliatory response to a Houthi ballistic missile from the day before.
A Pentagon spokeswoman, Lt. Cmdr. Rebecca Rebarich, declined to confirm the provenance of the bomb. “The US has worked with the Saudi-led coalition to help them improve procedures and oversight mechanisms to reduce civilian casualties,” she said. “While we do not independently verify claims of civilian casualties in which we are not directly involved, we call on all sides to reduce such casualties, including those caused via ballistic missile attacks on civilian population centers in Saudi Arabia.”
The United Nations has called for a separate investigation into the strike, one of the deadliest since Yemen’s war began in early 2015. Since then, the Saudi-led coalition has battled rebels in support of exiled President Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi.
Greater US Oversight
There have been growing calls in the US Congress for Saudi Arabia, a key US ally in the Middle East, to do more to cut civilian deaths in Yemen, where three years of conflict have taken a terrible toll.
On Monday, US President Donald Trump signed a defense spending bill that includes a clause requiring the Pentagon and State Department to certify that Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, another key coalition member, are doing enough to reduce civilian casualties. This report must be submitted to Congress within 180 days and then annually for the next two years.
The US, alongside the UK and France, is a major supplier of arms to Saudi Arabia.
Trump signed a nearly $110 billion defense deal with Saudi Arabia’s King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud in May last year in the Saudi capital, Riyadh, on what was his first stop abroad as President. In the same month, the US government reauthorized the export of Paveway munitions to Saudi Arabia, ending Obama’s December 2016 ban.
Retired Rear Adm. John Kirby, who served as a spokesman for the State Department and Pentagon under Obama, said the Saudis had a right to defend themselves against missile attacks from the Iranian-backed Houthis but that the Obama administration did not believe they were striking the right balance between that need and proper care for civilian life.
Asked whether the US had moral complicity in the deaths in Yemen, he said: “The issue of complicity is one that international lawyers probably are best to work out, not somebody like me.”
“What I would tell you is that we certainly had under the Obama administration deep concerns about the way the Saudis were targeting, and we acted on those concerns by limiting the kinds of munitions that they were being given and stridently trying to argue for them to be more careful and cautious.”
‘Legitimate Military Action’
In the immediate aftermath of the strike, al-Maliki, the coalition spokesman, told CNN it had been aimed at a “legitimate target.”
“No, this is not children in the bus,” he said. “We do have high standard measures for targeting.”
Yemeni children receive treatment at a hospital after being wounded in the August 9 strike.
The Saudi ambassador to the UN, Abdullah Al-Mouallimi, similarly told the Security Council this week that the strike was a “legitimate military action” and that “the targeted Houthi leaders were responsible for recruiting and training young children and sending them to battlefields.”
“We are not engaged in the civil war. We will help to prevent, you know, the killing of innocent people. I’m very concerned about the humanitarian situation,” US Defense Secretary James Mattis said Sunday when asked about the strike. “Wars are always tragic, but we’ve got to find a way to protect the innocent in the midst of this one.”
Despite a lack of public condemnation over the school bus strike, there are signs that the Trump administration is taking action behind the scenes. US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo discussed the Saudi-led strike with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in a call on Monday. A three-star US general also raised the matter while in Saudi Arabia to meet with the Saudi government and other coalition partners, the Pentagon said.
“The real key is whether or not the Pentagon can help change the calculus, the thinking, inside the Saudi military,” said Kirby.
The conflict in Yemen has resulted in the world’s worst humanitarian crisis, with more than 22 million people — three-quarters of the population — in desperate need of aid and protection, according to the UN.
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