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A Saudi-led coalition airstrike that killed at least 26 children and wounded at least 19 more in or near a school bus in the busy market of Dhahyan, in northern Yemen, on August 9, 2018, is an apparent war crime, Human Rights Watch said today. Countries should immediately halt weapons sales to Saudi Arabia and support strengthening a United Nations independent inquiry into violations by all parties to Yemen’s armed conflict.
Since the Yemen conflict escalated in March 2015, numerous coalition airstrikes have been carried out in violation of the laws of war without adequate follow-up investigations, placing arms suppliers at risk of complicity in war crimes. Human Rights Watch has identified United States-origin munitions at the sites of at least 24 other unlawful coalition attacks in Yemen. The US is reportedly working to advance a sale of $7 billion in precision-guided munitions to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.
“The Saudi-led coalition’s attack on a bus full of young boys adds to its already gruesome track record of killing civilians at weddings, funerals, hospitals, and schools in Yemen,” said Bill Van Esveld, senior children’s rights researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Countries with knowledge of this record that are supplying more bombs to the Saudis will be complicit in future deadly attacks on civilians.”
Human Rights Watch spoke by phone to 14 witnesses, including 9 children, who said that shortly before 8:30 a.m. on August 9, an aerial bomb hit the market in Dhahyan, a town 20 kilometers north of Saada in Houthi-controlled northwestern Yemen, 60 kilometers from the Saudi border. The bomb landed within a few meters of a bus filled with boys on an excursion organized by a local mosque to visit the graves of men who had been killed in fighting. The bus was parked outside a grocery store where the driver had gone to buy water for the children.
The witnesses identified 34 people, including 26 children and 4 teachers, all of whom they identified as civilians, who were killed in the attack, and said there was no evident military target in the market at the time. The attack killed 25 boys and wounded 13 boys on the bus, according to the witnesses, and also killed a boy and wounded six others who were near the bus. Some grieving parents said that the force of the explosion meant they were unable to recover any body parts of their children.
A 16-year-old boy working in a barbershop across the street from the bus told Human Rights Watch by phone from his hospital bed that the explosion was “like the flickering of a lamp, followed by dust and darkness.” He was wounded in the attack by metal fragments in his lower back and said he cannot move unassisted or walk to the bathroom.
A 13-year-old boy who was on the bus, who was also hospitalized, said he had a painful leg wound and hoped his leg would not be amputated. Many of his friends were killed. “Even if I am able to run and play in the future,” he said, “I will not find anyone to play with.”
Human Rights Watch received photographs and videos of munition remnants that a lawyer based in Sanaa, about 235 kilometers south of Saada, said were at the site. He had traveled to the site of the attack on August 11. He also took videos at the site showing the collected remnants near the destroyed bus in the market. The photos and videos of markings visible on a guidance fin for a GBU-12 Paveway II bomb show it was produced at a General Dynamics Corporation facility in Garland, Texas, as well as other markings identifying Lockheed Martin.
Human Rights Watch could not confirm the remnants were found near the site of the attack. However, the relative homogeneity of the fragments in thickness as well as condition, with no weathering or discoloration apparent, and the images of damage from the attack, are consistent with the detonation of a large impact-fuzed aerial bomb. Human Rights Watch has previously determined GBU-12 Paveway II munitions were used in coalition airstrikes that killed 31 civilians on September 10, 2016, and killed more than 100 civilians at a funeral ceremony on October 8, 2016.
The Saudi-led coalition, as it has in past attacks that killed civilians, has made various claims about the intended target of the attack. Coalition spokesperson, Col. Turki al-Malki, stated on August 9 that “the targeting today in Sa’dah Governorate” was a “lawful” attack on “the militants responsible” for a ballistic missile attack on Jazan, a city in southern Saudi Arabia, on the night of August 8. The ballistic missile was launched from Amran, a different Yemeni governorate, not Saada, according to the coalition. Al-Malki told Al-Arabiya television the attack targeted “insurgents on the bus.” He told CNN, “No, this is not children in the bus.… We do have high standard measures for targeting.”
On August 11, the Saudi Arabia Permanent Mission to the UN stated the attack “targeted Houthi leaders who were responsible for recruiting and training young children.... The military action also targeted one of the most prominent trainers of weapons.” No evidence was put forward to support these claims.
Under the laws of war, parties must do everything feasible to verify that targets are valid military objectives. Witnesses said there were no armed men in the market or on the bus, and videos taken on the bus before the attack do not show any fighters or weapons. Human Rights Watch could not confirm the absence of a Houthi military target in the vicinity of the attack, but even if it were present, the use of a weapon with wide area effects in a crowded market would have been unlawfully indiscriminate or expected to cause disproportionate civilian loss.
Individuals who commit serious violations of the laws of war with criminal intent – that is, intentionally or recklessly – may be prosecuted for war crimes. Individuals may also be held criminally liable for assisting in, facilitating, aiding, or abetting a war crime. All governments that are parties to an armed conflict are obligated to investigate alleged war crimes by members of their armed forces.
Despite initially discounting the possibility of an unlawful attack, the coalition later said it would investigate the strike. Coalition investigations seldom find wrongdoing. Human Rights Watch found that the coalition’s Joint Incidents Assessment Team (JIAT) has failed to carry out credible investigations since its establishment in 2016. Victims of strikes in which JIAT recommended the coalition provide some form of assistance also said they had yet to receive any form of redress.
Shortly after the August 9 attack, the US State Department spokesperson said that the Saudi-led coalition should “conduct a thorough and transparent investigation into the incident.”
The Defense Department spokesperson said the US military was not involved in the Dhahyan airstrike, but endorsed US military efforts to reduce civilian casualties: “US military support to our partners mitigates noncombatant casualties, by improving coalition processes and procedures, especially regarding compliance with the law of armed conflict and best practices for reducing the risk of civilian casualties.”
A spokesperson for Lockheed Martin referred questions about the Dhahyan attack to the Defense Department. The Defense Department declined journalists’ requests to identify the source of the weapon used in the attack. The military later stated a lieutenant general’s already-scheduled visit to Saudi Arabia discussed “the need for a timely and transparent investigation” of the attack with Saudi authorities.
In November 2015, the US State Department approved the sale of 4,020 GBU-12 Paveway II bombs as part of a $1.3 billion arms sale to Saudi Arabia, but the US halted parts of the sale involving precision-guided munitions in December 2016. The Trump administration reversed that decision in March 2017. In June 2017, the US approved another arms agreement based on Saudi pledges to reduce civilian casualties.
The United Kingdom and France also remain major arms sellers to Saudi Arabia. Germany has suspended arms sales to the warring parties in Yemen, and the Netherlands and Sweden have adopted more restrictive approaches to arms sales. A Belgian court suspended four arms licenses to Saudi Arabia over concerns about violations in Yemen. Norway has also suspended its arms sales to Saudi Arabia, and to the United Arab Emirates, which plays a significant role in military operations in Yemen.
“Any US official who thinks the way to prevent Saudi Arabia from killing more Yemeni children is to sell it more bombs should watch the videos of the bus attack in Dhahyan,” Van Esveld said. “The US and others should immediately stop weapons sales to Saudi Arabia and support strengthening the independent UN inquiry into violations in Yemen or risk being complicit in future atrocities.”
Death Toll and Witness Accounts
Human Rights Watch documented the full names, ages, and status of 34 people killed in the attack, including 3 teachers and 25 children who were on the bus, and a child, a teacher, and 4 other men in the market. In addition, witnesses identified 4 other adults who were killed, and 13 children on the bus and 6 children in the market who were wounded. The bus driver, who was in a store in the market, was not harmed.
The Houthi-run Education Ministry published a list of the names, ages, and other identifying information of the children and teachers killed, and of 51 people wounded in the strike (not counting repeated names), including 49 children. According to the Houthi Health Ministry, in total, 51 people were killed and 79 wounded.
The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) stated that 50 people were killed and 77 wounded, and that on August 9, Saada’s al-Talh hospital, which the ICRC supports, received the bodies of 29 children under age 15, and 48 people who were wounded, including 30 children.
Children who were on the bus said they were part of a summer program, which began in June, to study at the Grand Mosque from 7:30 a.m. to 10 a.m. daily, except Thursdays and Fridays. On August 9, they had gathered at the mosque at 7 a.m. for a special excursion to the Houthi “martyrs’ cemetery” and the Imam al-Hadi mosque. Nearly all the children on the trip were under age 14. The mosque had organized the same excursion for older students two weeks earlier. “The market was busy and the bus was full of boys,” said Ahmed Muhammad Ali Swayed, 16, who was in the market near the bus at the time of the attack.
Ahmad Abdul Rahman Mohsen Adlan, 13, told Human Rights Watch by phone that the attack had badly wounded his legs. Beginning in June, Adlan had taught summer classes on literacy and memorizing the Quran to 60 children ages 10 and under at the mosque. Five of his students were killed in the attack, he said:
We went to visit one of the cemeteries first, then we stopped at the grocery store near the post office to buy water because we were thirsty. I didn't hear anything, no explosion, and suddenly I was standing near a hole next to the bus. It was like a dream, as if the whole trip was a dream, or what is going on now is a dream. I didn't know what happened, but I was about to fall into the hole, and I turned and saw that beside me there were a lot of pieces of people, chopped-up people.
Three brothers who were on the bus – Ahmad, 14, Hassan, 13, and Yahia Hanash, 11 – said that the bus stopped so the bus driver could buy water, and that they did not see any armed men in the market. Ahmad, who can no longer hear in one ear, said:
Boys my age went on the first trip [two weeks previously], but my family was late in preparing breakfast that day and they heard airplanes, so I missed the bus. The teachers told me to go on the next trip along with my younger brothers. I saw bodies torn into pieces, pieces of my friends. Yahia was burned. I also got burned, wounded in my chest and hands, and my right ear was injured, I can't hear with it, I use the left now. Many of my friends died.… [There are] too many for me to mention all of them. They are all from the same neighborhood, the Grand Mosque neighborhood.
The boys’ father, Mohammed Ali Ahmed Hanash, 50, said he was grateful they were alive. “I saw Yahia, my youngest, in the ICU [Intensive Care Unit], vomiting blood, fighting death,” before his condition improved. The family had been displaced by fighting two years earlier from the Qatabir border district of the Saada governorate, where another boy was killed by a previous airstrike and a girl was wounded by a sniper, their father said.
Children who were on the bus named four teachers from the mosque summer program who were killed in the airstrike: Yahya al-Bishri, Mohammed Abdulhafeez, and Ali al-Hijri, who were on the bus, and Ali Fa’ie, who was killed in the market. All four were listed by the Houthi-run Education Ministry as killed in the strike, with three identified as volunteers and one as a regular teacher.
The children said three boys came up to the bus while it was parked and were talking to their friends through the windows, including Muhammad Saeed Ali Salman, 13; Hamid Muhammad A’edah, 10; and Zakaria Abdul Wahab Ali Fay'a, 11, a student at the mosque school who had gone on the first day trip two weeks earlier. “Zakaria rode up to the bus on his little bicycle and was chatting with friends, waiting for the driver to return to ask for permission to come along on the trip again,” one boy said. “He was torn to pieces.”
The attack killed and maimed workers and customers at small businesses in the market, including children. Tarash Ahmad Salam al-Sam’ae, 40, said the bomb landed about 4.5 meters from his barbershop and wounded his sons Ibrahim, 14, and Abdulrahman, 16, who had opened the shop at 8 a.m.: “I was at home having breakfast when I heard the whizz of the [bomb] and the blast, so I ran [toward the barbershop]. The whole market was dusty, people were running, children were thrown on the ground, some were dead, and some were fighting death.”
Human Rights Watch also spoke to Ibrahim, who was evacuated to al-Talh Hospital, and to Abdulrahman, in al-Jamhouri Hospital in Saada. Abdulrahman, a secondary-school student, said he saw the bus park across the street from the barbershop at about 8:20 a.m., where the driver got out and entered a grocery store:
A customer I had finished shaving was sitting inside, and another customer was near the door about to enter. […] I didn't hear a sound. I didn't lose consciousness. I left the salon and walked in the direction of my house, east. I saw Ibrahim walking near me. I was covered with blood, the whole area was bloody, everything was blood. I felt pain in my lower back. I did not look at anyone, I did not know what happened to the customers, I walked straight ahead. I could only hear one voice, the voice of someone calling out “Hamd,” from far away, like an imaginary voice. I think it was our neighbor, Jaafar, who died later, calling on his little son. My brother and I lay down, I couldn't finish the walk home. A piece of shrapnel entered my lower back and there is another in my legs. They told me that my spine is intact, but I can't walk now.
Jaafar Thabet Naji, 46, and his son Hamd, 15, were wounded and taken to a nearby clinic, but the father later died of internal bleeding, said his nephew Hamdi Ali Thabet al-Sam’ae, 28, who also works as a barber in the market.
The attack also killed two customers at a nearby cafeteria, and wounded six people, including five workers: Faysal Muhammad Abdullah al-A’zi, 38, a cook; his son Mo’atasam Faysal, 16; his brothers Ali, 25, and Mansour, 20; his nephew Ezz el-Din Saleh, 10; and another relative, Abdo Ali Yusef al-Haouri, 19. The attack severely damaged the cafeteria.
“Three customers came in after 8 o’clock, so I was cooking fuul [a bean dish] with eggs for them, and suddenly I lost consciousness,” Faysal Abdullah al-A’zi said. The bomb blast had blown off the kitchen door, which hit him in the head. “Two of the three customers died immediately, the other was wounded in the leg.” He said he knew of no military targets in the market. Abdo Ali Al-Haouri, an assistant baker, said the attack also killed the owner of the grocery store next door, Mohammad Abdullah al-Marani, in his 20s. Al-Haouri said he saw the summer school bus arrive and park across the street, and described a busy marketplace:
The market was crowded, all the shops were open. The bus driver got out to get something from a grocery store. On that side of the street, there are two grocery stores and a vegetable shop, and on our side, there was a grocery store, the cafeteria, and a barbershop. In Dhahyan, many areas were hit, but at the beginning of the war [in 2015]. The last airstrike was half a month ago, far away from the market. There is no military presence here, the only checkpoints are outside the market. There is a police patrol that comes and goes regularly but it is just one car.
A video taken about an hour before the attack, which was recovered from the mobile phone of Osama Zeid al-Homran, one of the boys killed on the bus, shows at least 30 of the children who were part of the excursion at a cemetery for Houthi martyrs. At least one of the same children can be identified in graphic videos showing children and adults killed and wounded in the attack.
Photographs and videos of munition fragments show a 500-pound Mk-82 general purpose bomb fitted with a laser-guidance system that can strike within meters of its target. Markings visible on one of the remnants, a guidance fin, include “3LCX2,” a unique identification for US arms suppliers, known as a CAGE code, for General Dynamics Corporation, Ordnance and Tactical Systems Division, in Garland, Texas, which produces Mk-82 bombs. The CAGE code for Lockheed Martin was also marked on a different side of the guidance fin remnant. Human Rights Watch could not confirm that the remnants were found at the site. However, images of damage from the scene are consistent with the detonation of a large, impact-fuzed aerial bomb.