(Beirut) – A Saudi-led coalition airstrike near a school in northern Yemen on January 10, 2017, killed two students and a school administrator and wounded three children, Human Rights Watch said today. The unlawful attack reinforces the urgent need for an international investigation into alleged laws-of-war violations in Yemen, an end to arms sales to Saudi Arabia, and the return of the coalition to the United Nations secretary-general’s “list of shame” for abuses against children in armed conflict.
“The bombing death of an 11-year-old girl on her way to school shows how little the Saudi-led coalition took to heart its brief inclusion on the UN secretary-general’s ‘list of shame,’” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “How many more schoolchildren need to die and be maimed before the UN responds?”
On January 10 at about 8 a.m., a coalition airstrike hit an informal gas station in the village of Bani Mea’asar, in the Nihm district, Sanaa governorate, killing three civilians and wounding five others. The attack shattered a number of the nearby school’s windows and damaged its electrical wires and speakers, witnesses said. Al-Falah school, 150 to 200 meters from the gas station, provides primary and secondary education to about 900 boys and girls. In the winter the school usually starts about 8 or 8:30 a.m. Students were either on their way or getting ready to head to the school when the strike took place.
Muhammad Mea’asar, who has served as Al-Falah school’s director for more than 20 years, told Human Rights Watch he was at home with his family preparing to head to the school’s morning assembly when the munition hit. “It landed north of the school wall… next to some shops and an informal gas station,” he said. “If it landed at that time on the school building it would have been a disaster.”
Ahmad Mea’asar was at home about half a kilometer from the school when he heard the explosion. His two children, in the fifth and seventh grades, had already left for school. He immediately ran to the site of the attack, initially worried the munition had hit the school, as it looked like smoke was coming from the building. He helped in the rescue effort once he arrived.
Ali Mudafeer, the school’s deputy director, was killed in the strike. Muhammad Mea’asar said that Mudafeer had been standing outside the school to “reassure the students who were still coming that [an earlier] strike [in the area] was far away and the school was okay.” The munition also killed Ishraq al-Moa’fa, 11, who was on her way to school, and Shamkh Sa’soua’, a 19-year-old who had enrolled at Al-Falah after his previous school closed due to nearby fighting. The strike also wounded two girls, ages 8 and 12, and a 16-year-old boy.
Muhammad al-Radi, a mathematics teacher at the school, was about to leave his house, which is in the school compound, with his 9-year-old son when the munition detonated. He said:
Suddenly… I realized because of all the smoke, dust, and glass that came over us that the airstrike occurred in front of us, in front of the school. … My wife ran out with my two kids, out of the school, because we were worried that they will attack again. We were terrified.
Al-Radi said that he and at least 10 other people immediately ran to help the wounded:
We saw body parts scattered on the ground, and we saw Ishraq, and her severed foot. From the traces of the blood, it seems that she crawled… to the other side [of the road], and she was holding her bag, but we arrived and she was dead.
Mwatana, a leading Yemeni human rights organization, sent a team to the village to examine the attack site on January 16. Mwatana photographed remnants of munitions. Human Rights Watch examined these photos and concluded from the thickness of the fragments that the remnants were from the guidance unit and fin assembly system from an air-dropped bomb, but the images were insufficient to make a positive identification.
Coalition airstrikes had previously hit the area around the village, which was about eight kilometers from ongoing fighting between coalition-backed Yemeni forces and Houthi forces and forces loyal to former President Ali Abdullah Saleh. The gas station had previously fueled military vehicles passing through the town, Mwatana and a witness said. Three witnesses told Human Rights Watch that the coalition had often struck military targets in the area, including military vehicles, but that there was no military vehicle at the gas station at the time of the attack.
International humanitarian law, or the laws of war, applies to all sides fighting in Yemen. Deliberate or indiscriminate attacks against civilians and civilian structures are prohibited. The laws of war require the parties to a conflict to take constant care during military operations to spare the civilian population and to “take all feasible precautions” to avoid or minimize loss of civilian life and damage to civilian objects.
While the occasional use of the fuel station by military vehicles may have made it a lawful military objective, there was no evident urgency to strike so close to a school at the beginning of a school day. The coalition should have provided an effective advance warning of the attack and taken all feasible precautions to minimize harm to civilians, including, for example, carrying out the strike when the school was not in session.
Since March 2015, the Saudi Arabia-led coalition has carried out military operations in Yemen, supported by the United States, against Houthi-Saleh forces. The coalition has unlawfully attacked homes, markets, hospitals, schools, civilian businesses, and mosques. The UN secretary-general’s 2016 annual report on violations against children in armed conflict found that at least 785 children were killed and 1,168 wounded in Yemen in 2015, with 60 percent of the casualties attributed to the coalition. The report also found that the coalition was responsible for nearly half of 101 attacks against schools and hospitals.
On June 2, 2016, then-Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon included the Saudi Arabia-led coalition on his annual “list of shame” for grave violations against children during armed conflict. A few days after the report was published, Saudi Arabia and its allies issued threats to withdraw hundreds of millions of dollars in assistance to the UN. In response Ban announced he was removing the Saudi-led coalition from the list “pending the conclusion of [a] joint review” and publicly admitted these financial threats influenced his decision.
After the Saudi-led coalition was removed from the list of shame, coalition attacks continued to kill and maim children and damage schools and hospitals. In December, for example, a coalition cluster munition attack struck an area near two local schools in Saada city, in northern Yemen, killing two civilians and wounding six, including a child. Students were told not to return to school the day after the attack, as the schools had to be checked for any explosive remnants, including unexploded submunitions.
The secretary-general also included the Houthis, government forces, pro-government militias, and Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula on his 2015 list for grave violations against children during the armed conflict in Yemen. Human Rights Watch has documented Houthi-Saleh forces in Yemen using landmines that killed and maimed children, recruiting and using child soldiers, and arbitrarily holding and abusing child detainees.
“Yemeni children have been among those paying the heaviest price during this nearly two-year-long war,” Whitson said. “Both the Saudi-led coalition and Yemeni forces on both sides need to better protect children from the fighting.”