(Beirut) – A Houthi-controlled warehouse that stored volatile material near homes and schools caught fire and detonated in Yemen’s capital, Sanaa, on April 7, 2019, causing the deaths of at least 15 children, Human Rights Watch and Mwatana for Human Rights said today. The massive blast injured more than 100 children and adults in the residential Sawan neighborhood. The groups could not determine the initial cause of the fire at the warehouse. Witnesses did not see or hear aircraft, but the Saudi Arabia-owned al-Arabiya published and broadcast – then deleted – a report that the Saudi-led coalition had carried out an airstrike in the area that day.
After the midday explosion, scores of Houthi security forces arrived at the site, fired warning shots, and beat and detained several people who tried to photograph the warehouse, witnesses said. For several days, Houthi forces removed large quantities of undisclosed materials from the site on flatbed trucks, and prevented human rights researchers from accessing the area until April 11.
“The Houthi authorities need to provide credible information and stop storing large concentrations of volatile materials in densely populated areas,” said Radhya al-Mutawakel, the chairperson of Mwatana for Human Rights. “The Houthis played a role in the tragedy and should hold responsible officials to account and provide compensation to victims.”
Mwatana and Human Rights Watch determined, based on in-person interviews with witnesses, videos, and satellite imagery, that the contents of the warehouse had caught fire and exploded. The groups were unable to identify the warehouse contents, but available information shows that they were flammable and explosive, posing a foreseeable danger to civilians living and going to school in the area.
Witnesses to the explosion said that they did not see the initial cause of the fire at the warehouse, but none saw or heard aircraft or incoming munitions before the fire began, or at the time of the large explosion several minutes later. Four videos of the blast that bystanders recorded and uploaded to the internet within hours also do not indicate the cause of the fire, but show nothing to suggest an airstrike or incoming munition. Researchers did not observe craters that might have indicated an aerial bomb when they were first able to access the site days after the explosion. No craters are visible in photographs of the area that Xinhua news agency published on April 9.
The day of the explosion, al-Arabiya tweeted that the Saudi-led coalition – which has been fighting the Houthis since 2015 – had carried out airstrikes that day including on a “military police camp in the Sawan neighborhood” in eastern Sanaa, and repeated the statement at 12:59 p.m. in an online news story. In a television news broadcast, al-Arabiya reported that “a strike hit the military police camp in the east of Sana’a … in addition to one of the depots belonging to the Houthis in al-Arbaeen Roundabout,” the name of an intersection about 250 meters south of the warehouse that exploded.
Researchers spoke to residents near two military police camps in eastern Sanaa, one located 3 kilometers southwest and the other 2 kilometers south of the warehouse, and to residents near the other roundabout in Sanaa called al-Arbaeen, about 10 kilometers south of the warehouse, but residents said they were unaware of any airstrikes on April 7.
Al-Arabiya later deleted the tweet and removed the television news broadcast from its website. On the evening of April 7, it reported that the coalition spokesperson, Col. Turki al-Malki, stated that the coalition had not targeted residential areas in Sanaa. The Houthis and some news reports attributed the deadly explosion to a coalition airstrike.
The warehouse blast destroyed a three-family home, badly damaged another home, and blew doors off their hinges and shattered windows at four nearby schools. The United Nations children’s agency, UNICEF, reported that “it was almost lunchtime and students were in class,” and dozens were killed and wounded.
Of the 15 children killed, Mwatana identified the names and ages of 10 girls and a boy who died at two schools, and 17 girls and 12 boys who were wounded, most of them 11 or 12 years old. At least 45 children were wounded, 5 critically, as well as at least 58 adults, based on interviews with people present at the two schools and at three private hospitals that received the dead and wounded. The actual death toll may be higher. Some blast victims who were in critical condition were evacuated to public hospitals run by Houthi authorities, where hospital officials did not agree to speak to human rights groups.
Students and teachers at al-Ra’ee public school, with roughly 2,000 students, located about 250 meters west of the explosion, identified nine schoolgirls there who died. The explosion caused many of the girls to run in panic along the balconies outside their classrooms to the stairwell, where some fell and were trampled, witnesses said. When the stairwell became blocked, some girls still on the top floor of the three-story building died when they jumped or fell from the building. Staff at one hospital said that three girls whose bodies were received at the hospital had been trampled to death, and that most wounded children admitted to the hospital had been cut by broken glass.
Some children at al-Ra’ee school “died in their classrooms,” Save the Children said, apparently due to wounds caused by the blast. Another schoolgirl died from unknown causes “due to lack of equipment and supplies in the hospital.” A Save the Children employee rescued a wounded 14-year-old girl who told him, “I will never go to school again.”
Human Rights Watch and Mwatana were unable to conclusively determine what material was stored in the Sawan facility. The researchers observed widespread blast damage, and the fuze of a hand grenade found near the warehouse. If Houthi forces stored material such as munitions or fuel for military purposes at the site, they would be in violation of the laws-of-war obligations to take all feasible precautions to avoid placing military targets within or near densely populated areas, and to protect civilians from the danger resulting from military operations.
“The Houthis’ decision to store volatile material near homes and schools despite the foreseeable risk to civilians led to the death and injury of dozens of schoolchildren and adults,” said Bill Van Esveld, senior children’s rights researcher at Human Rights Watch. “The Houthis should stop covering up what happened in Sawan and start doing more to protect civilians under their control.”
Details about the Explosion
The following account is based primarily on interviews conducted in Sanaa with nine witnesses to the explosion at the warehouse, staff at three hospitals, satellite imagery, and four verified videos posted on the internet.
Shortly after 11:20 a.m. on April 7, dozens of people had gathered to observe a fire that had started at the warehouse. A local resident said that the front section of the warehouse was used as a carpentry workshop, but that “no one knew anything about” a large section at the back.
Witnesses described seeing smoke and hearing several small explosions. At about 11:30 a.m., a huge, destructive blast occurred, followed by smaller explosions. A man who saw it said: “The first explosion happened, then there were a few small explosions and I saw smoke. Then [a few minutes later] the second explosion happened. It was so huge, I felt as if I was paralyzed.”
Witnesses told Mwatana researchers that the blast killed at least one child who had been standing near the warehouse and destroyed the nearby homes of an extended family. The Associated Press reported that the force of the blast knocked one man to the ground, unconscious. When the man regained consciousness, he said he saw a woman who had been “cut into pieces” by glass shards. The force of the blast blew a girl from the arms of her father into the air. The father later found the girl under plastic bags and rubble, alive.
The blast ripped a school door off its frame, killing a 17-year-old student at al-Ahqaf private school, 45 meters east of the warehouse. Flying debris wounded more than 20 other schoolchildren as well as teachers, school staff said. Another staff member said that “the windows shattered and some doors collapsed,” and her students “were very scared, holding me and crying.” The explosion severely damaged the computer room, she said. School staff said they had to break a small window in the guard’s house to evacuate the students, because the main gate was next to the warehouse.
Human Rights Watch and Mwatana matched four videos, based on identified landmarks and with satellite imagery, which show a fire with billowing grey smoke at the warehouse. The videos did not record what caused the fire. The videos show the fire apparently reaching a fuel source and rapidly transitioning into a large detonation with a high-velocity blast wave. About 10 people in the vicinity of the large explosion most likely became casualties.
Soon after the explosion, scores of armed Houthis, most in civilian clothes and two in police uniforms, arrived, created a perimeter around the warehouse, and blocked all entry, witnesses said. Some fired weapons in the direction of, and badly beat, people who tried to take pictures. They detained several people who were near the site, releasing them later that day, witnesses said.
On April 8, the day after the explosion, a researcher observed two Houthi military vehicles with more than 10 uniformed policemen who prevented all access to the site. The Houthis prevented local human rights researchers from visiting the area until April 11.
Residents said that in the days following the explosion, the Houthis appeared to be removing material from the warehouse. Medium-sized flatbed trucks “kept going in and out after the explosion to take things out of the warehouse, but we couldn’t see what was in them,” said a resident. “These [trucks] were the only things allowed in and out.”
Reports by coalition-aligned and Yemeni government news agencies also said the coalition carried out airstrikes on April 7 on a Houthi military camp in Jarban in Sanhan district outside the city, more than 20 kilometers south of where the warehouse explosion took place.
During the current conflict, one in five schools in Yemen has been closed, damaged by attacks, or used for military purposes, according to UNICEF.