They Fired on Us Like Rain

In 2023, Human Rights Watch researcher Nadia Hardman came across a letter the United Nations had sent to the government of Saudi Arabia expressing concern over the killing of Ethiopian migrants who were attempting to enter the kingdom. Migrants from the Horn of Africa had long used the so-called “eastern migration route” through war-torn Yemen in the hope of getting employment in Saudi Arabia – but the UN letter mentioned a mass grave of up to 10,000 in a remote border region. The Saudi government denied the allegations, saying the UN had no dates, and no locations. So, Nadia stepped in to see if she could verify them. 


Nadia couldn’t reach the remote border, so she began interviewing people in Yemen. One of the people she was in touch with began sending her social media videos from the massacre site. Nadia soon called on Human Rights Watch’s digital investigation’s lab for help. In this episode, Host Ngofeen Mputubwele takes listeners through how Human Rights utilized satellite imagery of burial sites, conducted interviews with survivors of the attacks, mined social media, and verified video footage from the border to show how Saudi authorities summarily executed hundreds of unarmed migrants – many of them women and children – in what is likely a crime against humanity.  In the aftermath of the report and the media attention it generated, Germany and the United States ceased funding and training Saudi border guards. 


Nadia Hardman: Researcher, Refugee and Migrant Rights Division at Human Rights Watch

Sam Dubberley: Managing Director, Digital Investigations Lab at Human Rights Watch

Devon Lum: Former Assistant Researcher, Digital Investigations Lab at Human Rights Watch 



Sophie: Just a heads-up: this episode talks about some difficult subjects, including rape and murder.

Host: Human Rights Watch issues a lot of reports. Like, up to 20 a month. Some of the recent ones are on mass relocations in Tibet, crimes against humanity in West Darfur, and another one’s on migrants crossing Darien Gap. 

Deutsche Welle: Human Rights watch has accused Saudi Arabian border guards of killing hundreds of Ethiopians since March, 2022. [fade under]

Reuters:  [fade up] Saudi Arabian border guards have killed at least hundreds of Ethiopian migrants who’ve attempted to enter the kingdom. [fade under]

It gets a lot of attention and coverage from news outlets around the world... 

France 24:  This rare footage captures the hell faced by those trying to cross from Yemen to Saudi Arabia, as filmed by the migrants themselves. This man has serious injuries in the legs and in the back…

There was video. There was satellite imagery. There were statements from survivors. But that kind of evidence? It's pretty common in Human Rights Watch reports. So what was it about this particular story that grabbed the world’s attention? 

This is Rights and Wrongs, a podcast from Human Rights Watch.

I'm Ngofeen Mputubwele. I’m a writer, a lawyer, and a radio producer.

Human Rights Watch asked me, as a journalist concerned with human rights, to look at human rights hotspots around the world through the eyes and ears of the people on the frontlines of history.

On this episode, what’s been happening on the Saudi Yemen border? Why, in a media saturated era, did this story break through?  That’s what you’re about to find out. Because finding out will tell you a lot about the practical side of human rights work.


Ngofeen: Hello, who are you?  
Nadia: So, who are you? Um, I am Nadia. Nadia Hardman. I am a migrant rights researcher here at Human Rights Watch.

Host: Nadia Hardman. She’s the principal author of the report. For a few years, she’d been working on what’s called the “eastern migration route.”

Nadia: Which is people trying to leave, from the Horn of Africa, but predominantly Ethiopia, traveling through war torn Yemen, to Saudi Arabia. And I've done a number of reports over the years because the route is long and there are abuses all along the way.

Host: One of Nadia’s colleagues at Human Rights Watch had reported on “infrequent” killings on the border.  But then, Nadia was in her apartment…

Nadia: I was working in my bedroom. Yeah, I remember I was working at my desk, which is right by a window. It was the morning, and I was like flicking through my emails, and my colleague sent me these UN letters.

Host: The letter were by some folks called “special rapporteurs” or special experts. There were two of them. One addressed to the Saudi government. The other to Houthi rebels, who control the north of Yemen…

Nadia: And I remember opening, like scanning them. And I’m thinking, uh huh, and then as I read it I got more alarmed but also had this disbelief reaction of like, ‘oh wow, this is wild, this level of abuse potentially taking place is massive’. And one of the things that I think jumped out at me was that there was, I think this paragraph or the sentence which basically said that there was potentially a mass grave of up to 10,000 people.

The numbers of deaths, basically that were cited in these letters was just like high, like nothing I'd ever read before. But for one reason or another, these letters didn't make any headline.

Host: Nadia told me the Saudi government denied everything, saying that in the UN letters there were no dates and locations of the alleged killings. But one thing bugs Nadia. In her experience the UN tends to be cautious and conservative in their claims, so she thought the UN would not have sent those letters if they weren’t sure of their facts. So she set about trying to gather more information and she knew this would not be easy…

Nadia: I mean, this area is out of bounds for anyone to go and investigate the border between Yemen and Saudi Arabia, it’s just impossible right? And so, I knew we had to rely on entirely remote methodology, and the first thing I did is I've been working with a fixer,  in country, in Yemen, in Sana. He's an Ethiopian himself, he’s an elder, I guess, in his community there. And I basically messaged him and said, ‘Hey brother’, that’s how we speak to each other. A he was like, ‘Hey sister’. And I said, you know, ‘what's happening on the border?’  And he responded, that there were mass killings on the border, and then he started to inundate me with videos and photographs, and they were graphic.

[audio from one of those initial videos]

You know, those images are shocking, you know they were of people who had clearly suffered explosive weapons attacks, like what,  I mean, I'm not trained in any of that. But to the, you know, naked, untrained eye, blast wounds, gunshot wounds, dead bodies, videos from the trail. Which is how I knew immediately we need the digital investigations team to help.

Host: Nadia got in touch with Sam, who works from his home in Berlin. 

Host: One of the things that Nadia needed was for Sam and his team to verify the authenticity of the photos and videos. So how do they do that? Well, as Sam explained to me, there is a whole process…

So once we've done that, once we’ve done the reverse image research and we get no results, that doesn't mean it's real, you know, it’s just kind of the front lines. Like, okay we can dismiss that or no we can’t, we have to carry on. 

Devon: My name is Devin Lum. I am an open source researcher who used to work in the Digital Investigations Lab at Human Rights Watch, and I'm going to be the Visual Investigations Fellow at the New York Times this coming year.

Devon: It means a lot of different things. In the human rights space generally, it means a researcher who uses visual information that's shared online in places like TikTok and Facebook, to determine where human rights abuses have happened around the world and get more information in hard to reach areas.

Devon: There's one video that I remember. It's a large group of people, I forgot how many, maybe around 40 or 50,  that are walking down this hillside, super steep and it's, it's all shale,  so people are slipping, um, and you can hear screaming. Which I think is maybe why it's stuck in my head so much because of the, the auditory part of it, but you can hear screaming before you see a woman, uh, being carried down the hillside and she has blood all over her legs and is crying and,  you know, that, that part of it is awful, but then the camera spins around and you can see people, more migrants looking onward at this scene and their faces are just blank.  Like they've seen it before and they don't have anything left to give at this point emotionally because of just how much they've experienced and  yeah, that one will definitely stick with me.  

But if you can’t find that person, you aren’t quite out of luck. At least not yet. There are other techniques…

Ngofeen: Okay, so, so you, you've got a video but in the video in the background, you see, for instance, like, oh, they're by this mountain peak that has like this bunch of trees or bushes next to it. So then you got to go to satellite imagery and be like, okay, so I think it's by that thing, so let's find that area. And then sort of like scour and be like, can we find that peak with bushes? 

Host: While Devon was analyzing photos and videos, Nadia had begun the most crucial step in any Human Rights investigation. That’ll become a theme on this show. Say it with me: interviews. She started interviewing Ethiopian migrants who had returned from the Saudi border.

Nadia: He basically knows about the migration route very well, and when people are injured or hurt along the way he effectively collects them and houses them. And this time as well, he was doing a similar thing, him and other elders, and other Ethiopian diaspora community members were trying to help the injured and the survivors of these attacks on the border. He kind of plays that unofficial humanitarian role with other people. So he had access to the community, it’s a tight knit community, I guess, as happens in lots of places when you have diaspora in need. You know he's an extraordinary figure. He's, I mean, to be honest, I feel like he's the hero in so many of the reports I do along the route, like nothing would happen without him.

Nadia: We would spend hours just waiting for a telephone number because the networks in Yemen are so bad. And that’s how we collected the stories. 

Host: Human Rights Watch had the interviews translated into English and translators read parts of them.

Host: The stories Nadia gathered were grim.

Ngofeen: So you're on the phone with a 14-year-old. 

Ngofeen: Okay. 

Hamdiya: I couldn’t continue my education – my family has 10 kids. They can only afford to send the older kids to school. Instead of school, I wanted to go and search for money.

Hamdiya: In Djibouti, the smugglers asked us to pay for the boat by sea. I didn’t have any money. 

Hamdiya: They said to me if you don’t pay I will be raped. But this didn’t happen to me.

Nadia: After five days of essentially being beaten and tortured she was allowed to go on her journey, and I guess the smugglers understood and, we'll find out later why and what they do with people who don’t have money, but she eventually got to the border. Now she told me that basically, she would cook and clean for some of the smugglers and traffickers in order to pay for her way. That's what they said to her, you can cook and clean for us, and then you will be allowed to go on the crossings. She did that for a period of time, and then eventually she was told that she would be trying to cross the border the following day. And she told me that basically people who can't afford, who don’t have the fees to pay to smugglers are put at the front of a group. 

Nadia: So this 14 year girl was put at the front of the group essentially to absorb whatever attack first that might come.

Host: Nadia says that other survivors eventually helped Hamdiya and she was taken back to Yemen, to Sana, where she remains to this day, severely traumatized.

Host: As Nadia told me this story in the studios of Human Rights Watch in the Empire State Building, my eyes welled up. I tried not to blink so the tears wouldn’t spill out.

Actor portrayal: When the firing stopped the Saudi border guards took us. 

Actor portrayal:  In my group there were 7 people – five men and the two girls. 

Actor portrayal: The girls were 15 years old. One of the men refused. The border guards killed him on spot. I participated in the rape. Yes. To survive, I did it. The girls survived because they didn’t refuse. This happened at the same spot where the killings took place.

Host: The Saudis later released this young man and he managed to make his way back to Sana, where he is stranded, trying to scrape together enough money to return to Ethiopia. We don’t know what happened to the girls and women that were captured with him. For a lot of migrants from the Horn of Africa --  Ethiopia, Eritrea, Somalia, Djibouti -- returning home is not an economically viable option. Who can afford it?

Host: Ultimately, Nadia would conduct 42 interviews. Forty two! As the nature and the scale of the killings was becoming clearer, Nadia told me she drew various teams within Human Rights Watch into the investigation…

Ngofeen: Middle East, North Africa,

[AD] Tirana Hassan: Hi. This is Tirana Hassan – the Executive Director of Human Rights Watch. At Human Rights Watch, we investigate and report on abuses happening in every corner of the world. We’re journalists, country experts, lawyers and other professionals who are doing everything we can to expose perpetrators and to help protect vulnerable people. We’re a nonprofit, but to keep our independence, we don’t take money from governments. That’s why we rely on support from people like you. If you value what we do, please donate. Go to That’s Thank you.

Host: Back to Sam Dubberly from the Digital Investigations team, Devon’s Boss. He, Sam, was hearing from Devon, who was finding more horrific videos, and from Nadia, with the harrowing stories she was getting in her interviews.

Host: Using that satellite imagery, the photos and videos taken by the migrants, as well as information in the stories that Nadia had collected, Human Rights Watch was able to pinpoint the exact locations of where some of the killings took place…

Host: Like I mentioned earlier, Human Rights Watch accused Saudi Arabia of mass killings and “possible” crimes against humanity. Which made my lawyer brain wonder…

Nadia: Ok, yeah, yeah.  I mean, so this is, yeah, this is not taking place at a time of war. So they're not war crimes. When, you know, an abuse, when a human rights abuse, and that would be like the excessive use of force and the extrajudicial killings that we're talking about here are widespread, and systematic, right? Those are the magic words.

Nadia: They're widespread and systematic and there is evidence of a state policy, i. e. that they are, you know, a directed, pattern of abuse that is, instructed by a, a centralized system, like a state effectively, then it's a crime against humanity. Once you have a crime against humanity, it means that senior perpetrators can be prosecuted under international criminal law.

Nadia: Yeah, yeah. So once we, you know, once I wrote the report, once the digital team had finished, um, you know, putting together all their digital evidence, you know, we roll it out and, I mean, part of the rollout was getting the media interested. Sending out embargoed versions of the reports and make sure that on the day of release we would get coverage in all of the important leading newspapers that, you know, Saudi Arabia would care about but more importantly countries like the U.S. would put pressure on Saudi Arabia to answer to these incredibly powerful findings. So that wasn't hard, right? Like you, you say mass killings, crime against humanity, murder, Saudi Arabia, Ethiopian migrants, border with Yemen, like people were interested. People understood pretty quickly this was a big story. 

Ngofeen: Do you have any hope for accountability or, you know, or, or even image of what that would look like?

We pushed for a UN backed independent investigation into the killings. We’re  in NGO. It’s incredibly difficult for us to prove in a tribunal way or an independent investigation way that this is a crime against humanity, for sure this is a state policy. So we need, we need a, a proper investigation. Fortunately, in the wake of the report, you know, the world cared. There was tons of coverage and continuing coverage, and journalists did their own investigations. And I know journalists now that are continuing to investigate. 

Ngofeen: how do you respond to the sort of, Why are we picking this thing when, you know, X country is doing that and other country is doing that. Why is it, why are we focused on this one? Like, how do you engage with that, um, argument or question?
Nadia: You know, I mean, I guess the answer is, you know, no one is. No one’s focussing on this. The world needs to care. This is devastating. These are brutal attacks. We probably talking about a crime against humanity here.  And we need the world to care because people will keep on coming.  This migration route is tried and tested. People will not stop.  People are either desperate always to make a better life for themselves or fleeing conflict. And unless Saudi Arabia stops its border abuses people will keep on dying in the thousands.  And I guess, you know, my main response to that would be, you know, to the question you asked would be, if not us, then who?

Host: That was Nadia Hardman, the lead investigator of the Human Rights Watch Report, “They Fired on Us Like Rain: Saudi Arabian Mass Killings of Ethiopian Migrants at the Yemen-Saudi Border.” You can read the report, watch a video and look through maps and other visualizations at
You’ve been listening to Rights and Wrongs, from Human Rights Watch. This episode was produced by me and Curtis Fox. Our associate producer is Sophie Soloway. Thanks also to Ifé Fatunase, Stacy Sullivan, Blaire Palmer and Anthony Gale. The news clips at the beginning of the episode are from Deutche Welle, Reuters and France 24.

I’m Ngofeen Mputubwele. See you next time.