We’ve traveled to Yemen twice in the last two years. Once in 2014, prior to the Houthi takeover, and again in September and October of 2015 after Saudi airstrikes had decimated much of the country. Yesterday marked the one year anniversary of the beginning of the Saudi military campaign in the country. The UN special envoy has said that the warring parties have agreed to a ceasefire starting April 10th, and a new round of peace talks beginning in Kuwait on April 18. The below is an account of our time reporting from Yemen in 2015—the people we met and the destruction we witnessed firsthand.
We were walking down a street in the center of Sanaa, Yemen’s capital, feeling relaxed for the first time since we had arrived two weeks earlier. Most of the city was dark, except for a few windows, gently lit by candles, or the headlights of cars driven fast by nervous men with a reason to risk being out at night.
We’d celebrated making it to the end of a tense and often terrifying shoot by visiting the old city for kebabs. The young men cooking the skewers of minced meat on glowing charcoals smiled at us, waving their hands dismissively as anti-aircraft tracer s lit up the sky and the now-familiar thud and boom of airstrikes followed. The missile strikes in Sanaa weren’t as frightening as the ones we had seen in the north, mostly because they came in predictable batches and hit generally the same areas, which people in the capital knew to avoid. There would be about half a dozen late at night , then another half a dozen or so just before dawn.
As we walked back to our hotel, our bellies full, a fighter jet flew in low and seemed to suck the air from around us. A terrific whooshing sound instantly filled the street, like a scream as loud as thunder. Suddenly, the earth seemed to tilt sideways . Something exploded just ahead of us. The other silhouettes on the street vanished and we staggered into a nearby shop as broken glass fell to the floor. I was carrying a friend’sfour year-old nephew on my shoulders and struggl ing to stay on my feet.
We ran back to the hotel and everyone took cover in the stairwell. The staff and a few families looked terrified as each blast shook the walls around us. They had been experiencing this for eight months, but hadn’t been able to get used to it.
A plane wreckage at Sanaa’s airport. Photo by Peter Salisbury
You see the results of this bombing campaign as soon as you arrive in Sanaa. At the city’s main airport, several destroyed planes still sit on the tarmac next to the main runway. Nearby, military bases, officer academies , and weapons depots have all been obliterated.
Civilian homes have also been hit, sometimes seemingly at random. Basic infrastructurehas been targeted as if the pilots of the fighter jets or their paymasters are becoming frustrated by the fact they are still far from any kind of victory. Sometimes targets that have already been hit many times are hit again; a house belonging to former President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s son was hit several times over the course of a few weeks even though it had already been flattened. It seems wrong to call a bombing campaign that has so far involved over 40,000 air strikes petulant, but that it is how it often seems. The morning after we’d been caught out in the open we found out what the target had been: a cemetery.
According to the UN, at least 6,000 people have been killed so far in Yemen’s civil war, roughly half of them civilians. That number only includes those who died in a medical facility so the actual number is certainly much higher. The majority of deaths have been caused by airstrikes launched by the Saudi-led military coalition.