THE AMBULANCE, a white, ramshackle Land Cruiser, rattled along the bumpy road in Saada City, in the far north of Yemen, on its way to answer an emergency call. When the driver, 35-year-old Abdulmalik Amer, arrived at the scene in the Dhayan district, 12 miles from the city, he found a collapsed house with four inhabitants trapped inside — victims of a Saudi airstrike.
For Amer, the father of two young children, January 21 was a typical day of work as an ambulance driver. It was also his last.
Amer and a colleague, with the help of local residents, retrieved the four injured people from under the rubble and were about to drive to the Jumhuriya Hospital, which is supported by Médecins Sans Frontières, or MSF, when another airstrike hit.
The ambulance was ripped to shreds, killing everyone on board, as well as those who had congregated to help. Women and children nearby were seen stumbling away.
When civilians gathered to help the injured, another airstrike came down. At least 26 people were killed and 48 injured in the series of strikes, which was caught on camera.
Yemen has been bombarded by a Saudi-led air campaign for over 10 months now. The Saudi government says the attacks are targeting the Houthis, the rebel group that ousted Yemen’s president and Riyadh ally Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi.
The military campaign has taken a heavy toll on the poorest country in the Arabian Peninsula, creating what U.N. officials are calling an unprecedented humanitarian disaster.
Michael Seawright, who served as MSF’s project coordinator in Yemen, said that the MSF-run emergency department in Saada City often received patients who had traveled four or five hours for treatment, because it was the only hospital with emergency surgical capacity in the province. “People would come in missing feet, hands, and with severe abdominal and head trauma,” he said.
Despite over a decade of work in war zones, including in Syria, Seawright said, “I have never seen such destruction conducted in such a short period as in Yemen.”
The attacks that killed Amer were also the fourth time in less than three months that medical workers associated with the international aid group MSF have come under Saudi attack. “This latest loss of a colleague is devastating, and it demonstrates the ruthlessness with which health care is coming under attack in Yemen,” said Teresa Sancristóval, emergency coordinator at MSF, in a statement issued a day after the Dhayan attack.
MSF said the first airstrike targeting one of the hospitals it supports in Yemen took place in the Haydan district on October 27. The attack left around 200,000 people without access to life-saving medical care. “This attack is another illustration of a complete disregard for civilians in Yemen, where bombings have become a daily routine,” said Hassan Boucenine, MSF’s head of mission in Yemen, following the Haydan strike.
Earlier this year, on January 10, an emergency room established by MSF near Yemen’s border with Saudi Arabia was bombed, just three months after becoming operational.
Yemen has been referred to as the forgotten war. Despite criticism from U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, who has condemned the airstrikes that have damaged “schools, hospitals, mosques, and civilian infrastructure,” the U.S. and U.K. governments have continued to provide the Saudi campaign with weapons as well as logistical and intelligence support. In January, Saudi Arabia’s foreign minister, Adel al-Jubeir, emphasized the presence of U.S. and U.K. personnel in the “command and control center.” “They know what the target list is and they have a sense of what it is that we are doing and what we are not doing,” he said.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said that Washington will “stand with our friends in Saudi Arabia,” and Philip Hammond, U.K. secretary of state for foreign and commonwealth affairs, confirmed that U.K. personnel in Saudi Arabia are ensuring that “only legitimate military targets are struck.” In response to a question from the shadow foreign secretary on the possible use of U.K. arms exports on civilian targets, Hammond said, “So far, in every case, our people on the ground have reported that there is no evidence of deliberate breaches of international humanitarian law.”
Sheila Carapico, a University of Richmond professor and expert on politics in Yemen and the Arabian Peninsula, disagreed with this assessment, arguing that the U.S. and U.K. should halt arms sales because “these munitions are being deployed in the commission of war crimes.”
Instead of trying to protect civilians by calling for a ceasefire, she said, Washington is selling Saudi Arabia precision weapons to replace U.S.-made cluster bombs. This policy amounts to an ineffectual “nod towards protection of innocent civilians,” Carapico added.
In the meantime, the death count in Yemen continues to grow and nearly every Yemeni has a story of a family member or friend killed in an airstrike. Before he died, Amer, the ambulance driver, had a story of death to tell his colleagues every day, said Muhammed Hajr, director of the Jumhuriya Hospital.
Amer was known for traveling routes that others were too afraid to drive; Saudi airstrikes often hit after rescuers gather to help survivors of an initial attack, making it particularly dangerous for ambulance drivers. He had survived a number of bombings similar to the one that led to his death.
On June 5, he narrowly escaped such a strike, suffering shrapnel wounds to his arm.
Hajr said that Amer would often help in the emergency room, stitching wounds and giving injections to the injured. He even attended to the dead.
“Before he would put corpses into the morgue, he would make sure to wipe off blood stains from their faces,” said Hajr. When asked why he did that, Amer would say, “So that their relatives can at least see them without blood on their faces.”
After Amer’s death, the hospital is without its best driver. “There was a bombing today,” Hajr said, “and everyone was expecting Abdulmalik to show up.”