Yemen Airstrikes Punish Militants ... And Civilians
The destruction is total. In Jaar, a town in southern Yemen, an entire block has been reduced to rubble by what residents say was a powerful airstrike on May 15.
For the first time in more than a year, the sites of the escalating U.S. air war in southern Yemen are becoming accessible, as militants linked to al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula have withdrawn from the area. This retreat follows the sustained American air campaign and an offensive by the Yemeni government forces on the ground.
And it also means that for the first time, the casualty figures and the reactions of local residents can be checked against the official version of events.
They don't always match up.
At this particular site, witnesses say the strikes rocked the town in the morning, just as many residents of Jaar were out buying breakfast. Residents say they heard a plane, and a house on the main street was flattened. One man inside died instantly. Dozens of people rushed to the scene.
Residents say the plane circled back and came in low.
"We didn't think it would come back," says a witnesses who runs a nearby car repair shop. "Suddenly we see it come back ... and shoot again."
The witness says the second strike killed at least 12 people instantly. "They were cut ... in pieces," he says. A wall where the second strike hit is still covered with blood.
The witnesses claim the plane that did this was American. We ask them how they know it was American, and not part of the Yemeni Air Force.
The plane was gray, says one man. "It looked like an eagle. We don't have planes like that," he says.
U.S., Yemen Both Conduct Strikes
In the escalating air war in Yemen, it's extremely difficult to figure out who is responsible for any given strike. There are four possibilities: It could be a manned plane from the Yemeni Air Force or the U.S. military. Or it could be an unmanned drone flown by the U.S. military or the CIA.
All are being used in the fight against al-Qaida and other militant groups in Yemen. But no matter who launches a particular strike, Yemenis are likely to blame it on the Americans. What's more, we found that many more civilians are being killed than officials acknowledge.
Neither the Yemeni government nor the U.S. military will say much about the strikes.
When asked about this story, a Pentagon spokesman, Lt. Col. Jack Miller, said, "While we acknowledge that the U.S. conducts targeted strikes against al-Qaida terrorists, we cannot confirm specific counterterrorism operations. We take great care to avoid civilian casualties. Our counterterrorism operations are precise, lawful and effective."
The Yemeni government does acknowledge its role in airstrikes, though it typically provides only limited and piecemeal information. The casualty figures given by the government are often lower than those that residents or journalists find at the scene of attacks, particularly when it comes to civilian casualties.
Conflicting Casualty Counts
In the mid-May strike in Jaar, for example, Yemeni officials said two militants and eight civilians were killed. According to residents we spoke with, no militants were killed, but there were 17 to 26 civilian deaths. That was just one of more than 40 documented strikes this year alone.
At a hospital where some victims are treated, entry to the facility is highly restricted. We sit and wait for a boy named Abdullah. He survived the second strike on May 15. A tall, thin, ghost of a boy limps into the room.
Huge pink blotches cover Abdullah's legs, arms, face and head. He's been badly burned and is now undergoing painful skin grafts. We tell him Yemeni officials said the first house that was hit that day was a haven for militants. He says the man in the house was just an ordinary citizen.
We ask if the government distributed fliers warning people to stay away from places known to house militants — as Yemeni officials claimed to have done a few days before the strike. Abdullah says he saw no such thing.
We ask Abdullah how the attacks make him feel about the people responsible?
"How would it make you feel?" he says.
In the next room, a man named Ali Al Amoudi lets out a sigh as he tells us how the strike hit his house and three others just a few weeks ago in the town of Shaqra, just down the road from Jaar. His 4-year-old son and 6-year-old daughter were hit. They died in his arms on the way to the hospital.
Four other children and one woman died that day. No militants were killed, according to witnesses. Amoudi says the strike was fate.
"What can we do?" he says. "All justice is from God."
Militants Hide In Civilian Buildings
Many strikes do hit their targets, including one on a hospital in Jaar that residents say was being used by the militants. As part of the same strike, a house in Jaar was hit, and neighbors say militants were renting it.
That strike came about a month ago on a hot night as Adnan Ahmed Saleh stepped out for some fresh air.
"I got back inside, closed the door, and then the first rocket hit," he says. He calls them rockets, but all he really knows is that there were explosions — and that the house next to his was flattened. Five al-Qaida-linked militants who lived there were killed.
Saleh says the next day, more militants came and took the bodies and most of the rubble away. Then they paid the owner of the house several thousand dollars in compensation.
Saleh says he's mostly glad the militants are gone. He just wishes he could get something for the damage that the strike also caused to his house — not to mention regular electricity.
Yemeni lawyer Haykal Bafana says al-Qaida does much to win the hearts and minds of poor Yemenis.
"The people who the Americans are terming as collateral damage, they are the poorest of the poor in Yemen," he says. "There is, as far as I know, no attempt by the Americans to go in and do a proper battlefield damage assessment."
Bafana says at the very least, Yemeni or American officials could investigate civilian deaths, acknowledge mistakes were made, and perhaps offer compensation. Or, even better, help build hospitals and schools, so local residents aren't encouraged to join the militants.
Instead, he says, the air campaign to kill militants sometimes only creates more militants.
Motivated By Revenge
Inside the dingy sitting room of a mud-brick house in the poor desert province of Marib, we're greeted by a wall of children whose father, Saleh Qaid Toayman, was killed in a strike on Oct. 14, 2011.
One of the boys, Azzedine, was there when the strike hit. He says he and his father and his brother were grazing camels in an area known to be controlled by al-Qaida. Night fell. The men slept outside a mosque. The first strike hit their car. Azzedine ran one way, his father and brother ran the other way.
Then came a second strike.
"I heard a huge explosion. But I stayed where I was, hidden under a tire. I did not move until the morning. Then, when I woke up, I was scared. I went to see my father and my brother. They were scattered into pieces."
Azzedine says his father fought in Afghanistan in the 1980s with men who would later join al-Qaida. The family says the father recently renounced ties with the group. They say he was even at one time on the payroll of Yemeni intelligence.
"If they wanted to arrest him — or even kill him — they knew where he lived," one relative says. "Why did they have to kill him like this?"
Now Saleh's sons have just one thing on their minds — revenge. Azzedine and the others say they want to fight against those who killed their father, namely against America.
In fact, they say Saleh's eldest son has already joined the al-Qaida-linked group, Ansar al Sharia. Hanging on the wall of the sitting room is the group's signature black banner. The family says the group bought them a new car, to replace the one destroyed by the airstrike. They say the group even pays them a monthly salary.
Another son is sitting to my right. He stares at me, hard. His name is Osama. He pulls out a crumpled piece of paper that he keeps in his pocket. He nudges me, urging me to look.
It's a picture of an American plane.
MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.
ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
And I'm Robert Siegel.
In recent months, the U.S. has ramped up an air campaign against al-Qaida and its allies in Yemen. Many militants have been killed, but there have also been civilian deaths, often more than they're officially reported.
NPR's Kelly McEvers recently gained exclusive access to the war zones in southern and central Yemen, where she talked to dozens of survivors and witnesses. And while they don't answer all the questions about the secretive air war, they do raise significant concerns about whether it's meeting all of its goals.
KELLY MCEVERS, BYLINE: The first thing you see when you visit the site of a drone or airstrike is how complete the destruction is. We are about to walk into what looks like about a block of rubble. This clearly used to be a house. I'm walking amid, you know, hundreds and hundreds of concrete blocks. Whatever was here has completely disappeared.
But then you look closer. We start to see bits and pieces of color. Pink silk curtain, shards of plywood, can of baby milk. The next thing you see are the witnesses.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (Speaking foreign language)
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: He is a survivor.
MCEVERS: They walk toward you to tell you what happened.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: (Speaking foreign language)
MCEVERS: This man said it was a morning in mid-May here in the town of Jaar. A plane flew in low and bombed the house that used to be here, killing a man inside. Dozens of people rushed to see what had happened.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: (Through translator) We didn't think it will come back. Suddenly we see it come back, the airplane, and shoot again into us. They were cutting like cuts, like this, like pieces.
MCEVERS: Cut in pieces, the man says. The second strike killed more than a dozen civilians and injured at least a dozen more. Many of the injured would later die. Where did the second one land?
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #4: (Through translator) Exactly at this area where most of the people were killed.
MCEVERS: So along this wall, it's brown with bloodstains. There's an old shoe, a couple of old shoes covered with sludge. The witnesses say the plane that did this was American. How did they know? I mean, how did they know it wasn't the Yemeni air force?
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #5: (Speaking foreign language)
MCEVERS: It was gray, they say. It looked like an eagle. We don't have planes like that. This is the problem with the escalating air war in Yemen: No one here knows exactly who is responsible for any given strike. It could be an airstrike by the Yemeni air force or the U.S. military, or it could be an unmanned drone, operated by the U.S. military or the CIA. All of these are being used in the fight against al-Qaida and other militant groups here in Yemen. But no matter who launches any particular strike, nearly all are blamed on Americans. What's more, we found that many more civilians are being killed than officials claim.
Contact paper, the kind you put on your shelves, old piece of a silk flower. In this mid-May strike in Jaar, for example, Yemeni officials said two militants and eight civilians were killed. We found zero militants killed and between 17 and 26 dead civilians. Pair of old shorts, burnt piece of fabric. And that's just one strike out of dozens this year. It has to be said that the strikes do hit their targets...
(SOUNDBITE OF AIRSTRIKE)
MCEVERS: ...like this strike at a hospital in Jaar that was caught on video. Residents say al-Qaida-linked militants were using the hospital as a base. There's an old shirt, a piece of carpet, a chunk of bathroom tile. And like the strike at this house in Jaar that hit one night last month.
ADNAN AHMED SALEH: (Through translator) I went home, closed the door. I got back inside, closed the door, and then the first rocket hit.
MCEVERS: Adnan Ahmed Saleh(ph) calls them rockets, but all he really knows is there were explosions. The house next door to his was flattened, and five al-Qaida-linked militants, who, he says, were renting the house, were killed.
SALEH: (Speaking foreign language)
MCEVERS: He says the next day, more militants came and took the bodies and most of the rubble away. Then they paid the owner of the house several thousand dollars in compensation. Saleh says he's mostly glad the militants are gone. He just wishes he could get something for the damages to his house too. Yemeni lawyer Haykal Bafana says al-Qaida does much to win the hearts and minds of poor Yemenis, much more than the air campaigns.
HAYKAL BAFANA: The people who the Americans are terming as collateral damage, they are the poorest of the poor in Yemen. There's, as far as I know, no attempts by the Americans to go in and do a proper battlefield damage assessment.
MCEVERS: Bafana says at the very least, Yemeni and/or American officials could investigate civilian deaths, acknowledge mistakes were made and perhaps offer compensation. Instead, he says, the worst-case scenario is coming through. The air campaign to kill militants sometimes only creates more militants. Inside the dingy sitting room of a mud-brick house in the poor desert province of Marib, we're greeted by a wall of children whose father was killed in a strike in October. Nine, 10, 11, 12, 13?
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #6: Yeah. Now, 13 all.
MCEVERS: Thirteen children. One of the boys was there when the strike hit. He says he and his father and brother were grazing camels in an area known to be controlled by al-Qaida. Night fell. Then came the strikes.
AZZEDINE: (Speaking in foreign language)
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #6: He said he did not move until the morning. And then when he woke up, he was kind of scared. He went to see his father and his brother. He saw them scattered into pieces.
MCEVERS: The boy said his father fought in Afghanistan in the 1980s with men who would later join al-Qaida. The family says the father recently renounced his ties with the group. Either way, his sons now have one thing in mind.
AZZEDINE: (Speaking foreign language)
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #6: He said his feeling is only to take revenge for his father.
MCEVERS: How is he going to do that?
AZZEDINE: (Speaking foreign language)
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #6: He said, by killing whoever killed our father.
MCEVERS: And who's that?
MCEVERS: Up on the wall is a black banner of a group linked with al-Qaida. The group pays the family a monthly salary. The family says the eldest son has already joined al-Qaida. Another son is sitting to my right. He stares at me, hard. His name is Osama. Osama keeps a little folded up, crumpled piece of paper in his pocket. And if you open it up, it's a picture of an American plane, perfume, an old flip flop buried in the sand and a big wide sky above. Kelly McEvers, NPR News.
SIEGEL: Farea al-Muslimi contributed to that report. NPR asked the Pentagon to comment on that story, and the spokesman said this: We cannot confirm specific counterterrorism operations. But he added, we take great care to avoid civilian casualties. Our counterterrorism operations are precise, lawful and effective. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.