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Yemen’s hidden war: How the Saudi-led coalition is killing civilians

In the Islamic concept of qadar, your divine destiny is inescapable. If you try to cheat death it will find you. For two women on a dusty road in mid-June on the southwest corner of the Arabian Peninsula, their repeated attempts to dodge fate ended in tragic failure.

Leaving the war zone of Yemen’s southern port city of Aden on June 10, the women headed north in a Toyota Cressida driven by a male relative. The pair were escaping the violence that had already turned entire streets in Aden to rubble, left hundreds dead and thousands of civilians under siege, struggling to find food, water and medical care.

Driving ahead of them was a family of four in a Hilux pick-up truck, slowing at the numerous checkpoints along the road and weaving around potholes in the asphalt. Between 4:30 and 5 p.m., seemingly from nowhere, the first missile struck. The Hilux flipped into a cartwheeling fireball, killing the two children and their parents inside.

Before the women in the Toyota had a chance to compose themselves an ominous whistle preceded a second missile, which smashed into the ground beside them and sent their car careering off the road into the dusty scrubland. Twice in the space of just a few minutes the women had stared death in the face.

Dressed in black abiyas — the uniform dress code of women in Yemen — they clambered out of their sand-bound car. Seeing the two stranded women, Mohammed Ahmed Salem pulled over in his bus. Salem was taking his 25-year-old daughter to the province of Lahj and had filled his bus with passengers to help pay for the fuel. The passengers made room for the two women, who left their male relative to wait for a family member to help recover the crashed Toyota. But as they thanked God for their narrow escape, the third and final missile came out of the sky. The bus and some 10 passengers were obliterated.

The names of the dead did not even make news in the local press in Aden. This form of death is now commonplace amid a war so hidden that foreign journalists are forced to smuggle themselves by boat into the country to report on an ongoing conflict that the U.N. says has killed more than 4,500 people and left another 23,500 wounded.

On one side of the conflict is the U.S.-backed coalition of nations led by Saudi Arabia supporting Yemen’s president-in-exile, Abd Rabu Mansour Hadi. Their adversaries are the predominantly Shiite Houthi fighters who hail from the northern province of Saada that abuts the Saudi border, along with soldiers from renegade military units loyal to the country’s former president, Ali Abdullah Saleh.

In March, the Saudis — aided by U.S. and British weapons and intelligence — began a bombing campaign in an attempt to push back the Houthis, who they see as a proxy for Iran. Since then, from the northern province of Saada to the capital Sanaa, from the central cities of Taiz and Ibb to the narrow streets at the heart of Aden, scores of airstrikes have hit densely populated areas, factories, schools, civilian infrastructure and even a camp for displaced people.

From visiting some 20 sites of airstrikes and interviews with more than a dozen witnesses, survivors and relatives of those killed in eight of these strikes in southern Yemen, this reporter discovered evidence of a pattern of Saudi-coalition airstrikes that show indiscriminate bombing of civilians and rescuers, adding further weight to claims made by human rights organizations that some Saudi-led strikes may amount to war crimes and raising vital questions over the U.S. and Britain’s role in Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen.

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