Invisible Casualties of the War

The life of fourteen-year-old Ali Alkhadr from Abyan was changed forever on 9 May 2011. Returning from a family visit in al-Mihrab village, Ali was hit by shrapnel from an air-strike that tore his jaw wide open. Air-strikes in the South that target al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) often indiscriminately kill or wound anyone in the surrounding area, including civilians, without warning.

According to Ali’s father, Alkhadr Ali Hassan, Doctors without Borders/Medecins sans Frontieres (MSF) generously conducted 1 million Yemeni Riyal ($4,660) worth of reconstructive surgery. Yet Ali still needs a lot more. The once studious teenager dropped out of school due to depression.

“He refuses to see his classmates because he is disfigured. It’s been eight months and there is nothing I can do to help my son,” said the boy’s father. “He does not want to go to school and one time I hospitalized him because he overdosed on drugs. I believe he wanted to end his life, and it pains me to see that. I don’t know what to do,” he added.

Ali Alkhadr is not alone in a country where civilians are often caught in the middle between militants and the government. These civilians are ignored in the mainstream media and their deaths denied by governments.

Terrorism is of grave concern in Yemen, and its consequences are far reaching. On Saturday 4 August 2012, locals in Jaar were the targets of a bombing by militants that killed at least 40 people. The Yemeni and US government’s response to these attacks in Yemen has included arbitrary arrests, homes being demolished, death and injuries, and displacement of civilians.
Since January 2012, there have been over 60 US air-strikes in Yemen, according to the Bureau of Investigative Journalism (TBIJ), killing hundreds of civilians.

On 15 May 2012, an air-strike, believed to be a US drone, hit a civilian home. People nearby ran to see what had happened and to help the injured inside.

“About 15 minutes later, another plane suddenly struck the same building killing 15 people, including my brother,” said 19-year old Hassan Ahmed Abdullah recounting the incident. “He was wounded by shrapnel in his chest, liver, and neck. He also had burns on 50 percent of his body.”

From scarred people to destroyed buildings, Abyan carries many testaments to the war on terror.

Most of the civilian homes in the impoverished area of al-Kod were destroyed by air-strikes and heavy artillery. This area houses some of the poorest people in Yemen.

Bombs did not only hit homes but also struck schools and even the largest hospital in Abyan, al-Razi hospital.

“The bombing of al-Razi hospital was a tragedy, and I believe we will suffer from it for years to come, especially in light of Yemen’s economic social and political deterioration,” said psychologist and Jaar resident, Wahib Saad who also stressed the psychological trauma of such attacks.

“Today, when I hear a plane I immediately run to the house” said seven-year-old Ahmed. Ahmed’s drawings and the other children’s show images of darkness, death, and destruction, indicating that the generations to come will need much more than financial compensation to recover.
While many residents of Abyan believe that US strikes are more accurate in hitting their desired targets than Yemeni ones, the majority believes that the implications of US bombing are disastrous.

This is seen from the fact that US strikes are seen as an invasion, an occupation and a breach of sovereignty. A citizen journalist who preferred to remain anonymous said to me, “Let’s be honest, I am against US intervention. The Yemeni government has the right to rely on the US for help but not when the US is using Yemenis against their own brothers. As a southern separatist, I believe that we are already under two occupations, by the North and the militants, and I don’t want a third occupation by the Americans,” he said.

US drones have not only resulted in death and destruction, but have also been counter productive to the counter-terrorism efforts, because with each casualty, militants groups gain more members.
“These attacks have negative impacts on psyches of children who keep hearing: this is America that is killing you, don’t you have the pride and courage to fight it?” said Saad.

Similarly it has enabled militants to make people question the concept of a civil democratic state. A photo of a mosque destroyed by an air-strike with “This is democracy, even mosques have been destroyed” written on its wall summarizes what people view as American ideology.

The strikes have also helped hard-line Islamists recruit members. In a pamphlet distributed by a mosque in Aden, 15 lines denounced cooperation with the US on the basis that the drones kill innocent civilians. “Oh Muslims, do you know that the Americans are now in Yemen? Who allowed them to kill our sons and brothers every day using drones?

The strikes have increased anti-American sentiment in the country as a whole. In a rare public demonstration in Change Square in Sanaa, some protesters burned American flags in a protest entitled “No to American meddling.” Despite the grave violations against citizens, the Yemeni government has ignored the civilians and the majority of the wounded have not received any compensation. With no means to seek justice or redress for the unlawful attacks, young brothers, friends and relatives of those killed become easy targets for militant recruitment. “I will even join Satan if I have to in order to get revenge for my wounded seven year old son,” said one angered father from Jaar who preferred to remain anonymous.

The Yemeni government is a partner in these targeted strikes. Former President Saleh gave the US open access to Yemen’s air space to be used for air-strikes against AQAP. This policy continues today under the new transitional government, even with the presence of the former opposition, who previously called against these airstrikes.

Despite the high number of civilian casualties due to air-strikes, many leading politicians and activists, including Nobel Peace Prize winner, Tawakkul Karman, have not advocated on their behalf.

While we were sitting in the field clinic in Jaar, Wahib Saad asked a young boy: “what do you want to be when you grow up?” The boy answered with utter silence. “See, he doesn’t have a dream” commented Dr. Saad, “I remember when I was his age I wanted to be a pilot. If this child has no dream, then we are a country with no hope.”

*First published in Al-Akhbar

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