Civilians in Yemen’s western port city of Hodeidah will pay a terrible price amid the battle engulfing their city unless warring parties act immediately to protect them from the fighting, Amnesty International warned today.
In an extremely worrying development, Huthi fighters arrived at a hospital in Hodeidah and recently took up positions atop a hospital roof, placing numerous civilians inside the building in grave danger.
“This is a stomach-churning development that could have devastating consequences for the hospital’s medical workers and dozens of civilian patients, including many children, being treated there,” said Samah Hadid, Amnesty International’s Middle East Director of Campaigns.
“The presence of Huthi fighters on the hospital’s roof violates international humanitarian law, but this violation does not make the hospital and the patients and medical staff lawful targets for Saudi Arabia and UAE-led Coalition air strikes. The hospital is full of injured civilians who have nowhere else to go for lifesaving medical care. Anyone attacking a hospital under these conditions risks responsibility for war crimes.”
This deliberate militarization of hospitals comes in the context of a war in which the Saudi Arabia and UAE-led Coalition’s relentless and devastating use of air strikes in civilian areas.
Blurring the lines
Local contacts in Hodeidah told Amnesty International that groups of armed Huthi fighters travelling in Toyota pick-up trucks arrived at the hospital in the city’s 22 May district on Friday November 2. They commandeered a section of the hospital before placing a team of fighters on the roof. Hospital staff confirmed that armed fighters have been coming and going ever since.
The hospital is close to Street 50 in the eastern part of Hodeidah. There has been fierce fighting in the area since the weekend, endangering the hospital and all those inside.
“The laws of war demand that hospitals are not used for military purposes. Placing gunmen on a hospital roof blurs lines which should never be blurred. Hospitals are not a target: the sick and injured have an absolute right to safe medical treatment at all times, and medical workers must be allowed to carry out their lifesaving work,” said Samah Hadid.
Saudi Arabia and UAE-led Coalition air strikes
Amnesty International has documented a series of air strikes carried out by the Saudi Arabia and UAE-led Coalition in the lead-up to the recent escalation in fighting.
The organization interviewed six witnesses and survivors after a Coalition air strike on October 13 hit Jabal Ras in Hodeidah governorate. The strike appeared to target a Huthi checkpoint at a time when civilians were passing in at least two buses and other vehicles. According to those eyewitnesses, the strike may have injured one of the individuals manning the checkpoint, but it also killed at least 11 civilians, with some reports placing the number as high as 17.
One witness told Amnesty International: “We were headed out en route for Umra [pilgrimage], then we were stopped at a checkpoint. He [the person manning the checkpoint] asked for our ID cards, and within a few minutes the strike happened. It landed between our bus and another one next to us. All of a sudden, we were in the middle of an explosion. There were victims everywhere, including my mother who died and one of our neighbors. Some lost their hands, others lost their legs. Everybody was injured.”
According to the witnesses, there were no military vehicles or soldiers in the vicinity at the time – just the checkpoint with a single individual, around 10 meters away from the buses. Targeting a checkpoint in such circumstances would be a disproportionate or otherwise indiscriminate attack, violating international humanitarian law.
Amnesty International has also documented other Coalition air strikes in and around Hodeidah, including one that killed as many as 21 civilians on October 24 when it hit a vegetable market in Beit al Faqih, Hodeidah governorate.
Huthi forces, meanwhile, have responded to the recent military advance on Hodeidah with mortar fire, which is notoriously imprecise and should never be used in populated areas. This tactic is also claiming an increasing number of civilian lives
No escape for trapped civilians
According to the International Organization for Migration, more than half of Hodeidah’s estimated 600,000 residents have managed to leave the city before it becomes engulfed in conflict, but many remain and are effectively trapped.
Ongoing fighting blocks escape routes to the south of the city, and Huthi forces have mined other routes out, leaving only the northern road free to pass. But soaring fuel prices and Yemen’s currency collapse – both of which are symptoms of the conflict – mean this potential escape route is out of reach for many people.
The Saudi Arabia and UAE-led Coalition has failed to follow through on a September 24 pledge to establish three humanitarian corridors out of Hodeidah city.
“Trapped by a cruel combination of changing frontlines, minefields and reports of air strikes targeting those who flee, Hodeidah’s civilians face a life-threatening dilemma while the battle encroaches ever closer,” said Samah Hadid.
“Civilians trapped in Hodeidah are completely powerless and can only stay put to await their fate. Their lives are in the hands of warring parties who have shown little or no regard for their duty to protect civilians.”
Fighting in Hodeidah governorate has been ongoing since December 2017, with a sharp escalation around the port city itself in recent months. This has displaced hundreds of thousands of civilians and has led to a deterioration in the humanitarian situation.
Ground fighting to the south of Hodeidah city, as well as air strikes and shelling, have caused hundreds of civilian casualties, destruction of civilian homes and infrastructure and continued displacement. In recent days, as the UN Security Council considers a ceasefire agreement which would include Hodeidah, fighting has spread to southern and eastern districts on the city’s outskirts.
The UN Under-Secretary General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator has warned that Yemen may be at the “tipping point” of widespread famine resulting from the offensive on Hodeidah, the country’s key port, and the depreciation of the Riyal and collapse of the economy. He estimated that an additional 3.5 million people may soon be added to the eight million who are already food insecure.