(Beirut) – The Houthi armed group has fired artillery and ballistic missiles indiscriminately into populated areas of Yemen’s Marib governorate resulting in civilian casualties, including women and children, and causing a new wave of civilian displacement since September, Human Rights Watch said today.
The attacks are part of the intensified fighting between the Houthi forces and the Yemeni government and its allied forces around Marib. The fighting is contributing to the worsening of the humanitarian conditions for millions of civilians and internally displaced persons (IDPs) in the area.
“Civilians and displaced people in Marib have been caught in the crosshairs for nearly two years, some suffering severe deprivation,” said Afrah Nasser, Yemen researcher at Human Rights Watch, “The Houthis’ repeated indiscriminate attacks on civilian areas and blocking humanitarian aid have become a shameful pattern and add to the group’s dismal human rights record.”
Houthi forces’ major military advance to seize Marib governorate, the natural resource-rich governorate 170 kilometers east of Sanaa, one the last strongholds of Yemeni government forces, began in 2020 and has intensified since February. Since October, Houthi forces have taken control of Al-Abdiyah and Harib districts in southern Marib governorate while fighting continues in al-Jubah and Jabal Murad districts, forcing 93,000 civilians to flee their homes and seek safety in Marib city, to the north, which is already hosting two million displaced people.
Fighting on the ground between the Houthi armed group and the Yemeni government forces continues, as Houthi forces are circling the governorate from three fronts: from the al-Jawf in the north, from al-Baydah in the south, and from Sirwah and Nehem in the West.
Witnesses say that Houthi forces besieged 35,000 inhabitants of al-Abdiyah district for at least three weeks in October, blocking civilians from leaving or entering and denying entry to food, fuel, and other commodities. The Mothers of Abductees Association (MAA), a group formed in 2017 by Yemeni women whose relatives were arrested and often forcibly disappeared, said that Houthi forces also detained 47 people, including children. Their relatives have heard nothing about them since their arrest.
Human Rights Watch interviewed three witnesses to the aftermath of the attacks, five Marib-based Yemeni aid workers, and four Marib-based journalists. The sources said that Houthi forces fired artillery indiscriminately into Al-Abdiyah and al-Jubah districts and fired ballistic missiles into Marib city in October. In March 2021, Human Rights Watch documented previous Houthi unlawful attacks on Marib city and its outskirts.
Under international humanitarian law, indiscriminate attacks are not directed at a military objective, or employ a method or means of combat that cannot be directed at a military objective, and therefore are of a nature to strike military objectives and civilians or civilian objects without distinction.
October was the deadliest month in years in the governate, with more than 100 civilians including children killed or wounded. On October 3, Yemeni government authorities said that three Houthi missiles struck al-Rawdah neighborhood in Marib city, killing 2 children and wounding 33 people, including children.
A brother of a 14-year-old boy whose hand was wounded in the attack told Human Rights Watch: “My brother was playing with others in the neighborhood, at the heart of Marib city, when the missile hit and destroyed at least 10 houses that were in a residential area far away from the fighting front lines.” In March 2021, Human Rights Watch documented previous Houthi unlawful attacks on Marib city and its outskirts.
Four journalists told Human Rights Watch that on October 13 Houthi forces fired a missile that hit a hospital in al-Abdiyah, the only major health facility in the area that was clearly marked as a hospital, which was 10 kilometers away from the front line. Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) condemned the attack in a tweet a few days later. The Yemeni government health office in Marib said in a statement that the Houthi attack severely damaged the hospital and forced authorities to evacuate the patients, including injured Houthi fighters. No casualties were reported.
Human Rights Watch spoke to one man who fled Yaara, a village in al-Jubah district, with his family on October 27 as heavy Houthi artillery shelling was nearing to their house. He said that his village was 10 kilometers from the front line when he fled to al-Amoud village, 20 kilometers from the fighting. “The night we decided to flee Yaara to al-Amoud village in al-Jubah, shrapnel from the shelling hit and wounded my son,” he said. “In al-Amoud we stayed at a relatives’ home. On October 28, a missile hit al-Amoud in the evening, killing 12 of my cousins and their friends. I miraculously wasn’t there that evening.”
Human Rights Watch reviewed 12 photographs sent directly to researchers that show the aftermath of the attack, damage to at least one building, and rescue workers digging through the debris. According to the metadata attached to the photographs, they were taken on October 29.
Three videos posted on Twitter on October 29 and October 30 by journalists show similar scenes. By matching the mountains, houses, and trees in the photographs and videos, Human Rights Watch confirmed that the videos and photographs were taken in al-Amoud village, 20 kilometers south of the city of Marib. No military targets can be seen in the area in the videos and photographs reviewed.
Local media reported that a Houthi munition attack killed a child and wounded three others on October 24 in al-Abdiyah and that another Houthi missile killed a civilian and destroyed four homes and one mosque in al-Jubah on October 27. The BBC reported that a Houthi ballistic missile hit a religious school and mosque on October 31 in al-Jouba, killing 29 civilians who were sheltering there from the fighting.
Aid workers said that civilians who fled al-Abdiyah district at the end of October for Marib city described a three-week siege by Houthi forces in which civilians were trapped and essential commodities were blocked from entering. The aid workers said that the villages said there were no military equipment or fighters in their village, but that Houthi forces seized them to compel people to join the Houthi forces. The aid workers said that the displaced people were malnourished, sick, and penniless, and that some women were in desperate need of reproductive health services.
Telecommunication via phones and the internet was heavily disrupted in Marib governorate during September and October, and a Houthi drone strike reportedly destroyed telecommunication cables in Marib.
An aid worker with the Executive Unit for the Management of Displaced Persons Camps, a Yemeni government agency, said that thousands of families are still trapped in villages in southern Marib, with Houthi forces blocking roads, restricting transportation, and attacking civilians fleeing north. He said that more than 90,000 people had been displaced, 93 percent of whom have not received shelter, while 70 percent have not received food. He said that 96 percent of them do not have access to drinking or usable water, and 98 percent do not have access to water tanks, bathrooms, or classrooms.
International aid agencies on November 3 raised concerns over the humanitarian situation in and around Marib, saying in a statement: “Humanitarian needs in Marib city far outstrip current humanitarian capacity on the ground. The city hosts hugely crowded IDP camps, an over-stretched public service and healthcare system, fragile city infrastructure and an increasingly vulnerable host community.”
Yemen has the fourth-largest internally displaced population in the world due to conflict, with more than four million people internally displaced. While Marib hosts Yemen’s largest number of the country’s displaced people, the fighting in Marib is creating another displacement movement to the south in Abyan governorate, an aid worker told Human Rights Watch.
The Saudi and UAE-led coalition said that it carried out attacks against Houthi forces in al-Jubah, al-Kasara, and al-Abdiyah in recent months killing hundreds of Houthi forces. The Yemen Data Project reported in mid-October that there had been an average of 27 airstrikes a day in the region, the highest number of individual airstrikes by the coalition in a single month since July 2020, with al-Jouba district receiving 34 airstrikes alone.
In November, the UN Security Council released a statement urging de-escalation by all parties, including an immediate end to the Houthi escalation in Marib.
“With winter setting in, newly displaced people desperately need an immediate comprehensive response by aid agencies,” Nasser said, “Houthi forces need to immediately end their indiscriminate attacks and allow humanitarian access to civilians across Marib.”