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After the death of his family, one man's search for justice in Yemen's civil war

ADRIAN FLORIDO, HOST:

Now a story of one man's search for justice in Yemen's civil war. His family was one of thousands killed by Saudi-led airstrikes that were targeting rebels. All around, there are scars from the air campaign in the landscape and in people's lives. NPR's Fatma Tanis has this report, and we'll note that it contains a graphic description of the aftermath of an airstrike.

FATMA TANIS, BYLINE: There's an overgrown crater in the middle of a cluster of homes in Taizz. Marwan Abdulqawi Al Jabri tells me this is where his mother and siblings lived.

MARWAN ABDULQAWI AL JABRI: (Speaking Arabic).

TANIS: Underneath trees and brush are chunks of concrete with snakes slithering around.

AL JABRI: (Speaking Arabic).

TANIS: Eight years ago, on May 11, 2015, at 6 a.m., Al Jabri was sleeping a block away when he heard a loud explosion. He rushed out to find people in a panic on the street, children crying, adults screaming. It was an airstrike by the Saudi-led coalition that killed his mother, his brothers and sisters, their kids and some neighbors, totaling 13 people, including eight children. Several others were injured.

AL JABRI: (Speaking Arabic).

TANIS: Al Jabri and some neighbors worked for six days to recover the bodies by hand. They had no access to heavy machinery to help sift through the rubble. He recalls the gruesome scene.

AL JABRI: (Through interpreter) On the seventh day, I gathered all the pieces and limbs and bones of my family members that I was able to find and buried them in a cemetery nearby.

TANIS: To this day, he doesn't know why the house was hit. Taizz has been a frontline city in the war. Part of it is controlled by the Iran-backed Houthi militia, which overthrew the Saudi-backed government that controls the rest of Taizz. The house was in the government-controlled area but not far from Houthi positions. Residents here have seen the worst of the war's indiscriminate violence - rockets and landmines from the Houthis and imprecise airstrikes from Saudi planes. Al Jabri says the Saudis denied that they hit the house and shows me an Arabic news story of the official denial of a strike that was widely covered at the time. He spent years gathering eyewitness statements and documentation. The Saudi Ministry of Foreign Affairs did not respond to NPR's request for a comment on this case.

AL JABRI: (Through interpreter) I've been trying all this time to reach the Saudi authorities and give them the evidence that their airplane bombed my home, but there has never been any response. Perhaps they are afraid of being tried for war crimes.

TANIS: More than 150,000 people, including soldiers, have been killed in Yemen's civil war. The Saudi-led air campaign has killed nearly 9,000 civilians, according to ACLED, an international conflict data collector. Saudi coalition pilots with weapons and intelligence support from the U.S. have hit hospitals, schools and civilian homes as they attempted to bomb Houthis. In 2021, the Biden administration announced an end to U.S. military support for, quote, "offensive operations carried out by the Saudi-led coalition," but it has continued arms sales. For Al Jabri and other survivors, however, justice is far from served.

AL JABRI: (Through interpreter) No one could stand what I saw that day. I am still haunted by the flesh and limbs of my family that I had to dig out, the lifeless body of my 2-year-old brother who was killed for no reason.

TANIS: Al Jabri says the suffering of his family has been exacerbated by the fact that those who caused it are getting away with it.

AL JABRI: (Through interpreter) We want Saudi Arabia to acknowledge what happened, to apologize, to come and fix the destroyed house and compensate for the lives lost. And we want the United States and other countries to push Saudi Arabia in this direction.

TANIS: In Taizz, the airstrike changed the neighborhood forever. All of the buildings nearby suffered damage. And those who had the means left.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOOR CREAKING)

TANIS: One of the people who was injured that night was Hind al Sultah. She still lives in her home adjacent to the crater.

HIND AL SULTAH: (Through interpreter) Life ended for us that night. We survived only to be abused by the war and suffer in sadness. I put my house back together piece by piece, and now I never leave it. I just collect rainwater and wait for the day I'll die.

TANIS: The fighting and airstrikes are mostly over now, but many Yemenis still have to live every day with reminders of what they lost. Fatma Tanis, NPR News, Taizz, Yemen. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

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