Editor’s Note: The author and all persons mentioned in this article have been given pseudonyms to protect their identities.
Seven-year-old Salma woke up to the sound of a massive explosion on January 25, when coalition warplanes bombed Al-Hafa military camp, east of Sana’a, and fell from her bed in the darkness. Her terrified cries filled the house, and Salma ran looking for her parents in the next room as they raced to hers. The family collided halfway, falling to the ground before her father could reach for the light switch.
The intensity of the airstrikes in January and February, the largest sustained air campaign in recent years, was reminiscent of what Sana’a and its inhabitants experienced in the early days of the Saudi-led coalition’s intervention in Yemen. This time, coalition warplanes were retaliating for Houthi drone and missile attacks against the UAE. The usual targets were hit once again: The Sana’a airport and nearby Al-Dailami air base to the north, the presidential palace and Jabal al-Nahdin to the south, Jabal Atan to the west, both of which house weapons depots; the Al-Hafa camp about a kilometer from Salma’s home; and the Al-Siyanah (Maintenance) Camp, the headquarters of the former First Military Division, the Aviation College and the Army General Command, located in the heart of the capital. But the recent bombing campaign also has extended to civilian institutions and residential neighborhoods.
Offices of the Hudaydah and Sana’a Communications Corporation were among the coalition’s new targets. The bombing of the company’s building in Hudaydah on January 20 led to a four-day internet blackout across Yemen. On February 14, the bombing of its corporate headquarters in Sana’a cut off international telephone communications. In late January and early February, communication towers were targeted in Dhamar and Taiz governorates.
On the night of January 18, the coalition targeted a house in the Libya neighborhood of Sana’a (Al-Madina Al-Libiyia), killing 14 people, including Brig. Gen. Abdullah Al-Junaid. The coalition claimed he was in charge of the Houthi’s drone program in an attempt to justify the bombing of a civilian area, a practice criminalized by international law. The intensity of the explosion destroyed several adjacent houses. The coalition targeted residential houses during the first years of the war, including in 2016, when it bombed the home of Judge Yahya Al-Rafid, who was assigned by Houthi authorities to prosecute President Abdo Rabbu Mansour Hadi. Al-Rafid’s house was located less than 2 kilometers from Al-Junaid’s home, north of Sana’a.
Coalition warnings to stay away from military installations have heightened fears among residents, their non-specific nature adding to the confusion and concern. Sana’a residents cannot determine which locations they should avoid, and the targeting of residential homes has made such calculations even more difficult.
The four days of internet blackout proved the most terrifying and isolating for many Sana’a residents. Sources of explosions, which usually could be found through social media, were unknown. Checking on friends and acquaintances was only possible when the location of the bombing could be determined. Residents managed through the incessant strikes in a variety of ways.
Nabil was on his rooftop near Jabal Al-Nahdin, next to the presidential palace, on January 26, adjusting his satellite dish to follow news channels after the internet went down. Suddenly, he felt a strong shaking force that pushed him into the dish, then heard a massive explosion and saw a flash of light break the stillness and darkness of night. Over the next few days, the area continued to be targeted, especially late at night.
In the area of Sawad Hanash, located amid a number of coalition targets, including the 1st Armored Division headquarters and the maintenance camp, a long queue of cars waited in front of a gas station. At the sound of a nearby explosion, drivers who still had some fuel drove off, while others left their cars behind and fled to safety.
Nighttime bombing was preceded by extensive low altitude daytime overflights, the sound of warplanes becoming part of the daily noise pollution of Sana’a. The overflights stoked fears of what would come next. Rumors have aggravated concern and fear among inhabitants of certain neighborhoods, such as the Al-Tahrir area, whose residents exchanged unsubstantiated information that Al-Sadaqa Bridge – which separates the headquarters of the Central Bank of Yemen and the Offices of the Presidency – would be targeted. Most residents subsequently spent several nights outside their homes. Such rumors circulated widely at the beginning of the war, before residents discovered that thieves and looters were often behind them, as it is easier to rob empty houses. Some residents still react, but only women and children tend to be evacuated now while men from the families stay behind to protect the houses and belongings.
Many shops closed their doors following the bombing of Al-Tashrifat camp, located in the heart of the capital next to several prominent thoroughfares such as “Al-Zubayri Street” and “Hayel Street” (ironically, the latter’s official name is Riyadh Street). Façades of buildings facing the camp were damaged, including Al-Aaliyah Hospital and Magrabi Eye Center on Al-Zubayri Street.
Despite the heavy bombing that has persisted in Sana’a in recent weeks and its dramatic consequences for residents, the goal of the air campaign remains unclear. On her Facebook page, Yemeni author Bushra al-Maqtari commented: “The toll of the Saudi airstrikes on Sana’a during a week of February: The killing of a herd of sheep that belongs to a poor shepherd who lost his livelihood, the killing of a vendor, the destruction of TeleYemen HQ. These are the strategic goals of the Arab coalition…”
On January 31, journalist Ammar Al-Asbahi, a resident of Al-Nahda neighborhood in Sana’a, posted the following on Facebook: “… Continuous airstrikes on Al-Nahda neighborhood, with a degree of violence that I haven’t witnessed since the start of war. All airstrikes are close by, breaking the windows, flinging the doors open to the extent that cement fell off the wall as a result of the intense shaking. I can hear shrapnel from the explosions falling next to my house. I can’t write anymore. It’s terrifying.”
A resident of the Al-Tahrir area, who spoke to the Sana’a Center on condition of anonymity, summed up the deteriorating situation in the capital at the beginning of the new year:
“We welcomed an ominous year. It started with bombing, a stifling fuel shortage, an internet service blackout and the shutting down of six local radio stations that used to entertain us with musical selections. Prices of commodities rose as a result of the fuel shortage, and it became more difficult to obtain a household gas cylinder than to obtain narcotics. The number of dead bodies returning from battlefronts rose alarmingly. When you live in a country where the chances of death are higher than the chances of life, you become more afraid. But at the same time, you have to spread optimism among your family members so you can go on with whatever life you have.”