Yemenis seek justice in wedding drone strike
Radaa, Yemen - Mousid al-Taysi was travelling in a wedding convoy celebrating a cousin’s marriage when a missile slammed down from the sky. All he remembers are bright red-and-orange colours, then the grisly sight of a dozen burned bodies and the cries of others wounded around him.
Mousid survived the December 12 attack in Yemen’s central al-Baydah province, apparently launched by an American drone, but his physical and psychological recovery process is just beginning. If confirmed, it would be the deadliest drone attack in the country in more than a year.
Mousid told Al Jazeera he had no idea why his family members were blown to pieces in Radaa district. Some have suggested the convoy may have been mistaken for fighters belonging to al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP).
Anonymous officials later claimed a mid-level al-Qaeda leader was the target and that he escaped the strike.
Yemen is one of a handful of countries where Washington acknowledges using drones, but it does not publicly comment on individual attacks.
“Obviously, broadly speaking, we take every effort to minimise civilian casualties in counterterrorism operations – broadly speaking, without speaking to this one specifically,” State Department deputy spokeswoman Marie Harf said when asked about the strike.
After talking with victims and family members in the area, it was clear a majority of civilians were among the carnage of the targeted wedding convoy.
Aref al-Taysi was one of those killed. “Whatever we do, they [the US] will never look at us as human beings. We wear wounds they can’t see,” his mother told Al Jazeera.
Members of the Taysi family said they have no links to al-Qaeda and don’t know why a drone had been circling in their village for at least a year, or why a missile was fired at their convoy as they went to the wedding.
Both families said no investigations have been carried out by the Yemeni or US governments to determine who and how many people were killed. No one visited and no one asked.
A news report published Tuesday quoted anonymous US officials as saying the White House has now opened an investigation into the attack.
“Before any strike is taken, there must be near-certainty that no civilians will be killed or injured – the highest standard we can set,” said US President Barack Obama in a speech in May last year.
But since 2002, machines piloted by the US Central Intelligence Agency and the Pentagon – overseen by Yemeni intelligence – have killed hundreds of people in the country, mostly members of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, but also dozens of civilians, including children.
The deadliest attack killed more than 40 people – including 22 children and 12 women – when a Tomahawk cruise missile fired from a naval vessel ploughed into the village of al-Majala on December 17, 2009.
The attacks have affected the way Yemenis view the United States, despite efforts to help the Arab world’s poorest nation. The US is the country’s biggest donor of humanitarian assistance.
“We received flour and sugar today from USAID with US flags stamped on it, but before we could even eat it they dropped their bombs on us,” tribal leader Ahmed al-Sulaimani told Al Jazeera.
“Between a Drone and Al-Qaeda” – a report published in October 2013 by Human Rights Watch – found the US has carried out 80 targeted operations in Yemen since 2009, including strikes from drones, warplanes and naval vessels stationed in the Gulf of Aden, killing at least 473 people.
Observers say attacks such as these are helping push Yemenis into the arms of al-Qaeda.
“It is far from the only instance of the US indirectly assisting al-Qaeda’s PR machine – and even its human resources department,” wrote Yemeni activist Farea al-Muslimi recently about the Radaa strike.
“It was actually in the Radaa district that a researcher, who recently visited the area, discovered a local AQAP leader who was complaining about new recruits not carrying out their regular religious prayers. They did not join al-Qaeda for ideological reasons, but because they saw the group as a means to avenge relatives killed in US drone strikes.”
Juda, 40, said she lost her husband Aref al-ShafiI in the attack last month, and now spends her days tearful and scared, knowing her monthly wage won’t feed her seven children.
“If they didn’t launch their missiles at us … at least my husband would still be alive. I am taking on the role of both mother and father and I have to figure out how to support them. My youngest is 15 days old,” Juda told Al Jazeera, wiping away her tears with her abaya as her mother-in law stood by her side.
Civilians living under drones said they live in constant fear of being hit again. ”Many people in our village have expressed terror at the thought of another strike,” Sulaimani said. “When the kids hear a plane they no longer climb the trees searching for where that noise came from. They each immediately run to their houses.”
The people of al-Baydah were outraged by the killings and tribal leaders demanded financial compensation for the families of victims, as well as an end to all air strikes in Yemen.
The government paid 24m Yemeni riyals ($110,000)and provided 101 AK-47 assault rifles to start a mediation process, a tribal tradition done to resolve disputes.
Human Rights Minister Hooria Mashour also denounced the attack, and parliament last month passed a unanimous but non-binding vote banning drones from Yemeni skies. But it remains to be seen if this will have any effect.
“The vote is a recommendation short of adopting a law,” Member of Parliament Ahmed al-Shami told Al Jazeera. “We are waiting to hear from the government if they can implement this ban or not.”
Baraa Shiban, Yemen coordinator for human rights group Reprieve and a member of Yemen’s National Dialogue, told Al Jazeera the “US government only looks at Yemen through one lens – through al-Qaeda”.
The challenges the country faces are far greater than just al-Qaeda, Shiban said. Water and food shortages are chronic and more than half of its 23 million people are unemployed.
“The US has no interest in having a democratic Yemen, otherwise it would have supported the rule of law and encouraged development programmes, instead of supporting counterterrorism policies that undermine it,” said Shiban.
“The United States has never viewed Yemen as a nation with dreams and aspirations and with a people trying to better their country. If the US is serious about security, then it is in its best interest to stop authorising murder.”
One of the victims of the convoy attack expressed anger over US actions. “They bomb, starve, and destroy us all in the name of security,” said Salim Abdullah al-Taysi, who lost his brother in the attack.
‘Policy of silence’
Some critics of US drone policy say the unpiloted planes are not the main problem, but rather the secrecy and unaccountability of those running the programmes.
“When used properly and according to the law, they [drones] can strike with precision. That can reduce civilian casualties,” Letta Taylor from Human Rights Watch said.
“What we [HRW] object to is the secrecy that President Obama has cast over the drones programme, and lack of accountability that results from that secrecy, and the refusal to acknowledge and make amends when strikes violate international law. There is a gaping accountability vacuum in the targeted killings programme, and one major reason is the US policy of silence.”
Salim al-Taysi agreed that justice needs to be done. “We don’t want the government’s money … We want to bring perpetrators to justice,”
Widow Nasaa al-Taysi is a mother of four now raising her children alone after her husband Ali was killed in the December attack. She just wants the strikes to stop.
“I wish the drones would go away and my husband was still alive,” she said.