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Yemeni Civilians Trapped Between Saudi Airstrikes, Rebel Attacks


We'll listen now to the inevitable result of the expanding war in Yemen. Civilians are being killed. Here's the background. In recent weeks, the government has collapsed. Yemen's president fled, and rebels took control of the capital. Those rebels, known as the Houthis, are aligned with Iran. A coalition led by Saudi Arabia has carried out airstrikes against them with support from the United States. In all of this fighting, the United Nations says more than 300 civilians have been killed so far, and 100,000 are displaced. NPR's Leila Fadel has been calling people trapped in the violence.

LEILA FADEL, BYLINE: Mohamed Alammary was a father of three. He scraped by selling fresh water from trucks parked outside his home. He had two brothers and a little niece. It was a simple life in one of the Middle East's most impoverished nations. But even that was snatched away from him in a ball of fire on March 31. He was 100 yards away.

MOHAMED ALAMMARY: (Through interpreter) I rushed home, and all the houses were on fire. Every room was burning.

FADEL: That's Alammary, recounting by phone how an airstrike hit a gas tanker truck and set his building and the neighboring houses on fire. His brothers were inside, their wives, his children. He ran to the back of the home, desperate to save them, and used a plank of wood to climb into the burning building.

ALAMMARY: (Through interpreter) I saw charred bodies. I couldn't recognize any of them.

FADEL: Among the dead was his 4-year-old daughter, Hanan. His two brothers burned to death, their wives and his niece, Emmadah, just a toddler. His two little boys, they survived. But their bodies are almost entirely burned.

ALAMMARY: (Through interpreter) I want to die. It's better than seeing this reality.

FADEL: He curses Saudi Arabia, which is leading the airstrikes. He curses Yemen's factions for fighting and allowing foreign intervention.

ALAMMARY: (Through interpreter) If the airstrikes were targeted against wanted people, that's not a problem. But to target houses where people are sleeping at night and suddenly, you find a fire in your home - this is a crime.

FADEL: The takers he sold fresh water from are burned, and his family's displaced. Thirteen other people died in the same explosion. His story is one of many in Yemen now. It's a scene of a proxy war between regional powers. A rebel group called the Houthis have forced out the president. And for about two weeks, a Saudi-led air campaign has targeted them with help from the U.S. for resupplies and intelligence. The Saudis claim the rebels are backed by Iran. Iran denies it. Meanwhile, Houthis and their rivals are fighting street battles. Marie Claire Feghali is in Yemen's capital, Sanaa, for the International Committee for the Red Cross.

MARIE CLAIRE FEGHALI: Of course it's a crisis. You have families that are stuck, children that are not going to school. They are not getting enough food. They're not getting enough water. There is no electricity.

FADEL: Yemen is heavily reliant on imported food. But with sea ports and air space closed by the Saudi-led coalition, nothing's coming in. It's particularly bad in Aden. People are trapped with bridges and roads being targeted and clashes between rivals on their streets.

FEGHALI: In Aden, there are still dead bodies in the streets. And no one can just go to collect them.

FADEL: Lina al Hasani is a Yemeni human rights worker stuck in Aden, and she's grieving. Her brother Ahmed, just 21, was killed Wednesday by what she says was a Houthi sniper on a rooftop. He's one of more than 200 people who've been killed there.

LINA AL HASANI: (Foreign language spoken, wailing heard in background).

FADEL: Reached by phone, Hasani's mother is wailing in the background.

HASANI: (Foreign language spoken).

FADEL: Hasani says her brother, also a human rights worker, was helping the wounded shot in the street by snipers. He got two injured men to the hospital. But when he went back for one more, he was shot in the stomach.

HASANI: (Through interpreter) We're being shelled and bombed from every direction, and we're dying.

FADEL: She says there's nowhere safe in Aden. She says Houthi fighters are shelling residential areas and hospitals. And the Saudi-led airstrikes are hitting camps in civilian neighborhoods.

HASANI: (Foreign language spoken).

FADEL: Hasani says the only way for this to stop is dialogue between the warring parties. "But everyone's too stubborn to stop," she says. And in the meantime, Yemenis are paying the price. Leila Fadel, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Leila Fadel is a national correspondent for NPR based in Los Angeles, covering issues of culture, diversity, and race.