Written by: Declan Walsh
The first sign of trouble was the helicopter that hovered over the small Yemeni fishing trawler as it cut across the Red Sea. Then a warship appeared, its guns pointed at the boat.
Bullets thumped into the water around the boat, the Afaq, then rippled through its flimsy wooden hull. One fisherman was shot in the eye, another in the head. The engine caught fire. Crew members leapt overboard, including Bashar Qasim, 11.
Moments earlier, the boy had been hauling nets from the stern. Now, he paddled for his life amid the flaming debris and floating corpses, with survivors clinging to empty water drums. As the Afaq sank, he said, the warship stopped firing.
“It circled several times, watching us, to make sure the boat had sunk,” Bashar said. “Then it was gone.”
The stinging criticism of Saudi Arabia’s role in Yemen’s grinding conflict has, for the most part, focused on the air war. Fighter jets with the Saudi-led coalition, armed with US weapons and bombs, have hit weddings, funerals and a school bus. Thousands of civilians have died.
As outrage over the murder of Saudi dissident Jamal Khashoggi in Istanbul by Saudi operatives fused with concern about Yemen, a wave of disquiet swept Washington amid accusations that the US military could be complicit in war crimes. Last week, the Senate voted to end US military assistance for the Saudi-led war, in a symbolic yet stinging rebuke to President Donald Trump, who has stood by Saudi Arabia.
But the Yemen war is also unfolding at sea, with even less accountability than on land. There, too, civilians are dying in droves.
The Afaq was one of at least six Yemeni fishing boats hit by warships, helicopters and a fighter jet after leaving the coalition-controlled port of Khokha in the southern Red Sea over six weeks in August and September.
In interviews, survivors provided harrowing accounts of their ordeal: an attack helicopter that passed overhead six times, spraying them with bullets; fishermen jumping from flaming boats into flaming waters; survivors drifting in the water for days on end, watching helplessly as friends and brothers slipped under the waves.
Of the 86 fishermen on the six boats, 50 died.
Identifying the perpetrators of maritime attacks is notoriously difficult, especially in a war as chaotic and opaque as the one in Yemen. Both the Saudi-led coalition and its Houthi foes, who are backed by Iran, have carried out attacks at sea.
But maritime experts, a former US Navy officer, UN investigators and several Yemeni officials said there was little doubt the Saudi-led coalition was responsible for some if not all of the violence against fishermen.
Saudi and Emirati naval boats dominate the Red Sea waters where the shootings and bombings took place. Five involved attack helicopters, which the Houthis do not have. In one instance, Saudi officials made cash payments of nearly $500,000 to the families of fishermen killed in an attack.
In another, coalition sailors detained 12 survivors and held them for three months in a Saudi prison, where the fishermen said they were interrogated and tortured. Eight of those detainees were recently released after receiving a payment of $1,300 each from their Saudi captors.
“A soldier posed with us in the prison for a photo and said, ‘Sorry if we hurt you,’” Yaqoub Okad, 20, said in an interview after his return to Yemen.
In a statement issued via the Saudi Arabia Embassy in Washington, a coalition spokesman, Col. Turki al-Malki, confirmed that a coalition vessel had opened fire on that boat, the Ansar, and captured 12 fishermen. He said the boat’s crew had ignored warnings from a warship accompanying a Saudi oil tanker through the Red Sea. Three of the fishermen turned out to be “armed Houthi terrorists,” he said.
Al-Malki declined to answer questions about the other five attacks between Aug. 1 and Sept. 15, which he said had been referred to the coalition’s internal investigations body.
Human rights groups say that body is toothless and that its work falls short of international standards.
Although US military support for the Saudi-led coalition is not as extensive in the sea as in the air, there is tight cooperation in many areas. The US Navy shares intelligence with the Saudi navy and has bombed Houthi radar stations. The Saudi navy uses US helicopters, and its officers have been trained by a Virginia-based contractor.
And some coalition strikes at sea have been carried out by warplanes armed with US laser-guided bombs and, until last month, refueled in midair by US supertankers.
Cmdr. Josh Frey, a spokesman for the 5th Fleet, said the United States provided “limited, noncombat support to the Saudi-led maritime coalition, such as intelligence sharing against threats, to include attacks on Red Sea shipping.”
The United States, he added, had no knowledge of the attacks on fishing vessels.
War Zone at Sea
The southern Red Sea is one of the planet’s most congested, commercially important and perilous waterways.
Every day, giant tankers carrying up to 5 million barrels of oil products pass through the strait of Bab el Mandeb, an 18-mile gap separating the Arabian Peninsula from the Horn of Africa. Warships from the United States, Britain and other Western countries patrol it for pirates, drug smugglers and arms traffickers.
The area is also a war zone. Dozens of civilians have died off the coast of Yemen since the Saudi-led offensive began in 2015, many of them fishermen possibly mistaken for Houthi smugglers or spotters by coalition forces. A UN report in September said at least 40 fishermen were killed or had disappeared in 11 airstrikes against civilian boats between November 2015 and May 2018.
The attacks spiked over the summer as the coalition stepped up its assault on the key, Houthi-controlled port of Hodeida. Coalition warships pummeled Houthi positions with naval barrages. The Houthis retaliated by a launching speedboats rigged with explosives to hit Saudi oil tankers.
One such strike in late July caused Saudi Arabia to temporarily halt oil shipments through the Red Sea. A week later, on Aug. 1, the first of the six fishing boats set out from the coalition-controlled port of Khokha.
The Qaiser, a 40-foot wooden trawler, carried a fishing permit issued a day earlier by local authorities, which are financed and supported by the coalition. About five hours into its journey, a helicopter circled overhead, followed by a warplane, which dropped a bomb on the boat.
Nine of the 11 crew members were killed instantly. Ahmed Buhairi, 35, was flung into the water. “The fire was like a circle and I was in the middle of it,” he said, lifting his clothes to show extensive burns to his limbs and torso.
The other survivor, Faiz Abdullah, 24, swam around looking for survivors. “All I found was a headless body,” he said.
More attacks followed in quick succession.
On Aug. 14, the Afaq, with 11-year-old Bashar Qasim on board, was sunk.
On Aug. 18, a warship opened fire on the Amira, killing three fishermen. The boat limped back to port at 3 a.m., carrying a wounded man who died as it moored, said its captain, Abdo Thabet, who was shot in the ankle.
The Amira, which lay under palm trees on a nearby beach, was scarred by at least 26 bullet holes. The diameter and shape of the holes were consistent with those made by heavy and medium machine guns, the kind typically found aboard navy frigates.
The following day, an attack helicopter sank the Rannan, killing four of the 10 fishermen on board. Survivors described a gunner in military uniform in the bay door of the helicopter who ignored their pleas to stop shooting. “We held up fish to show we were not a threat,” said Abdo Afdah, 30, who was shot in the hand as he clung to the upturned boat. “He kept firing.”
Days later came the attack on the Ansar, when a warship escorting a Saudi oil tanker killed seven men. This time, though, the warship did not sail away.
The 12 survivors plucked from the sea were taken to the Saudi city of Jizan, where they were imprisoned for three months. Several said they were tortured. “They whipped us until we bled,” said Tareq Moutairi. “They said we were Houthi spies.”
Al-Malki, the coalition spokesman, said three of the fishermen were armed Houthi militants who had been relaying details about military and civilian ships to Houthi leaders. They are still in detention in Saudi Arabia. Al-Malki did not account for the seven men killed in the initial attack.
The released fishermen, who returned to Yemen on Nov. 21, insisted that the detainees were innocent. “I know those men since childhood,” said Walid Hassani. “They are not Houthis.”
On Sept. 15, a sixth boat, the Faris, was attacked by a warship off the coast of Eritrea, where the United Arab Emirates has a naval base. Just one of the 19 fishermen survived: Nafae Zayed, who clung to an ice box for four days.
Sitting with his children outside his simple beachfront home, Zayed recounted his struggle with hunger, thirst and hallucinations. “I felt that someone was bringing me dates and water at night,” he said. “That’s how I survived.”
The coalition often refers reports of civilian casualties to the Joint Incidents Assessment Team, a body set up with State Department help in 2016. Human rights groups say that its investigations are a sham, and that it rarely finds fault with the coalition’s actions.
After it examined an airstrike that killed 40 schoolboys in August, al-Malki said the coalition had struck a “legitimate target.” Public records show that the assessment team has twice examined earlier attacks on fishing boats, both times exonerating the coalition.
The assessment team also examined the war’s deadliest attack at sea — a helicopter strike in March 2017 that killed at least 43 people, including women and children, on a boat packed with Somali refugees. Human Rights Watch called it a likely war crime.
The assessment team determined that the coalition had not carried out the attack. UN investigators concluded that the Saudis or Emiratis were probably responsible, a former UN official said. But the investigators could not establish proof because the coalition refused to answer their questions, he added.
The assessment team has not said when or whether it will examine the five fishing boat attacks referred to it by the coalition.
It was not possible to independently confirm the assertions by survivors and local officials that none of the boats carried Houthi militants. However, experts said it was unlikely that Houthis would have been aboard boats sailing from ports controlled by the Saudi coalition.
Michael Knights, an analyst at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy who has visited coalition forces in Yemen, said the attacks could be the mistakes of young, inexperienced or poorly trained sailors.
Houthi attacks on coalition oil tankers and military vessels, including one that killed four Emiratis in June, had set the Saudi-led forces on edge, he said, and they tended to open fire easily on potential threats.
“Clearly there’s an escalation-of-force issue,” he said. “It’s a recurring problem that needs to get fixed.”
A number of European countries have halted arms sales to Riyadh to protest its indiscriminate tactics in Yemen. The Trump administration, in an attempt to defuse growing congressional pressure, has halted in-flight refueling for coalition warplanes.
Those measures are unlikely to affect the sea war.
Last year the United States sold 10 maritime helicopters to Saudi Arabia in a $1.9 billion deal. An American defense contractor, Booz Allen Hamilton, earned tens of millions of dollars training the Saudi navy over the past decade. A spokesman for the company said its last contract ended in July 2017.
A retired US Army officer, Stephen Toumajan, commands the Emirates’ military helicopter fleet.
Trump blames Iran for the Yemen war, and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said this month that “we intend to continue” military support for Saudi Arabia. France, which licensed $16 billion in arms sales to Saudi Arabia in 2017, remains a major naval supplier.
“Yemeni fishermen are being bombed in their boats, just as they were being bombed 18 months ago,” said Kristine Beckerle, a Yemen researcher at Human Rights Watch. “And nothing has changed.”
A ‘Donation’ for the Dead
In one instance, the Saudis tried to make amends.
In late September, the families of the 18 fishermen who died on the Faris were summoned to the coalition’s base in Khokha. There, a Saudi official gave each family an envelope containing 100,000 Saudi riyals‚ about $27,000. Weeks later, more help arrived: new fishing boats, nets and outboard engines for each family.
The Saudis called the money a humanitarian donation. The villagers saw it as blood money.
“It isn’t worth a single fingernail of my brother,” said Munir Manubi, speaking in the nearby village of Kudah, where the Faris was based.
Other grieving relatives gathered around him openly criticized the Saudi-led coalition. Families were left with no breadwinner. Many fishermen had stopped work, fearing that they too could be attacked.
The decline in fishing follows a broader pattern of economic devastation, wreaked by Saudi war tactics, that has fueled a deep food crisis in Hodeida, one of Yemen’s poorest, most hunger-stricken provinces. Elsewhere in Yemen, Saudi and Emirati planes have bombed factories, farms and food warehouses operated by international aid organizations.
Ahmad Abdullah, whose son died in the attack on the Faris, said only one thing would satisfy him: “revenge.”
His voice trembled. Some men in the village had been warned by local officials to keep quiet about their trauma, he said. He didn’t care.
“We are speaking out,” he said, “because of the pain in our hearts.”