WCW Home News Recent News 12/11/18 From Arizona to Yemen: The Journey of an American Bomb. When a bomb like this explodes, it doesn’t just kill people; it rearranges them.
12/11/18 From Arizona to Yemen: The Journey of an American Bomb. When a bomb like this explodes, it doesn’t just kill people; it rearranges them. PDF Print E-mail
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By Jeffery E. Stern

From The New York Times | Original Article

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This story was produced in partnership with the Pulitzer Center

Just before midnight, a businessman named Rabee’a was on the phone, trying to calm his friend down. Rabee’a owned a drill rig, and his friend had heard stories from elsewhere in Yemen about jets bombing well sites. It was Sept. 10, 2016, a year and a half into the war between the Saudis and the Houthi rebels. But to Rabee’a, it was a war happening over the horizon, out of sight. He was unbothered. That kind of thing wouldn’t happen in a poor place like this one, a district called Arhab that, though deep in rebel territory, was home to nothing and no one of interest to a fighter jet.

Besides, things like airstrikes didn’t happen to people like him. Rabee’a was a charitable man from a privileged family — a little self-satisfied, perhaps, but he had enjoyed good fortune for much of his life, and that wasn’t about to change. Despite a mischievous grin, he was a godly man, a good man, and finding water in poor places for poor people had become his calling; he even forgave debts when his customers couldn’t pay. His big heart, he was certain, had locked in his good luck. “I’m doing a good, legitimate business!” he said. “Those jets have no quarrel with a man on the road to God!”

He hung up. It was a peaceful night. There was electricity in the air. Behind him, people were celebrating, and they were celebrating him, really.

Arhab had been running low on water. Villagers didn’t have enough to drink or to irrigate new fields. They needed a well, but no government entity was capable of undertaking such a public-works project; no bank was available to extend a line of credit. None of the villagers in the district, most of whom farmed plots five or 10 meters square, had anywhere near the kind of capital it would take to finance the dig.

So people from villages around the district found their own solution, working out a kind of shared-ownership arrangement. They all would benefit together if the drill struck water; each shareholder would get a few hours at the well every week. If the digging didn’t succeed, though, they would all lose money they couldn’t afford to lose. And there was no guarantee of success: The land was hard, and the best location for the well was high up on the black volcanic rock. Rabee’a arrived excited for the chance to be the one who found water in a hard place.

He had started six weeks earlier. After 12 days, the machine broke. Rabee’a and his workers managed to fix the drill and get it through 400 meters before layers of earth began collapsing, pinning the drill in place. For a day, he made no progress. Then two more days, then a week, as the villagers’ tab continued to run. After two weeks, with costs rising, Rabee’a got the drill free and guided it down through a few hundred more meters until water bubbled forth with the waste sand.

News spread; people cheered. The gamble had paid off. Some villagers made their way up to the site, to bring Rabee’a food and to celebrate their new well. Eid was the next day, so it felt a little like a miracle. For Yousef, one of the drill workers, striking water meant he would go home for the holidays flush with cash. He went about his work, moving between the rig and a big tanker truck full of water to cool the drill. He took a break in the back of one of the trucks.

Rabee’a’s cousin arrived, a young judge whose name was Judge — Al-Qadi — a usually studious man who needed something to celebrate. He had worked at a court in Amran until the compound was bombed. He got a job in the capital, Sana, at the traffic court, but with the Saudis blockading the country, there wasn’t as much fuel, which meant less driving and fewer cases. He didn’t have anything else to do, so he decided to come to Arhab. Mahdi arrived, too, a pale old man chosen as a representative of the shareholders. Once he heard Rabee’a hit water, he set out for the well site, carrying all the villagers’ money to pay the next installment.

Fahd also showed up, the closest thing the villagers had to a lush. Just about every man in Yemen chews khat, a mild narcotic leaf, but they don’t all chew it the way Fahd did. He chewed it both sides at a time, two big, puffed-out Louis Armstrong cheeks, whenever villagers gathered. Tonight he was even more energetic than usual, thanks to his acute sense of relief. Though he couldn’t really afford to invest in the well project, he had felt compelled to buy a share; he felt that the village needed him. He spent a month visiting friends and relatives, charming and cajoling them into giving him loans; when he still didn’t have enough, he asked his wife if he could sell her gold jewelry. Rabee’a’s striking water had spared Fahd and his family from financial ruin.

Fahd felt a little cold, though, so he walked away from the drill toward an old stone hut where some friends had gathered. At about that moment, thousands of feet above him, a pilot pushed a button that sent an electrical signal to a rack mounted underneath his plane. A series of pyrotechnic cartridges flashed, and a set of hooks holding a bomb in place popped open, while small pistons shoved the weapon away.

Now, as Fahd walked into the hut, a weapon about the length of a compact car was wobbling gracelessly down through the air toward him, losing altitude and unspooling an arming wire that connected it to the jet until, once it had extended a few feet, the wire ran out and ripped from the bomb.

Then it was as if the weapon woke up. A thermal battery was activated. Three fins on the rear extended all the way and locked in place. The bomb stabilized in the air. A guidance-control unit on the nose locked onto a laser reflection — invisible to the naked eye but meaningful to the bomb — sparkling on the rocks Fahd walked over.

Fahd was in a buoyant mood as the weapon homed in on a point just a few meters from him, a few meters from the drill, from Rabee’a, from the judge whose name was Judge, from the drill worker lying down for a rest, from the old man arriving with the installment of cash the villagers owed.

Above them, the warhead closed in at a few hundred knots.

Image result for Jamal Muhammad Ali Qied (left), whose 14-year-old brother was killed in the airstrike, and Yahia al-Abdeli, who was injured and whose brother was killed, at the site of the attack.CreditTyler Hicks/The New York Times

Jamal Muhammad Ali Qied (left), whose 14-year-old brother was killed in the airstrike, and Yahia al-Abdeli, who was injured and whose brother was killed, at the site of the attack.CreditTyler Hicks/The New York Times

The war in Yemen has been going on for three years now. It began when the Houthis — a rebel group whose members mostly belong to the Zaydi sect of Shia Islam, a minority of a minority — took Yemen’s capital in September 2014 and, with it, control over much of the country. Saudi Arabia, the Sunni superpower of the region, feared that this ascendant Shia movement to its south was a proxy of Iran, its chief rival. Concerned about encirclement by Shia forces, Saudi Arabia started bombing Yemen in March 2015, soon after the Houthis established a government.

Almost immediately, the United Nations and human rights groups expressed alarm about the way the war was being prosecuted, with its startling toll on civilians and critical infrastructure. The Saudis’ bombs have struck factories, roads, bridges, hospitals, wells, funerals, weddings, gatherings entirely of women and a school bus full of children. The United Nations reported last month that it has documented about 18,000 civilian deaths and injuries that have resulted from the fighting, almost 11,000 of them from airstrikes alone. Several other groups believe these estimates to be conservative.

The Saudis have also blockaded Yemen, with the stated purpose of keeping weapons out of Houthi hands, but that has also made it extremely difficult to get food and humanitarian assistance into an already poor country. Together, the bombing campaign and blockade have spurred the worst continuing humanitarian crisis in the world. Eight million people are on the brink of famine; according to Save the Children, an international aid organization, 85,000 Yemenis under age 5 have already died of starvation. A cholera outbreak has spread to 21 of Yemen’s 22 provinces.

In carrying out the campaign in Yemen, the Saudis have been drawing on help from other Persian Gulf states, like the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Kuwait, as well as nearby African countries, like Sudan and Egypt. But its most important source of material support is one faraway ally: America. In 2015, the United States began assigning Navy warships to the region to help prevent weapons shipments from reaching Yemen. As the Saudis began running sorties into Yemen, United States Central Command began flying American Stratotankers on refueling missions every day, until last month, allowing Saudi jets to loiter in the sky for longer in search of targets, rather than having to plan strikes in advance. Perhaps most crucial, America has sold the Saudis billions of dollars’ worth of high-tech weapons to help them counter Iranian influence to their south.

It wasn’t so long ago that Iran was the prime beneficiary of the American arms trade. According to William Hartung, the director of the Arms and Security Project at the Center for International Policy, Iran was a favored customer of Presidents Richard M. Nixon, Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter, back when it was considered a stalwart of modernization and order in the Middle East. But after the revolution in 1979 that put the ayatollah in power, Saudi Arabia came to look like a model of stability in the region. And soon the Sunni kingdom became one of the most reliable patrons of the American defense industry.

By the time of the Clinton administration, the United States was the world’s biggest exporter of arms, with billions of dollars in weapons going to Saudi Arabia alone every year. Each successive president had new hopes for what propping up the Saudi military with weapons sales might accomplish. In 2007, President George W. Bush announced a $20 billion sale to the Saudis, in part to rebalance the region after the 2003 invasion of Iraq, which had deposed a Sunni government and allowed a Shia one to replace it. Bush had inadvertently empowered Iran, and he thought selling weapons to Saudi Arabia could counteract that. In 2010, President Barack Obama announced a package of deals worth $60 billion to provide advanced fighter jets and other arms to the Saudis, citing both Iranian influence and American job creation.

Image result for Jamal Muhammad Ali Qied (left), whose 14-year-old brother was killed in the airstrike, and Yahia al-Abdeli, who was injured and whose brother was killed, at the site of the attack.CreditTyler Hicks/The New York Times

Fahd, who was in a nearby hut and was injured during the airstrike.CreditTyler Hicks/The New York Times

And then, in 2015, just as the Obama administration’s signature foreign-policy goal — a nuclear deal with Iran — came within view, and just as gulf countries got anxious that the deal might signal that the United States was distancing itself from them, the Houthis moved on the Yemeni capital, and a new country fell under Iranian influence. Saudi Arabia needed more American bombs to drop, and within a month of the nuclear deal’s adoption, the Defense Department announced an approved sale of $1.29 billion in mostly precision-guided bombs to Saudi Arabia. A year later, it was clear to the Obama administration that the Saudis were not using the guided weapons to minimize civilian casualties. So just before leaving office, Obama suspended the transfer of smart bombs to the Saudis.

President Trump immediately reversed the suspension. On his first foreign trip as president — to Saudi Arabia — he announced that he would resume and expand the sale of weapons. There was an effort in Congress to stop the process. Senator Rand Paul — a Kentucky Republican, who co-sponsored a bill to halt the sale of weapons to the Saudis with Senator Chris Murphy, a Connecticut Democrat — took to the Senate floor with a picture of a starving Yemeni child. “It is astounding what is going on there,” Paul said, “and it is being done without your permission, but with your weapons.” The resolution was defeated 53 to 47, mostly along party lines, a vast majority of Republicans siding against Paul and with the president.

Congress is again debating American involvement in the war in Yemen, but regardless of what happens in the future, the United States has already provided formidable capacity to the Saudi-led aerial campaign. From just 2010 to last year, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute’s Arms Transfer Database, the United States delivered to Saudi Arabia 30 F-15 multirole jet fighters in the F-15SA-configuration — the most advanced iteration the United States produces — as well as 84 combat helicopters, 110 air-to-surface cruise missiles and nearly 20,000 guided bombs. This last category includes 11,320 Paveways: a type of laser-guided bomb that can be dropped from nine miles away and 40,000 feet up and that will, more often than not, strike within 10 feet of its target.

At the well site, at the moment of impact, a series of events happened almost instantaneously. The nose of the weapon hit rock, tripping a fuse in its tail section that detonated the equivalent of 200 pounds of TNT. When a bomb like this explodes, the shell fractures into several thousand pieces, becoming a jigsaw puzzle of steel shards flying through the air at up to eight times the speed of sound. Steel moving that fast doesn’t just kill people; it rearranges them. It removes appendages from torsos; it disassembles bodies and redistributes their parts. A sphere of expanding gas coming off the bomb, meanwhile, fills a body’s hollow parts with energy, rupturing eardrums, collapsing lungs, perforating abdominal cavities and making hidden things bleed. The blast wave pushes air to such extraordinary speeds that the wind alone can cast limbs off bodies.

The back of the tanker truck launched off its chassis and slammed into rock. Jagged pieces of bomb flew thousands of miles per hour outward, and Rabee’a — still celebrating his success — was almost fully decapitated. The top half of his face was removed, leaving just an open lower jaw; the heat of the blast burned most of his clothes off and charred his skin, so he was left naked, his genitals exposed, his body actually smoking. Next to him, his cousin Al-Qadi, the judge, was burning alive, his blood vessels expelling water and his body inflating. He began to scream.

Fahd had just stepped into the stone shelter and registered only a sudden brightness. He heard nothing. He was picked up, pierced with shrapnel, spun around and then slammed into the back wall, both of his arms shattering — the explosion so forceful that it excised seconds from his memory. Metal had bit into leg, trunk, jaw, eye; one piece entered his back and exited his chest, leaving a hole that air and liquid began to fill, collapsing his lungs. By the time he woke up, crumpled against stone, he was suffocating. Somehow he had survived, but he was killing himself with every breath, and he was bleeding badly. But he wasn’t even aware of any of these things, because his brain had been taken over by pain that seemed to come from another world.

He couldn’t think of anything except that he had to get out of the hut. As the dust began to clear, he saw that the ground was littered with burning chunks of metal. The hut had been turned into an oven, and he was trapped inside it. He felt as if he were in hell, as if it were Judgment Day. He had to get away, but when he tried to crawl over the burning metal, he fell down to his side because his forearms were pulverized. He began to roll, like a child going down a hill. He rolled over superheated metal, over the body parts of his friends. He wasn’t thinking about his friends. He wasn’t thinking about anyone. He wasn’t even thinking about his family. In that moment, Fahd forgot he had children.

Yousef woke up on top of the drilling truck’s cab, with the vague sense that he had been carried there by a wave of fire. He looked down and saw that his left leg had been ribboned into strings of blood and bone. He realized he was shaking. He groped around the debris littering the truck cab, trying to find something to tie off his leg; he knew, maybe from movies, maybe from friends, he didn’t know exactly how, that this is what you were supposed to do when a limb was ripped off. He saw a burst of bright flashes in the air — tracer rounds, a tribal S.O.S. — and knew someone was calling for help.

When Dr. Abdullatif Abotaleb, the director of Al Thawra Modern General Hospital in Sana, got a call about the airstrike in Arhab, he was at home in the capital, an hour and a half away. A small man with a tired, raspy voice that flips up an octave when he is exasperated, Abotaleb is a dynamo of energy — and he has to be, now that he has become perhaps the city’s busiest trauma surgeon in addition to running the entire 850-bed facility. On a day without airstrikes, just to make it from one side of his office to another, he has to push through the orbit of people shoving papers in his face; the hospital, with its singular appetite for signatures, often seems purposefully designed to maximize the amount of paper changing hands. It sometimes seems to Abotaleb as if every single employee there needs his personal attention.

When bombs fall, though, he escapes the paperwork. He goes down to the operating room and works nonstop, one patient after another, sometimes not emerging from surgery for 24 hours. And he has seen, in those hours standing over the operating table after airstrikes, grim things.

He has seen his own son. Just 20 years old, he was brought to the hospital blackened almost beyond recognition, after the car he was in was hit by an airstrike. Abotaleb found some grace in the severity of the burns — as he operated, he was able to imagine that the young man wasn’t his son. The illusion fell apart when he saw a scar he recognized on the patient’s big toe. Abotaleb couldn’t save him. He operated on his own brother, hit in a different strike, one that killed his other brother and his father, too. So now Abotaleb tries to banish feeling when he’s at work. He thinks of it as making his heart like stone. And when he’s done, he goes home and cries with his surviving children.

That morning in September 2016, when he arrived at the emergency department, he found the corridors lined with dying patients and desperate family members from a different airstrike, one that happened closer by in Sana. People yelled for him as he walked by, trying to hold his attention. Abotaleb tries to resist these appeals. He tries instead to focus on the patients he has a chance of saving. He does not count on miracles; even miracles require equipment, and because of the blockade, he was running low on pretty much every critical resource and diagnostic tool that a normal hospital needs to function, let alone one that sees regular mass-casualty events from bombs designed to dismember people hundreds of yards in every direction.

They were nearly out of general anesthesia. Lately, they had been relying on halothane, a cheap anesthetic suspected of causing liver damage, no longer used in North America. They weren’t able to get enough gloves or masks. They barely had any blood, because they couldn’t get the bags that hold donated blood past the blockade. They were even low on bedsheets, which they could change only once a week. And they couldn’t get the correct parts to properly fix the washing machine, so it broke nearly every day. Everything was dirty. The hospital was a septicemia factory; Abotaleb often worried that he was desperately trying to save patients just so they might survive long enough to die of an infection caught at his hospital.

But since the blockade began, Abotaleb had taught himself tricks. He used IV lines to join severed arteries; he used IV lines as feeding tubes. He is up against bombs so proficient at traumatic amputations that his burn patients often don’t have other limbs to graft from, so he has learned to be creative when finding places on of the body to harvest skin. And he has learned not to try to help patients he doesn’t think he can save.

That morning, he saw a boy he should have walked past but didn’t. Three years old, maybe younger, certainly no older. The boy’s legs were gone; part of an arm was, too. As Abotaleb worked in vain on the boy in the operating room, victims from Arhab began arriving outside, piled together in the back of a pickup truck. Al-Qadi was almost unrecognizable from the swelling. A slight man, he now looked obese. Yousef the drill worker looked possessed, his eyes vacant and, somehow, at the same time wrathful. Fahd was suffocating and bleeding out, five minutes from death, maybe less.

Abotaleb knew immediately that Fahd needed equipment he didn’t have, but Abotaleb chose him anyway. The bleeding and the fractures and the shrapnel were not Fahd’s only — or even most pressing — issues. One side of his chest was totally compressed, and he was almost unable to breathe. Abotaleb needed an underwater seal drainage system, a piece of equipment that creates closed suction, which allows air and fluid to escape the pleural cavity but none to come back in, relieving pressure on the chest and allowing the patient to breathe.

The hospital didn’t have one of those. So Abotaleb improvised. He asked someone to bring him a plastic water bottle. He cut a hole in one end and put an IV line into it. He cut into Fahd’s chest and bound the other end of the IV line into the space between his rib cage and his lungs. Fahd was in agony as Abotaleb cut into him. He also felt intense thirst; he had lost so much blood that he was in shock. To Fahd, it seemed as if the people hovering over him were there to continue his torture. He had an animal instinct to strike back. He couldn’t use his arms but wished Abotaleb would get close enough for him to bite.

Still, the doctor continued to work. With one end of the IV line inserted into Fahd’s chest and the other end attached to a hole in the plastic water bottle a few centimeters below the water line, the contraption created a one-way valve that let air and fluid out of Fahd’s chest while preventing any from going the other way. With the lines in place, Fahd’s chest began to empty. Fahd’s lung finally began to inflate.

 
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