Yemen: patients and staff flee as Hodeidah's main hospital comes under attack

An aerial view of the embattled city of Hodeidah © Orbital Horizon/Copernicus Sentinel Data 2018/Gallo Images/Getty Images

Eyewitness describes terrifying scenes as explosions rock hospital in central Hodeidah 

Hundreds of patients and staff dodged a hail of shrapnel as they fled in panic

‘Deliberately attacking a functioning hospital is a war crime’ - Lynn Maalouf

Hundreds of medical workers and patients - including a malnourished woman carrying her daughter in a surgical robe and a man still hooked up to a catheter - fled in terror as a series of large explosions rocked a hospital in central Hodeidah yesterday, according to an eyewitness who spoke to Amnesty International. 

Just before noon on Sunday, an attack reportedly carried out by the Saudi Arabia/UAE-led military coalition hit areas very close to al-Thawra hospital, Hodeidah’s largest public medical facility.

The pro-Saudi Arabia media outlet Al Arabiya reported that coalition warplanes and attack helicopters targeted Huthi positions yesterday, including in areas around the university, al-Thawra hospital and the 22 May hospital. 

An al-Thawra hospital spokesperson told Reuters that doctors and nurses from intensive care, the burns unit and the emergency room stayed in the hospital during the attack. A hospital worker who was inside al-Thawra hospital at the time told Amnesty:

“A few brave doctors and medical staff chose to stay. I was among the majority that chose to leave.”

The medic said that that hundreds of patients and staff dodged a hail of shrapnel as they fled in panic. The sustained bombardment near the hospital lasted more than half an hour. Speaking to Amnesty just hours after the attack, the medic said explosions began at around 11.30am, though these initially appeared to be far away. But before long, the hospital’s hundreds of patients and staff realised they were in serious danger, with blasts close enough to shake water in water bottles inside the hospital and nearby explosions accompanied by the sound of anti-aircraft guns. 

The medic told Amnesty:

“At five minutes to midday, the explosions intensified and were a lot closer. This time I was scared, also because I heard the sound of [anti-aircraft guns] for the first time. I ran to the reception area ... I heard many explosions, and either bullets or shrapnel were hitting the metal roof of the hospital entrance, falling like rain. I could still hear explosions as I got out of the hospital, but I couldn’t focus on it. We were all too afraid for our safety.”

He described how panicked people fled into Jamal Street outside the hospital and fled on foot or in cars and minibuses. Saudi Arabia and UAE-led coalition aircraft were flying overhead and smoke was billowing from the dentistry faculty in the university complex 500 yards away. He said it was widely known the faculty had been full of Huthi fighters, both inside the building and gunmen stationed on the roof.

His testimony continued:

“I saw a patient carrying another patient. It looked like a mother and daughter. The mother was skin and bones, she was malnourished, a typical Yemeni mother … Nonetheless, she was managing to carry her 15 or 16-year-old daughter in her arms. Her daughter was crying. I knew she had either just had surgery or had been in preparation for surgery because she was in a blue surgical robe. There are no words to describe how I felt at this moment … I also saw a man walking as fast as he could while carrying a bag of his own urine. He was still attached to a urinary catheter while making his escape. This scene will stay with me for the rest of my life. There were many children too. Some parents were carrying their children. I saw ten or 12 children among everyone else trying to flee.” 

The medical worker said he returned to work at around 1pm. By that time, clashes had calmed down in the area but the hospital was semi-deserted. 

Lynn Maalouf, Amnesty International’s Middle East Research Director, said:

“Yesterday hospital patients and staff were lucky to escape with their lives. 

“The situation is increasingly dire, and the UN Security Council must speak out before the battle for Hodeidah sparks a spiralling civilian catastrophe.

“It is feared that the latest attack near al-Thawra hospital may be due to the constant presence of Huthi fighters nearby and their tactic of basing artillery units in civilian areas. 

“International humanitarian law is very clear that hospitals carrying out their medical functions are never a target - and al-Thawra was very clearly a functioning hospital at the time of the attack. 

“As well as violating the laws of war, deliberately attacking a functioning hospital is a war crime. All the warring parties must immediately halt attacks that endanger civilians, including attacks on or close to medical facilities.”

Huthis turn roads near hospital into ‘military areas’

Hodeidah residents have told Amnesty that Huthi fighters have closed and barricaded two of the three roads outside al-Thawra hospital, declaring them “military areas”. Satellite imagery reviewed by Amnesty appears to corroborate this. As residents are forbidden from entering, they are unable to confirm what types of weapons or installations these areas now contain. 

Last public health facility

In the aftermath of Sunday’s attack, a World Health Organisation staff member in Yemen said on social media that al-Thawra hospital “used to serve about 1,500 people per day [but] is now almost inaccessible as the ground fighting is raging.” Amnesty can confirm that it is the only public hospital in Hodeidah, serving the city and four outlying districts. There are other hospitals in the city but these are private.

Al-Thawra is a vital facility for civilians - including many children - in Hodeidah and along Yemen’s western coast who are facing acute malnutrition amid the country’s dire humanitarian crisis. Last week, UNICEF warned that 59 children, 25 of them in intensive care, faced an “imminent risk of death” if fighting encroached on the hospital.

The attack on al-Thawra hospital comes just days after Amnesty confirmed that Huthi fighters were placing civilians in danger by militarising the 22 May hospital in Hodeidah’s eastern outskirts. Local sources have told Amnesty that the hospital has since been evacuated, and Yemeni government forces reportedly took control of it on Friday.

Sunday’s attack is not the first time al-Thawra hospital has been impacted by the conflict. On 2 August, an attack occurred just outside the hospital, killing and injuring scores of civilians, including members of the emergency services coming to the aid of civilians hit in a separate strike on the nearby harbour. While it remains unclear who was responsible for the attack, a Bellingcat investigation strongly suggests it was mortar fire from the south by Saudi Arabian- and UAE-led coalition forces.

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