Wedding airstrike shatters families, and a village's sense of safety

An aircraft hovered in the sky of a small village in Yemen’s central highlands, as three brides were being driven to a multistoried house where three brother-grooms were celebrating and waiting for them one night early this month. It wasn’t long after the brides were received, around 10:00 p.m. local time, when a missile hit the house, just a few minutes after the bridal caravan of more than 20 cars from two neighboring villages had arrived. That was on October 7, when the family of Mohammed Saleh Ghawba was celebrating the wedding of three sons—Moayad, 25; Ayman, 23; and Abdurrahman, 21—at their three-story house in Sanaban village, 33 kilometers east of Dhamar City, the provincial capital.

This aerial attack on the brother-grooms wedding, the second airstrike to hit a wedding in just 10 days, claimed the lives of 43 people, mostly women and children from the grooms’ and brides’ families. According to a list of civilian deaths provided by relatives of the victims’ families and verified by the YPP during a recent visit, 13 women and 15 children were killed by the strike, which also caused great damage to the house.

The ruins of the Ghawba family home, with the wreckage of a car from the bridal caravan in the foreground
The ruins of the Ghawba family home, with the wreckage of a car from the bridal caravan in the foreground

Thirteen members and relatives of the Ghawba household were killed, including the youngest of the grooms and their parents. One of the brides was also killed along with a dozen of her relatives. While her father who came along from al-Kharbah village, some two kilometers south of Sanaban, survived the aerial attack, he couldn’t escape the devastating shock that left him in a grim mental state, along with the families of the two other brides from al-Jamimah village, less than a kilometer north of Sanaban.

As customs go in rural areas of Dhamar and other places in Yemen, the bride’s family carries out marriage ceremonies for their daughter at their home for a couple of days; the family of the groom does likewise. But usually, the wedding banquet for men is held the next day after receiving the bride. On the wedding day, the groom’s family sends a group of delegates in a convoy to the bride’s family to escort the bride to the groom’s house. In return the bride’s father comes along with a convoy twice as large, as a matter of courtesy. This is why the bridal convoy from the villages of al-Jamimah and al-Kharbah included nearly 30 cars.

“At least ten cars from each village were escorting the three brides to Sanaban,” said Abdussalam al-Sanabani, 40, a relative of the brother-grooms who was in the bridal convoy.

He said that at 9:30 pm on Wednesday, October 7, the convoy approached the grooms’ house in Sanaban, where the three brides were then welcomed, while the brides’ relatives of men and women in addition to their children who came along with the convoy were also received accordingly.

“Just a few minutes later, a huge explosion took place and flames engulfed the house,” Abdussalam said.

According to several eyewitnesses in Sanaban, a warplane was seen circling overhead about 15 minutes before the arrival of the bridal convoy.

“The warplane was circling noticeably as the bridal convoy was approaching the village [Sanaban], and I heard it flying at low latitude to the northwest as the missile struck the house,” said local resident Maher Mohammed Saleh, 30, who was some 10 meters away from the house. “I even heard the missile whizzing before it hit the house.”

That night the survivors from the Ghawba family, together with their neighbors, began searching for bodies in the rubble; they continued into the morning. A large part of the house, which was originally built of red bricks, was totally demolished. A number of vehicles from the bridal convoy had caused secondary explosions, increasing the damage.

“Most of the bodies were either badly charred or ripped apart,” said Abdurrahman Saleh Ghawba, 50, a paternal uncle of the brother-grooms, who lost three sons in the blast. Among them was Mohammed, 25 who had been married five days prior. Abdurrahman could hardly identify the remains of his newlywed son.

“We could only recognize him through his wedding ring, which had his wife’s name etched on it,” said Abdurrahman during an interview. Abdurrahman was on the way to Dhamar city when the airstrike hit the house. His only two brothers, including the grooms’ father, were killed in the aerial attack.

Mohammed Jamal Saleh Ghawba, 35, a paternal cousin of the brother-grooms, lost his 5-year-old daughter, Jood, along with both of his parents, a brother, a nephew, and a niece. He described the horrible scene to the YPP.

“Women and children were burning in front of me while crying and screaming for help,” he said. “It’s even more terrible when you see your father cut in half.”

Moayad, 25, the eldest of the three brother-grooms, spoke to the YPP a week after his wedding party was hit by the airstrike about the need to move forward.

“The blast was big; I saw bodies scattered and burning all over,” Moayad said. “We have lost many of our family members and relatives, but we need to move on in our life.”

He now lives along with his wife from al-Jamimah village at a house he rented in the Sanaban village. He owns a grocery there, while his brother Ayman, 23, who also survived the attack, was working at a store selling construction and building tools, which their father used to own.

Ayman, in contrast to his brother, still couldn’t believe what had happened. He seemed to be greatly affected, and never went out of the house his eldest brother has just rented.

“I lost my wife, my parents and several others of my relatives; how is life going to be after all that?”

Ayman’s wife was from al-Kharbah village, while the wife of Abdurrahman, the youngest groom who was killed by the airstrike, survived and now living in al-Jamimah village with her family.

This aerial attack was the first in the Sanaban village and one of the deadliest attacks since the Saudi-led coalition began its air offensive in late March to roll back the gains of the pro-Houthi forces, and restore to power the exiled government of President ‘Abdu Rabbuh Mansur Hadi. After seven months of bombing, the coalition, which receives logistical support and materiel from the US and UK, has not yet achieved any of its stated goals, while UN-backed talks have thus far failed to bring the warring parties closer to a political solution to the conflict in Yemen. According to UN figures, more than 4,500 people have so far been killed, including more than 500 children. Alongside the aerial offensive, ground fighting is raging on several fronts across the country, displacing more than two million Yemenis from their homes.

Saudi military spokesman, Ahmad al-Asiri, has denied that the coalition is responsible for the strike in Sanaban. "Not every time an explosion or an attack takes place, it is committed by the coalition. We do not target civilian areas, " al-Asiri told Al Jazeera after the attack.

There is no clear reason as to why the wedding party in Sanaban village would be hit. The village is situated near rocky hills, 20 km northwest of Rada‘ City in al-Baydha Governorate. Only one military post could be seen 15 kilometers south of Sanaban, on the way to Dhamar City.

The presence of the Houthis could be hardly seen in the village; the Houthi movement’s slogans were hard to find anywhere in Sanaban. The locals seemed to have refrained from taking a side in the ongoing conflict. Even with the Houthis advancing on Rada‘, ostensibly to fight al-Qaeda there, the elders in Sanaban were keen not to have the locals involved in the fighting. Before the wedding airstrike, Sanaban village was thought to be somewhat safer than most other places in Yemen.

Adnan Hussein Ali al-Sanabani, a relative of the brother-grooms, whose family was present during the wedding party, decided to leave the capital, San‘a, over a month ago.

“I decided to bring my family here to Sanaban and stay until the conflict is over,” said Adnan during an interview with him at his house in the village. In San‘a, he was living along with his family in a house near the Presidential Palace, near Nahdayn Mountain, a place the Saudi-led warplanes have been heavily pounding for months now.

“I thought the village [Sanaban] would be a safe place to live, away from the conflict. Now I have lost daughter, Reenad; she was just five years old.”

Reporter Saif AlOliby accompanied Mohammed Ali Kalfood to Sanaban and contributed to this report.

Correction: an earlier version of this post referred to the home village of one of the brides as al-Kharab. The village's name is al-Kharbah.