DUBAI/AL-MUKALLA: Survivors of a Houthi migrant camp fire that killed scores of mostly Ethiopian immigrants said they were told to say their “final prayers” before Houthi militia men launched projectiles into the detention center.
Houthis forces rounded up migrants and locked them in the hanger on March 7 following a clash with detainees who were protesting against mistreatment and poor conditions in a hunger strike, Human Rights Watch (HRW) said in a report on Tuesday.
“The findings of this human rights report hopefully shows the world true terrorist nature of the Houthis. The way these poor African migrants were treated is almost like a concentration camp in Nazi Germany,” Dr Hamdan Shehri, Senior researcher at Arab News Research and Studies unit said.
“We call upon the international community to take action against this and other Houthi crimes such as forcing children to enlist in their army,” Shehri added.
Leading up to the fire, security guards identified the organizers of the protest and beat them with wooden sticks and their firearms.
Forces later returned to hanger, wearing the black, green and grey uniforms of the Houthi militia, and equipped with military weapons.
A Houthi fighter, according to the report, then climbed onto the roof of the hanger - which had open air areas - and launched two projectiles into the room.
The migrants said the first projectile produced a lot of smoke and made their eyes water and sting. The second, which the migrants referred to as a “bomb,” exploded loudly and started a fire.
According to HRW, witness accounts indicate the possible use of smoke grenades, teargas cartridges, or stun grenades, also called “flash-bang” devices.
“There was a lot of smoke and a lot of fire,” a 20-year-old migrant said told HRW.
“I don’t have the words to express what it was like – (the projectiles) exploded, and there was so much smoke and then there was a fire that spread. I was terrified, I felt like my mind was blocked with smoke. People were coughing, the mattress and blankets caught fire.… People were roasted alive. I had to step on their dead bodies to escape,” the migrant said.
HRW said it analyzed video footage that corroborates the witness accounts, with footage showing scores of charred dead bodies seen lying in positions that suggests they were trying to flee.
Hospitals received hundreds of migrants who were being treated for burns after protesting their situation in the center. However, Humanitarian agencies and relatives of the detainees were unable to easily enter the health facility due to heavy security presence that has been deployed in the area. Those who spoke to HRW said they saw Houthi security forces rearrest migrants who were not severely injured.
‘Cramped and unsanitary’
The five migrants that spoke to HRW described the situation in the Houthis’ Immigration, Passport and Naturalization Authority Holding Facility (IPNA) as “cramped and unsanitary with up to 550 migrants in a hanger in the facility compound.”
They added that they were not given mattresses to sleep on unless the bought a mattress from the guards. They also could not get access to water and were forced to drink from the faucets above the squat toilets.
The interviewees further said that they were only allowed to be released if they pay $280 fee to the security guards, the report said.
They were also verbally abused through racial slurs, threats, and frequent swearing, it added.
The HRW report said that the United Nations should add the incident to its current investigation into human rights abuses in the country.
“It is very cruel but also shows how the Houthis are acting with impunity,” said Baraa Shiban, former advisor to the Yemeni embassy in London, and case worker at human rights NGO Reprieve.
“The Houthi field commanders are given protection from the highest levels of the organization, this allows them to behave in such cruel way without fearing consequences. Sanaa today looks lawless lacking basic requirements of the rule of law," he added.
However, some have slammed the report saying it was not critical enough of the Houthis and their actions.
“It is naive for a report issued by a major institution to demand that illegitimate authorities communicate with governments of other states; It should have, at least, demanded to hand over immigrants and the affairs of dealing with them to the Yemeni government,” said Badr Qahtani, Yemen editor at Asharq Al Awsat
Qahtani went on to critique the language used in the report which he felt did not reflect the severity of the Houthis’ crimes.
“I think that the use of terminology was minimal regarding the big shock represented by several crimes, and not only one, from inhumane detention to oppression, burning and extrajudicial killing, including the oppression of citizens and protesters,” he said, stressing that the neutrality of organizations “leads them to non-neutrality sometimes.”