SANAA, Yemen — The 15-year-old boy had entered his neighborhood mosque to attend morning prayers. The bakery worker was asleep in his attic apartment with his wife and child. And the civil servant was getting ready for work.
At that moment, a warplane from a coalition led by Saudi Arabia dropped an American-made cluster bomb over their densely packed enclave. The device, banned by scores of countries but not the United States or Saudi Arabia, sent explosive spheres the size of baseballs raining down.
The civil servant miraculously escaped death. The bakery worker was severely injured.
The teenager was killed.
The United States is playing a quiet but lethal role in the killing and wounding of thousands of civilians in Yemen’s civil war. In recent years, Saudi Arabia has purchased U.S. fighter jets and other American-made weapons in deals worth billions of dollars, and the Pentagon has provided the coalition with training, aerial refueling support and intelligence as it attacks targets in Yemen.
White House press secretary Josh Earnest has defended the Obama administration’s backing of Saudi Arabia and the other members of the coalition, calling them “effective national security partners.”
But criticism is growing over the U.S. involvement in the war. Human rights groups and some American lawmakers have urged a ban on weapons transfers to Saudi Arabia, saying the airstrikes have had a devastating impact on civilians and have violated international laws.
The kingdom has denied targeting civilian areas and has called U.N. estimates of casualties from airstrikes exaggerated.
In late May, though, reports surfaced that the White House had quietly blocked the transfer of more cluster bombs to Riyadh in apparent concern about the humanitarian toll. But Congress last month voted to continue selling the weapons to the kingdom, citing a desire not to “stigmatize” the munitions. In any case, the Saudis are widely believed to possess significant amounts of cluster munitions, including some manufactured by Britain, according to human rights groups and military analysts.
Washington’s support has had unintended consequences. In a nation that is a front line in the war against terrorism, animosity toward the United States has increased.
On that Jan. 6 morning, the cluster bomb tore apart a community, and its victims are still grappling with the fallout.
“No one knows why our area was targeted,” Taher al-Khadami, the imam of the mosque, said on a recent day.
He pointed at a spot on the ground inside the mosque, steps away from the gate.
That’s where he found Essa al-Furasi. The lanky teen loved soccer so much that he wore a T-shirt emblazoned with the logo of his favorite team, Real Madrid, to sunrise prayer. As he entered the compound, shrapnel pierced the gate and struck his back and sides.
“We heard the explosions, and when we came out Essa was lying on the ground,” the imam recalled. “I carried his body to the car. I felt the blood coming out, but he was still breathing.”
Essa died upon arriving at the hospital.
A few blocks away in a poor area with crumbling buildings, fragments of the cluster bomb tore through the corrugated tin roof of Shakir Ghaleb Ahmad’s attic apartment.
“I woke up and saw blood all over me,” the bakery worker recalled.
Asleep in another room, his 3-year-old daughter and wife escaped harm.
Ahmad spent the next 15 days in a hospital bed after doctors removed the shrapnel that punctured his liver and lungs.
About a mile from the mosque, a large piece of the bomb struck the roof of a building next to Abdul Sabra’s house and dropped into his yard, shattering his windows. Months later, his voice still shook as he remembered that morning.
“All the glass fell on me and my wife,” the civil servant said. “It was as if Judgment Day had arrived.”
The bomb injured two more people, set 20 cars on fire and damaged 26 homes, according to police. In interviews, residents said there were no military fortifications, strategic buildings, or army units in their area.
“If the bomb had dropped around the time children were heading to school, it would have been a great catastrophe,” said Gen. Ahmed Abdullah al-Tahiri, the area’s police commander.
“These are the gifts of Saudi Arabia and America,” he declared as he looked at the remnants of the bomb that were being stored in his unit’s compound.
Cluster bombs have been deployed in conflicts including those in Vietnam, Iraq, Syria and Libya. So far, 119 nations have joined an international convention adopted in 2008 to ban their use.
The cluster bomb that struck the neighborhood in Sanaa was a CBU 58A/B, which contains about 650 bomblets in its dispenser. The markings on the body show that it was made in 1978 at the Milan Army Ammunition Plant in Tennessee, according to the watchdog group Human Rights Watch.
Saudi military spokesman Brig. Gen. Ahmed al-Asiri alleged that Yemen’s Houthi rebels fabricate munitions to resemble cluster bombs.
Saudi Arabia intervened in the war after the Shiite rebels ousted Yemen’s U.S.- and Saudi-backed government last year. The rebels are widely thought to be backed by Iran, Saudi Arabia’s rival in the region.
As the Obama administration signed a nuclear agreement with Iran last year, triggering Saudi concerns, U.S. support in Yemen reassured the kingdom of their long-standing ties.
Washington also hopes to contain al-Qaeda’s Yemen branch, considered by U.S. officials as the most dangerous affiliate.
On the streets of Sanaa, anti-American slogans are plastered on walls and billboards. Graffiti depict U.S. bombs, missiles and fighter jets killing Yemenis.
Since the war erupted in March 2015, American-made cluster munitions have been dropped on or near civilian populations at least seven times, according to human rights groups.
Other American-supplied bombs have also targeted civilians. In March, two airstrikes killed at least 97 civilians, including 25 children, in a crowded market in the northwestern village of Mastaba, about 28 miles from the Saudi border.
Human Rights Watch investigators reported finding remnants of a satellite-guided bomb made up of American-supplied explosives and other U.S. parts.
Some victims of that attack remain hospitalized in hospitals in Sanaa and other cities.
Yusuf Mohamed Ali Asir has had three operations on his legs. But the biggest loss, he said, was not physical. His wedding was six days away when the airstrike occurred. Now, the costs of the surgeries and stay in the capital has depleted his savings.
“I can’t afford to pay for my marriage,” said Asir, his leg in a cast.
He was staying in a cheap hotel waiting for a fourth operation.
Sabra wants an explanation.
The irony, he said, is that he always liked the United States and its principles of democracy and human rights. Before the war, he rented out his villa to American tenants. He never joined those who chant “Death to America” in protests organized by the Houthis who now rule the capital.
Now, Sabra is angry.
“Of course, we are upset when a cluster bomb hits our house,” he said. “This is not a military base. Where is the human rights?”
Ahmad no longer works at the bakery. Pieces of shrapnel are still embedded in his body. He takes painkillers daily.
“I can’t sit up straight,” he said. “I can’t even carry my daughter.”
Out of sympathy, his landlord reduced his rent, but the holes in the roof have not been fixed. Ahmad still has to borrow money from relatives and friends to pay the lesser sum.
He knows it won’t last, and so he’s preparing to move his family to their ancestral village.
“What have I done to Saudi Arabia and America?” he demanded. “I am sad and angry.”
Since Essa was killed, his father has been unable to sleep.
When his brother goes to his shop, there’s an emptiness because Essa is no longer there after school. “I feel like a part of my body has been lost,” Nidal al-Furasi said.
The teenager was buried in a cemetery near his family’s home. But even here he is unprotected.
Whenever it rains, the water floods his grave.
Sheikha Aldosary in Riyadh contributed to this report.