MARIB, Yemen (AP) – Among the growing number of graves of war dead in the cemetery in the Yemeni city of Marib, a gravestone stands out. He has two listed “martyrs” – a father and his young daughter.
Taher Farag and his 2-year-old Liyan were inseparable, according to their family. So, earlier this month, when Farag went to the market to buy food for his wife to cook lunch, he took Liyan with him.
On the way, he stopped at a gas station in the Rawdah district of Marib to refuel. It was then, while they were in line, that the ballistic missile fired by Yemen’s Houthi rebels hit the station, followed by the blast of an explosives-laden drone. The gas station is mounted in a fireball, incinerating vehicles in line.
At least 21 people were killed, including Farag and his daughter, in the June 5 attack, according to Liz Throssell, spokesperson for the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights.
It is the deadliest attack in months in an offensive launched by Houthi rebels attempting to capture Marib, the last stronghold of the Yemeni government in the north of the country. Since February, the rebels have been leading their assault, advancing slowly as Saudi-backed government fighters descend to defend the city and Saudi airstrikes claim rebels casualties.
The Houthis also fired ballistic missiles and sent drones to Marib, often hitting civilian areas and IDP camps. More than 120 civilians have been killed, including 15 children, and more than 220 injured in the past six months, according to the government.
At home, Farag’s wife, Gamila Saleh Ali, heard the explosion. She didn’t think her husband and daughter were in danger – there are a lot of explosions in Marib. Still, she called her phone to be safe. There was no answer. She called again and again, each time no response.
Then came the cry of her husband’s mother, who lives in the same building. She went out and found her family crying. “I realized that Liyan and her father had been martyred,” said the 27-year-old. “I went back to my room and prayed to God.”
“She was a fun-loving child,” she said of Liyan, while cradling the couple’s 10-month-old son. “His father adored him. He would say to me: ‘Liyan is mine, and the boy is yours.’ … He was so attached to her and she was so attached to her father.
Farag, 32, was once a farmer in his hometown of Kharif, northwest Yemen, before fleeing with his family after the Iran-backed Houthis invaded most of the country’s north in 2014, including the capital, Sanaa.
Like many people driven from their homes, he settled in Marib, a seemingly safe haven outside Houthi territory. He was able to find work driving a taxi. The region is now home to some 2.2 million displaced people, many of whom have crowded into camps on the outskirts of the city, according to official statistics.
They find themselves caught in one of the last active fronts in a nearly seven-year war between the Houthis and the government, which controls much of the south and is supported by a Saudi-led coalition. The war has largely stalled for years, but continues to wreak havoc, killing more than 130,000 people and creating the world’s worst humanitarian crisis.
On the same day as the gas station strike, an Omani delegation landed in Sana’a for talks with rebel leaders, including the group’s religious and military leader Abdel-Malek al-Houthi. Pressure is mounting on the Houthis to stop their Marib offensive and agree to a nationwide ceasefire, paving the way for peace talks.
Meanwhile, the people of Marib suffer from frequent explosions from missile and drone attacks.
Mohammed Ali al-Houthi, the head of the rebels’ Supreme Revolutionary Committee, said the missile strike targeted a military position and called for an independent investigation. He did not provide any evidence.
The gas station is located several hundred meters (yards) from the perimeter fence of a military camp.
“The explosion was strong, so strong. It sent me flying far away, ”said a station worker treated at the main hospital in Marib. His right leg was broken and much of his body was burned. He spoke on condition of not being named for the safety of his family living in Houthi-held territory.
“We found shrapnel and the remains of burnt bodies. There were screams, ”said Eissa Mohammed, who lives across the street.
The bodies of Farag and Liyan, charred to the point of unrecognizable, were found inside his burnt down taxi, hugging each other, officials and their families said.
“So we buried them in the same grave,” Farag’s younger brother Ayed said.