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Saudi Arabia killed hundreds of migrants at Yemen border, report says

A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:

The migrants came a long way from Ethiopia. They fled armed conflict, human rights abuses and economic pain. They traveled through the Horn of Africa, over the Gulf to Yemen and into the rugged mountains at the border of Saudi Arabia. Some were seeking political asylum or just a better life. Then, according to a report from Human Rights Watch, Saudi border guards killed hundreds of them using guns and explosive weapons in a pattern that was, quote, "widespread" and "systematic." We're going to talk about it with Nadia Hardman. She's a researcher with Human Rights Watch and lead author of the report. Nadia, who did you speak to and what stories did they tell you about what happened?

NADIA HARDMAN: Hi. Thank you for having me on the program. I interviewed 42 Ethiopian migrants and asylum-seekers who tried to cross the border between March 2022 and June 2023. And all told me just devastating stories of how - I mean, they already experienced a brutal, abusive journey from the Horn of Africa through Yemen. And then when they reached the border and tried to cross - sometimes in large groups, sometimes in smaller groups - they were attacked by Saudi border guards using explosive weapons, what they said - mortars thrown at them from the back of vehicles, rocket launchers, or shot at at close range.

Their stories are just horrifying. I mean, one 14-year-old girl who survived an explosive weapons attack told me that she woke up after she passed out and she thought people were sleeping around her, but they were, in fact, dead bodies. Another boy, a 17-year-old boy who also survived an explosive weapons attack was then approached by Saudi border guards and forced to rape the other girl survivors. He said he did it because one man who refused was summarily executed.

MARTÍNEZ: So we're talking some really awful, awful stuff. How do - how did you confirm what they told you?

HARDMAN: Yeah. I mean, apart from, you know, just the consistency of the evidence of the people that, you know, were telling me basically the same story, one after the other, we launched a massive digital investigation. You know, we can't access this area. No one can. It's a remote, mountainous border region, you know, between Saudi Arabia and Yemen. No one can go. And so what we did was analyze just kilometers of satellite imagery. And then also we got a hold of a lot of open-source footage. We looked at over 350 videos and photographs, including ones that were sent directly to me, to really visually build a story to corroborate the findings.

And, you know, what we, I think, have shown is that Saudi border guards knew or should have known they were firing on unarmed Ethiopians. You know, we were able to plot exactly where Saudi border guard posts are all along that border. We found burial sites that have increased in size during the period of research. And we've found videos that we've geolocated and verified of dead and wounded migrants along the route. And then just finally, we sent our photographs that, you know, victims sent to me that show just horrifying injuries to forensic experts externally who confirmed that they are consistent with blast trauma.

MARTÍNEZ: And we reached out to the Saudi foreign ministry for comment yesterday. We have not received a response yet. Has the Saudi government responded to your report?

HARDMAN: You know, the Saudi authorities had a long sort of lead time to respond to us. We sent them a letter and lots of questions about three weeks ago, maybe more, and we didn't hear anything. What I did see yesterday were a few responses in relation to journalists who'd also, you know, asked for a comment. And it was either - it varied from a denial, saying that our report was baseless. But we've not had any engagement with the Saudi authorities on this. We would, of course, welcome it. But, you know, I should also say that we're not the only organization that's put this on record. The U.N., in the form of its special procedures, put out a letter that they sent to the Saudis last year in October, you know, alleging much of the same stuff - widespread and systematic attacks. And, you know, we are saying that this may amount to a crime against humanity.

MARTÍNEZ: Nadia Hardman of Human Rights Watch - she joined us via Skype. Nadia, thank you very much.

HARDMAN: Thanks so much for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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