MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.
ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
And I'm Robert Siegel.
In recent months, the U.S. has ramped up an air campaign against al-Qaida and its allies in Yemen. Many militants have been killed, but there have also been civilian deaths, often more than they're officially reported.
NPR's Kelly McEvers recently gained exclusive access to the war zones in southern and central Yemen, where she talked to dozens of survivors and witnesses. And while they don't answer all the questions about the secretive air war, they do raise significant concerns about whether it's meeting all of its goals.
KELLY MCEVERS, BYLINE: The first thing you see when you visit the site of a drone or airstrike is how complete the destruction is. We are about to walk into what looks like about a block of rubble. This clearly used to be a house. I'm walking amid, you know, hundreds and hundreds of concrete blocks. Whatever was here has completely disappeared.
But then you look closer. We start to see bits and pieces of color. Pink silk curtain, shards of plywood, can of baby milk. The next thing you see are the witnesses.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (Speaking foreign language)
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: He is a survivor.
MCEVERS: They walk toward you to tell you what happened.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: (Speaking foreign language)
MCEVERS: This man said it was a morning in mid-May here in the town of Jaar. A plane flew in low and bombed the house that used to be here, killing a man inside. Dozens of people rushed to see what had happened.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: (Through translator) We didn't think it will come back. Suddenly we see it come back, the airplane, and shoot again into us. They were cutting like cuts, like this, like pieces.
MCEVERS: Cut in pieces, the man says. The second strike killed more than a dozen civilians and injured at least a dozen more. Many of the injured would later die. Where did the second one land?
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #4: (Through translator) Exactly at this area where most of the people were killed.
MCEVERS: So along this wall, it's brown with bloodstains. There's an old shoe, a couple of old shoes covered with sludge. The witnesses say the plane that did this was American. How did they know? I mean, how did they know it wasn't the Yemeni air force?
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #5: (Speaking foreign language)
MCEVERS: It was gray, they say. It looked like an eagle. We don't have planes like that. This is the problem with the escalating air war in Yemen: No one here knows exactly who is responsible for any given strike. It could be an airstrike by the Yemeni air force or the U.S. military, or it could be an unmanned drone, operated by the U.S. military or the CIA. All of these are being used in the fight against al-Qaida and other militant groups here in Yemen. But no matter who launches any particular strike, nearly all are blamed on Americans. What's more, we found that many more civilians are being killed than officials claim.
Contact paper, the kind you put on your shelves, old piece of a silk flower. In this mid-May strike in Jaar, for example, Yemeni officials said two militants and eight civilians were killed. We found zero militants killed and between 17 and 26 dead civilians. Pair of old shorts, burnt piece of fabric. And that's just one strike out of dozens this year. It has to be said that the strikes do hit their targets...
(SOUNDBITE OF AIRSTRIKE)
MCEVERS: ...like this strike at a hospital in Jaar that was caught on video. Residents say al-Qaida-linked militants were using the hospital as a base. There's an old shirt, a piece of carpet, a chunk of bathroom tile. And like the strike at this house in Jaar that hit one night last month.
ADNAN AHMED SALEH: (Through translator) I went home, closed the door. I got back inside, closed the door, and then the first rocket hit.
MCEVERS: Adnan Ahmed Saleh(ph) calls them rockets, but all he really knows is there were explosions. The house next door to his was flattened, and five al-Qaida-linked militants, who, he says, were renting the house, were killed.
SALEH: (Speaking foreign language)
MCEVERS: He says the next day, more militants came and took the bodies and most of the rubble away. Then they paid the owner of the house several thousand dollars in compensation. Saleh says he's mostly glad the militants are gone. He just wishes he could get something for the damages to his house too. Yemeni lawyer Haykal Bafana says al-Qaida does much to win the hearts and minds of poor Yemenis, much more than the air campaigns.
HAYKAL BAFANA: The people who the Americans are terming as collateral damage, they are the poorest of the poor in Yemen. There's, as far as I know, no attempts by the Americans to go in and do a proper battlefield damage assessment.
MCEVERS: Bafana says at the very least, Yemeni and/or American officials could investigate civilian deaths, acknowledge mistakes were made and perhaps offer compensation. Instead, he says, the worst-case scenario is coming through. The air campaign to kill militants sometimes only creates more militants. Inside the dingy sitting room of a mud-brick house in the poor desert province of Marib, we're greeted by a wall of children whose father was killed in a strike in October. Nine, 10, 11, 12, 13?
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #6: Yeah. Now, 13 all.
MCEVERS: Thirteen children. One of the boys was there when the strike hit. He says he and his father and brother were grazing camels in an area known to be controlled by al-Qaida. Night fell. Then came the strikes.
AZZEDINE: (Speaking in foreign language)
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #6: He said he did not move until the morning. And then when he woke up, he was kind of scared. He went to see his father and his brother. He saw them scattered into pieces.
MCEVERS: The boy said his father fought in Afghanistan in the 1980s with men who would later join al-Qaida. The family says the father recently renounced his ties with the group. Either way, his sons now have one thing in mind.
AZZEDINE: (Speaking foreign language)
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #6: He said his feeling is only to take revenge for his father.
MCEVERS: How is he going to do that?
AZZEDINE: (Speaking foreign language)
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #6: He said, by killing whoever killed our father.
MCEVERS: And who's that?
MCEVERS: Up on the wall is a black banner of a group linked with al-Qaida. The group pays the family a monthly salary. The family says the eldest son has already joined al-Qaida. Another son is sitting to my right. He stares at me, hard. His name is Osama. Osama keeps a little folded up, crumpled piece of paper in his pocket. And if you open it up, it's a picture of an American plane, perfume, an old flip flop buried in the sand and a big wide sky above. Kelly McEvers, NPR News.
SIEGEL: Farea al-Muslimi contributed to that report. NPR asked the Pentagon to comment on that story, and the spokesman said this: We cannot confirm specific counterterrorism operations. But he added, we take great care to avoid civilian casualties. Our counterterrorism operations are precise, lawful and effective.