Dozens of people were killed in a crowd surge in Yemen’s capital on Wednesday as needy residents in the war-torn nation flocked to receive charity handouts from local merchants during the holy month of Ramadan, officials have confirmed.
Video of the tragedy in Sanaa showed a chaotic scene with dozens of people packed tightly together, unable to move and shouting for help.
Those trapped formed a tangled wall of bodies with some desperately stretching out their arms for help. A couple of men who were freed could then be seen attempting to pull others out of the deadly crush. Images from the aftermath showed shoes and slippers heaped into piles as well as scarfs strewn on the floor.
“What happened tonight is a tragic and painful accident, as dozens of people were killed due to a large stampede of a number of citizens caused by a random distribution of sums of money by some merchants and without coordination with the Ministry of Interior,” the spokesman of the Houthi-run Ministry of Interior, Abdul-Khaleq al-Ajri, said in the statement.
At least 78 people were killed in the crush and dozens injured, Mutahar al-Marouni, the director of the Houthi-run Health office in Sanaa, told the Houthi-run Al-Masirah news agency.
According to Reuters, hundreds of people had crowded into a school to receive donations of about $9.
The incident came just a few days ahead of the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Fitr, which marks the end of the Islamic holy month of Ramadan. During this time of the month, people start giving away Zakat al-Fitr, or the Zakat of Breaking the Fast of Ramadan, to people who are in need.
Naseh Shaker, a journalist who was at the scene, told CNN there was a “very long line of people” gathered at the entrance to the school, which was being used for distributing food and financial aid. They had begun queuing after sunset with the hopes of receiving the donation, he said.
When officials in charge of the distribution arrived and opened the door, “a lot of people rushed into the school.”
“This is a disaster to find people sacrificed their lives for just 10 dollars,” Shaker said. “People are very hungry people are very poor.”
Another eyewitness who was inside the school when the crush happened told Houthi media that more than 3,000 people had gathered to collect donations, and that they were all “standing, pushing and climbing on top of each other.”
“We tried reasoning with them, told them to go back. But there were too many people,” he said.
Police and rescue teams rushed to the scene, according to the Interior Ministry statement.
“The dead and injured people were transferred to hospitals, and two merchants in charge of the matter were arrested,” the statement added.
The head of the Houthi Supreme Political Council, Mahdi Al-Mashat, ordered an investigation into the incident on Thursday.
The Houthi-run General Authority for Zakat announced in a statement it would give one million Yemeni Riyal (about $4,000) to each family of the crowd surge victims.
It also said it would take care of the treatment of those injured and pay 200,000 Yemeni Riyal (about $800) to each injured person.
Spiraling poverty rates
The stampede and its overwhelming death toll reflect the current poverty rate in Yemen, said Ahmed Nagi, a senior Yemen analyst at the International Crisis Group, a Brussels-based think tank.
“Poverty rates have greatly increased and there are more people in need,” Nagi told CNN. “The merchant who used to help 1,000 or 2,000 people now has to help 5,000 or 10,000 people.”
And while the humanitarian situation is dire all over Yemen, it is particularly bad in Houthi-held areas, he said, noting that nearly 65% of Yemen’s population is under Houthi control.
Houthis deal with the economic problems in areas under their control “as if they are not responsible,” attributing the different crises plaguing their cities to the war, the blockade, or other foreign actors in Yemen, Nagi said.
“Assistance is not enough,” he said, “And the authorities are not concerned with society’s conditions … that is the root cause of the problem.”
A top Houthi official last week told CNN that talks with the Saudis were focused on meeting the Houthis’ humanitarian demands, such as removing the blockade on ports, opening Yemen’s airspace and paying the salaries of public sector employees.
Yemeni journalist Shaker said Wednesday’s tragedy was the result of years of economic desperation and the international community should “act now” to stop the war.
“People are no longer killed by air strikes or by shelling of warring parties. Now they are dying because they are rushing to get food,” he said.
World’s worst humanitarian crisis
Yemen has been described by the UN as the world’s worst humanitarian crisis. Nine years of war have killed thousands, destroyed the economy and left 21.6 million people – two-thirds of the country’s population – in dire need of humanitarian assistance. Tens of thousands of Yemenis are living in famine, according to the UN.
The country’s conflict began as a civil war in 2014, when Houthi forces stormed the capital Sanaa and toppled the internationally recognized and Saudi-backed government. It spiraled into a wider war in 2015 when a Saudi-led coalition intervened in an attempt to beat back the Houthis.
But it eventually became a proxy war between Iran – which has been accused of arming the Houthis – and Saudi Arabia, and the main arena for their competition for regional influence.
On Sunday, a Saudi delegation arrived in Sanaa for talks with the Houthis aimed at securing a permanent ceasefire. Last Friday, negotiations bore their biggest fruits yet with a three-day prisoner swap of nearly 900 detainees from both sides. Houthi chief negotiator Mohammed Abdulsalam tweeted on Friday that talks had been “serious and positive.”
CNN’s Nadeen Ebrahim, Mostafa Salem and Celine Alkhaldi contributed to this report.