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Turning weapons on a toddler

In Awamiya, a Shia-majority town in Saudi Arabia’s oil-rich Eastern Province, a three-year-old boy has been shot and killed amid demolition and the shooting of civilians. Here, his mother speaks.

Sophie Baggott
27 September 2017
Sajaad .jpg

Sajaad. Image: BIRD. All rights reserved.Warning: images of a sensitive nature below.

A bereft mother has spoken out after the deadly shooting of her toddler in Saudi Arabia. Residents of Awamiya say Saudi security forces shot three-year-old Sajaad Abu Abdalla in June when his family drove to his grandparents’ home. Security forces in an armoured vehicle allegedly sprayed bullets as the car passed near the besieged town’s police station. One bullet pierced the car door and shot through Sajaad’s wrist and hip. It broke in the child’s body and he died on 9 August after two months of agony.

The voice of Sajaad’s mother cracks as she tries to articulate her loss. “I thought it was a dream,” she cries halfway through our conversation. “I didn’t expect a day would come when Sajaad would die and leave me.”

Saudi Arabia is under scrutiny in certain quarters this week, as the UK’s Labour Party has rejected the country’s application to attend its annual conference. Theresa May meanwhile remains friendly with the Kingdom since her visit in April, even refusing to publish a report on Saudi funding of extremism in Britain.

“I thought it was a dream. I didn’t expect a day would come when Sajaad would die and leave me.”

Awamiya is a Shia-majority town in Saudi Arabia’s oil-rich Eastern Province. In May, Saudi authorities began to enforce the demolition of Awamiya’s historic quarter, taking a heavy-handed approach that drew immediate concern from three UN experts. Security forces fired into populated areas, occupied a school, closed clinics and pharmacies, and prevented essential services from reaching the area. The kingdom told Western media that Awamiya’s population left the town “voluntarily”. At least 23 residents have been killed so far. One individual was shot while assisting an evacuation; activists say Saudi security forces are responsible.

It was also in May that US President Donald Trump graced Saudi Arabia with his first foreign visit. “We are not here to lecture,” he announced. His agenda, instead, was to collect 83 lavish gifts and flaunt plans for a $110bn arms deal that the White House boasted as the largest in American history. Saudi Arabia should not be “a place from which refugees flee, but to which newcomers flock,” he declared.

Yet residents of the country’s oil-rich Eastern Province were indeed fleeing. Of the 30,000 people who used to live in Awamiya, up to 20,000 have fled during the destruction. In August, Saudi officials claimed they had destroyed all 488 buildings in the town’s once-lively historic neighbourhood.

For Sajaad’s family, the car journey to break the fast with his grandparents was routine during Ramadan. “Every day we go on the same road,” his mother explains. “We go and we return.” But on 12 June, the journey was to prove fatal. She relives the moment when her brother, who was driving, took the usual route past Awamiya Police Station. “There was absolutely no one on the street,” she recalls.

Suddenly they caught the sound of gunfire. The mother told her son and daughter on the backseat to bend down. Once it was over, assuming the bullets had missed them all, she went to lift her son. She remembers her shock. “His clothes were stained with blood.”

Saudi Arabia blamed “terrorists” for the killing, but their own security forces are the most probable suspect.

Sajaad was taken to four clinics and hospitals until he was finally operated on in a surgery lasting five hours. But the wounds were too severe. Withering, Sajaad clung to life for two months. “He was very tired and continued to vomit,” his mother says. The young boy’s weight dropped to 11kg. On 9 August, his oxygen levels sank and doctors could not resuscitate him.Saudi Arabia blamed “terrorists” for the killing, but their own security forces are the most probable suspect. The night before Sajaad was shot, a bombing killed a security officer in Awamiya. Residents say the security forces’ indiscriminate firing on 12 June was a “retaliation” for this death. Besides Sajaad, residents say up to 30 people were injured by gunfire that day.

Yet Sajaad’s mother has no desire to be dragged into conflict. “I am not interested in the politics,” she says. “I don’t want anything from anyone. God knows my situation and knows what happened to Sajaad. He will do justice...”

After the death she was inconsolable. She told her husband, “I don’t want to go home, I don’t want to see the house, I don’t want to see his bed, I don’t want to see his clothes.” Sajaad’s five-year-old sister, Fatema, is bewildered by his disappearance. “She keeps saying, ‘When is Sajaad going to come?’” their mother says, adding: “Even me, I want to go to him.”

1. Sajaad in hospital.jpg

Sajaad in hospital. Image: BIRD. All rights reserved.The child could not be buried in Awamiya, nor have a funeral procession. “You know the condition in this country now,” his mother says. “We were not able to give him a proper funeral.” This isolating end distresses her, “The thing I wish the most is that he would be buried here in Awamiya, next to the martyrs, close to us,” she confides.

In July the Canadian government revealed it was investigating reports that Saudi security forces were using Canadian-made armoured vehicles against civilians in the crackdown on Awamiya. This month a British MP questioned the UK’s Foreign Secretary – Britain’s top arms customer is Saudi Arabia – as to what discussions he has had with the Gulf kingdom on Sajaad’s fatal shooting.

Sajaad and his family deserve an independent investigation into his death, for the killers to be held responsible. That is unlikely to happen when the Saudi regime is bolstered by American, British and Canadian arms sales. The longer the Western powers prioritise weapons sales over human rights, the more lethal an accessory they are to Saudi atrocities.

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