The grim reality of a suicide bomb

Interior of the mosque

When two bombs were detonated at a mosque in Yemen in September, at least 25 people were killed and many more injured. BBC cameraman Jack Garland arrived soon after the explosions and describes what he saw.

This account contains graphic details which some readers may find disturbing.

When the first bomb went off, bystanders thought it was just another airstrike. But this had come from a more hidden enemy, one closer to home. An IS suicide attacker had detonated an explosive vest inside a mosque at the end of evening prayers, killing nearly all the worshippers. A short while later a car bomb had gone off outside, a tactic designed to hit those coming to help.

"I saw bodies all around me. Some were the rescue workers," a witness told us. He gestured to an orange stretcher lying in the street next to a buckled metal door. "One of them had been blown to pieces." He was wounded himself, the bandage tied around his head stained red at the back.

Next to us was the car bomb's crater blasted into the asphalt road. A knot of men had gathered to look at it. Most of them were dressed in the typical Yemeni outfit of a suit jacket worn over a dishdasha robe. Nearly all had jambiyas - curved daggers - tucked into their waistbands.

"Yalla, yalla, come see!" Someone was pulling at my arm. I was led back along the street to where children gathered near a wall. Someone had collected some body parts in a little plastic bag and then forgotten it in their hurry to bury the dead. One child reached forward and opened the bag wide, gesturing for me to come closer. In a way, more sickening than the sight of the contents was the context - the children surrounding the bag, jostling to have a look, acting as if all they'd found was some dead cat.

We were allowed inside the mosque and walked into the room where the first bomb had gone off. It was simple, large and square, punctuated with nine pillars supporting the domed roof, each pillar fitted with a single bookshelf. The deepā€pile carpet was a dull red, covered here and there by small piles of torn clothes.

I was so taken with looking at the scene that it took a while for the smell of the place to hit me - a terrible stench of burned hair and dried blood which caught in the back of my throat and made me cough.

It was immediately obvious where the killer had stood. He had been in the front row of men, close to the wall facing Mecca. Here the ceiling was dark with soot spread out in large petals with an untouched core - like the imprint of a giant black poppy. On the floor were shallow furrows, radiating outwards in a fan carved into the carpet by the ball bearings blasted from the bomber's suicide vest.

A mosque official came over to me with one of the steel balls held delicately between thumb and forefinger. It was tiny, about half the size of a garden pea. His companions began to fill his palm with more of them collected from the carpet. They reminded me of that kids' toy where the game is to guide tiny silver balls around a maze until they land in the correct hole.

Image caption Ball bearings, collected from the debris left by the blast

I had not noticed him before but there was also a child in the room with us. A young boy, no more than 12, with scruffy hair, wearing black jeans and sandals, walking very slowly and carefully through the wreckage looking at the floor. Then he picked something up and came over to give it to me.

It was a silver rial coin bent almost in half by the explosion. I put out my hand so I could take a closer look but recoiled when I realised it was still covered in congealed blood. Not wanting to touch it, I let the coin fall back on to the carpet. I tried to signal the boy to leave it there - I didn't want it to become a souvenir. But he just bent down, picked it up and slipped it in his pocket.

Our time was up and we were all keen to leave an area where IS was operating. As we walked out into the courtyard someone pointed out one last object lying next to the doorway. The mosque had been cleared of most of the remains of the dozens of men who had died here but something has been overlooked - there on the floor lay three human vertebrae, still attached to each other.

The sight did not provoke any feeling of horror or even sadness. All I felt was the relief of taking a lungful of fresh air again and escaping the burned-out stink of that tragic room.

Pictures by Jack Garland

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