Veering round a bend on the rutted coastal road, the truck screeched to a standstill. As the heat of the morning sun pushed past 40 degrees, they found them. Two teenage boys, dead under a tree. The men crushed in the cargo bed stopped arguing; the women sweltering in the cabin ceased moaning. In quiet unison, with palms turned upwards, they all uttered the same melancholy incantation. “Inna lillahi wa inna ilayhi raji’un” – we belong to God and to Him we shall return.
A slow-moving column of migrants en route to Yemen had already passed the dead boys that morning. Stretched out under the shade of an acacia tree, hundreds must have walked past, with heads bowed towards the tarmac, supposing them to be sleeping. Exhausted after at least a week spent crossing black-sand deserts and an unearthly landscape of extinct volcanic craters, many succumb on this final leg of the overland journey from Ethiopia.
Three kilometres ahead of the thorn tree, a wadi levels out into the outer reaches of Djibouti’s most northerly town. A mere 30 kilometres across the water from Yemen, the port of Obock has been trading with the Arabian Peninsula for centuries. It’s at a geographical crossroads in the tiny Republic of Djibouti, at the entrance to the Red Sea. Djibouti has long since hosted refugees escaping conflict, climate change and poverty. More recently it has become of the world’s most trodden and dangerous migration routes, with Obock at its hub.
Before you reach the town, the highway intersects two camps on a vast tract of scrubland. On one side, a migrant response centre tries to help a daily flow of around 300 tahrib (the regional term for clandestine travellers) who, despite the war, travel via a network of human smugglers to Yemen. Across the road, a wire fence surrounds the Makarzi Refugee Camp (MRC). Its tents house a population of around 4,000 vulnerable Yemeni refugees who have paradoxically escaped in the opposite direction.
If the two lifeless teenagers found that morning had walked for another half an hour they could have sought medical treatment at the MRC’s newly-built hospital. The story has played itself out repeatedly since the centre’s inception seven years ago. Despite their efforts to provide fresh drinking water along the desert pathways, camp staff regularly find bodies on the country’s roadsides. Working in a vast terrain, their tally is far from comprehensive. “Just this summer we found a corpse only metres away from the entrance,” says the camp’s manager, Mohammed. “He couldn’t have been lying there very long but his head was missing. Probably eaten by dogs or hyenas. He was so, so close.”
With a constant turnover, three large semi-open breeze-block rooms draped with mosquito nets house 500 men, women and children. The reception centre assisted close to 10,000 of the estimated 150,000 migrants attempting to reach Yemen last year. It focuses on those who are stranded, sick, injured or have suffered extreme abuse. Nearly all are Ethiopian and most are young males, but the numbers of unaccompanied minors increases year on year.
In some villages brokers known as delals have lured away whole generations, targeting large families and children recently orphaned. Teenagers are promised “free” travel to Saudi Arabia, paid for later with the easy money they’re told is to be made there. It’s an irresistible offer for young men dreaming of a mobile phone and a stab at the modern world. Fantasist meta-narratives build up about new lives in oil rich lands across the sea. What was once an escape has now become a rite of passage in which control is relinquished to an almost mythological smuggler whose name is only whispered with trepidation – “Abdul Khawi”.
There is little to do but recuperate out of the harsh white light for the few days spent at the reception centre. A group of teenagers stare across the yard towards a bus they know will soon take them on the first leg of their passage back home. Ahead of their deportations to Addis Ababa and with dreams now shattered, there is nothing to say.
Stirring some cooking pots in a cut-off T-shirt, 17-year-old Saad mops his brow, careful not to dislodge the semblance of stubble sketched onto his jaw with black pen. He feels thankful to have escaped Yemen’s war. Originally from Sudan, he has no memory of his family but recalls being abducted from the streets of Khartoum at the age of five. “A religious looking man came and offered me chocolate before snatching me into a car”. Taken to an orphanage, Saad says he was subsequently trafficked to Yemen, sold to a family and kept in domestic servitude. “The family I lived with had to escape because of the conflict and abandoned me so I had nowhere. It’s so dangerous. I knew nobody so I had to get out”.
Across the road, a row of Yemeni men gathered along the perimeter fence gaze at dust devils whipped up by summer whirlwinds. A column of miniature silhouetted figures are led along the desert horizon by their delal. In the late afternoon, it’s an everyday spectacle.
Three Ethiopian teenagers stoop down to sneak through a gap cut in the wire, avoiding the gendarmes stationed at the entrance of Makarzi Camp. Holding out cupped hands, they seem shameful, but they’re desperately hungry. They approach a group shaded under the canvas awning of a grocery store. Coming out from behind her solar powered refrigerators, Maluka, the proprietor, calls for translation.
Maluka is ostensibly one of the camp’s success stories, “On the fist day I arrived, I opened a small cafe selling coffee, but I was beaten. The guards slapped me around the face, they slapped my children and told me I wasn’t to work. When I reported what happened, I was thrown in jail. So many bad things take place here inside these tents; it’s not safe.” The women discuss the wedding of a policeman to a pregnant underage girl happening that day in Makarzi, the latest victim of a culture of rape and abuse that goes on unaddressed. “Nobody here feels comfortable. Even as refugees we have no protection.”
With just one distribution of food per month, daily life in Makarzi is ordered by the heat. Aside from shelter, there seems little to sustain humanity here. By the time the afternoon arrives, the camp appears deserted. Roaming camels are joined by families of baboons foraging in the rubbish.
On the camp’s periphery, caged off from the bluest of seas beyond, Oula and her thirteen year old daughter Abir trace pictures in the sand. Oula writes the word “HELP!” over and over again, while Abir draws warheads in fine detail.
They arrived a fortnight ago after escaping Taiz with neighbours following the bombing of their home. Oula’s husband had been killed by a RPG round. “It sliced his head straight off his body,” she says. “By the time he died I had experienced so much. I had already seen five members of my family killed in front of my eyes. They died in such awful ways. I saw my uncle’s head crushed into the ground and I saw them scoop up their bodies like putting meat into a plastic bag.” In mourning and with Abir’s trauma manifested in screaming fits, she took her only daughter in search of a boat that would take them away. “For both of our sakes we had to drop ourselves somewhere else in this world to survive. We heard that in Djibouti there would be a lot of support and that conditions were good. Although we are now here in safety, we are still suffering.”
There is no school for Abir and no respite for Oula from her nightmares. “It’s all just such bad memories. All those raids from the bombers, all that death. I hate it all and never want to return to Yemen. Now all I do everyday is sit and kill the scorpions”.
Buried deeper within Djibouti-Ville’s Quartier Quatre, a bright yellow two-storey house seems to be sinking into the muddy street. Inside, Sami steps over his Ethiopian roommates laid out side by side. Like hundreds of the children sleeping rough in Djibouti-Ville’s mosques and slums as they set out on irrational journeys to Yemen, he has been there before. Leaving his home in Dire Dawa at the age of thirteen following the death of his mother, his clandestine life continues, with no end in sight.
It took Sami five years to save the €100 needed to pay his delal, cleaning cars and shoes and eating from the garbage. Following the same path his childhood friends had taken to Yemen, he set out on a journey that was to land him in the throes of a violent sequence of events, coinciding with the onset of war.
“I took a boat from near Obock with seventy others. We were dropped into the water close to a beach where there was a group of ten men with Kalashnikovs waiting.” Disorientated, Sami was taken by truck to a remote village compound where he found himself thrown into detention along with four hundred other tahrib. The beatings started at once.
“In the camp they don’t want to kill you, but the gangs there are very violent. They take the same drug that fighters take called Dama; it closes your heart. They beat you with rocks, they burn you with cigarettes and cut the insides of your hands with blades. For the women it’s worse. If they look good or are young, then they rape them. There are thirty or forty guys doing this everyday; this is their job.” Brutally stabbed with a knife during a particularly psychotic beating, Sami was eventually dumped on a roadside and left for dead.
Saved by the kindness of strangers, Sami eventually found his way to Yemen’s capital, Sana’a. After registering as a refugee, he found work as a casual labourer and at last began to settle. Then the airstrikes began. “I set off on foot and immediately began to see the effects of war; bomb craters, missiles falling and every twenty minutes or so there were more soldiers.”
He headed north with five friends in the hope of finding sanctuary and work in Saudi Arabia, but was soon kidnapped again. Abducted by Houthi fighters, the group were conscripted into the conflict they were trying to escape. “They told us to walk with them or they would kill us. We were scared, of course, but when we tried to plead with them they shot my friend Araso directly in the face. Then we followed… First the Houthi fighters demanded that we carry ammunition for them to the mountains where they had anti-aircraft guns and, for two months, we did that. We continued to carry their arms and their food for them, and only when the jets came we were able to move”.
Like so many of Sami’s friends, whose bodies show visible signs of torture and abuse, the scars run much deeper. Lost in a deep depression, he despairs for the boys he sees each day walking in his footsteps. “The boys that come from the farms in Ethiopia, they don’t think. Even if you tell them about the war they close their ears. If you decide your future on the cheap then for sure something bad will happen.”
In pitch dark, a smuggler’s truck races through the desert, hurtling sand high in all directions. Its headlights pick out dust clouds that obscure a bright canopy of stars falling to the horizon.
Twenty kilometres on from Obock the driver turns off the lights, but keeps his foot to the floor. When the truck finally comes to a standstill, the 45 migrants it’s carrying are disorientated. They sit hunched on the cargo bed until the doors are swung open. Then the delal becomes tense, screaming in French, “Courir! Cacher!” Run! Hide! They jump down and keep low, hurrying across mud flats that surround the mangroves of Godoria.
They are heading like lemmings for the dark sea and Yemen. Past the upturned hulls of wrecked smuggler’s boats, they’re ordered to crouch down. Only those making this crossing for the second or third time have ever seen the sea before, and the dangers go unannounced. There is no rescue here and no turning back.
The bow of a long, narrow wooden craft is pulled close to the beach. Under the starlight, a frantic, silent scramble ensues and in a minute the boat and its Yemeni crew have gone, lost to the sound of breaking waves. In its wake there is only a trail of unopened plastic water bottles, left in haste along with pairs of nice new shoes.
Among the 18 passengers left behind by their delals during the night’s frenetic operations, there is a sense of foreboding. Some have seen their companions die, been robbed, raped, abused or tortured on the way, and they know now that nothing is as promised. In January, two smugglers boats capsized in the waves leaving 52 people dead and hundreds missing at this very same spot near Godoria. The left-behind assemble, nestling under trees in a small coastal wadi. Wondering if they will ever be found, they look out to sea repeating, “Inna lillahi wa inna ilayhi raji’un”.
All photographs Alixandra Fazzina / NOOR
To see Alixandra Fazzina’s remarkable photographs from the region, please click here.