Fleeing Hardship, Then Pushed Into Sea, They Landed in a Country at War
By SAEED AL-BATATI
(NY Times) — KHOUBIA, Yemen — For more than 24 hours, they were forced to sit on the floor of a plastic boat as it lurched across the sea, forbidden to get up even if they needed to urinate or vomit. The dates they had brought to eat on the journey were taken. Near dawn, when their smuggler thought he saw the lights of a patrol boat, they were ordered to jump overboard.
The next day a second migrant boat came, packed with even more people — and this time their smugglers pointed guns at them and ordered them into the inky waters as well.
On both boats, they were mostly teenagers. Natives of Somalia and Ethiopia, they had boarded from the Somali coast — pushed by what they described as a combination of poverty, ambition and political repression back home, and pulled by the mirage of work in the countries of the Persian Gulf.
The International Organization for Migration says several of those coming to Yemen are from the Oromia region, Ethiopia’s largest, which has been wracked by antigovernment protests for over a year.
Those who reached this desolate stretch of beach along the Arabian Sea, in Shabwa Province, last week stumbled into an empty mosque. A United Nations aid worker who found them there said some were ailing from severe diarrhea and aching limbs. Of the 280 people who made the crossing on these two boats, 54 have been confirmed dead or missing, according to the agency.
“Before boarding the boat, I was dreaming of making a good life outside my country,” said Saeed Shiekh Sayado, 18, from the Amhara region of Ethiopia. “When I was on the boat, I realized I was in trouble. My only dream was how to reach the shore safely. Nothing more. I was praying and praying.”
The hardiest among them reached shore and began walking toward Aden, the coastal Yemeni city ravaged by war and cholera. (The number of suspected cholera cases in the country reached 500,000 this month, according to the World Health Organization.) Or they made their way to the rugged hills of Shabwa Province, a Qaeda redoubt, en route to Saudi Arabia.
Mr. Sayado knew he was coming to a war zone in Yemen, but he was undeterred. He knew a man who had smuggled others from nearby villages to Saudi Arabia, and the migrants sent home big money.
So he followed in their footsteps, with the help of the smuggler. He made his way to the capital, Addis Ababa, then across the border to Somalia, and then to Bosaso, a port city on the southern coast of the Gulf of Aden. From there, with 160 other Ethiopians, he squeezed into a boat so crowded that no one dared stand up for fear that it would capsize.
At least eight smugglers, all Somali, sat among them. They snatched the few things the migrants had brought: clothes, cold water, dates to sustain them on the journey. One smuggler sat and ate their dates in front of them.
On Friday, Mr. Sayado, who left school after eighth grade, sat on the floor of the Yemeni mosque, with not even a pair of flip flops to his name. He said he would go to Aden to try to find work. How would he get there? He had no idea, saying only that there was no work at home. His father, with two wives, had 30 children in all.
The International Organization for Migration, a United Nations agency, says that more than 55,000 Ethiopians and Somalis have made the crossing this year. Last year, 117,000 arrived in Yemen — and that number, said Laurent de Boeck, the agency’s chief of mission in the country, includes only those who could be counted. More than half were under the age of 18.
Mr. de Boeck said he had been stunned to hear the rationale offered by a boy who told aid workers that he didn’t care that Yemen, his destination, was at war. “He responded at 12, ‘I don’t mind because I’m already dead,’” Mr. de Boeck said. “They don’t see a future.”
The smugglers change the routes frequently, more so now because of heightened surveillance on the Yemeni side of the coast. Mr. de Boeck said it was highly unusual to encounter two boats both throwing their passengers into the sea, two days in a row.
The good swimmers made it to the shore. They helped those they could. They buried others whose bodies washed up.
Masno Taha Momi, 18, was among the group that arrived on Thursday. Her husband, she said, had been detained by the Ethiopian authorities after taking part in a protest at Haramaya University, where he was studying.
“He disappeared five months ago, and I do not know whether he was in police custody or somewhere,” she said. “The police stormed my house from time to time and threatened to arrest me if I did not tell them about his whereabouts.”
Haramaya University was the seat of student protests starting in late 2015. Afterward, Human Rights Watch reported, the government authorities detained, beat and tortured young men and women at the university. Some of the protests across the Oromia region, which surrounds Addis Ababa, turned violent, and the government responded in October by declaring a state of emergency.
Ms. Momi, who is five months pregnant, recounted being sick throughout the boat journey, and then, early Thursday, being grabbed from behind by a smuggler and tossed into the sea. “I could not resist him,” she said. “I only prayed and I did not know what happened to me afterward.”
She sat in the mosque on Friday, dressed in old clothes provided by the migration agency. She said she could not travel as far as Saudi Arabia in her condition. But she didn’t want to go home — she wanted to go to Aden.
Toje Jamal Yousef, 18, from an Ethiopian town called Gelemso, also in the Oromia region and the site of antigovernment protests, dropped out of school in seventh grade. He said there were protests in his town, and then government checkpoints went up, and he and other boys would routinely be grilled by the soldiers there. His family sent money to a known smuggler, a fellow Ethiopian, who organized the journey.
It turned out to be a nightmare. The smugglers on his boat, which arrived on Thursday, took his dates and his bottle of water. They also had guns. “The voyage was frightening,” he said. “I stopped thinking about anything.”
He didn’t have shoes either, but he was still thinking of a more promising destination. “I am dreaming of traveling to Saudi Arabia,” he said. “When I get money there, I will bring my father and mother to Saudi Arabia.”
But for now, he said, “I am planning to work anywhere in Yemen.