Obock, Djibouti – With just the clothes on his back and $7 to his name, Abdullah Muhammad says it’s a “miracle” he managed to make it out of Yemen alive.
Standing in the blistering heat of a parched, dusty road in Obock, the holes in his jeans and sweat dripping from his worn-out shirt are the only visible signs of the gruelling seven-day journey he made to reach safety.
The ferocious sandstorms that routinely ravage the small port town are a welcome change from the gunfire and air strikes that decimated his hometown, he says. But with his mind still preoccupied with the safety of the family and friends he left behind, he’s unsure of what to do next.
When Yemeni ground forces backed by Saudi Arabia encircled his village of Masraba in Taiz province , Muhammad’s family saw Djibouti – an impoverished country that sits 100km west of Taiz – as the only hope of saving their son from the clutches of the advancing troops.
“Someone began spreading false information that I was a Houthi sympathiser, despite my well-known secular views,” Muhammad told Al Jazeera.
“When I made a few posts on Facebook criticising exiled President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi they were mistaken for Houthi propaganda. Within a few days I received four death threats from pro-government trolls.
“My parents, fearing I could be kidnapped or assassinated, tole me to run – the only safe place for me was abroad.”
WATCH: Yemenis find refuge in Djibouti (2:03)
With his parents fearing the worst, Muhammad’s mother sold all the gold and jewellery she possessed to pay for her son’s journey westward.
Carrying just a bottle of water, the $210 his mother gave him, and a rucksack full of his prized possessions, the 28-year-old spent the next six days walking back and forth across southern Yemen, trekking through barren wastelands and deserts – cowering to the ground each time a Saudi F-15 fighter jet roared overhead.
“I went from Masraba to Aden but was turned back by pro-government forces,” he said.
“The situation was repeated in Mokha and Mandeb before I finally reached a fishing port at Ras al-‘Ara. I must have walked 300km in total, it was exhausting.
“I think I was suffering from heat stroke, but what would await me was far worse.”
I’ve spent $3 over the last two days, all I have remaining is $7 – that won’t last long. If I can’t find work I’ll have risk it all again and head back home to Yemen.
Abdullah Muhammad, 28-year-old Yemeni refugee
Crossing the Gate of Tears
Once at Ras al-Ara, Muhammad was introduced to a fisherman ferrying a family of desperate Yemenis to Obock in northern Djibouti.
A tiny nation of over 800,000 people, Djibouti has become a haven for Yemeni refugees fleeing Saudi-led air strikes that have gripped the country since March 2015.
Paying the trafficker $200 to guarantee him safe passage, he says seven people were loaded onto the overcrowded wooden boat.
Forced to toss away his bag as it occupied too much space, Muhammad says he curled himself in to a small ball, with barely enough room on the 14ft vessel to stretch out his legs.
“In total, there were nine of us on board – two men, five women, myself and the captain. All of us except the captain began to recite passages from the Quran once we hit rough seas.”
The captain gave Muhammad qat (a mild narcotic) to chew, saying it would make the long journey bearable. But strong winds and waves lashed the boat around, less than 10 minutes after it set sail.
“The journey should have taken a few hours, but because the captain feared being attacked by the Saudi coalition we took a longer route in. We were at sea for more than a day. It was a frightening ordeal.”
Tens of thousands of Yemenis have fled on small rickety boats across the Bab al-Mandeb Strait, known as the Gate of Tears – a name derived from the long history of people perishing when trying to cross it – with at least 37,248 arriving in Djibouti.
The journey is not without risk, said Vanessa Panaligan, the UN’s media relations officer in Djibouti, with at least 500 deaths reported between the start of the war and February 2018.
“There were at least 160 arrivals in December and another 70 in January,” she told Al Jazeera.
“Prior to that we were accustomed to seeing only a few new families coming in every month, but now we’re seeing large numbers arriving, sadly a lot of them are single mothers.
The risks of coming under coalition fire has also increased, highlighted by an attack on a boat carrying more than 150 people, including children last March.
At least 42 people were killed when a US-built Apache helicopter opened fire on a boat departing from Yemen’s western city of Hodeidah.
Saudi Arabia refused to cooperate with the UN in an investigation into the attack.
‘Death surrounds Yemenis’
The conflict in Yemen, now entering its third year, has changed dramatically since the assassination of former president and strongman, Ali Abdullah Saleh.
His death in November opened a complicated new chapter in the conflict and a deeper polarisation among the country’s warring parties.
The Houthis, who seized large parts of the country including the capital in late 2014, intensified their campaign of intimidation and violence to strike fear into anyone protesting their grip over northern Yemen.
WATCH: Yemenis wait out war in the heat and dust of Djibouti (2;27)
A spike in arrests, kidnappings and killings followed, with any dissenting voices being accused of working with the Saudi-led coalition, which has been bombing Yemen since March 2015.
Hemmed in by the fighting, more than 18 million civilians are currently living under Houthi control, with the remaining 30 percent of the population – 10 million Yemenis – forced to live in areas contested by armed groups including Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also known as ISIS) and militias backed by the UAE.
The humanitarian situation has also taken a scarier turn with at least 10 million Yemenis – a number greater than the entire population of Sweden – requiring immediate humanitarian assistance.
Radhya Almutawakel, the chairperson of Mwatana, a Yemeni human rights organisation, said normal life in Houthi-held areas had “vanished”.
“Both the Houthis and pro-government forces have been involved in serious violations, including the recruitment of child soldiers, attacks against hospitals, indiscriminately shelling civilian areas, and blocking the flow of humanitarian aid,” she told Al Jazeera.
“The situation in Taiz is really dire, with death surrounding Yemenis.”
‘Anywhere is better than here’
After more than 24 hours at sea, and just a few minutes on dry land, Muhammad began questioning whether there was any going back.
“I breathed a sigh of relief, but I knew my problems were far from over,” he said.
Around 600,000 people, more than 60 percent of the country’s population, live in and around the capital, Djibouti city, but with unemployment hovering around 45 percent, close to 400,000 live in slums with minimal basic services, including clean water.
Temperatures also reach up to 50C (122F) during the summer months, and with little to no job opportunities, many of the incoming refugees have decided to head back home.
“The first thing the police did is take my passport,” he said.
“I’ve received no assistance from either the local authority or UN agencies. I’m living off the kindness of others which can’t last long.”
With at least 155,000 people food insecure and successive years of drought damaging pasture zones, most Djiboutians rely on food assistance and remittances from abroad to survive.
“Once I get my passport back I want to head somewhere else. Maybe Australia will take me in,” Muhammad said.
“I’ve spent $3 over the last two days, all I have remaining is $7 – that won’t last long.
“If I can’t find work I’ll have risk it all again and head back home to Yemen.”
Follow Al Jazeera’s Faisal Edroos on Twitter: @FaisalEdroos
|Djibouti, a tiny nation of 800,000 people, is a haven for nearly 40,000 Yemenis who have fled air strikes that have devastated their country [Faisal Edroos/Al Jazeera]|