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A desperate voyage of hope and peril

Along the Yemeni coast near Bir Ali, Yemen, a ramshackle fishing village, as many as 100 people a day are arriving across the Gulf of Aden in a sprawling and largely unnoticed exodus from to the . Tens of thousands have made the trek, forced by war and misery from a failed state to a failing one.
A Somali refugee woman sits outside her home in a refugee camp in Yemen, on May 10.Ahmed Jadallah / Reuters
/ Source: a href="" linktype="External" resizable="true" status="true" scrollbars="true">The Washington Post</a

The journey from Somalia ends and begins anew in Bir Ali.

Along the Yemeni coast near this ramshackle fishing village, where white sandy beaches wash over a stark volcanic plateau, as many as 100 people a day are arriving across the Gulf of Aden in a sprawling and largely unnoticed exodus from Africa to the Middle East. Tens of thousands have made the trek, forced by war and misery from a failed state to a failing one. Since last year, more than 1,000 of them have died, their decaying corpses often washing ashore and buried in unmarked mass graves near Bir Ali.

"The problem is simple," said Theophilus Vodounou, head of the Aden office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees. "What's not simple is the risk these people are taking. They're leaving their lives to fate."

Poverty and unrest
By virtue of geography and a relatively lenient government, Yemen has emerged as the way station from East Africa to Saudi Arabia, other wealthy Persian Gulf states and occasionally Europe. Passage on rickety fishing boats costs $50 to $120 for a 180-mile trip that lasts two, three or sometimes four days.

By virtually every account, the smugglers are brutal: Unruly refugees are thrown overboard in shark-infested waters; others are shot, sometimes to teach the rest of the passengers a lesson. Some refugees are shoved into the sea a half-mile or more from shore so the boats can make a quick getaway, and residents have seen corpses wash up with their hands and legs bound. U.N. officials cite a variety of ordeals on board, from rape to stabbing to dehydration.

Once here, the survivors -- by the United Nations' count, at least 8,000 already this year, aboard more than 70 boats -- are left to navigate the fringes of a country mired in its own poverty and unrest, in a passage of desperation and determination.

"When people are so desperate, it's amazing what they can do," said Firas Kayal, a UNHCR official in Sanaa, Yemen's capital.

Ruqiya Abdullah, a 22-year-old Somali who swam to shore at Bir Ali last week, was less awed.

"We ran away," she said simply.

Hardship and hope
Abdullah fled Mogadishu in January after Ethiopian troops backing Somalia's transitional government seized the notoriously lawless capital from an Islamic group that had taken control six months earlier. She bided her time in Bosaso, a Somali port that the United Nations says has become the world's busiest smuggling city. On Wednesday of last week, she found room on a boat with 75 others and took what she had: dates and water for the trip, two shirts, two shawls, shoes and $100 for life in Yemen.

"The smugglers told us not to move. If you tried to move one inch either side, just to stretch, they beat you," she said. Her face was framed in a black veil that fell across her brown skirt. "It's their nature. They beat everybody -- men, women and children."

Last October, smugglers beat five Ethiopians, then threw them overboard, U.N. officials said. Passengers watched as sharks in the warm water attacked them. In February, smugglers forced 137 passengers into deep water off Yemen's coast. More than 50 drowned, many unable to swim.

Many of the journeys take two days, but some have been far longer.

In one of the worst episodes last year, a boat drifted in the Gulf of Aden for six days after its engine failed. Smugglers allow passengers to take little or nothing with them, and refugees soon became dehydrated. Passengers said six threw themselves into the sea, delirious from thirst. Eight others died of dehydration, and their bodies were thrown overboard, U.N. officials said. When the boat reached shore, six more were dead. Some survivors had bite marks from fellow passengers crazed with hunger, the officials said.

Abdullah's boat arrived in Bir Ali after 58 hours. The refugees jumped into neck-deep water, then swam ashore at 10 p.m. Abdullah collapsed on the beach, near a volcanic hill called the Crow's Fortress that smugglers use as a landmark, and slept till the next morning, when U.N. officials arrived. She never found her belongings, which the smugglers threw into the sea after her.

"I have only these," she said, running her hands over her clothes, "and they were wet until a little while ago."

That morning, she borrowed a cellphone and called her sister-in-law Laila in Sanaa.

"We arrived last night," Abdullah shouted over the phone. "I want to come to Sanaa, but we don't have any money to get there."

Her sister-in-law promised to meet her halfway.

"Before I was hopeless," Abdullah said afterward, with a wan smile. "I didn't think I could go on living. I have hope now."

'We'll find a way'
Fifteen people on Abdullah's boat were taken to Mayfaah, an hour inland, where the United Nations receives refugees. Abdel-Fattah Ibrahim was among them, sprawled out with nine other men on bare mattresses in the courtyard, shielded from the sun by a plastic roof held up with wooden beams. The men received water and rice on arrival. Most were sleeping, exhausted from the trip.

"I'm strong and I'm healthy," said Ibrahim, 30, sitting next to a tan canvas bag he had recovered from the sea, still fastened with a small gold-colored padlock. In it were his possessions: an opened bag of cookies, jeans, two shirts and pictures of his family in Mogadishu, tightly wrapped in a blue bag. "We'll work, then we'll find a way, and we'll ask God," he said. "Everything depends on God."

A compound of cinder-block huts painted blue and white, Mayfaah is no more than a stopping point for Somalis, who are recognized by the Yemeni government, without exception, as refugees. The United Nations estimates there are nearly 100,000 Somalis in Yemen; Yemeni officials put the number anywhere between 300,000 and 800,000, estimates admittedly based more on speculation than statistics.

Many of the refugees try to find work washing cars or harvesting khat, a mild stimulant leaf chewed by many Yemenis. Others head to Aden, a refugee camp or on to Sanaa. Perhaps a third try to travel farther, to Saudi Arabia and other Persian Gulf countries across the porous, lightly guarded northern border.

This was Ibrahim's second trip across the Gulf of Aden. Last year, he made his way through Yemen to Jizan, a city in southwestern Saudi Arabia. He worked there for a year as a driver and mechanic before he was deported by plane two months ago to Mogadishu. He planned to follow the same route this time -- public transportation to Sanaa, then a shared taxi to the border. Once there, he would walk a mile through one of the dry mountain valleys that crisscross the frontier. He predicted the trip would cost him $200.

"I'll go anywhere, as long as I find work," he said, "anywhere that I can find something to eat."

A disaster at sea
Six hours from Mayfaah, on the outskirts of the port of Aden, is a vast Somali shantytown called Basatin, Arabic for gardens. To residents arriving from the coast, it is Little Mogadishu. Through its warren of alleys, infused with the stench of sewage and car exhaust, and in places lit by a single bulb strung from a rooftop, a calamity still reverberates, haunting a tailor named Suleiman Ali.

In May 2005, Ali's wife, Lul, and his five children -- Abdel Rahman, 10, Majida, 9, Ismail, 8, Zeinab, 4 and Walid, 1 -- had traveled across the Gulf of Aden to his wife's village to visit her ailing father. They arrived in Bosaso last October, waiting for money for the trip back.

"Whatever I got sewing in Aden, I sent it to her," Ali said.

In time, she received $300, which he hoped would pay for passage on a bigger, safer boat. It didn't. He asked her to wait. He had a Yemeni contact who could secure visas for her and the children, he said. When he called again four days later, he was told the family had already left, departing on Christmas. In all, four fishing boats carried 515 people, many of them fleeing fighting in Somalia.

He then called friends in Bir Ali.

"They told me the boat had arrived, but that the voyage was a disaster," Ali said.

Refugees managed to get off two of the boats when a Yemeni coast guard patrol, for reasons still unclear, opened fire under a half moon. The two other boats tried to escape back to sea. Passengers were terrified and, in the tumult, one of the boats capsized. The last vessel was driven back to shore by Yemeni forces. But 300 yards from the coast, it, too, capsized in heavy seas. One of the survivors told Ali that his wife had drifted with her and four others on debris for four hours in the dark. "Then they lost her," he said. No one saw his five children after the boat overturned.

The 17 smugglers lived and were arrested. In all, U.N. officials said, more than 150 people drowned.

Ali said he believes his children and wife were buried with 80 others in a mass grave along the beach.

As he recalled the story, Ali sat on the single mattress in a room he rents for the equivalent of $40 a month. The call to prayer floated through the streets outside. Against the walls were sacks packed with fabric. Next to them was a black, Chinese-made sewing machine that brings him $2, maybe $3 a day. His children used to sleep in an adjacent cinder-block room, but he now leaves it dark.

"It was written by God, and there's nothing I can do about it," he said. "I have to rely on God."

He turned silent for a moment. "But the memories keep coming back," he said, "over and over."

'For the sake of security'
Ali Ibrahim's journey ended in March 2005 in a camp called Kharaz, two hours west of Basatin, reached by a road of powdery dirt that shifts like blowing snow.

There is no majesty to the desert here; it is craggy and barren, save for its spindly acacia trees. Home to nearly 9,000 Somali refugees, along with several hundred Ethiopians, the camp is in a state of permanent transience, and its quarters speak to the refugees' tenure.

The refugees who have been here longest live in cinder-block homes, their walls fortified by adobe, painted doors bringing color to a landscape of gray. More recent arrivals reside in buildings with foundations of stones and walls of carpets, tree branches and corrugated iron painted in blue and green or left to rust. The newest homes are 28 tents, precisely laid out at the camp's edge. Ibrahim lives in one of them, with his 13-year-old son, Fattah.

"I stay here for the sake of security. That's it," he said.

In 1999, his father, mother, wife and two nephews were killed in a robbery in Mogadishu. He was shot, the scar on his right thigh now smooth. He fled with his son for Galcaio, about 400 miles to the north, where he worked as a mechanic. Six years later, he made the trek to Bir Ali.

Dust has all but blotted out the blue logo of the U.N. refugee agency on the top of his tent. Inside he has strung a brown blanket to serve as a wall. Blue canvas covers ground that is as hard as stone. He has no work; for income, he sells his and his son's monthly rations for $5, spending most of the money on meals at a shabby cafe in the camp.

"I can't live on that, but what else do I do?" he said.

He spoke without emotion, his eyes fixed in a blank stare.

"I wanted a future, and I wanted a future for my son," Ibrahim said. "I don't see that future now."