We traipsed across a muddy, trash-strewn creek bed in Djibouti City. Om Sakhr had insisted we chat someplace pleasant, and this was the way to the garden. She was dressed in a wispy black abaya and hijab, her lips painted a tart red. Her strappy heels weren’t exactly suited for the walk. But after several minutes, we reached a wicker table beneath long palms, tucked away in one of the city’s residential districts, a welcome respite from the afternoon sun.
A few weeks earlier, in April, 53-year-old Om Sakhr, along with her youngest son, Sakhr, arrived in Djibouti by boat after fleeing their home in Yemen’s southern port city Aden, now the center of the country’s civil war. (Om Sakhr translates to “mother of Sakhr”; she asked me not to use her real name.) In Aden, she had been a women’s rights activist. I asked her what she does with her days in Djibouti City. “Here, I don’t have any work except flipping through CNN, Al Arabiya, BBC, and Al Jazeera,” she told me, so she could keep up with the war in Yemen, where her husband still lives. “It’s not good for your psyche, but what else will I do?”
Om Sakhr suffers a common feature of refugee life: she waits. She waits for peace so she can return to her home, or for options—a job opportunity or a visa—so she can move on and try to establish a new life. Right now, none of these are available. Some Yemenis I met in Djibouti said they didn’t like being labeled refugees because they associate the term with the thousands of Somalis who used to pour into their country, fleeing violence and famine—but now they are desperate too.
1 Ali Abdullah Saleh was the president of Yemen for over 30 years, until 2012, when he stepped down following a year of Arab Spring–inspired mass protests. Saleh has recently aligned himself with the Houthi rebels in their efforts to gain control of the country.
Yemen’s long-simmering conflict reached a tipping point in February, after a rebel group of Iranian-supported Houthis attacked cities throughout the country and forced out Yemen’s president, Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi. In March, a Saudi Arabia–led coalition responded to the uprising by carrying out a series of airstrikes on Houthi targets. Later in the month, the coalition imposed a blockade on Yemen’s ports, cutting the country off from crucial imports such as medical supplies and fuel. The Houthis, with support from fighters aligned with former president Ali Abdullah Saleh, have been engaged in bloody street battles in Aden for nearly two months.1 Neighborhoods have been reduced to rubble.
When Om Sakhr’s boat took off from Aden’s shores, she watched her beloved home, a beautiful coral-white city, disappear in the distance. “I never thought I’d leave Aden like that,” she said. “I was born in Aden and spent all my life in Aden, so taking me out of Aden is like breaking me down. It is not something I want to think about again.”
Djibouti, a barren corner of East Africa, is home to about 800,000 people, mostly of Somali and Afar descent. About 65 percent reside in the capital; almost 20 percent live below the poverty line. If Djibouti is known for anything in the West, it’s for capitalizing on its strategic location to court foreign militaries. In Yemen, Djibouti has the reputation of being a place where one can fly cheaply for a weekend of vodka and prostitutes. Across a 20-mile-wide strait, it’s Yemenis’ closest hope for safety. Around 13,000 have arrived to Djibouti from Yemen as of mid-May. For many of them, the country’s crowded capital—where undernourished Mogadishans beg on the streets and American defense contractors zoom around in SUVs—has become their home.
The Yemenis who flee to Djibouti often arrive with the hope that they will be able to travel onward, to the United States, Turkey, or anywhere else. Some get by with funds wired to them from family abroad. Others, like Om Sakhr, have Djiboutian family. Djibouti is their only guaranteed refuge. In nearby countries, the visa policies for Yemenis have been in flux since the war began. Notably, Egypt, where Yemenis typically used to travel for medical treatment, stopped giving them visas on arrival.
Yemenis appeared wherever I went in Djibouti City. At a bank downtown, two men were trying to access money that had been tied up in shuttered Yemeni banks. At a local store, Yemenis were behind me in line waiting to buy Djibouti SIM cards. When I checked out of my hotel, a group passed by the reception desk to ask if there was a free room; they were turned away. A moment later, when I got into a taxi, a Yemeni from Sanaa was in the front passenger seat. He said he was a runaway from Yemen’s secret police and asked if I knew of any hotels with vacancies. Then he asked me, an American citizen, to marry him.
Around 1,000 Yemeni refugees live in a U.N. camp in Obock, a coastal town north of the capital, where July temperature highs average 106 degrees. Many of the thousands of unregistered arrivals cram into Djibouti City’s hotels. “Everyone is hiking their prices. Djibouti City is very small,” explained a Djibouti businessman who wanted to speak anonymously. We talked under a much-needed AC wall unit in my hotel lobby. “If you extend their visas, what are they going to do? The money they brought with them is very small. Everything’s messed up.
“People think to stabilize their situation, and most Yemenis are thinking Yemen or Aden is done. ‘We lost our jobs. We lost our homes. So what do we have here in Djibouti?’ So they are trying to find jobs here, and a job here is very difficult. They don’t have any other choice but to stay and be patient, but until when?”
I first noticed signs of Yemen’s presence in Djibouti City when my plane landed at Djibouti-Ambouli International Airport. Crowded on the end of the runway were several planes belonging to Yemen’s national airline, Yemenia. Presumably, they are stored in Djibouti because it’s much safer than at Sanaa’s airport, a frequent target of the Saudi-led bombing campaign. Just across from the Yemenia planes, a waving American flag identified a U.S. military base that, up until 2013, housed drones used in Yemen.
While waiting for Djiboutian immigration officials to let me into the country, I met a man from Yemen’s southern province of al-Dhale whom I’ll call Yassin. Ten days earlier, Yassin had traveled from his home through Djibouti en route to Ethiopia, where he was refused entry despite having the appropriate visa. He had spent two days stranded in Addis Ababa’s airport when he got word that his father had died and turned around to return to Yemen. Now, he told me, he had to find a boat in Djibouti to take him back to the war-torn country from which he had just fled.
Yassin and I went to a nearby restaurant for a late lunch of roast chicken and rice, which was served alongside a spicy pepper salsa similar to one used in Yemeni cuisine. He told me he had tried to go to Ethiopia because a friend worked for a pharmacy there and said he could have a job too, but Ethiopia began preventing Yemenis from entering its borders the week Yassin arrived. “I’m not a refugee. I want to work,” he said. I asked him how it was to witness his country descending into chaos from afar. “I cannot sleep if I think about it,” he replied, and so he tried his best not to.
After lunch, we walked through downtown Djibouti’s crumbling French colonial facades to the Medina Hotel, where Yassin was staying. The streets were deserted at this hour, around three o’clock in the afternoon. Most of the city took a siesta, but a few fruit sellers sat beneath umbrellas on the sidewalk, and a group of brightly clad Somali women sold qat, which Yassin stopped to inspect. As he felt the bundles of leaves he cursed how expensive the mild narcotic plant was in Djibouti. He bought it anyway, for about $15. Yassin always kept all of his cash on him—hundreds of U.S. dollars.
Back inside the hotel, a dismal block building that resonated with the staccato sounds of Yemeni Arabic, Yassin introduced me to a group of six men from Yemen living together in a fourth-floor hotel room. He then promptly forgot about his qat and fell asleep on the room’s only single bed, which was pushed up against the wall to make room for the mattresses on which the rest of the men sat. A muted TV in the corner streamed images of news from around the world: the Nepal earthquake, protests in Baltimore, and then a brief shot of a shelled-out city. I wasn’t sure if it was Aden or somewhere in Syria.
The half-dozen men came from cities across Yemen. They had led a variety of lives—some lawyers, others uneducated and unemployed—and met on the boat as they fled Yemen. The married men left their families to scope out life in Djibouti and to see how difficult the journey by boat would be. The sea winds pick up in the summer, which will make the trip more hazardous.
The most well-spoken of the group was a businessman from the ancient city of Taiz, where Houthi militias have been battling a homegrown insurgency since the war began. Abdel-Aziz, as I’ll call him, wore a colorful wraparound skirt, known as a mawaz, and a white, sweaty T-shirt. He told me the boat from Aden was overstuffed. “It’s not for people; it’s for animals,” he said. They were crammed on the top deck, under a blazing sun for over 10 hours, sitting knees to chest.
“We are looking for a solution,” Abdel-Aziz explained. “Yemen is destroyed. The Houthis and Ali Abdullah Saleh, they are the ones who killed everyone. Even if you are able to live, they rule you.”
Little made these men smile or laugh. They repeatedly said “inshallah, if God wills it, my lot in life will improve,” yet they were overcome by a general malaise at the obstacles they face. They are loathe to admit to themselves that they too may end up at the camp in Obock, and every day they hear news that more are killed in Yemen, more infrastructure destroyed, and another humanitarian aid shipment denied entry.
A skinny 19-year-old from Ibb was searching around the room for his lost qat bag. He grew frustrated with our conversation. “The problem is no one knows what will be the future!” he yelled, throwing a mattress to the side. At this, Yassin sat up from his nap and half listened from his stupor.
“The West has all the technology, power, and weapons,” Abdel-Aziz added. “If there is just the will to end the war in Yemen, they can kill Saleh with one drone.”
These men have other practical concerns. When they first arrived, they didn’t know how to wash clothes, and the laundromats in Djibouti are prohibitively expensive. Eventually it was decided by the group that the youngest, the man from Ibb, was to figure out how to do their laundry. He smiled sheepishly when admitting that this was true.
2 A month later, Yassin told me via a phone message that he was still in Djibouti, unable to find a boat to take him back to Yemen for his father’s funeral. His visa will expire soon, in which case he will have to register with UNHCR and officially become a refugee.
As the afternoon turned into evening, some men left to run errands. “Do you know if Western Union is still open?” one asked. “There is no more water in the bathroom!” another yelled. Their room was cluttered with empty water bottles, cologne, and qat stems. Each night they swept up the floor, lined up the mattresses, and tried to sleep so that they can tackle whatever the next day might bring.2
In the garden with Om Sakhr, a caretaker brought us two bottles of Coca-Cola. The property was owned by a well-off Djiboutain family Om Sakhr had met through her daughter’s Djiboutian in-laws. They told her that she and Sakhr could visit as often as they liked. A network of the wealthy, especially locals with ties to Yemen, try where they can to make refugees’ lives less bleak.
Sitting at the wicker table, Om Sakhr was eager to explain how women have played an important role in aiding Aden’s local insurgency. “They aren’t afraid of the shelling,” she said. They provide water to the fighters, water that they have to fetch from wells in mosques because there is no other fresh water to be found. For Yemenis today, she said, “there is an element of revenge in it. They’ve lost their sons.”
“The problem is snipers,” she added—trained Houthi marksmen who shoot from nearby buildings down onto Aden’s streets.
Like many Yemenis, Om Sakhr does not see a solution to the war ravaging her country. I asked if she worried that she would never be able to return to Aden. “Right now, I am not thinking of that seriously,” she said. “I am just crying.”
Laura Kasinof is the author of Don’t Be Afraid of the Bullets: An Accidental War Correspondent in Yemen, a memoir of her time reporting from Yemen for the New York Times. She’s also written for the Washington Monthly, the Atlantic, Newsweek, and Guernica, among other publications.