Postcard — June 4, 2015, 11:00 am

Inshallah

A visit to Djibouti City, where thousands of Yemenis have sought refuge from their country’s civil war.

Men and women walk through the bus station and market in Djibouti City, Djibouti on May 13, 2015. Djibouti has recieved scores of Yemeni refugees and migrants since the beginning of April. Photograph by Alex Potter

Men and women walk through the bus station and market in Djibouti City, Djibouti, on May 13, 2015. Photograph by Alex Potter

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.

Share
Single Page

Get access to 169 years of
Harper’s for only $23.99

United States Canada

CATEGORIES

THE CURRENT ISSUE

March 2020

The Old Normal

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Out of Africa

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Waiting for the End of the World

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

In Harm’s Way

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Fifth Step

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

A View to a Krill

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content

FEATURED ON HARPERS.ORG

Article
The Old Normal·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Addressing the graduating cadets at West Point in May 1942, General George C. Marshall, then the Army chief of staff, reduced the nation’s purpose in the global war it had recently joined to a single emphatic sentence. “We are determined,” he remarked, “that before the sun sets on this terrible struggle, our flag will be recognized throughout the world as a symbol of freedom on the one hand and of overwhelming force on the other.”

At the time Marshall spoke, mere months after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, U.S. forces had sustained a string of painful setbacks and had yet to win a major battle. Eventual victory over Japan and Germany seemed anything but assured. Yet Marshall was already looking beyond the immediate challenges to define what that victory, when ultimately— and, in his view, inevitably—achieved, was going to signify.

This second world war of the twentieth century, Marshall understood, was going to be immense and immensely destructive. But if vast in scope, it would be limited in duration. The sun would set; the war would end. Today no such expectation exists. Marshall’s successors have come to view armed conflict as an open-ended proposition. The alarming turn in U.S.–Iranian relations is another reminder that war has become normal for the United States.

Article
More Than a Data Dump·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Last fall, a court filing in the Eastern District of Virginia inadvertently suggested that the Justice Department had indicted WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange. The Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, and other outlets reported soon after that Assange had likely been secretly indicted for conspiring with his sources to publish classified government material and hacked documents belonging to the Democratic National Committee, among other things.

Article
The Fifth Step·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Harold Jamieson, once chief engineer of New York City’s sanitation department, enjoyed retirement. He knew from his small circle of friends that some didn’t, so he considered himself lucky. He had an acre of garden in Queens that he shared with several like-minded horticulturists, he had discovered Netflix, and he was making inroads in the books he’d always meant to read. He still missed his wife—a victim of breast cancer five years previous—but aside from that persistent ache, his life was quite full. Before rising every morning, he reminded himself to enjoy the day. At sixty-eight, he liked to think he had a fair amount of road left, but there was no denying it had begun to narrow.

The best part of those days—assuming it wasn’t raining, snowing, or too cold—was the nine-block walk to Central Park after breakfast. Although he carried a cell phone and used an electronic tablet (had grown dependent on it, in fact), he still preferred the print version of the Times. In the park, he would settle on his favorite bench and spend an hour with it, reading the sections back to front, telling himself he was progressing from the sublime to the ridiculous.

Article
Out of Africa·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

1. In 2014, Deepti Gurdasani, a genetic epidemiologist at the Wellcome Sanger Institute in England, coauthored a paper in Nature on human genetic variation in Africa, from which this image is taken. A recent study had found that DNA from people of European descent made up 96 percent of genetic samples worldwide, reflecting the historical tendency among scientists and doctors to view the male, European body as a global archetype. “There wasn’t very much data available from Africa at all,” Gurdasani told me. To help rectify the imbalance, her research team collected samples from eighteen African ethnolinguistic groups across the continent—such as the Kalenjin of Uganda and the Oromo of Ethiopia—most of whom had not previously been included in genomic research. They analyzed the data using an admixture algorithm, which visualizes the statistical genetic differences among groups by representing them as color clusters. The top chart shows genetic differences among the sampled African populations, in increasing degrees of granularity from top to bottom, and the bottom chart shows how they compare with ethnic groups in the rest of the world. The areas where the colors mix and overlap imply that groups commingled. The Yoruba, for instance, show remarkable homogeneity—their column is almost entirely green and purple—while the Kalenjin seem to have associated with many populations across the continent.

Article
In Harm’s Way·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Ten yards was the nearest we could get to the river. Any closer and the smell was too much to bear. The water was a milky gray color, as if mixed with ashes, and the passage of floating trash was ceaseless. Plastic bags and bottles, coffee lids, yogurt cups, flip-flops, and sodden stuffed animals drifted past, coated in yellow scum. Amid the old tires and mattresses dumped on the riverbank, mounds of rank green weeds gave refuge to birds and grasshoppers, which didn’t seem bothered by the fecal stench.

El Río de los Remedios, or the River of Remedies, runs through the city of Ecatepec, a densely populated satellite of Mexico City. Confined mostly to concrete channels, the river serves as the main drainage line for the vast monochrome barrios that surround the capital. That day, I was standing on a stretch of the canal just north of Ecatepec, with a twenty-three-year-old photographer named Reyna Leynez. Reyna was the one who’d told me about the place and what it represents. This ruined river, this open sewer, is said to be one of the largest mass graves in Mexico.

Cost of renting a giant panda from the Chinese government, per day:

$1,500

A recent earthquake in Chile was found to have shifted the city of Concepción ten feet to the west, shortened Earth’s days by 1.26 microseconds, and shifted the planet’s axis by nearly three inches.

An Iraqi man complaining on live television about the country’s health services died on air.

Subscribe to the Weekly Review newsletter. Don’t worry, we won’t sell your email address!

HARPER’S FINEST

Jesus Plus Nothing

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

By

At Ivanwald, men learn to be leaders by loving their leaders. “They’re so busy loving us,” a brother once explained to me, “but who’s loving them?” We were. The brothers each paid $400 per month for room and board, but we were also the caretakers of The Cedars, cleaning its gutters, mowing its lawns, whacking weeds and blowing leaves and sanding. And we were called to serve on Tuesday mornings, when The Cedars hosted a regular prayer breakfast typically presided over by Ed Meese, the former attorney general. Each week the breakfast brought together a rotating group of ambassadors, businessmen, and American politicians. Three of Ivanwald’s brothers also attended, wearing crisp shirts starched just for the occasion; one would sit at the table while the other two poured coffee. 

Subscribe Today