Refugees Magazine Issue 112 (Going Home : Mozambique Revisited) - Somalia: A new wave of boat people

Refugees Magazine, 1 June 1998

Thousands of Somalis flee an endless conflict

By Peter Kessler

As the fishing smack stealthily approached the Yemen coast under the cover of darkness the boat's skipper, afraid of being challenged by patrolling coast guard vessels, forced 80 terrified Somali boat people overboard into the deep waters of the Red Sea. Ali Yahye Sadiq's wife and children went first and the former policeman followed. In a desperate fight for survival in the roiling waters, he managed to scramble back aboard the smuggler's boat, but his family and an unknown number of other passengers drowned. The former policeman was allowed to disembark the following morning and entered a refugee camp.

Ali Yahye, already in his 70s, had survived years of bitter civil war in the Somali capital of Mogadishu, but things continued to deteriorate and eventually "I didn't have anything to eat, I didn't have a job and there was no security," he said. Late last year, like hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese boatpeople two decades earlier, he decided to risk the perils of a dangerous sea passage by joining a growing exodus of people crossing the Red Sea to Yemen and the prospects of a brighter and safer future.

He and his family of 10 first headed north toward the port of Bossaso, but a journey which would take hours in peacetime, took them four months. They had to dodge not only of the gangs of thugs and gunmen who today are uncrowned kings in what was once the nation-state of Somalia, but were also forced to make countless detours to escape floodwaters covering large parts of Southern Somalia caused by unseasonably heavy storms spawned by the El Nino phenomenon.

They finally reached Bossaso, a sleepy village of 5,000 people just a few years ago, but today a sprawling, chaotic frontier town of 100,000. Bossaso has become the unofficial gateway to Yemen for thousands of Somalis so traumatized by the unending conflict in which possibly hundreds of thousands of people have been killed, they are willing to face one of the most dangerous journeys in the world across the Bab al Mandab straits to reach Yemen.

In the first four months of this year as many as 6,000 Somalis standing virtually shoulder-to-shoulder chanced the nighttime crossing aboard dangerously overcrowded smugglers boats leaving Bossaso several times a week. The monsoon season briefly interrupted this taffic in human cargo, but local authorities reported recently that three or four trucks a day were again pulling into Bossaso from Mogadishu and other points south, loaded with fleeing Somalis.

ALL HOPE IS GONE

"I am afraid but there is nothing else to do," says 25-year-old Farhia Rashid Abdi, who fled Mogadishu after her husband had been killed. She cannot swim and neither can her three children, but she insists, "I have to take the risk. All hope is gone." Nineteen-year-old Mohamed Jama Ali, his wife and 18-month-old child are also waiting for the boat and a new future. "The militia was coming and robbing everything where I worked," he said. "I decided to go to Yemen. I have no fear, but my wife, she is very much afraid."

Hawa Mohamed Osman also fled her hometown to escape the gunmen. When she arrived in Bossaso she began helping friends to find accommodation and then became a 'travel agent' or a wakil tahreeb (agent of smuggling in Arabic), charging desperate Somalis $5 each to arrange a boat trip to Yemen. Last year, one boat foundered off Bossaso and bodies washed up on the shore for days afterwards. Earlier this year, an American naval ship, the USS Saturn, recovered some of the 180 bodies from a smuggling ship that sank nearby. Still, business is business. Hawa Osman says she has already helped 4,000 people leave and despite the many deaths at sea, "They still want to go, so I'll help them. Life is better in Yemen, even in a refugee camp, than in Somalia."

If they reach Yemen. The smugglers are a tough no-nonsense bunch of seafarers who left their jobs as fishermen to enter the much more lucrative trade in human cargo. Captains charge between $35-50 per person for the sea passage. Their crews are armed and dangerous and try to pack as many people into each small boat as possible, artificially heightening the sides of the vessels by stretching plastic sheeting around the sides. That also makes the boats highly unstable in the choppy waters of the straits.

The boats leave on Wednesday and Thursday evenings, aiming to reach the Yemen coast during the early morning or at the end of the week, which they believe is the best time to avoid detection by prowling coast guard vessels. If the passengers are lucky, the boats cruise to within 500 metres of the shore before dumping their human cargo, but people are still killed or drowned in the treacherous surf.

Yusuf Mualim Mohammed counts himself lucky. He paid $50 for passage earlier this year and together with 150 other people was herded "like animals" onto his boat. He survived the crossing, but was wounded in the leg when he got caught in crossfire between the smugglers and a Yemeni patrol. "I was only looking for a job. I ran away from the fighting in Somalia, but now I'm a tragic case," he says, limping around the Al Gihen refugee camp which houses 10,000 of the estimated 56,000 mainly Somali refugees in Yemen.

A TIMELY WELCOME

Yemen itself is dirt poor, but the Somalis head there anyway because the country is nearby, some have relatives there and it has a long record of hospitality towards refugees. Like Farhia Rashid Abdi who is still waiting to make the crossing from Bossaso, many Somalis hope to simply transit the country to find work and security in Saudi Arabia or other oil-rich regional states.

They can find neither in their desert homeland. As many as 400,000 Somalis are refugees in surrounding countries and more flee every day. There is no central government and the country that was once Somalia is, today, a mosaic of warring enclaves. There is little work and bad news continues to accumulate. Last year, Rift Valley Fever swept through the region's herds of livestock and when countries such as Saudi Arabia banned the import of animals, a trade worth millions of dollars annually was wiped out. Cholera was recently discovered in six impromptu camps for internally displaced persons near Bossaso.

Ironically, Bossaso itself is booming, the good times partially fuelled by its traffic in refugees. Hawa Osman turns a tidy profit in her role as a travel agent. Mostapha Abdi Sharmarke has become a successful businessmen by hiring skilled fishermen who fled to the town from the volatile south of the country and who now land lucractive cargoes of lobster from the Red Sea which are shipped to Dubai. And in a knock-on effect, Fowzi Farah, the area manager of Damal Airlines, says he can fill an old Antonov cargo plane twice a week with passengers, lobster and another local delicacy, shark fins, for export.

But with most of the country still devastated by years of unending war, projects undertaken by international agencies take on added significance. UNHCR budgeted a modest $1.8 million this year for water, agriculture, infrastructure and income generating programmes in north, central and southern Somalia and an ambitious $9.7 million programme in the north-west, the self-proclaimed Republic of Somaliland.

Nearly 30,000 refugees have returned to that area from Ethiopia with UNHCR assistance since early 1997 and a series of so-called Quick Impact Projects (QIPs) are designed to meet the immediate needs of returnees and the local population and help stabilize a volatile region. But "if we wish to consolidate the peace, promote returns and avoid a new outflow, we have to ask the world to do more than it is doing," says Anton Verwey, head of the UNHCR office in Hargeisa, the 'capital' of the Republic.

PICKING UP THE PIECES

Hargeisa was virtually destroyed during the civil war, but like Bossaso it is showing signs of life. While most buildings are empty shells, the town now boasts a new hotel and conference centre, there are competing satellite telephone companies and uniformed policemen rather than militamen patrol the streets. Mrs. Hawo Sahel has lived near Hargeisa since returning from exile on a UNHCR convoy in May, 1997. She and two of her eight children collect bundles of firewood from the surrounding bush each morning before sunrise and sell them for the equivalent of $1.50 which enables Mrs. Sahel to buy small quantities of water, grain and sugar for her family.

"We cannot say that it's bad; we have come home and its peaceful," Mrs. Sahel says with the fortitude of a person who knows what real suffering is. "But life is difficult for us."

Too difficult for many Somalis who say they will continue voting with their feet and trying to catch the boat to Yemen, no matter how dangerous the crossing.

Source: Refugees Magazine issue 112 (1998)