Somali refugees flee one hell for another

Editor's note: At least 43 African migrants trying to reach Yemen by boat have drowned in heavy seas off the coast and a second boat with up to 40 Ethiopians aboard is missing, Yemen's Interior Ministry said on Monday.

KHARAZ REFUGEE CAMP, Yemen — Somalia’s “season of mixed migration” has begun again.

If the United Nation’s terminology for Somalis fleeing hell on earth sounds soothing, the reality is anything but.

In recent years, the sea between the Horn of Africa and Yemen has become one of the busiest and most deadly refugee routes in the world.

From January to October this year some 43,000 African refugees and migrants from Somalia and Ethiopia have made the perilous crossing to Yemen, escaping war and persecution.

In 2009 the number of migrants fleeing the Horn of Africa and arriving in Yemen rose by 50 percent, reaching a record high of 74,000, according to the UNHCR, the United Nations refugee agency.

At least 13 African refugees drowned in September after their stranded skiff capsized in the Gulf of Aden — even as an American warship tried to deliver it food and water. The 61 who were rescued were taken back to the Somali coast they were attempting to flee.

Reports of dozens of bodies washing ashore on the Yemeni coast have become tragically too familiar; men, women and young children who starved during the crossing, or were beaten to death by brutal people smugglers or who drowned after being thrown overboard.

They are those with the least money, who often have lost the most. Women like Hawo Yousef.

“They hit [my husband] badly and they wanted to rape me in front of him. He tried to protect me, but unfortunately they killed him with a big knife,” Hawo wrote in a letter — a plea to anyone in the international community who could help. Written about her escape from Somalia to Yemen, the letter details the horrors she endured during that journey.

Exhausted after days and nights and a dozen militia checkpoints aboard a rickety bus from Mogadishu to Bossaso, the pirate port on Somalia’s northern coast, Hawo’s two youngest daughters Aisha, 5, and Fadma, 3 had at last fallen asleep as the tiny fishing skiff pulled out into the ocean.

But just a few hours into the journey the engine sputtered and stopped, its gas run dry.

“The boat was swinging around and there were sharks swimming around the boat,” Hawo recalled in an interview. “People started to quarrel because they were scared. And the smugglers started to beat the people and throw them into the sea.”

Aisha and Fadma had awoken and were crying. The smugglers got angry.

“I couldn’t make my children be quiet and the smugglers warned me to silence them, but I couldn’t,” Hawo said. “Finally, they ripped my children away from me and threw them into the sea.”

In her letter, handwritten by Jamal, a fellow refugee, and addressed to “To Whom It May Concern,” Hawo described her feelings: “I had no ability to take back my kids from them. And I saw my kids dying on the sea. That compelled me to be mad.”

Hawo’s boat drifted for 13 days and nights before help and fuel arrived. More refugees drowned just meters from Yemen’s shore after being forced into the water by the smugglers.

Nor did the baby that Hawo had carried in her through seven months of Somalia and seventeen days of escape make it to a new life in Yemen, dying after a premature birth in the Kharaz refugee camp, a collection of concrete shelters and tents housing some 17,000 Somalis on a scorching plateau 110 miles from south Yemen’s port city of Aden.

With her eldest daughter Mariam, 13, staying behind in Mogadishu, Hawo was left a childless mother of four, a refugee who had lost everything to escape to a country that is among the world’s poorest.

“Now I heal that wound,” she said in her letter, asking the international community for help. “But sometimes I remember and really I am in very bad situation with no choice what to do. I have no relatives here and I hope you consider my situation. Thank. Yours. Hawo.”

Somalia is and remains the world’s original failed state.

Since rival clans overthrew the government in 1991, civil war has consumed the country and its people. Out of the anarchy of 15 years of warlords grew a vicious, religiously motivated militia, Al Shabaab, whose control now extends over large swaths of southern Somalia and most of its capital.

Mogadishu today is a graveyard. Its streets are abandoned to the wild gunfire of militiamen, as Al Shabaab and other Islamists fight to take control of the few remaining streets that government troops still control, protected by a contingent of African peace-keepers with no peace to keep.

For those who can, escape is the only hope. In the first half of this year alone UNHCR estimated that 200,000 Somalis fled their homes.

Many make the perilous journey to Yemen.

“To Whom It May Concern,” began Mumina Burale, as she sat across from Jamal and dictated her letter.

“I am the mother of a family consisting of seven persons. None of the family has a job so I am alone who covers all family’s needs. In Yemen although we found some peace, but life is very difficult. No shining future for our children.”

Nothing shines in Kharaz, except sweat on bodies and the sun on cheap metal used by families to build walls around their patch of bare earth and broken stones.

Kharaz refugee camp is divided into 59 blocks each with 25 shelters. Every family gets their shelter and a latrine sunk into the ground. New arrivals enjoy five days of cooked food before it’s on to the monthly rations — 9 kilograms of wheat flour per person, 4.5 kilograms of pulses, 1.8 kilograms of rice, some oil to cook it in and some sugar to wash down the tea.

Six hundred families have been waiting in tents to be moved into shelters. But with only 250 new shelters to move into and no cash to build more, many won’t even have four walls to call home.

The frustration of 12 years living in Kharaz begins to show through in Mumina’s words.

“I am really fed up of such a life and do not know what to do or where to go. I am really very disappointed, so you are the only to whom I can complain and inform my life situation. So that, I write to you looking for your help. Please, I ask you to look at me with kind eyes and help me.”

Resettlement, a new life in America or Europe, is what the voices from the letters wish for and what most will never enjoy.

Adnan Ali woke up in a garbage dump after the “enemy of civil war” attacked his home, tied him up, killed his two brothers and gang raped his sister, before killing her as well.

“What to do now,” reads his letter, Jamal’s scratchy writing sloping off to one side as if exhausted. “My wife and some of my children are begging in Aden because of that I couldn’t feed them. And the other are washing cars at the streets their future lost. Consequently I am kindly asking to give me your cooperation in helping me kindly to return the future of my children.”

Jamal puts down his pen. His hand tired from all the writing. Always busy. He folds Adnan’s letter and throws it on the pile with those from Hawo, Mumina and all the others, waiting to be delivered to whom it may concern.