Since 2011, Hundreds of Thousands of people have died in armed conflicts in the Middle East, involving local governments and regular troops, international actors, rebel groups, and terrorist groups such as ISIS and Al-Qaeda. Many millions more have been displaced. Syrian refugees are the face of a multitude of conflicts and of the fate of civilian populations in war zones. The influx of Syrian refugees has changed the political landscape of Europe, which has been noticed around the world and as far away as in Taiwan.
While Syria is on everyone's map of the big contemporary tragedies of mankind, the war in Yemen is mostly faceless. Since the start of the war in 2014 Yemeni refugees simply don't have anywhere to go where their faces could be seen. The country is locked between some of the most hostile deserts in the world and next to Saudi Arabia, which directly involved in the armed conflict. The presence of Al-Qaeda and ISIS in the region is making a safe passage by land almost impossible.
In 2014 rebels from the northern part of Yemen, the “Houthis”, started an uprising in cities all over the country, they soon defeated the government of Adbrabbuh Mansur Hadi and since have controlled major cities and areas, mostly in the North of Yemen. The forces of the old government gathered in the South and with the help of air strikes by a foreign coalition led by Saudi Arabia, started fighting back the Houthis. In 2018, the war is still at a stalemate, and and a multitute of foreign actors, from Saudi Arabia and the USA to Iran are more or less officially involved.
The only possible place to go for Yemeni refugees is across the waters of the Indian ocean. Many Yemenis get stranded in the Horn of Africa region, in Djibouti or in Somalia, which itself is a failed state with several rivaling regimes in different regions. On my visit to Somaliland, the by far most stable and peaceful breakaway part of Somalia, I met Mohammed and Hossam, who had made the passage from Yemen by boat. After my visit, I had the chance to conduct a series of telephone interviews with them.
Hossam: In April 2015, we arrived by boat in the city of Berbera in Somaliland. We couldn’t endure to airstrikes by the Saudi Air Force anymore. It was a chaotic war in all regions of Yemen. We then moved to the next best place.
Mohammed: Few flights were going out but prices were astronomical. I had to go by boat from the city of Mukalla. I traveled there from my hometown Taiz, and I had to pass many Houthis’ military checkpoints on my way. The whole country was up and about and it was tense.
Small scale shipping in the waters in front of Yemen and Somaliland is mostly done by Indian and Pakistani traders. This part of the Indian Ocean/ Red Sea is still infamous for piracy, which mostly affects smaller and rather defenseless vessels. Taking this route takes courage for everyone involved.
Hossam: We got on a small boat. Me, my wife and my three children, we were part of the first group of 370 Yemeni refugees. Still today, there are some very small boats transporting livestock from Berbera to Aden or Mocha, and refugees come via these boats on their return trips. There aren't any boats that are meant for passengers.
While Hossam's whole family is with him, Mohammed's family is still in Taiz, a city in Yemen which has seen heavy combat. Their chance of leaving the country is slim. After taking the hazardous trip to one of the ports in Yemen, chances depend on the volumes of traded goods, as refugees mostly use commercial vessels for trading livestock. While I visited the port of Berbera, there were very little trading activities towards Yemen, and furthermore only to Aden, a city which many Yemenis cannot reach due to the front lines of the war. On the other side of the water, Somali fish traders were waiting for their own boats to come in.
Mohammed: I can’t reach out to my family. I stay in touch with some friends through Facebook occasionally, but for my family, I can’t talk to them. When I call on my family’s landline, I always get a message that the line is closed.
For many reasons the situation for Yemenis in Somaliland is desperate. The war has left them, and especially their children, traumatised and Somaliland offers them little relief.
Hossam: We didn't get any help from the UNHCR [United Nation's High Comissioner for Refugees] at first; no housing, no camps or refugee centers. It didn’t provide any assistance except issuing some donations of no more than 50 dollars, only to some people and for a limited period of time.
Mohammed: I need to go to university and I need someone to help me reach my family. That’s all. Many of my friends were jailed and tortured. In my case, I was lucky to be able to escape.
Even though most Yemenis in Somaliland have found shelter, staying in Somaliland for long is not an option for many. But then again, especially for families, such as the Al-Aklanis with 3 children, traveling further into Africa is dangerous and costly.
Hossam: There were some people who were able to leave for other countries such as Sudan or Kenya. But for most of us, at the border between Ethiopia and Somaliland, there is no going any further. We see the traders with their goods going in and out, all the coffee going in, but we are stuck here.
Mohammed has very recently made his way to the Puntland region of Somalia, a 12 hour drive further to the east. He has left the relative safety of Somaliland behind. On the way to Bosasso he had to hide among bags of rice on a pick-up truck. Yemenis cannot move freely inside Somaliland or elsewhere in Somalia. Hiding on trucks is often the only option to travel unrecognized by military and police checkposts.
Mohammed: The security here is worse than in Somaliland. I've heard there were explosions somewhere in the city, but I don't know much about it. Very scary. I left Somaliland, because I want to go to another country, any country.
For Hussam and his family, such a risky trip is not an option.
Hossam: There are also many problems here (in Somaliland). There is a war dwelling with the State of Puntland, with clashes in the border areas. At the end of the day, Somaliland is a breakaway part of Somalia, and the government in Somalia still claims Somaliland for itself.
Historically there have been strong ties between Somaliland and Yemen, especially with the city of Aden. Both territories once were under united British rule, but cultural ties date much further back. In modern times, during the Somali civil war between 1986 and 1991, some hundred thousand Somalis had fled Somaliland and many have stayed in Yemen for years. Some have returned very recently when the situation in Yemen worsened.
Hossam: Many Somalis used to come to Yemen during the war that was going on in Somaliland in the 1990ies. Yemen used to host 1,5 million Somali refugees. But when the war started in Yemen, most of these people returned to their homeland. The Yemeni Somalis are our Brothers and Sisters, but their life is much easier. They don't have problems sending their children to School.
Still, Yemeni refugees are very little integrated into Somaliland's society. Most Yemenis don't speak Somali and only few can admit their children to schools. There are attempts to build bridges between the cultures, there are for example some bi-lingual textbooks single-handedly produced by Yemeni refugees, but there are also tensions, even tensions between different groups of Yemeni refugees.
Hossam: At the end of the day, the situation is not safe, anywhere in Yemen. Here it is maybe safe, but there is no future. For instance, I am from the Northern regions, from Sana’a and because of that I cannot live in Aden. People from Aden and the South mistrust us because of the hatred created by the war.
Mohammed: My country used to be a country of peace but, these days, the situation is very difficult. There are many different people, cultures and languages in Yemen. It is special in the Arab world. In fact, I personally can coexist with everyone, with every kind of people in my country. This is what Yemen used to be for all Yemenis.
Mohammed will try what he can to not stay in Somaliland or Somalia or anywhere in the Horn of Africa Region much longer.
Mohammed: I sometimes found work, many very exhausting kinds of odd jobs, but still couldn't afford education or even the most necessary things. It has been 2 years now for me in Somalia. I decided to take my future in my own hands. My plan is to leave this country, maybe for somewhere in South Asia. Nepal or India might be places that I can reach. I hope life there will be a bit easier, I hope I can go back to education there.
Somaliland is far away from offering the circumstances for enthusiastically starting a new life in a new country. While many places abandoned in the Somali civil war have never been rebuilt, Somaliland has managed to establish a democratic regime and offer safety and security to its own people. Despite economic hardships, this is a great achievement for a country without being recognized by any other government, in one of the most troubled and economically disadvantaged regions in the world. For Yemeni refugees it offers some safety, but little prospect for the future.